Imagine a newly constructed hotel and mixed-use building 200-feet high on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Wealthy visitors would still have clear views of the Capitol and nearby landmarks. But others would walk in newly-created shadows.
That’s the choice, at its harshest extreme, presented by a congressionally requested joint federal-city study of the Height of Buildings Act, enacted in 1910 to address fire and safety concerns, which limits building heights in D.C.
The National Capital Planning Commission, a federal body comprised of federal, state and local representatives, and D.C.’s Office of Planning, a city agency responsible for zoning and D.C.’s long-term comprehensive development plan, have finished their respective studies, published tentative findings and called for more public input.
Two key points stand out as prominent fixtures amongst the landscape of arguments.
First, increasing the federal height limits for the downtown area known as L’Enfant City would unnecessarily degrade that historic area, notwithstanding the fact that any development of higher buildings would remain subject to a federal limit that ties building height to street width and would still require city zoning approval.
On a map, L'Enfant City represents a pear-shaped area. Its lower point is the intersection of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Its top is near Florida Avenue, leaving out Georgetown to the northwest, Adams Morgan to the north and the Gallaudet University area to the northeast.
Allowing buildings higher than the present 90-feet residential, 130-feet commercial and 160-feet Pennsylvania Avenue height limits in the L’Enfant City area would destroy the character of historic downtown and is not necessary to accomplish the city's goals of affordable housing and job growth.
The National Capital Planning Commission study approved on September 12, 2013, reached the same conclusion as to harm although it acknowledged the need for further study of ways to address the city's housing and economic goals.
Even Congressman Darrell Issa, Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, whose request led to the National Capital Planning Commission and Office of Planning studies, recognized the fact that higher buildings in L’Enfant City could harm the city’s character.
In his October 3, 2012 letter requesting the study, Issa said, “The Committee encourages the exploration of strategic changes to the law in those areas outside the L’Enfant City that support local development goals while taking into account the impact on federal interests….” Emphasis added.
Therefore, with respect to L’Enfant City, the two agencies should adopt the findings and rationale of the National Capital Planning Commission study to retain the existing height limits. The tentative findings of the Office of Planning, which would amend the height restriction in L’Enfant City, go too far.
Second, with respect to areas outside L’Enfant City, as Harriet Tregoning, the Director of D.C.’s Office of Planning has repeatedly emphasized, any actual development, even under an amended higher federal height cap, would require an amendment of the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning approval.
Some argue that the city's planning and zoning process offer insufficient protection. There is perhaps truth in that view. But its truth lies in the reality that most planning and zoning disputes pit developers who seek to profit against groups of residents and allied organizations who seek to protect other values, such as neighborhood structure, trees and sunlight.
Nevertheless, the city’s growth requires a new look at the comprehensive plan and at the city’s development options. The Office of Planning legitimately seeks to find ways to develop more residential space in order to dampen the escalating cost of housing through greater supply.
If the choice is between making the city look like Paris, France or Rosslyn, Virginia, Paris seems to present the better choice. But the balancing of interests and the development of planning criteria are best left to the city’s planning and zoning process.
Therefore, with respect to height limits outside L’Enfant City, the two agencies should adopt the Office of Planning’s recommendation to remove the federal height restrictions. Only through the city’s planning and zoning process can interested people and organizations address planning in the context of actual proposals tied to specific neighborhoods.
Many good ideas have been floated in comments, such as building higher and larger mixed-use development along transportation corridors, and adopting building set-backs along with height limit increases.
Other ideas should be offered, such as maintaining a ratio of open space to further development and creating corridors of natural land through the urban core that connect various undeveloped areas outside the suburban D.C. region.
If Congress were to remove federal height limits outside of L’Enfant City as recommended by the Office of Planning, all stakeholders will be free to develop the proper height limits against the backdrop of actual city planning proposals. Moreover, historic views within and of L’Enfant City will be preserved.