DC’s Recommendations to Change Height Master Plan Sent to Congress

Photo by PoPville flickr user mosley.brian

Washington Business Journal notes:

“The commission, the congressionally-charted planning panel for the national capital region, rejected a recommendation from its own staff to retain Height Act limits inside the traditional L’Enfant City while allowing the District to determine height maximums on the city’s outer edges through the Comprehensive Plan process.”

From the DC Office of Planning:

“The DC Office of Planning (OP) announced the release of the District of Columbia’s final recommendations for the congressionally-requested Height Master Plan. The District is recommending reasonable and modest modifications to the Height Act that would give the District more autonomy to set different building height maximums through a collaborative future Comprehensive Plan process with the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), local citizens and the Council of the District of Columbia in limited areas in the city – while respecting the significant federal interest within the L’Enfant City.

This approach shifts more decision-making to local control – especially in areas where the federal interest is less significant – in order to accommodate future population growth while at the same time protecting prominent national monuments, memorials, and the unique character of local neighborhoods. Doing so will ensure a more prosperous, diverse, and vibrant District of Columbia, where District residents enjoy a diversified, stronger, and more resilient economy and the District’s social and economic diversity is protected. The alternative—of retaining unchanged a century-old law that artificially constrains the city’s ability to accommodate growth—will place the District on the path of becoming a city comprised primarily of national monuments, surrounded by exclusive neighborhoods affordable only to the very few.

The District received a number of public comments expressing concerns about or opposition to raising heights now. The District’s intent is not to raise height with its recommendations. Rather, the District is asking Congress to give it the ability under the Height Act to make these determinations in consultation with its residents in the future.

The District proposes the following final recommendations to modify the Height Act

1. Amend the Height Act to create new limits based on the relationship between the street width and building height within the L’Enfant City. The District recommends using a ratio of 1: 1.25 for street width to building height, resulting in a new maximum building height of 200 feet for 160-foot wide streets in the L’Enfant City. This approach would apply an urban design-based standard reflecting the proportionality between individual streets and their buildings to ensure a pedestrian-scaled streetscape with lots of light and air without the strictures of late 19th century fire safety limitations. To ensure that the tops of any future taller buildings contribute to the use of and views from rooftops, mechanical penthouses would be required to be enclosed within the upper floors and within the new height cap.

2. The limits currently established in the federal Height Act should remain in place unless and until the District completes an update to the District Elements of the Comprehensive Plan where targeted area(s) that meet specific planning goals and also do not impact federal interests are identified. Under this recommendation, building heights in targeted areas may be proposed to exceed the maximums under the federal law; and these may be authorized through the existing Comprehensive Plan process, pending Congressional approval. Should such targeted exceptions be authorized through the Comprehensive Plan, the Height Act would remain in place for all other areas both inside and outside of the L’Enfant City. The federal interests in height will continue to be adequately protected by the statutory federal role by NCPC and the Congress in approving the District’s Comprehensive Plan and the two federal members of the five-member Zoning Commission, which must approve zoning amendments reflecting Comprehensive Plan changes. The Comprehensive Plan and zoning amendment processes both require extensive District resident participation and review and must be completed in order for any changes in height to be implemented in the District.

3. Amend the Height Act to remove any federal restrictions on the human occupancy of penthouses and set a maximum height of 20 feet and one story.

The District also commits to including viewshed protection to nationally significant structures such as the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. The City will work with NCPC to update the Federal and District Elements of the Comprehensive Plan to include those protections.

This joint study, conducted with NCPC, explored the impact of strategic changes to the federal Height of Buildings Act of 1910 (The Height Act) and determined the extent to which the Height Act continues to serve both the federal and District government interests. The Height Act is a federal law which provides uniform restrictions on the height of all buildings within the District of Columbia boundaries. Congressman Darryl Issa, Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, made the request to Mayor Vincent C. Gray and NCPC in November 2012.

The District transmitted its final recommendations and evaluation report to Congress today. NCPC approved its final recommendations on November 19th. For more information about the Height Master Plan, please visit www.planning.dc.gov and www.ncpc.gov/heightstudy.”

9 Comment

  • So they’re trying to go around the NCPC. Interesting.

  • I could be wrong and cynical, but I feel like people that oppose raising the height restriction are home owners who don’t want to see their overly inflated home values go down in the slightest.

    • For me it has nothing to do with home values — I like the way D.C. feels, with its comparatively low buildings, and want it to stay that way.

      • Just for my own education, why do you think it would change the way the city feels if the height restriction was adjusted (but still didn’t allow for sky scrapers)?

        • What do you define as a “skyscraper”?
          I think the existing building heights are fine. In many areas, people haven’t even built up to the current height limits. And there are areas of D.C. that are under-developed — this is primarily about the owners of downtown office buildings wanting to get more money out of their properties.

      • For renters, though, preserving this “feel” is pricing them out of anywhere near downtown.

  • The Height Limit study the office of planning put isn’t getting any traction with anyone because wasn’t really worth the paper it was printed on. Why? Because the growth assumptions they used to justify raising the height limit were complete bunk.


    1. DC’s population grew 0.85% per year from 2000 to 2012. An incredibly healthy clip during the second biggest development boom DC had ever seen (this one we are in now being the biggest). For reference NYC’s population grew .21% during the same period.

    2. DC’s growth between 2008 and 2012 1.8% per year, and was the most torrid DC has seen since WWII. Again, NYC for reference grew at 1.2%.

    3. Job Growth from 2008 to 2012 grew at 1.8%

    4. DC currently has 182,000 multi-family units totaling 182 million sf

    5. DC currently has 122 million sf of office space

    6. DC under current Height Act and Zoning has 270 million sq/ft of developable space to accommodate the office and residential growth requirements.

    The OP identified 3 growth scenarios, low, medium and large growth. Low being large being 1.7% growth. Despite it being ludicrous that DC’s population growth would continue at the pace it did from 2010 to 2012 for the next 27 straight years, breaking every record for sustained growth of any metro since records started being kept, we will use it for this example.

    According to OP this means we would need to accommodate 176K new households (or 375K new residents), a 60% population growth in 27 years.

    OP says we will need in the next 27 years:

    210 million sf of new residential, a 87% increase over what exists today.
    106 million sf of new office, again 87% more than we have now for an absorption rate of 4 million sf per year. From 2008 to YTD 2013 (biggest office boom ever), the District has only absorbed a total of 6 million sf, or 1.2 million sf/yr.

    This is a combined burn rate of 11.7 million sf per year, every year. Even at this highly ludicrous pace of sustained growth, DC (according to OP’s own numbers has at a minimum of 23 years’ worth of developable space left).

    Even OP’s low estimate of population growth of .91% is still higher than DC’s growth was between 2000 and 2012, which again was the fastest DC had ever seen since the WWII.

    I know Tregoning is for repealing the Height Limit, but she could at least pretend that she and her staff just didn’t gin up the numbers she needed to make her point. This study has almost no actual numerical analysis that is based in reality, which is why it will taken with so much amusement in Congress, even by the Democrats (of which I am one) who want to help the District. Economic growth will rise and fall in the future, just like it always has in the past. The District will lose people and jobs some years, and gain them the next. OP’s version of the world is positively “Enron-ian”.

    Assuming more realistic growth numbers (OP’s low end) we will consume 157 million sf of developable space by office and residential in the next 27 years, or 5.8 million per year for a minimum of 47 years worth of developable space left within the bounds of our current height act and zoning.

    So in summary, yes…in fantasy land where the WWII level population growth DC has seen the past 3 years is sustained forever, office space is consumed 330% faster than it has been the last few years (every year), and residential real estate prices climb double digits per year, and job growth continues unabated at a scolding ~2% per year, the District will run out of developable space in 23 + years, or 50 years when reviewed without the rose colored glasses. Excuse me if I am not impressed.

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