Federal Proposal on Height Act Would Keep Building Caps in Federal Hands

The National Capital Planning Commission’s proposal on modifying the Height Act gives DC some flexibility, but not much.

By: Benjamin Freed

The District proposes allowing buildings on Pennsylvania Ave. to reach 200 feet. A federal commission disagrees. Courtesy of DC Office of Planning.

In its final recommendations to Congress about the future of the District’s skyline, the National Capital Planning Commission is relaxing its opposition to modifying the Height Act, but not by much.

In a report scheduled to be discussed at its meeting tomorrow, the commission will respond to a plan to change the 1910 Height Act unveiled in September by Director of Planning Harriet Tregoning, by proposing that current building height limits remain in effect inside what planners call the “L’Enfant City”—the area south of Florida Ave. laid out by Washington’s first master planner. But it recommends that height caps in the rest of the city be increased with approval from the commission and Congress. It also recommends that a slight allowance be made for inhabitable penthouses.

Tregoning’s proposal pushed for much more aggressive changes. The Height Act restricts most building heights to a 1-to-1 ratio, meaning that a building cannot be taller than the street it faces is wide. (Structures in commercial zones get an extra 20 feet, and buildings on Pennsylvania Ave. between the Capitol and the White House can reach 160 feet tall.) Tregoning’s proposal would raise the ratio to 1-to-1.25 in the L’Enfant City and remove it entirely in high-growth neighborhoods across the rest of DC.

Tregoning’s study was widely panned by Height Act fans at a series of public meetings, and it has earned similar reviews from the NCPC. Changing the street width-to-building height ratio “would adversely affect federal interests,” the NCPC writes.

The new recommendations show the commission’s views have not evolved since October’s meetings. The NCPC had already proposed the penthouse modification in a September draft, where it also suggested that the question of building heights be left in federal hands for the sake of preserving “Washington’s skyline and cityscape to reinforce symbolic civic spaces and structures,” as the final draft reads.

“The physical urban form of this purpose-built capital city reflects the nation’s democratic ideals and provides a unique, special experience for residents and visitors,” NCPC executive director Marcel Acosta writes in his agency’s proposal. “At the same time, cities evolve and Washington must also respond to 21st century demands and opportunities.”

Acosta did acknowledge DC’s booming population, which is growing at a clip of about 11,000 new residents a year, but the NCPC report continues to value scenery over the District’s needs.

The NCPC’s proposal is due to be submitted to House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa along with a competing report from the District government. Issa, DC’s boss in Congress, ordered up the studies last year amid the increasing demand for housing fueled by population growth that shows no hints of slowing.

NCPC Height Master Plan EDR 11172013