We’re Close to a Height Act Compromise
The two proposals for modifications of the Height Act don't appear to have much in common. The Office of Planning proposal would raise height limits within the historic L'Enfant City and free D.C. from congressional control over building heights outside of it. The National Capital Planning Commission proposal would retain the Height Act's 1910 limits citywide, while allowing a small window for potential future changes outside the L'Enfant City.
And yet, as conversations this afternoon with D.C. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning and NCPC planner Will Herbig helped me appreciate, when it comes to the practical differences between the two sets of recommendations on building heights in most of the city, there aren't any.
This is not obvious from reading the two proposals, due to the vast difference in emphasis. The Office of Planning proposal scraps the Height Act for all but the L'Enfant City, roughly the area south of Florida Avenue and west of the Anacostia River; the NCPC proposal keeps it intact there.
But under both proposals, any actual changes to height limits would come through the Comprehensive Plan process. If the Office of Planning proposal becomes law, there will be no federal height limits in Petworth or Tenleytown or Hillcrest, but if the city wants to allow actual taller buildings, it'll make that change through zoning and a new Comprehensive Plan—which needs to be approved by the NCPC and not rejected within 30 days by Congress. If the NCPC has its way, the height limits won't change anywhere in D.C., but outside the L'Enfant City, the District can study and adopt changes to those height limits—provided they're approved by the NCPC and not rejected within 30 days by Congress.
There's surely some face-saving coming from both sides in using such different language to describe what, in effect, is the same proposal. But it does mean that, following vast differences between the two positions prior to the latest NCPC recommendations, we may be looking at something resembling a final compromise that could lead to a single, joint report to Congress.
Of course, there's still a major conflict between the two proposals: what happens inside the L'Enfant City. The Office of Planning proposed changing the formula so building heights would be limited to no more than 1.25 times the width of the adjacent street—slightly higher in some places than what's currently allowed. The NCPC rejects that approach and wants to keep the limits where they are (generally, the width of the street plus 20 feet, with a hard cap at 90 feet on residential streets and 130 feet on most commercial ones). This is not a negligible difference, given the demand for new construction and taller buildings downtown.
The NCPC will vote on the final recommendations tomorrow, following public testimony and debate. It's sure to be lively; nearly 40 witnesses have signed up to testify. If the NCPC votes to adopt the recommendations and send them to Congress, Tregoning says the Office of Planning will act immediately, in consultation with Mayor Vince Gray, to sign onto those recommendations or submit a different set to Congress.
Rendering from the Office of Planning's report