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“The District concludes that it is necessary and in both the federal and local interest to make reasonable modifications to the Height Act to allow increased height in the DC”

by Prince Of Petworth September 25, 2013 at 11:30 am 67 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user mosley.brian

From a press release:

“The Office of Planning released the District’s report proposing draft recommendations for reasonable Congressional modifications to the federal Height of Buildings Act of 1910 (Height Act). The District has partnered with National Capital Planning Commission since fall 2012 on a joint Height Master Plan requested by Congress to determine the extent to which the federal Height of Buildings Act of 1910 (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.

The District concludes that it is necessary and in both the federal and local interest to make reasonable modifications to the Height Act to allow increased height in the District of Columbia. The District believes that the federal interests would be protected and that both federal and local interests would be enhanced with its recommendations, which maintain the horizontality of the iconic L’Enfant City skyline, ensure the prominence of federal monuments and landmarks by preserving their views and setting, and minimize negative impacts to nationally significant historic resources—the three core principles of the study.

The District proposes the following 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. This approach is modeled as Approach 2 in the Modeling Study. 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 and place the tallest buildings on the wide, grand boulevards that reflect the hierarchy of streets and relative building heights that were part of the L’Enfant Plan and a valued and enduring legacy of the 1910 Height Act.

2. Allow the District of Columbia to determine building height maximums for areas outside of the L’Enfant City through its Comprehensive Plan and zoning processes. Significant capacity to accommodate the city’s growth currently can be found outside the L’Enfant City, on < 10% of the city’s land in areas already designated for high and medium density, but existing development capacity is expected to be absorbed over the next three decades to meet the demand of forecasted future growth. While there is a greatly diminished federal interest outside the L’Enfant City, the Comprehensive Plan and zoning amendment processes both require extensive public participation and review and approval by local and federal bodies for even modest increases in height. Since NCPC must review the District’s Comprehensive Plan and since two of the five members of the District’s Zoning Commission are federally appointed, federal involvement and oversight would continue.

3. The District also commits to including viewshed protection to nationally significant structures such as the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument as an accompaniment to both draft recommendations. The District is firmly committed to viewshed protection and already has local protections in place, such as along 16th Street, to enhance views of the White House.

Both federal and local interests are served by having a vibrant, economically healthy, livable Capital City. Given the District’s reliance on a small locally-generated tax base due to half of the District’s land being off the tax rolls, the District must continue to attract and retain residents, diversify our economy and increase jobs for District residents to maintain fiscal stability.

The future household and job growth scenarios and development capacity analysis detailed in the District’s report demonstrate that current height limits constrain existing capacity to accommodate this growth over the next three decades and that the District requires additional capacity in the future to meet future demand. The District’s draft recommendations for changing the federal Height of Buildings Act will enable the city to create a supply of developable space to accommodate future growth and avoid upward price pressures on existing supply that could push out DC’s residents.

The Office of Planning and NCPC will participate in two upcoming opportunities to receive public feedback on the draft recommendations: a public information session on Wednesday, September 25, 6:30-8:30 pm and the NCPC Commission Meeting, 3:30 pm on Wednesday, October 2. Both meetings will take place at NCPC headquarters, 401 9th Street, NW, Suite 500N (Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro).

Public comments will also be accepted on the recommendations for 30 days before the report is finalized. Please submit written comments by email to [email protected] or by fax to (202) 442-7638.

The District’s full Height Master Plan evaluation and draft recommendations report are accessible on the Office of Planning website as “Related Documents” at the following abbreviated URL http://tinyurl.com/lyy4qw3 . Additional information may be found at the National Capital Planning Commission Website at www.ncpc.gov/heightstudy .

  • anon

    Skeptical here… I like things the way that are.
    Looks like I need to go to tonight’s meeting and/or submit written comments to that effect.

    • tidaljason

      The way things are now is that rents for residents and offices are extraordinarily high in DC compared to other cities. Less restrictive height limits = greater supply of housing and office space = lower prices. Almost everyone can agree that the city should be more affordable (unless you’re a property owner that considers your property value over the well being of the city). Not only would lower prices mean more affordable housing, it would also mean more jobs in the city.

      From an aesthetic point of view, it might lead to downtown DC having a variety of architectural designs rather than square-foot maximizing cubes. Personally, I think downtown DC looks dull as a result of the current height limits.

      • Everyoneisalwaysrightonthisblog

        Yes, higher buildings = more affordable housing and office space… That’s why Manhattan is so affordable.

      • Everyoneisalwaysrightonthisblog

        Yes, higher buildings = more affordable housing and office space… That’s why Manhattan is so affordable. I imagine if the developers can’t receive the current market rates or higher after completion, they won’t build it. Sorry, prices aren’t coming down if people keep moving into the city.

        • tidaljason

          If Manhattan did not allow skyscrapers like DC:

          1. More businesses would move elsewhere for cheaper office space and the jobs would go with them.
          2. Rents would be even higher (unless people just opted not to live in Manhattan because of the lack of businesses/jobs as stated above)
          3. The surrounding areas with more lax building restrictions would benefit (as we’re seeing in the DC area) and take the taxes that would otherwise go to the city (to be used for schools, public transit, etc.)

  • Los

    The horror, the horror….

    I live near 18th&U and about a third to half of the buildings near by are one or two story tall. From my perspective, there’s still plenty of development potential in the city that can be done without raising the height limit.

    • anon

      +1 to “From my perspective, there’s still plenty of development potential in the city that can be done without raising the height limit.”

      • That Man A


    • Anonymous

      I’ll throw out what other homeowners are thinking here: increasing the height limits is going to adversely affect my property value.

      • dat


      • Anonymous

        That’s exactly what was running through my mind reading this–wondering what my neighborhood would look like with much taller buildings, how that would suck, and adversely affect my home’s value.

      • John M

        Yup, pretty much. Very much a “I’ve got mine, screw everyone else” mentality.

    • Mike


  • Anonymous

    It’s about time. But for those who may be worried, you’re not going to see major changes any time soon. The changes will gradually be implemented by property owners over the next 50 years as demand and property values dictate.

  • Pcat

    This is a very bad idea. We are already becoming just another skyscraper city and losing the character of our neighborhoods. 14th St. is a perfect example of overbuilding of box canyons. Most of those buildings will be empty over the next few years.

    • Anonymous

      Right. 14th st is going to revert back to the crack haven it once was. Thank you for this valuable insight.

    • Anonymous

      “Skyscrapers”? “Canyons”? The only accurate attribute you apply to our community is “city”. Guess what? Cities have tall buildings, and the proposed rule wouldn’t even allow buildings that are that tall.

      • anon

        Re. “Cities have tall buildings”: Not ours. And many (most?) of us prefer it this way.

        • carlosthedwarf

          [citation needed]

          • anon

            No citation needed for the speculative “most?”, with a question mark.

    • lovefifteen

      @ Pcat … what on earth are you talking about?! We have zero skyscrapers in DC, and the buildings on 14th Street will never, ever be empty. You are really spouting some serious nonsense.

    • carlosthedwarf

      14th Street, between Thomas Circle and U Street, is 80 feet wide. There is only one building on that stretch that is more than 80 feet tall. The idea that 14th Street is canyonlike is absurd.

      • jcm

        Which building is the tallest? Is it the Louis?

        • carlosthedwarf

          It’s the one on the corner of 14th and N, right behind National City Church.

          • jcm

            Thanks for the info. I would never have guessed correctly.

    • John M

      Do you know what a skyscraper is? I’ll tell you right off that DC has ZERO skyscrapers, by modern architectural definition.

  • John Kinsella

    Finally. I don’t think the height limit ever made sense. This is a great thing for the district that will allow more tax revenue without taking up more plots with identical 12 story buildings.

    The next thing they have to do is adopt some kind of congestion pricing to keep more cars out of downtown.

    • Anonymous

      Congestion pricing (or commuter tax) = not going to happen unfortunately.

      • anon3

        would be awesome if they did. I’m always surprised nobody talks about this. Right now all the revenue for people that drive their cars into the city and create all the problems goes to private parking lots, none goes back to the people. worst of all, some government employees get free parking, so society is actually paying to enable this congestion.

  • wizzer

    very skeptical of the benefit, except to developers. i recall when Nats stadium was built how the big thing was there’d be a grand view of the Capitol from seats….well, that didn’t work out too well as all those apt building went up in the Navy Yard area obscuring the viewshed.

    • [email protected]

      I agree- this won’t benefit most people but the developers of the future.

    • ET

      I agree- this won’t benefit most people but the developers of the future.

    • things

      clearly it would have been better to have preserved views than to have that housing and tax revenues. I mean the stadium was not subsidized enough, right? At least it would have given the fans something to look at, instead of a blown season.

    • JacquesOfAllTrades

      Actually, it’s the parking garages that the city put up at the requirement of MLB (because they didn’t have the funds/speed to put them underground) that block the view of the Capitol Building. There almost no buildings of any significant height between a single seat in the stadium and the Capitol–or to a lesser extent, the Washington Monument. Almost all of the development has been to the due north or northeast, while the capitol is northwest.

  • MTR

    There is no rational reason to increase the height limit that doesn’t involve:

    A) Trying to grow your way out of your future pension obligations, a la Montgomery County. The problem is that you never grow your way out. You have to keep growing. It’s a never ending cycle that, at it’s limits, eventually destroys the things that make DC the attractive city it is today.

    B) Trying to keep medium to large developers in business in the most profitable parts of town. The problem is that there are huge parcels of land outside of the core that need development dollars and there’s no reason to keep the money centralized when it could benefit EotR. Of course, EotR development means gentrification, and we wouldn’t want THAT happening.

    • anon

      And +1 to “[T]here are huge parcels of land outside of the core that need development dollars.”

  • There’s a lot of money on the table in high rise buildings, so it coming to pass eventually should come as no surprise. My only hope is that they’re built with the necessary parking facilities included, or that the District does something to accommodate it somehow (and for clarification I don’t even own a car). Either that or force “greener” commutes via ban on parking passes for structures as many have already begun to do.

    • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    One of the best things DC has going for it is its beauty and breathability. Hope we don’t lose that.

  • Small Plates

    Allowing taller buildings in the city will be a disaster! DO NOT DO THIS!

  • Eponymous

    I do not have a great grasp of how the approval process would go forward for this, but I gather that it needs Congressional approval. And this document reads like “yeah Congress, you totally don’t have an interest in regulating D.C. outside of downtown, and if we build big buildings outside of that, it will be totally tasteful – we swear!” Given that 1) Congress is not known for giving up power just for the hell of it, and 2) a large swath of Congress’ membership seems to see D.C. as incapable of running its own affairs, I’d say that this proposal has about as much chance of becoming reality as Miley Cyrus has of winning an Oscar.

    • jcm

      This review is a response to a request from Congress, specifically Rep. Darrell Issa, who is chair of the committee that oversees the District. It’s not at all clear that Congress would oppose relaxing the Height Act, or granting the District more authority over it.

      Personally, I like the city the way it is, and don’t want to see any changes to the Height Act. But it’s not out of the question that DC’s recommendation will be followed. Finding somewhere in the city outside of the core to build high rises that is a) desirable to developers and b) not full of residents who will go absolutely ballistic is going to be more challenging.

  • Anonymous

    So what are the boundaries of L’Enfant City? Is it Rock Creek Parkway to the west, Florida Ave to the north, Anacostia River to the east, and Potomac to the south?

    • AMDCer
      • Anonymous

        Yeah, I looked at that before I asked my question. As it is not labeled, I was hoping to confirm my assumption with something else that was in fact labeled with contemporary names.

      • Anonymous

        Let me clarify, confirm the western boundary with an actual name as RCPwy.

  • We’ve added 1,100 residents a month for more than the past 2 years, I think this is great so that all these people who want to live here, make and spend money here, and grow this city, can actually afford to live here.

    I agree completely that there are parcels of land that also need to be developed, Res 13 being a prime example, but it’s not enough to meet the growing demand. Having reasonably higher height limits will make this easier. No one is talking about sky scrapers and no one is suggested ruining the view shed in the downtown area.

    And really, who cares? NIMBYs rarely let any project go up to the height limit anyway.

    • jcm

      DC used to have 800K residents. We still have plenty of room.

      • Yes, but families were larger and now there are more single people and more couples that have fewer children than they did then. Now you have small families living in 6 bedroom houses, where there used to be upwards of 6 or 7 people in those. Plenty of apartments have one occupant instead of multiple occupants. People are getting married later (which we can assume likely means they’re cohabitating later), so we need more units.

        • textdoc

          I don’t argue with your general point on demographics, but just wanted to note… there are also houses that used to be single-family and are now split up into apartments or condos, plus places that used to be low-density that are now high-density (I’m thinking of those fairly recent Columbia Heights high-rise luxury apartments, but I guess that would also cover older housing projects, etc.).

          • I agree, there are a lot of condo conversions and that goes a ways towards getting that lost family density back in single unit density. But, I would be really interested to see the difference in occupancy in areas of the city over time. And also the changes in terms of units in areas that have been completely rebuilt, like the 14th and U area after the ’68 riots. At the same time, not a lot of large single family homes in Foxhall (not even allowed per zoning) and Georgetown are being converted and I doubt those families are as large on average as they once were.

        • jcm

          This is true, but on the other hand there’s lots more midrise apartments and condos than there used to be. We still have lots of vacant, un-, and under-developed land in the city.

          If they do get rid of the height limit, I hope it’s in Tenleytown and Chevy Chase. The battles will be extremely entertaining. Can you imagine the ruckus if 5333 Connecticut Ave were going to be 30 stories tall?

        • Anonymous

          I looked up my apartment building in the 1940 census. It’s all 1-bedrooms and studios, currently inhabited almost entirely by single people (with a few couples). Back in 1940 every apartment housed a couple or small family (sometimes 3 generations) or unrelated roommates (one of whom was recorded as the “boarder” in the census). Fewer than a handful had a single resident.

        • Eponymous

          Still, think of all of the development since, and all of the existing potential for development. There are huge swaths of NE near the Metro and proposed streetcar lines that could satisfy demand for decades to come. Specifically, there are tens of thousands of units planned around NoMA, some large undeveloped parcels around Truxton Circle, the McMillan site, and at least a dozen parcels around Rhode Island Ave Station. Paris, a city with half of the District’s square mileage, has two MILLION people. D.C. is admittedly different in some important ways, but surely we could manage, say, a million to a million and a half people without needed to build up.

  • anonymous

    Money wins out again in DC planning. It’s amazing how short-sighted the DC government is on issues like this. Litterally, they are destroying the very things that have drawn property demand. Incompetence and corruption at its finest.

  • gilla

    I wonder how many “liberals” are angry that their property values might go down and the unwashed middle classes may actually be able to afford property in DC decades from now.

    • Are you kidding? I am thrilled. Demand will still grow and more people will be able to afford to live where they want to live.

      • That Man A

        How do you (& everyone else making the same claims) figure that this will lower the prices on the condos etc?

        higher inventory = lower pricec???
        if thats what you assume look at how that has worked in the past five years

        looked a little more like higher inventory, higher proces

        • Mary Kate

          Higher inventory yes, but that higher inventory has yet to reduce the very low rental vacancy. You won’t see lower prices until inventory can make a dent in demand. So far, it hasn’t.

          I don’t know if increasing the height limit is the solution to the problem. But I think it should absolutely be explored.

  • Anonymous

    This will have little impact on the downtown core neighborhoods as they are all covered under historical regulations now. All those rows uses near 18th and U… Can’t tear them down and build higher if they are covered by a historic district. So the only impact would be infill and non-contributing buildings; even then a historical review will weigh in if the height is completely out of context with the neighborhood.

    So what they are really talking about here is increase in density north of Florida Ave and across the Ancostia for residential. On the commercial side taller buildings could become a reality in the commercial cores of K Street etc.

    Personally ifmy opinion is if DC wants to continue the growth they need to invest in additional metro lines like they did with the Green Line.

  • Grand Funk

    Will negatively affect the current positive development in outlying neighborhoods. It is short-sighted and will mostly aid developers….shocker

    • djs

      Wait, I thought “positive development in outlying neighborhoods” (i.e. gentrification) was a bad thing. Whose side am I supposed to be on?

      • Anonymous

        The side that’s able to think for itself?

  • Anonymous

    more Condos More Yuppies higher property values YaY Yay!

  • Anonymous



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