News & Politics

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

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.