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DC Wants Major Changes to the Height Act

The District government’s proposal could dramatically change the look of the Washington skyline, but officials say it’s needed as the city grows.

Rendering of Pennsylvania Ave. with 200-foot buildings. Courtesy of DC Office of Planning.
The District government is proposing considerable changes to the Height of Buildings Act that, if adopted, could make Washington’s low, federally protected skyline a bit taller. In a proposal submitted yesterday to House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, Republican of California, DC officials argue that it is “necessary, desirable and in both the federal and local interest” to allow the city’s structures to go higher.

The DC report, which was compiled by the Office of Planning, comes two weeks after the National Capital Planning Commission recommended leaving the Height Act largely as it stands. But the District’s proposal is far more aggressive, and calls for allowing buildings in the city’s core to be built as high as 200 feet, and no cap in several high-growth neighborhoods outside the area planners refer to as the L’Enfant City.

The report comes ten months after Issa asked the DC government and the National Capital Planning Commission to submit recommendations on whether the Height Act should be revisited and, if so, how it should be amended.

Currently, most building heights are restricted to a 1-to-1 ratio, meaning that a building cannot be taller than the street it faces is wide. Buildings on commercial strips get an extra 20 feet, meaning the tallest buildings are seldom higher than 130 feet. The District recommends the ratio be kicked up to 1-to-1.25 throughout the L’Enfant City, meaning that buildings on 160-foot wide Pennsylvania Ave., NW could grow to an even 200 feet. 
Enacting such a change, the District’s report reads, “would instead apply an urban design-based standard reflecting the proportionality between individual streets and their buildings to ensure a pedestrian-45 scaled streetscape with lots of light and air.” Buildings could get slightly taller, but a 1-to-1.25 ratio would still protect the federal government’s cluster of downtown interests and maintain the scenic views.

Outside the L’Enfant City, in the city’s “topographic bowl,” DC would like to remove the ceiling, but then only in spots where population growth is projected to be the most aggressive and thus more demanding of new housing stock. DC Planning Director Harriet Tregoning says that the areas designated in her report constitute only 4 percent of the city’s land, but removing the Height Act in those spots would go a long way toward accommodating Washington’s continued growth over the next 30 years. 

Between new residents and new business, the DC report says the city will need between 157 million 317 million square feet of new developed space. Most of that would be residential to keep up with DC’s population growth, which has been chugging along at more than 11,000 new residents a year.

Even in a “medium growth” forecast, DC still expects there will be 99,100 more households by 2040. And Tregoning says the growth is clustering around Metro-accessible blocks and redeveloping neighborhoods with more commercial amenities, not acres of single-family homes.

Even if DC’s recommendations were accepted in full, that would not mean the instantaneous construction of skyscrapers at the city’s edges. Changes to building heights in the topographic bowl would still need to be run by the city’s zoning board, a five-member body to which the federal government appoints two seats. “Therefore, there would continue to be a significant and critical federal role in establishing the heights of buildings that are actually constructed in the District of Columbia,” the report reads.

To some, the notion of letting DC’s buildings go higher might seem radical, but Tregoning says the city’s proposal is fairly modest. “We all have a healthy interest in a vibrant capital,” she says. “This isn’t Manhattan. We touch 4 percent of the land to leave 96 percent untouched.”

But with the District growing at a steady pace, proponents of modifying the Height Act see the law as a roof that will need to be busted through. And Tregoning says she can make an argument for altering the Height Act regardless of population trends. Height limits make Washington a less competitive city in attracting new residents and reinforce a distinctively ugly architectural style that results in squat buildings packed with low ceilings and minimal natural light.

Still, the expected forecast is that DC is going to continue to grow, adding a few hundred thousand new residents by 2040. And the city’s proposal on the Height Act seeks to make sure there’s room for everyone, and that it’s affordable.

“At some point in less than 100 years, we’re going to be strained,” Tregoning says. “Some would say we’re already there.”

092013 DC Height Master Plan Draft Recommendations Report FINAL

  • Valerie Silensky-Lowe

    Harriet Tregoning's belief that Washingtonians won't own cars, opting for car-sharing and public transportation, will only ever become realistic when public transportation and car-sharing services accept pets. Otherwise there is no way for people to transport our feathered and furry family members. And the numbers of pet parents in DC and its inner suburbs are growing even more rapidly than those who eschew private cars.

  • CAH

    "Height limits make Washington a less competitive city in attracting new residents and reinforce a distinctively ugly architectural style that results in squat buildings packed with low ceilings and minimal natural light."
    I completely disagree with this statement. I move from Chicago to Washington, DC and prefer Washington, DC because it does not have ugly skyscrapers. The historic feel of the buildings is what makes DC have so much character and is what attracted me to living here. I don't want to walk around in a mass of skyscrapers. I enjoy the tree-lined, brick sidewalk, row houses and old buildings that characterize DC.


    Keep in mind that any additional building height, especially near the potomac will have a negative impact on the aircraft landing at DCA when the winds are out of the south. Higher buildings are great but without careful control of where we build higher there will be additional flight delays and diverted flights to other airports when the weather is bad and the winds are out of the south. In today's operation, 3-5 days a year, DCA is effectively shut down to arrival traffic when the cloud deck is to low to land south and the winds are to strong from the south to land north. How low an aircraft can descend when conducting an approach in weather is dictacted by the obstructions near the approach profile.

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