Housing Complex

Height Act Wakes Committee of 100 From Its Slumber

A rendering of Pennsylvania Avenue with 200-foot buildings.

A rendering of Pennsylvania Avenue with 200-foot buildings.

The Committee of 100 on the Federal City has been awfully quiet recently. In fact, I've received only three emails this year from the nonprofit organization, which is devoted to protecting the city's historic character by opposing development projects and planning strategies that threaten to alter it, and has at times had a bit of a PR problem due to its generational imbalance. There's a certain theme to these emails: Height Act, Height Act, Height Act.

Today, the group sends one with the subject line "District's Committee of 100 Urges Residents to Oppose Height Act Gutting," and it's the most forceful communication from the Committee in some time. It concerns the recent proposal from the city government—following a request for study of the 103-year-old federal law by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)—to amend the law to allow the city to set slightly higher building maximums in the city center and any maximums it sees fit elsewhere. That, according to the Committee, is a bridge too far.

"If this recommendation, which has already been sent to U.S. Rep. Issa stands, and Congress acts on it, Washington’s iconic horizontal city that was planned to symbolize our national aspirations will be destroyed," the press release states. "There is no crisis in D.C. that demands that District residents and the country at-large abandon the values and principles that have allowed our city to follow a uniquely disciplined plan to showcase our history and durability. ... We don’t want to be the generation that dismissed the significance of 100 years of protecting our public resources."

So the Committee is rallying its supporters to testify en masse before the D.C. Council on Monday morning, when the Committee of the Whole will be collecting testimony from members of the public on the proposed changes to the Height Act. There ought to be some fireworks. Stay tuned.

Rendering from the Office of Planning's report on the Height Act


  1. #1

    Ask the people in Petworth/Brightwood, who can remember $750 one bedrooms just a few years ago, now struggling to make $12-1300 rents, if there isn't a "crisis." I'm all about height restrictions and preservation, but not to the extent that it contributes to the pricing out of THE PEOPLE who make this city what it is. Ask San Francisco how that's worked for them.

  2. #2

    Removing or relaxing the Height Act won't decrease rents (asked London how that's worked for them). What it will do is allow developers to build even more expensive housing (with no inclusionary zoning requirements in many cases) in the areas where rents are already quite high.

  3. #3

    Skeptic: DC Doesn't have even close to the seemingly inexaustible supply of wealth that london has. There is a point where supply can (and would) outpace demand here.

  4. #4

    The real problem here is not necessarily the height. The problem is that good planning starts with a problem that needs to be solved, and then draws upon all available tools and remedies to solve it. This was backwards. The city started from the position of "lets change the Height Act," and then created a set of arguments to support it. It's not what Issa asked them to do.

    There should be a broad discussion about affordable housing, growth and infrastructure. Let's have that discussion and look at everything - not just Height - which is one of our most visible assets.

    Sadly, if your primary concern is affordable housing, the singular solution isn't Height. And as for the seemingly inexhaustible supply of wealth of London compared to DC, considering recent studies that have shown the enormous concentration of high-income earners in this area, I would beg to differ. What we see in DC, which has 42% of the region's subsidized housing units, is an artificially created disparity between rich and poor combined with a demand for urban living that had previously all but evaporated.

  5. #5

    Also, there are a huge number of 3-4 story townhouses in this city, that can be converted into 3-4 unit condominiums, which are still less expensive, in most cases, than mid and high-rise new construction condominiums. DC might, at some point, need to expand height outside the historic core. However, there are still many vacant lots throughout the city. The time is not now to make drastic changes to the height act.

  6. #6

    If I hear one more comment on "nothing to see here," I'll scream. The same tired NIMBY statements that "there's plenty of available space for development near outlying Metro stops, so no need to build in my neighborhood," are just that, tired and quite silly.

    In this town, whether it be an entire overhaul of existing height limits, changes to the zoning code, or a single building on Wisconsin Avenue in upper Northwest, you'll hear the same thing: "build it somewhere else." The problem is that other people actually want to live in the places where these NIMBYs live because they are desirable.

    So to state there is no problem to be solved, that is true, for you. But for everyone else, the problem is they cannot get to live where you do. And that is a significant problem because those people will go somewhere else that is desirable, outside of DC.

  7. #7

    So, the faceless Committee of 100 (the Chair is a public person, but who are the other 99?) comes out with this tripe and standard NIMBY crap about more studies and comprehensive planning.

    The Comp Plan process from 2006 and the Zoning Rewrite are part of the solution. Yet these same people are opposing the elimination of parking minimums in well served transit areas because of THEIR dependence of cars. They are opposing a relaxing of requirements for ADUs because they fear "renters" in their neighborhoods.

    Look folks, ADUs and decouple housing from parking are part of a comprehensive solution. Relaxing the Height Act in outlying areas of the city (such as Friendship Heights) will also help, but you will fight that too.

    Committee of 100 is looking at everything through a very myopic lens that only serves the individual interests of its membership, whoever that is.

  8. #8

    I live near 18th/Ust/Florida and MOST of the buildings in the immediate area are a single (yes, as in 1) story high. There are even some undeveloped lots near by. In other not-so-centric areas, I've seen the same. Most buildings are well below the current limit.

    The city needs to put in place some incentives so these lots and building are build up to the their potential within the current limits. No need to change heights.

    What we need more than that is a law against glass box buildings.

  9. #9
  10. #10

    "The problem is that other people actually want to live in the places where these NIMBYs live because they are desirable."

    Undoubtedly people feel that if a bunch of high-rises were crammed into Palisades or Cleveland Park, their village in a city character would be changed and they wouldn't be so desirable any more....

  11. #11

    Nobody said there are no problems that need to be addressed. You can scream all you want, but the issue here is that the report does not attempt to solve a set of problems, rather it proposes arguments to singularly support a change in Height. This isn't a NIMBY issue. And I'm sick of the knee-jerk reaction to brand anyone against certain changes, or even those who want more study first as NIMBY's. There are a number of reasons people may be against the elimination of parking minimums that have nothing to do with whether or not they own cars. Same goes for ADUs. Planning is not a binary issue of being for or against something.

  12. #12

    But is is binary to the folks who routinely oppose everything for whatever reasons they want to conjure up. Sometimes a new development is opposed because of the braoder infrastructure, or parking, or affordable housing or "renters" (ack). The fact of the matter is, it doesn't matter what is being proposed, what benefits it brings to the District, these people, yes NIMBYs, will oppose them because they are fearful of change, spread fear and hyperbole of worst-case scenarios, rather than being a part of the solution.

    The Committee of 100 has devolved to be the flag bearer of this perspective, and the various folks, particularly in Ward 3 who support them don't do their cause any service.

  13. #13

    @Skeptic, while the laws of supply and demand aren't as simplistic as some like to think, so you *can* have a situation where you increase the supply and still wind up with an increased price, that happens when the growth in demand exceeds the growth in supply. In other words, London couldn't have stopped the increase in housing costs by simply not building new housing; the demand was there, and not building new housing would simply have led to even greater price increases for existing housing than actually happened.

    If you want DC's housing prices to come down, you need to do one of two things: build lots of new housing fast -- faster than we have already -- or make DC a less pleasant place to live and work. Or you could do both, I guess.

  14. #14

    Yes, OP seems to want to do both. Of course it's not in the interest of the development community to oversaturate the market in a way that permanently or significantly decreases rent. So that's not going to happen. (What we'll see are small/temporary gluts in a few submarkets and increased vacancy rates and concessions rather than affordable rents.) And, again, the economics are such that higher heights are only going to happen in high rent districts anyway.

  15. #15

    @Skeptic, and what do you think will happen if we stick with the status quo? I suspect we'd see rents consistently increasing faster than inflation, even in a number of marginal outlying areas, with low vacancy rates and few if any concessions required to fill vacancies.

  16. #16

    @cminus, that is what they want, despite their claims to the contrary.

  17. #17

    What bothers me the most in this debate are all the renderings of what Pennsylvania Avenue will look like with the height restrictions lifted. I can think of maybe one spot along Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and the Capitol that would benefit from this and that is whatever replaces the FBI Building if/when it is decided to tear the monstrosity down. I doubt any housing the build there (if any) would be affordable or do much to lower rents in the area since it would be a bit of a "unique" sell. The reality is most of the metro center/downtown area is "spoken for" in terms of new development in so far as NW DC goes. Where are you going to build these new taller buildings in those areas? The lifting of the height restriction in NW would have been useful the last 50 years. I doubt it will prove as useful in the next 50 anywhere south of Florida Avenue.

  18. #18

    cminus -- I think is we'd see smaller projects, but more projects and in a wider range of neighborhoods, including areas where land prices are lower. And I think we'd see more and faster large tract development.

  19. #19

    The primary goal of the developers (and their "Smarter Growth" paid shills) is to increase height in the central business core. But the Metro stations in the central core are already so over-loaded it's pitifully hard to use them. And there's no probability of enlarging the central core's Metro service. So raising height there would cause transit disaster. Yet there are plenty of underused Metro stations in DC.

    DC's "spread the wealth" zoning is fairly famous and has worked well (as it has in European capitals that DC is modeled after). We got Gallery Place, we got NOMA, we got BallPark/Navy Yard and we got Mt. Vernon Square. None of those are even fully built-out yet.

    Sydney is paying people to move out of the city because it's infrastructure is overburdened.

  20. #20

    1) Can you provide a shred of proof that "Smarter Growth" advocates are paid shills?

    2) If we don't focus our future growth in the core where infrastructure exists, where exactly do you propose focusing growth?

    There are countless studies and reports that discuss the various ills that suburban sprawl has bestowed on the American society, from obesity and pollution to anti-social behavior.

    So, do we make more suburban sprawl, or what.

    Please, @tntdc, I would like to hear how you envision the region handle the expected population growth of the next 40 years.

  21. #21

    @DC Guy,

    I have seen emails where Ward 3 Vision, a self-styled "Smart Growth" group was getting funding and coordination from a development proponent to foment fauz "grass roots" (aka "Astroturf") support for the project. They also help to create false front community groups to leverage their expertise, as one W3V director put it on a private list serve, "in fighting neighbors." So, yes, it happens.

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