Housing Complex

D.C. Recommends Major Changes to Height Act

A rendering of Pennsylvania Avenue with 200-foot buildings.

A rendering of Pennsylvania Avenue with 200-foot buildings.

Two weeks after the National Capital Planning Commission recommended only very minor changes to the Height Act, the District has come out with its own proposals. And they're considerably more dramatic.

The proposals, conveyed in a letter today from Mayor Vince Gray to Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican who requested the D.C.-NCPC joint study of the Height Act, suggest two main changes to the 1910 law governing the maximum height of buildings in D.C.

First, the D.C. Office of Planning, which led the District's efforts on the Height Act, recommends altering the formula for determining maximum heights—currently the width of the street plus 20 feet, with a cap of 90 feet on residential streets and 130 feet on most commercial streets. The Office of Planning recommends a new building-height-to-street-width ratio of 1.25:1, resulting in a maximum height of 200 feet for buildings on a 160-foot street.

But that only applies within the historic L'Enfant City—roughly bounded by Florida Avenue and the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. The Office of Planning's second proposal is to free the city from any federal height restrictions outside this area, since there's a lesser federal interest in thee farther-flung regions of the city. In these areas, the Office of Planning recommends to Congress that the District be able to set its own height limits through its Comprehensive Plan and zoning process.

The city and NCPC are expected to submit their recommendations to Congress in November. Before then, they'll need either to reconcile the vastly different proposals—NCPC's report recommended keeping the height limits substantially unchanged—or to present Congress with two divergent plans and leave the decision to the federal body's discretion.

Update, 5:51 p.m.: The Office of Planning analysis points to D.C.'s recent and ongoing population growth, which will require more development capacity in order to meet demand. The analysis projects that population and job growth will require somewhere between 157 million and 317 million square feet of new development by 2040. The current height limits, the Office of Planning determines, will not realistically allow the city to reach those levels of development.

"Even under just 30 years of forecasts," the report states, "the current height limits constrain our ability to meet our expected growth."

That not only restricts the city's ability to grow, but also makes the city less affordable and reduces its ability to raise its resident tax base—a necessity when D.C. is barred from collecting a commuter tax. "The District’s goal is for greater development capacity through increased heights to make more affordable housing possible in the city and enable a higher percentage of jobs added to the city being held by District residents who would pay income taxes to the District," the report states.

Below is the Office of Planning's full report:

Rendering from the Office of Planning's report

  • George

    Does that mean a lower height limit for properties on streets narrower than 80 feet?

  • drez

    FU, OP.

  • John

    Where the link to the letter?

  • chris

    This seems like a very reasonable plan. Keeps the low slung nature of the city, while allowing for greater density in the core. 200 ft is in keeping with the spirit of the current low slung feel. Not exactly skyscrapers towering over the national monuments. This will really help transform large segments of downtown from a largely 9-5 office park into a more mixed use urban center.

  • NE John

    Yea, FU OP. No lifting of shirt

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  • John

    Taller buildings will not produce affordable housing but will be used for the developers of office buildings and expensive condos to make more profits. The city has been growing and taxes have not gone down so taller buildings and more residents and tenants will not bring down taxes. This is really about profits for the developers and realtors. Once you break the heighth limit it can go higher and higher until the city looks like New York or Chicago. Tall overpowering buildings make a dark and unattractive city.

  • questions

    "Taller buildings will not produce affordable housing but will be used for the developers of office buildings and expensive condos to make more profits"

    Where will the residents of those condos come from? Where are they going now?

    "The city has been growing and taxes have not gone down "

    The city has gone from near bankruptcy, with a federally appointed control board, to a strong rainy day fund. its also improved services and decreased crime. I think there have been some small tax cuts, but I could be wrong.

  • EH

    The City failed to complete the assignment. Issa explicitly asked "...to examine the extent to which the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 continues to serve the federal and local interests, and how changes to the law could affect the future of the city."

    Instead, as could be expected, the City predetermined their desire for more height by instead by declaring "The central question that this report attempts to answer is whether changes to the federal Height Act can be accomplished in a way that allows the federal government
    and the District of Columbia to reap the economic, fiscal and social benefits of additional height."

  • AMT

    "Once you break the heighth limit it can go higher and higher until the city looks like New York or Chicago. Tall overpowering buildings make a dark and unattractive city."

    Yeah, nobody lives in or romanticizes New York or Chicago.

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  • Alf

    In case anyone needed conclusive proof that Harriet Tragoning's OP is a paid shill for major development interests, this is certainly it.

    No height limits above Florida Avenue. Maybe Washington can have it's own Montparnasse Tower, just like what Paris has regretted for the last 40 years.

  • #waffles

    "Heighth." Um, yeah. Thanks for playing, genius.

  • Districter

    Allow the increase in the downtown area only, centered on Metro Center.

  • 7r3y3r

    @Alf - except Paris doesn't have the every-obstructing ANCs that would riot in the streets before allowing a building as tall as the current Height Limit allows to be built in their neighborhood, much less something taller. And Montparneasse Tower is almost 700 ft. Let's try not to exaggerate so much. Thanks.

  • Maya Libretti

    I, a citizen from the hinterlands, first visited Washington D.C. when Final Reagan was president. I was studying architectural drafting and knew nothing about the city height limits before visiting. But I remember being deeply and emotionally affected by the FEEL of the national city, which conveyed through its short buildings, none higher than the Capitol dome, that Reagan Thatcher, Gorbachev, any king or potentate, or you and me, were all "created equal" and so were thus, in that space, literally equals. I remember tearing up it was so moving.

    I also love New York, but its high rise canyons convey the stratification of classes, with penthouse aeries far removed from the hoi polloi of the street level, to say nothing of the fact that daylight and warmth at the street level are very limited.

    I don't think the desire to keep D.C. short is only about the worry that highrises will tower over monuments. It's about what it will MEAN to We The People if they are allowed to do so. Architecture is practical, but it's also symbolic. The report talks about the "social benefit" of greater vertical density, but it completely overlooks the deep social detriment.

    It may be true that we are now a country of, by, and for the bankers and multinational elite, and that regular citizens from Ohio to Idaho are now seen merely as revenue-production units, disposable at will when the oligarchs deem, through cost-benefit analysis, that a certain percentage of us need to be culled and eliminated. If so, then building privately-owned skyscrapers taller than our publically owned Capitol would make sense. It would *show* us, unconsciously, who's really in charge.

    But frankly I see no real reason for it. This is the age of ubiquitous, cheap teleconferencing and telecommuting. Never before has it been LESS necessary for someone to work in or near the place they live. As such, the question is, why this effort now? And what is its relationship to the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer?

    I recently did an analysis recently of demand and affordable housing in my area and was surprised to learn that more available dwelling units did NOT actually drive down rents. The increased supply is actually making rents go up. Developers don't build housing unless they feel sure they will profit, and market competition would only increase the risk that they won't. So in my area, all the added building is upscale, with the wealthy who like an urban experience moving in -- and often it's just another pied a terre for them, a third, fourth or fifth property -- while the middle and working classes are pushed even farther to the margins.

    Thus I believe the increased demand for space, which is the justification for this effort, is at least partly manufactured. Another financial center, if needed, could also be built in Baltimore -- which is not far away, is connected by train, and would ACTUALLY benefit from the building, investment, and beautification. Why not rehab what has been abandoned and neglected rather than build new while also destroying the republican character of our capital city? That approach would also be far "greener."

  • Questions

    Maya - are you aware of how the national govt works? The height limit has not preserved small r republican principles, nor has it done anything to prevent stratification.

    are you aware that the capital dome is 289 feet? 200 ft buildings, as proposed, would NOT tower over it. they would be shorter. Plus there would be none right near the dome, as there are no developable properties there

    telecommuting - have you ever attempted to drive into DC at rush hour (or other major cities)? Telecommuting has NOT had that big an impact on commute patterns. For a range of reasons, but one is the continued need for face to face interactions among human beings.

    As for rents - supply certainly does have an impact on price - note Chicago, a metro as big as DC, has much more affordable housing. New buildings will still be pricey - because people pay a premium for new housing. But now with not enough new housing, affluent people "filter down" into older housing, etc. Build enough new, and you will impact markets all the way down the chain. Or, if you prefer, require developers to build rent controlled units as a tradeoff for the extra height (DC already has a program like that, called Inclusionary Zoning, but the height limit prevents many buildings from taking advantage of it).

    As for rehabbing - thats already being done in DC. There simply arent that many abandoned building in DC anymore. Almost all that are left are in a section of DC between the Anacostia River and the maryland line - and they are likely to be either rehabbed, or replaced (but at lower heights) between now and 2040.

  • Questions

    "As such, the question is, why this effort now? "

    1. Because rents have spiked in DC in the last decade, as people have returned to the city, motivated by lower crime, the congestion on roads (despite telecommuting), and a growing preference for urban life

    2. Becaues with that, many of the underutilized areas of DC, like NoMa, Navy Yard, etc are now being developed, and its possible to foresee when they are built out

    3. Because global warming adds urgency to reducing vehicle miles traveled, and other energy inefficiencies of low density living

  • Miss Lu Lu Hogg

    Can you imagine tall buildings in D.C. like in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles?

  • erahk0

    I haven't read the Commission's recommended changes, but I have read these comments and while the arguments for and against the presumably changed skyline are interesting, i'm wondering if the Commission cited an impact study on the City's infrastructure(?) Specifically, how much improvement would be needed to accommodate the new load on City services and infrastructure? You know; streets, sidewalks, storm sewer and waste, the power grid, Oh, and then there is an aging Metro system.

    Seems to me, adding more height means presumably increasing the numbers of residents, tourists, commuters, (you know consumers)... What will the presumed needs be to accommodate the basic city services? Before we build up is there a plan to dig down?

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  • NIMBY4Lifef

    the mayor and DCOP often use the benchmark that the city once had 800,000 people to justify attracting new residents to the city- as if this historical fact should logically be our population goal. but when we had 800,000 people we didn't need taller buildings, because those residents were families who could afford entire row homes, or detached homes. families lived together in homes so there wasn't a need for more units-partularly condos. so the case for raising building heights to accommodate new residents assumes several things (1) those new residents are not necessary families (2) it is in the city's interest to build more and more soulless cookie cutter "green" condos (which eat up green space btw) (3)the population will continue to grow-because economic conditions will never vary (4) there is no interest or benefit to developing the underdeveloped parts of the city - that would be developed if building heights remain...because developers would be forced to look outside of the trendy neighborhoods and perhaps even venture to the east end of the city. fix the schools, fix the east end, serve residents, and leave the building heights and the city character. anyone who prefers the taller buildings of new york, san francisco, or chicago is free to leave. i would rather live in the real DC than a city that is a poor imitation of somewhere else.

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  • VikkiR

    I am so shocked and upset at this desire to trash Pierre L'Enfent's careful design of Washington, D.C. It would destroy the beauty of this City, and its sense of history, so important to the Country's self-respect. If you have ever tried to live in Manhattan, where one never is able to see the Sunrise or Sunset, a rainbow, stars or the Moon, you would realize that this shrinks your sense of self, as well as your regard for others.
    When you spend your days and nights, getting your personal sense of reality by staring at a plastic box, earphones on, you develop an altered sense of self, and of reality.
    It is dangerous to lose site of the fact that one does not live in that electronic device, as a superior being. Rather, we live in a less manageable, but far more creative, real world, where problems must be solved by human beings, not by a "click" or "press" or "unplug" of a small, electronic device which you have total control over. VAR