Housing Complex

Five Ways the NCPC Is Wrong About the Height Act


Is this really the best possible D.C. skyline, 103 years later?

After more than 100 years of architectural strictures imposed by the federal government, the District should prepare to endure them for the foreseeable future. National Capital Planning Commission Executive Director Marcel Acosta has drafted his recommendations in response to a congressional request that the NCPC and the city explore revisions to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, and Acosta's conclusion is, in essence, to stick with the status quo.

The NCPC will officially present the report at a meeting tomorrow. Acosta notes that his report is not a joint report with the District, which "has not identified a preferred approach(es) to strategically changing the Height Act; nor has it has provided completed detailed urban design and economic studies that support a preferred approach." Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the congressional committee that has oversight over District affairs, requested a joint study last November, to be submitted by this month.

"Based on the visual modeling work conducted as part of the Height Study, changes to the Height Act within the L’Enfant City and within the topographic bowl may have a significant adverse effect on federal interests," Acosta writes. "These include the views and setting of the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, National Mall, national parks, and other nationally significant civic and cultural resources. Increases may also impact the character of L’Enfant streets and public spaces."

Acosta's conclusions are sure to please fans of D.C.'s low-slung skyline. But they won't please everyone. For instance, me. Here are five reasons why I think Acosta's arguments are dead wrong:

1. One of the main arguments in favor of amending the Height Act and allowing buildings to rise higher than the current limits—the width of the street plus 20 feet, with a cap of 90 feet on residential streets and 130 feet on most commercial streets—is that this city is really expensive. By some measures, we're the most expensive housing market, rental market, and office market in the country. Acosta writes, "In the short term, agencies anticipate a flatline in demand for office space and will be seeking to use existing federal assets more effectively to meet future needs." Sure, office costs aren't booming like they once were—but they're flatlining at a pretty darn high level. Raising height limits would ease this pressure and make office space more affordable for private companies, and, yes, the federal government, too.

2. Acosta's only proposal to amend the Height Act involves mechanical penthouses, those rooftop structures that house equipment for heating and air conditioning and the like. He recommends "support[ing] communal recreation space on rooftops by allowing human occupancy in roof structures, as defined in District Zoning Regulations, where use of those structures is currently restricted under the Height Act to mechanical equipment, so long as those structures continue to be set back from exterior walls at a 1:1 ratio." Most people are in agreement that this is a good idea. But it's laughable to think that it's the only needed modification to a 103-year-old law.

3. "From a federal operational and mission perspective, the Height Act continues to meet the essential interests and needs of the federal government and it is anticipated that it will continue to do so in the future," Acosta writes. "There is no specific federal interest in raising heights to meet future federal space needs." Granted, Acosta works for a federal agency. But it's infuriating how little mention he makes of the District's own interests in this law. The Height Act became law more than 60 years before D.C. gained home rule. Since then, the city's population and economy have declined, and then boomed. Development was driven by cars, and then by Metro and walkability. Industries that didn't exist in 1910, like Internet technology, are now helping drive the city's economic growth. How can regulations from 1910 possibly be the perfect ones for a city in 2013? The feds stand to gain from a well-functioning city, and they'd be wise to give that city at least a passing thought when legislating its future.

4. Acosta does give the city some minimal consideration when he writes, "Large or uniform increases in height may impact the city’s infrastructure." He's right. But if anything, greater density would be a good catalyst for infrastructure improvements that are overdue as it is. By Acosta's logic, we should never build anything new, lest it require investments in related areas.

5. We're missing a tremendous opportunity. Congress has hardly ever given the District an ounce of additional control over its own destiny. Now, we have a conservative Republican who's actually asking us to tell him how this law ought to be changed, for the sake of the city and the federal government. And the NCPC is blowing it with small thinking. Who knows when an opportunity like this will come along again?

The NCPC has a model in its lobby of what the District could have looked like under smarter planning. It's enough to make any Washingtonian sigh wistfully. But to achieve a better city like that, we have to take advantage of chances to make real change. And for now, it appears that the NCPC is choosing not to.

  • Chris hauser

    Anacostia rising.

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  • AMT

    Spot on, Aaron.

  • http://www.monumentalthreads.com JKC

    ridiculous that they don't at the very least allow buildings at the outer edges of the city (Friendship Heights, e.g) to rise 20-40 feet.

  • noodlez



  • jcm

    "Raising height limits would ease this pressure and make office space more affordable for private companies, and, yes, the federal government, too."

    Would it? Do you have a citation to a study that reached this conclusion?

  • B’dale Res

    This is exciting news to see that the limits will remain in place. I hope these restrictions are in place for 100 more years.

  • Done and done

    Yawn, onto the next issue please.

  • george

    We'll see what OP has to say, they're a little less curmudgeonly.

  • Hmmm



  • Murph

    It's annoying that NCPC is not reflecting the interests of the District in this report. There's no reason why heights can't be lifted in the areas away from the Federal zone - it would help DC's finances, increase the supply of affordable housing (the number one priority of residents), and reduce suburban sprawl by allowing more central housing.

  • Colin

    No no no, what DC really needs is to make buildings *shorter*. I mean, if a 130 foot maximum is good, an 80 foot maximum would be even better! Or maybe 50 feet! Why not??

  • JK

    Why are you so peeved that the report doesn't address local interests? THat is D.C.'s responsibility. And clearly they haven't said anything yet. If a federal agency started talking about local interests in a report (as you say you want) you'd be equally miffed, Aaron, because youd accuse them of stepping out of bounds. THis report looks like DC isn't ready for the discussion. Personally I think we should have higher buildings downtown and that is it. But it is our elected officials - not federal beaurocrats - who should be making that argument. If they aren't up to it, then it's their fault (and ours).

  • Hillman


    DC has plenty of affordable housing.

    It's just that it's either in unsafe neighborhoods or in the burbs.

    We have a public safety problem, not an affordable housing problem.

    And I'm not sure that affordable housing is the number one concern for most DC residents.

  • ted

    Here is a well written opinion on the height limit, that i completely agree with:

    "They should really raise height limits in DC, in certain zones downtown or outside the downtown core. If we were seeing more innovative low rise structures downtown with more residential and retail and interesting exciting architecture i would be less concerned, but some height might at least improve density/vibrancy and design quality (i.e, more housing units) in downtown area. I live here (moved here 19 year ags) and I think Philly has a better downtown core, which is ridiculous as this is the nation's capital and it deserves to have a central shopping/entertainment area that is even more vibrant to reflect the importacet and power of the city. The US Capital should have a more vibrant downtown, at least as good as Philly, SFO, Boston, metros of similar size. The current downtown is not good enough at all and I think the low height limit and over reliance on ribbon-windowed boring modernist office groundscrapers with little character and very little daring in design combined with inadequate retail space and lack of resi towers is major cause. I never want to bother going to F street/7th street because it is too small of a shopping district and hasn't enough to compete with a major mall. Even with the CityCenter dc, i think it won't be enough to compete with those other cities. If Height limits are not possible to change, more conversion of federal buildings and old officesto residential and retail is the only hope downtown to create some kind of a real core where people from all over the inner suburbs will go to shop and play (think manhattan - people flooding in from jersey/LI to take advantage of it). The K street area, for example, is dull and a corporate wasteland. Yet is is the perfect area to build a vibrant street. If heights were raised here, mixed use buildings would allow for more retail and housing options and not just office. Also, low rise buildings offer a boring streetscape. this is not Paris (or other euro cities with block after block of immaculate beauty. Endless conservative and dull corporate boxes lining arrow-straight streets and with no variation in height reeks of communist Berlin, etc. Overall, the buildings are far too conservative and i think the restrictions are a cause of this in part, the other is just lack of interest in design on the part of the city, developers, planners, etc.. The worst example of this has to be in the I to M street areas downtown around the Farragut stations. The other problem i think is that the gallery place entertainment area is constrained by governmental buildings to the east and corporate crap to the west. It needs to rise to create even more options for retail and vibrancy. The city had very poor planning in the past IMO when it came to downtown development but it seems it was hindered greatly by the height limits.

    For me, It's either Georgetown or Friendships heights/ Bethesda for shopping b/c I'm not a mall person and I would love for DC to have a Chestnut street downtown/mini Michigan Avenue, with decent sized sidewalks (none of that donkey-path G.Town nonsense) I think if height limits were raised in certain areas around NoMA or NE of the downtown area to around 500 feet, it would create a decent amount of population that would naturally flow into downtown to shop, play and eat and keep certain population groups in the city rather than the suburbs Then again, I'm a centralist and I don't like multi-core cities (Tysons, Bethesda, SS, etc) when the central core i Ts so corporate and sterile and most of the region shops and plays outside DC. I also don't buy the argument that some high rises buildings would impact the beauty of the monumental core (if placed within certain view corridors, the impact visually on the mall area would be limited. London has been successful with doing this to reduce impacts on it's major historical focal points.

    DC has to raise heights in certain areas but done in a way as to not impact the monumental core. Therefore, a cluster approach would work best and good places to build would be on current areas downtown that are far from the federal areas.. Design also needs to be asking for more audacious designs. Does DCs core want to be more than this or just a corporate ghetto with a smattering of small shopping areas that could never match the great cities of the world."

  • Jasper

    "We'll see what OP has to say, they're a little less curmudgeonly."

    So true. I would generally not describe a prostitute as "curmudgeonly." And under its current leadership, OP has become a shill, if not a prostitute for big development interests.

  • ceefer


    That was spot-on.


    I would add that the City Center DC project was a lost opportunity. What could have been an iconic destination for the entire region to showcase and brag about is nothing but a bunch of same-height look-alike boxes, no different from the ridiculous-looking crap going up in NOMA, thanks to the Height Act.

    I for one, don't envision anyone fighting the traffic or putting up with Metro to come in from the suburbs - or from upper NW DC for that matter - to show the out-of-town relatives City Center DC.

  • Jasper

    "I for one, don't envision anyone fighting the traffic or putting up with Metro to come in from the suburbs - or from upper NW DC for that matter - to show the out-of-town relatives City Center DC."

    Maybe, maybe not. But the out-of-town relatives probably will come downtown for the Mall, the Capitol, the memorials, all of which are enhanced by our city's open, moderate skyline. People tend to visit here for what makes Washington unique, not so much for the generica that you can find in many other places.

  • ted


    The museums and monuments are great and as a resident are fun to visit periodically. But, they don't really make for a vibrant "living" city.

    DC has to monuments of a world city, but it feels a little artificial. The city is missing the vibe and urban amenities of a true world city like London or Paris. We need more cafes, boutiques, urban markets, grand shopping boulevards, bustling squares and parks.

    Well it is true, DC doesn't need more height per say, as Paris proves. It does need more residential density. Paris has 4 times the population in 2/3rds the land area. Even Brussels (which is typically considered more of pleasant bureaucratic outpost than an epic world city) has twice the population of DC in the same land area.

    However, in practice, more height in the downtown is the most practical, efficient way to really boost the city's density. Close in neighborhoods like Shaw and Capitol Hill are largely developed as 2/3 story row houses with little front yards, not the dense 5-7 story apartment districts you find in low-slung European capitals. Even if zoning was technically changed to allow these row house neighborhoods to be redeveloped at European style densities, the legal and logistical challenges to redevelopment would be practically impossible. Looks at the fight over the Hines redevelopment.

    Clustered Bethesda-style development in outlying neighborhoods is a little more feasible, but ultimately less efficient at creating a vibrant urban core. Adding 25,000 new housing units in the the region’s cultural, economic and transportation center is more efficient than trying to create 5 4,000 unit developments in removed outlying quasi-suburban neighborhoods.

  • ceefer

    The "argument" about "the Mall, the Capitol, the memorials, all of which are enhanced by our city's open, moderate skyline" is a silly canard, based purely on hyperbole.

    No one, read slowly, N-O O-N-E, is planning skyscrapers on or near the Mall or anyplace else where "sweeping vistas that make DC special" would be "desecrated" or "ruined". We're talking about adding a few stories to the height of new buildings in parts of downtown and the rest of the city in places where the Capitol, the Mall and monuments can't be seen, even if the buildings were only one story tall, so spare us the hysteria.

    Be honest. Where is the Capitol visible besides the Mall and a few areas along Pennsylvania Avenue, North, South, and East Capitol Streets and a handful of other places? And how would a 14-15 story building anywhere downtown "ruin" the view of the Capitol from the Mall? Or the view of any monument?

    This obsession with keeping a 100-year-old law that was made because of long-obsolete fire safety concerns for the sake of preserving "views" is ridiculous. As is the insistence that DC should never be more than an imitation of 18-century European cities.

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