How to Rile Up a Crowd (in D.C.): Talk Building Heights
So far, reviewing the Height of Buildings Act to provide recommendations to Congress on how to amend it has been pretty fun for Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning.
"From a totally geeky planning perspective, I have to say it’s kind of thrilling to be asked to look at this issue," Tregoning said last night at a meeting at the Petworth Library.
Unfortunately for her and the Office of Planning's partner in the Height Act review, the National Capital Planning Commission, they don't get to work from a totally geeky planning perspective anymore. Now the process goes public—and it can get contentious.
The Office of Planning and NCPC were tasked by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) last year with submitting recommendations on revisions to the 1910 law limiting D.C. building heights by September. They've hosted a panel with experts on European cities to learn about potential model skylines. They've laid out the process ahead. And last night in Petworth, they held the first of four public meetings to get input from Washingtonians.
Even before their presentation began, a heated debate erupted among attendees. Standing in front of one of the explainer posterboards set up for public review and comment, a passionate defender of taller development argued with a growing group of skeptics who questioned the effects of higher buildings on the skyline and on lower-income residents.
The short presentations from NCPC and the Office of Planning didn't quell residents' fears. One attendee worried aloud that D.C. would end up with a slew of uninhabited high-rises like in China. Others said tall buildings would block sunlight and be susceptible to earthquakes. A man said the city's purpose in allowing taller development would just be to raise property tax revenue, and he questioned "whether the Office of Planning is an honest broker in this process because it is so pro-development.” (Tregoning responded by reassuring the man that by the time taller buildings are actually allowed, she'll be long gone.) During the question-and-answer period, there were no comments in favor of higher development.
The presenters repeatedly clarified that a change to the Height Act wouldn't automatically result in taller buildings in D.C., since the city would first have to revise its comprehensive plan and zoning code. Instead, it would simply represent, in Tregoning's words, more "democracy" for the city, allowing it to set its own rules on building heights (within the federal government's constraints, which are likely to be loosened only slightly).
The presentation did shed some light on NCPC and the Office of Planning's priorities and criteria as they evaluate potential changes to the Height Act, from the cities they're looking to as models (NCPC's David Zaidain pointed to Barcelona and Paris for pushing taller buildings to the outskirts, Vancouver for molding height to natural resources, and London for shaping its buildings around St. Paul's Cathedral) to the technology they're using for modeling (aerial photography for panoramic views, digital imagery for skyline studies). Take a look at the posters and the presentation from last night's meeting:
The next meeting is this Saturday at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Poster image courtesy of NCPC