Charge of the Height Brigade
Last Wednesday, nearly two hours into the second marathon public hearing of the week on D.C. building-height limits, an 83-year-old D.C. resident named Bill Haskett stepped up to the microphone and delivered the sagest line of the contentious process.
“Anything older than I am,” Haskett told the full house at the National Capital Planning Commission, “should be changed.”
Haskett was referring to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, the federal law that caps D.C. building heights at the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet, with a maximum of 130 feet on most commercial streets and 90 on residential ones. The 61st Congress that passed the law had only 92 senators, because Arizona and New Mexico were still two years—and Alaska and Hawaii a half-century—away from statehood. William Howard Taft was president, and the Model T had just hit the market, though the modern brassiere and zipper had not yet been invented.
The law, whose 1899 predecessor was authored in reaction to the 164-foot Cairo Building on Q Street NW and the firefighting concerns it sparked, has governed the D.C. skyline for 103 years, but may not for much longer. The D.C. Office of Planning, in response to a request from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to conduct a joint study with the NCPC, has proposed altering the formula for building heights in the historic L’Enfant City to allow slightly taller buildings and—in a much bigger step forward for D.C. autonomy—removing height limits from federal control entirely elsewhere in the District.
The recommendation has run into two obstacles. The first is the NCPC, whose own draft proposal suggests no changes to the Height Act outside of a minor alteration to the rules governing mechanical penthouses. The second is a small but vocal group of residents who may or may not represent the broader public opinion but have forcefully opposed the city’s proposal at every public meeting.
The Office of Planning and NCPC are expected to deliver their recommendations—either a joint proposal or two separate ones—to Congress sometime this fall. But Planning Director Harriet Tregoning has already indicated that she may scale back her office’s proposal in response to the public outcry. “I expect that there will be changes to it in response to the public comment,” she said at the D.C. Council hearing on the Height Act last week.
That wouldn’t be Tregoning’s first reversal in the face of loud opposition. In July, she abandoned her plan, as part of the rewrite of the city’s 1958 zoning code, to stop requiring developers to build a minimum number of parking spaces in new buildings near major transit lines because it was, she told me, “really wigging people out.”
Many of those people are the same ones opposing the Height Act changes. But this time, it would be a bigger mistake for Tregoning to give in to their demands.
That’s because on the key element of the city’s Height Act proposal—liberating most of the District from federal control over building heights—there simply isn’t any gray area. On parking minimums, Tregoning retreated to a middle ground between the existing rules and her proposed elimination of the minimums. But there isn’t a halfway point between home rule over building heights and federal control. Either we get to regulate it ourselves or we don’t.
In all the aesthetic debates over D.C. height limits, this crucial point has somehow gotten lost in the mix. There’s a full gradient of verticality that D.C. or Congress can adopt. But the question of freeing D.C.’s skyline from congressional control is binary.
And let’s be clear: In the best-case scenario, we’re still talking about a limited form of home rule. Even if Tregoning’s proposal sticks and gets adopted by Congress, any increases in building height limits have to be approved by D.C.’s Zoning Commission, two of whose five members are appointed by the federal government.
Changes to D.C.’s zoning don’t happen quickly. It’s taken 55 years for the city to propose a comprehensive update to the zoning code, which is now before the Zoning Commission. Should the city be granted autonomy over its building heights, it would essentially have to restart the process, so it could be years before we start seeing any taller buildings in the so-called autonomous part of the city. Even then, don’t expect radical changes; D.C.’s zoning and preservation authorities tend to be pretty conservative. And of course the same people who are objecting to the Height Act changes would surely be objecting to additional height in their neighborhoods—but then they’d actually have a voice in determining their neighborhood skyline, unlike now.
Which is why the case against Height Act home rule is so cynical. By saying that the 1910 law should remain in effect, critics are essentially arguing that the likes of then-House Speaker Joseph G. Gannon of Illinois and Senate President Pro Tempore William P. Frye of Maine (the “majority leader” position had not yet been established) were acting more in D.C.’s interest than the elected local leaders of today.
The clash between the NCPC and Office of Planning over the issue of home rule versus federal interests has existed throughout the Height Act study process. In an April email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Office of Planning Chief of Staff Tanya Stern objected to the NCPC’s approach of soliciting opinions of the Height Act from people around the country.
“The District’s interests in height is [sic] a home rule issue,” Stern wrote to several NCPC officials. “NCPC can run a national campaign on your own if you choose, but we will insist on a statement that articulates our opposition and reasoning.”
If the NCPC feels its duty is to represent the national interest, and that national interest requires congressional control over how tall buildings can be in Friendship Heights and Congress Heights, well, that’s its prerogative. But D.C.’s leaders should stick to their guns and do all they can to bring home rule to as much of the District’s skyline as they’re able. If they don’t, it could be another 103 years before we have a chance to correct our mistake.
Photo and rendering via the Office of Planning