News & Politics

Congressional Hearing Gives Some Life to Height Act Changes

The District’s boss in Congress says the debate over DC’s skyline isn’t done yet.

DC Planning Director Harriet Tregoning and Marcel Acosta of the National Capital Planning Commission. Photograph by House Oversight Committee via Flickr.

Representative Darrell Issa still believes in giving DC a chance to grow vertically. Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said at a hearing Monday on amending the 1910 Height Act that he doesn’t want to let the issue “go to sleep for another 100 years” after local and federal officials spent more than a year drawing up proposals for his consideration.

Issa’s committee heard from Harriet Tregoning, DC’s planning director, and Marcel Acosta, the head of the National Capital Planning Commission, whose agencies recently delivered competing recommendations on whether the District should be allowed to raise its skyline as it grows.

Tregoning proposed raising building-height limits modestly in DC’s historic downtown core and removing them entirely in a few selected outlying areas. The NCPC suggested doing almost nothing beyond ending a ban on penthouse apartments downtown and editing out century-old fire code language. Tregoning’s proposal also arrived at Issa’s desk after being publicly trashed by Height Act supporters, including nearly the entire DC Council, which passed a resolution against giving city officials any say in changing the dated law.

But Issa said the Height Act is still an open issue. “I’m not done looking at this, or listening, or reading,” he said.

Issa’s role as the District’s boss in Congress also extended to architecture critic-in-chief. While he said a cap on building heights might have made sense a century ago, the Height Act’s legacy includes many structures that are considered eyesores today. “There are some butt-ugly buildings that were built in the ‘60s,” he said.

For most of the hearing, Tregoning and Acosta retreaded their agencies’ proposals. Tregoning told Issa’s committee that her proposal is based on the housing demand expected to be created if DC continues or exceeds its current rate of population growth. The District’s population was measured at about 632,000 in 2012 and is growing at a pace of about 11,000 new residents a year.

“Here in the District, we are already beginning to see the consequences of growing demand for a constrained supply of housing stock: rising housing prices that threaten to force out longtime District residents,” she said.

Acosta, like most Height Act defenders, argued for keeping the law intact to protect views of the Mall, the monuments, and the Capitol. Acosta also included the White House as a landmark that might be blocked from view if surrounding buildings were allowed to grow to 160 feet tall, even though the White House is barely visible from most windows and rooftops in the current skyline.

But for Issa, keeping the Height Act debate alive hinges on DC’s right to have a say in its own internal affairs. Issa was incredulous at the DC Council’s position. “I heard to my astonishment, for the first time ever, a rejection of home rule,” he said.

And under Tregoning’s proposal, the District would still not have unilateral control over building heights. Her report suggested the District determines which neighborhoods should have no height limit in concert with the NCPC and Congress.

Issa’s appreciation for home rule is critical if there’s still any chance left for fixing the Height Act beyond penthouses and hoary fire codes. His term as Oversight chairman is up in 2015, and none of his fellow Republicans who might succeed him have shown much interest in giving the District more autonomy. Issa’s spokesman Ali Ahmad says putting the findings of today’s hearing into legislation is a likely next step, though there is no schedule for that.

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.