DC Height Limit Debate Escalates

After rejecting staff recommendations last month, the National Capital Planning Commission (“NCPC”) joined the DC Office of Planning, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and others at a Congressional hearing Monday called by House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chair Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. to consider changes to the century old Height Act,  a major factor defining the character of Washington, DC.    Issa indicated the height issue will get his further study and noted some areas where NCPC and the DC Office of Planning agree on changes to the Height Act such as permitting mechanical penthouses to be modified for occupancy by people and in some cases extended outward to a building’s perimeter. 


Since the Height Act is federal law, it will take an act of Congress to change it so Monday’s hearing was merely another step on a path that could transform or at least significantly alter the Washington skyline.  Hamburg, Germany looked to the historic position of church steeples as a model for allowing new 12 or 13 story buildings that break from the horizon line, standing out from the mass of lower buildings.  Could something like that be in store for Washington?  A prime area of contention is whether to allow significantly taller buildings within or beyond the boundaries of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan of Washington, which is bounded by Florida Avenue, the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.  DC Office of Planning  director Harriet Tregoning argues that DC should be given authority to raise the height limit to manage its own future growth.   


At Monday’s hearing, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton rejected Tregoning’s argument that raising the height limit is necessary to provide more affordable housing in a city now growing by 1,000 new residents a month.  As real estate development has boomed in the District over the last decade, rising prices have pushed development outward to neighborhoods previously overlooked for investment.  Many consider the height limit instrumental to the expansion of investment into more DC neighborhoods.  After a series of public hearings in recent months where public sentiment was strongly in favor of retaining the height limit and a similar 12-1 vote of the DC Council, the case for raising the height limits has yet to win over many skeptics. 


Areas where there is some agreement among NCPC and the DC Office of Planning such as allowing occupancy and potential expansion of penthouses doesn’t hold much promise for any hoped for addition of affordable  housing.   Those potentially expanded penthouses are more likely to be used for the high rent tenants who usually occupy penthouses—luxury apartments, high end offices and perhaps destination restaurants and event spaces.    It remains to be seen whether the penthouse or other height limit changes would be tied to any form of inclusionary zoning, giving developers added height in exchange for residential units affordable to low or moderate income tenants, or perhaps some other specified community benefit.    DC’s varied topography and history of development so far make for a complicated analysis of how any changes to the height limit might be implemented and their impact on the future development of the city.