NCPC Chief: Our Role on Height Act Is to Define Federal Interest
On Wednesday, I expressed some righteous indignation at a report by the executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission on the Height Act. The report, by Marcel Acosta, essentially recommends that Congress keep the 1910 law, with its restrictions on D.C.'s ability to allow tall buildings, completely intact, suggesting only that minor changes be made to the guidelines on mechanical penthouses. I lamented the missed opportunity, the detrimental economic impact that the law has on the District, and the fact that Acosta seems only to consider the federal interest, rather than D.C.'s own needs.
On the last point, I may have been unduly harsh. I spoke yesterday with Acosta, who explained the role his agency plays. While Acosta says NCPC's "primary mission is to protect the federal interest in the nation’s capital," he notes that the commission also has two mayoral appointees, and its ex officio members include the mayor and the D.C. Council chairman. Still, given that the city will also be submitting a report, "what we try to do in this report is define what’s important from the federal perspective," Acosta says.
The D.C. Office of Planning is currently preparing its draft recommendations and aims to have them ready next week, with Mayor Vince Gray's signoff. Acosta says his report didn't attempt to encompass the city's interests and priorities. "I don’t think it is appropriate for our agency to make those projections on behalf of Mayor Gray," he says.
Nor did NCPC take questions of D.C. autonomy into consideration, instead focusing on the narrow topic of height impacts. "That’s really an issue for Congress itself to consider," Acosta says. "Congress adopted home rule, and they decided to grant many authorities to the District, and they decided to hold for themselves the regulations on height."
According to Acosta, NCPC and the Office of Planning have divided the tasks in conducting the study of height impacts, with the former doing case study research and defining the federal interest, and the latter carrying out an economic analysis and preparing digital models of various height changes.
So how will the two bodies reconcile what could easily be very different recommendations, in what's supposed to be a joint report to Congress? Acosta says they're "trying to strive for a joint report as much as we can," but it could be a report with separate recommendations from NCPC and OP.
"We’ll work on reconciling as much as we can, he says. "Reasonable people can agree to disagree. We’ll point out areas where there’s strong agreement. Ultimately Congress can take those different views and consider the merits of each side."
NCPC will hold a public information session on Sept. 25, followed by a public meeting on Oct. 2 at which residents can provide their perspectives on the Height Act. The commission will take a vote on its recommendations on Nov. 7. Acosta says his agency and the city will submit their final recommendations to Congress in November.
Image from the NCPC report