Height Act Recommendations Not a Done Deal
So the National Capital Planning Commission has released its (misguided, shortsighted, detrimental) recommendations for changes to the Height Act, which basically call for no change at all. Fortunately for Washingtonians who want more power to shape our own city outside of the strictures imposed by the federal government, that won't be the last word to get submitted to Congress in response to its request for a review of the 1910 law.
National Capital Planning Commission Executive Director Marcel Acosta notes in his report that his recommendations do not constitute a joint submission with the District, which he says "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."
But Congress requested a joint study. In his October letter to Mayor Vince Gray and the NCPC, Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the committee with jurisdiction over D.C. affairs, Issa approached broken-record territory with his repeated mentions of the need for a joint study.
"I suggested that the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) work jointly with the District of Columbia government to examine the extent to which the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 continues to serve federal and local interests," Issa wrote in the one-page letter. "... I understand that the NCPC and the District are prepared to work jointly to examine this issue and make recommendations. ... I therefore request that the NCPC work with the District to formulate and submit to the Committee a joint proposal."
So with all this talk of a joint proposal, where's the District's contribution?
"We are currently preparing our draft recommendations," says Tanya Stern, chief of staff at the Office of Planning, which is conducting the District's review of the Height Act, "and we hope to have them ready pretty soon." The Office of Planning, Stern says, has been held up by "internal consultations." She says her office hopes to have its recommendations ready within the next week, but that the mayor needs to sign off on them before they're released publicly, since they're supposed to be the city's official recommendations.
And will the city's recommendations be merged with the NCPC's to form a joint proposal? "Potentially," Stern says.
But before proponents of taller buildings in D.C. get too excited about the potential for the city to steer NCPC toward bigger changes or to propose more radical recommendations of their own, let's remember that city officials aren't all that excited about a higher city. Starting with the man at the top.
I asked Gray back in the winter about his conversations with Issa on the Height Act. And his preferences for the city's height limits sounded pretty conservative.
"We talked about something as specific as these mechanical penthouses on the roof," Gray told me, referring to the modest change embraced by Acosta to loosen the rules governing rooftop structures. "The height is already there, they’re just only being used for a very limited purpose. And we concluded that in order to start to think about doing this, that probably would be the best approach, because you weren’t really raising the height, you’re simply expanding the purposes for which the height that had been achieved would be used."
Photo by Darrow Montgomery