Housing Complex

The D.C. Council Has Lost Its Mind on the Height Act

Phil Mendelson bids farewell to rationality.

Phil Mendelson bids farewell to rationality.

Presented with the opportunity to take a small degree of control over D.C.'s skyline from Congress, the D.C. Council this morning overwhelmingly offered the equivalent of "no, thanks."

Later today, the National Capital Planning Commission will vote on whether to approve and send to Congress a proposal to alter the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which caps the height to which D.C. buildings may rise. The NCPC's recommendations are modest: They keep the existing height limits in place, but allow future changes to the limits outside the historic L'Enfant City. Those changes would need to go through the Comprehensive Plan process, which means they'd need to be approved first by the D.C. Council, then by the NCPC, and finally by Congress.

But the Council apparently doesn't want any control over D.C.'s skyline. This morning, Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced a "sense of the Council" resolution opposing any changes to the Height Act. And every one of his colleagues but Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry signed on as a co-introducer.

This is, frankly, insane. Right now the D.C. Council has no power to increase height limits in the city. If the NCPC proposal (or the similar Office of Planning proposal) is approved by Congress, the Council will have a say. That doesn't mean there'll be taller buildings. The Council would have a complete veto over any proposals for additional height, as would the NCPC and Congress. It just means that the city's elected leaders would have a chance to weigh in on the city's verticality, rather than leaving that power exclusively in the hands of a federal body in which D.C. has no voting members.

"The Height Act of 1910 should not be amended or revised at this time," states the resolution, citing the city's horizontal skyline, the spread of development to new neighborhoods, and opposition to changes from members of the public who testified before the Council. The resolution continues, "Someday there may be need to revise the Height Act." It fails to note that the city will have no power to do so unless it is given that ability by a change to the law now, as the NCPC and Office of Planning have proposed.

Fortunately, Mendelson's resolution carries no actual weight, since the Council, for now, has no authority over the height limits. I suppose if the Council is going to pass irrational legislation, it might as well do so meaninglessly.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • DC Guy

    The Council has succumb to the NIMBY rhetoric, who now seems to want to cower at the teet of our Congressional overloards.

    This is truly disgusting. I hope all of the incumbents and challengers are taking note of what Phil and Company are doing here.

  • I just can’t

    These people have fought for home rule. Fought for budget autonomy. Fought for voting rights. Fought for fewer oversight. And finally our congressional overlords say yes and these 11 cowards say no?

    I don't even know where to start other than just sheer embarrassment.

  • spirit equality

    Bravo for this piece. If the residents of DC decide they want the height of our buildings limited, let US decide what that limit should be (if any), not Congress, where we have no vote at all.

  • SEis4ME

    Waymint!!!! Way Way Waymint!

    Does this mean Smart Growth/Progressive/Divide DC Extraordinaire Saint Tommy Wells has also lost his mind? How in the hell does that happen in a city where a fragment of the population liken him to the Pope?

    Can't wait to read the onslaught of stories from those blasting Wells for his mindless decision.


  • NE John

    Thought I never would say this: Thank you DC Council

  • noodlez




  • KeepDemMemesStraight

    Wells vote makes perfect sense (even aside from political expediency)

    Hes a blonde dixiecrat, remember? keeping heights low spreads development around the city - the same kind of development that is no "transforming" petworth and trinidad and Brookland and Kingman Park.

    PG county has plenty of room for those who are priced out.

  • Good

    We will finally drive the criminal classes out of Anacostia and Edgewood and Carver Langston, since we won't stockpile all the yuppies in the "hot" neighborhoods. bring it ON!

  • Alf

    So let's make sure I understand this correctly:

    Until, like today, the scrap the height act proponents were claiming that this is a home rule issue.

    Today, the DC Council overwhelmingly sides with not changing the height act.

    And now the anti-height act partisans are urging Congress to ignore the DC Council and change the height act.

  • Itsallbackwards


    The change in the height act would not actually allow any taller buildings - it would only give the zoning commision, rather than the Congress, say. It would ADD to homerule. Council is turning away home rule. Is it their home rule right to turn away home rule? I guess. MAybe congress should not ignore it. But its proper to point out the illogic of what the council did.

  • Chris hauser

    Poor old poplar point.

    Change in height would
    reduce values of the entrenched interests.....

    Perhaps a haiku is in order.

    Much too small not tall
    Spread out the financial rout
    Nay nay won't happen

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  • ceefer

    Through the entire length of the height argument, I have never seen a single logical argument from the Height Limit supporters.

    Silly, sentimental nonsense like "it's what makes DC special" and "we can see the sky" is the best they can come up with.

    It basically comes down to this:

    I don't like tall buildings and I think most people agree with me that they are ugly and will ruin DC. If I am wrong about the second part, I don't care.

    And this:

    Besides, who needs the extra people/business activity/tax revenue/vitality? We have enough as it is. And if I'm wrong about that, I don't give damn.

    Meanwhile, they're building skyscrapers in Rosslyn, extending Metro to Tysons (which is already the region's major shopping district), and putting up 20, 30, and even 40-story commercial and residential buildings in what was once considered a glorified office park.

    Enjoy your Height Limit - and everything that will eventually come with it.

  • E. Masquinongy

    ceefer: you are correct, the objections to height are based on aesthetics. But as we all learned in grade school, looks count.

  • SEis4ME

    @ceefer...true but "character" should never be discounted in such discussions.

    Further, I have never seen a single, logical argument from the height limit opponents that demonstrates how building taller now translates into "affordable housing" later.

    In fact, much of the discussion about streetcars is more about aesthetics than a serious "need" the city has. So there's rarely a 1+1=2 in these equations...

  • ceefer


    It's not just affordable housing. It's the opportunity to significantly increase the city's tax base with by adding more space and more people. It's the opportunity to maximize the benefits of density. It's the opportunity to benefit the city by allowing more people to live and work in it.

    The Affordable housing argument is only one aspect. And cost of the Height Limit is more than just lost opportunities. I saw a rather intelligent comment in GGW where the writer pointed out that the higher office rents and hotel room rates caused by the Height Limit add significantly to Federal government costs - OUR money, which could be put to better use.

    As I've said, earlier, Height Limit supporters have yet to present a rational argument in favor of keeping what is actually a 100-year-old ridiculously draconian and archaic law.

    And the aesthetics argument is ridiculous and hyperbolic to the point of insulting the intelligence. No one is proposing skyscrapers anywhere in DC. We're not trying to turn Constitution Ave. along the Mall into Central Park West.

    As for the "views', unless you're standing in front of it, the White is visible only from 16th Street - and only for a few blocks. And where can your see the Capitol, except for Pennsylvania Ave. East Capitol St. and North Capitol St. You can't even see it from Nationals Stadium less than half a mile away. And even if they built 30-story condos along both sides of the Mall (unlikely, given the presence of the museums), you would still have an unobstructed view of the Washington Monument, the Reflecting Pool, and the Lincoln Memorial from the Capitol steps.

    It's good thing there was no Height Limit and view frenzy when they were building the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Old Post Office, and the National Cathedral. Otherwise, we wouldn't have them.

  • jno

    I completely agree with you ceefer, for whatever reason the "height limit" is a sacred cow that is lumped together with conspiracy theories about the manhattanization of the Capitol. Apparently these people are afficionados of soul crushingly bland boxy architecture too.

  • SEis4ME

    The affordable housing component seems more like a pipe dream than a real thing that will happen. However, allowing taller buildings only increases the opportunities that DC's rental/housing market will continue to be out of reach for many of its residents. Do we actually have a "negligible tax base" problem? Is the city struggling to meet any of its demands because there aren't enough people moving here?

    And how much (in dollars) does the city stand to benefit from allowing taller buildings?

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