Housing Complex

NCPC Votes to Send Watered-Down Height Act Recommendation to Congress


The view down 16th Street NW (left), and a rendering with buildings as high as 200 feet in select locations (right).

Just two days after releasing revised recommendations for changes to the Height Act that would have opened the window to future changes to D.C.'s building height limits, the National Capital Planning Commission voted to strip the proposal of its only meaningful alteration to the 1910 law and send a watered-down recommendation to Congress.

Commissioner Peter May, representing the National Park Service, spoke up as soon as the presentation of the proposed NCPC recommendations concluded and introduced an amendment to cut out the provision to allow the city to study and propose future changes to the cap on building heights in select areas, which would then have to be approved by both the NCPC and Congress. Several hours of public testimony later, a majority of May's colleagues voted in favor of his amendment, replacing the key provision with vaguer language: "There may be some opportunities for strategic change in the areas outside of the L’Enfant City where there is less concentration of federal interests."

The resolution does not specify how that change would take place. Currently, the Height Act can only be changed by an act of Congress.

The recommendations the NCPC will send to Congress would leave the Height Act almost entirely intact. The only proposed changes are a small alteration to the allowed occupancy of penthouses and the removal of some obsolete language relating to fire safety.

Voting in support of May's amendment was NCPC member and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson—a paradoxical move, given that the language May stripped out would have given the Council some say over height limits, which it does not currently have. Earlier in the day, Mendelson introduced a symbolic Council resolution opposing any changes to the Height Act, and all but one of his colleagues signed on as co-introducers.

It now remains to be seen whether the D.C. Office of Planning—tasked by Congress with conducting a joint study of the Height Act with the NCPC—will issue a separate set of recommendations that continue to press for a degree of home rule over building heights, or simply acquiesce to the NCPC's decision not to change the law meaningfully.

Photo and rendering via the Office of Planning

  • E. Masquinongy

    This issue is dead. Time to move on.

  • laura richards

    NCPC's action reflected (1) the conclusion of its professional staff that no persuasive economic case had been made to allow increased heights and (2) the majority view of District residents from all sectors of the city.

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  • AWalkerInTheCity

    "This issue is dead."

    Yes, for this go round.

    Let's wait for the next mayor to come into office in 2015. They can direct OP to do a more nuanced build out analysis. And by then the office market my have begun to recover, and residential construction will certainly be farther along moving to DC closer to buildout (whenever that comes).

  • SEis4ME

    Really? And whom might that be? Didn't the entire council (barry excluded) vote opposing any changes?

    If Gray runs, he will win. But even if he doesn't, I don't see how a mayor will affect what the council chooses to do.

  • Corky

    Thank goodness, someone had sense enough to shoot down this stupid idea. DC is NOT Manhattan. Will someone please let Ms. Tregoning know that thriver running by this city is the Potomac, not the Hudson. DC is a federal capital and should remain unique. Just because some developers have obviously lined the pockets of a few politicians is no reason to destroy the unique architecture and vistas of DC.

  • AWalkerInTheCity


    Well whomever they are, they will be able to direct a better, more detailed, buildout analysis, which may make a stronger economic case than the one OP did. Also its possible some CMs voted against because they didnt trust either current OP, or the OP of a new mayor they might oppose. Once a new mayor is actually in place, the political configuration will change.

    And perhaps more important, the physical reality of the city will change. Right now people point to abundant development opportunities in NoMa and Navy Yard, but both will see further ground breakings, and fewer remaining potential development sites, in the next 15 months. People also point to space at metro stations EOTR, but at least Congress Heights should be further along toward development by then.

    It may well be that the next mayor will not see revisiting the height act discussion as the top priority. They will have much else on their plate. But they could come back to it in the middle of their term - say in 2017. By that point many other locations will be further along towards build out. Its also likely that by that point the office market will have recovered, and the vacant space in Crystal City and Rosslyn will be less available.

  • SEis4ME

    AWITC, I'm just not too sure about that. While I don't know the ins and outs of creating a proper buildout analysis, I was always under the assumption that Harriet Tregoning was a forward-thinking champion of these sorts of issues. Will a new mayor make her more effective? Just don't know. I don't see how the political configuration will change is the members are essentially the same since DC Council is an entity separate and apart from the Mayor's office.

    I do agree that at some point the physical reality of the city will change and things might be different by 2017. those things will occur regardless of who sits in the Mayor's office...and hopefully we retain the person who has been an effective manager of city affairs..VGray

  • E. Masquinongy

    Mr "Walker in the City":

    Thanks for your thoughts. Perhaps you could move to DC and actually vote on this issue...

  • AWalkerInTheCity


    "While I don't know the ins and outs of creating a proper buildout analysis," The analysis OP did excluded areas considered low density under the Comp Plan, even though some such places are not built out under current zoning. It was criticized for that.

    EM -Maybe someday. It would help if the prices in DC were not so high though. Meanwhile you can get my thoughts for free.

  • Lance

    AWalker, From your assertion that a new mayor could make a difference, I’m left wondering if you realize that since this is a Congressional action, the mayor (any mayor) can’t just initiate “revisiting the height act discussion”. It takes a Congressman to initiate this action, at least formally. Yes, it’s likely that Tregoning approached Congressman Issa to get the current review undertaken, but it’s not like there’s always an opportunity out there to convince a Congressmen that there may be a pressing need to change our iconic skyline. And it’ll be even harder to do so again anytime soon given the issue’s current resolution. No, I’d bet we’re good for another generation (20 yrs?) before we have to again defend the specialness and livable human scale of this city.

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    I don't think this hurt Issa, so I don't think it will deter future congressmen (perhaps even Issa himself) from taking it up again.

    And of course OP can do a new buildout analysis whenever they choose - such an analysis is not only of use WRT to the height act, but could better inform policy on a host of actions to address the amount of development that can be built.

    I will not address your rhetoric on the substance of the issue. I have attempted here to discuss the politics only, as the substance has been discussed more than enough, and the subject is closed for now, as Emas suggested.

  • 7r3y3r

    @E. Masquinongy - even if AWITC moved to DC, he couldn't vote on this issue. Because the issue is controlled by Congress, in which we have no voting representation. So he's better off than you and I sitting here in DC arguing about something we have less control over than he. At the very least, Mendelsohn should have proposed a local version of the Height Act and then voted to remove an instance of federal control over our city. If a majority of DC residents want to keep the height limit, so be it, but let's have it under our control.

  • SEis4ME

    AWITC, thanks. I was just trying to reconcile what you implied about the "new mayor = better/more planning" thing.

  • Lance

    @AWalker, Agreed that this issue hasn't hurt Issa, but my point was that no one in Congress is going to want to waste their time with it again in the foreseable future given how strong the political opposition to making a change was. As for Issa, it's not like his constituents care one way or the other. He likely was doing this for Tregoning, who really represented the only faction wanting change, the so-called 'smart growthers'.

  • Eric

    -10 for city autonomy. Shameful.

  • Alberto Sanchez

    To whom it may concern,
    I would have loved to be able to voice my opinion regarding the height act today. However I was unable due to having to tend to my mother. Unfortunately she is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and thus requires as much care as possible. NCPC has acted closed mindedly and against the best interests of our city. First of I would like to clear up that neither the proposals modeled by the study, or DCOPs recommendation will turn Washington DC into New York or Chicago. All these proposals keep buiding heights below 200ft. Yet New York has 221 buildings over 500ft, 97 of which are over 600ft. It is very important remember that the Capitol is 288ft and the Washington monument (555ft). All the Districts Office of Planning is proposing is adding 2-3 stories in the L’Enfant city. So hopefully you can agree that the approval of this proposal will not turn us into New York, or make it so that a building towers over the Washington monument, or make it so the capitol disappears from the skyline. All this proposal will do is help facilitate this cities’ growth.
    In regard to outside the L’Enfant city, taller buildings should be able to exist in areas if it is in the desires of that area. For example if through our zooning processes friendship whished to the match the Maryland side heights they should be able to do so. It make no sense why Chevy Chase can have buildings shorter than 13 stories as well as buildings ranging from 13-24 stories, yet it is illegal to do so just footsteps away in the dc side. What bothers me the most about the current height act is that it puts restrictions on the heights of habitable buildings but not structures. This is a problem because it has led to the construction of radio towers in the district that exceed 400 ft. For example there is one in Friendship heights on Wisconsin Ave, and a couple in Tenleytown. There are even two radio towers in district that are taller than the Washington monument. The Hughes Memorial Tower is a radio tower located in Washington, D.C. at 6001 Georgia Avenue. Standing at 761 ft. tall, the tower's height surpasses that the Washington Monument by more than 200 ft. (61 m) and the WTTG Television Tower by 55 ft (17 m). So what boggles me, how is it ok to be able to build these monstrosities but not 15-30 story buildings in the parts of Washington outside the Lefant city. I have sent NCPC my recommendations, and hopefully it is not too late for them to amend their mistake.
    Lastly, I would like to thank and congratulate everyone that has been involved in this study.
    Alberto Sanchez Jr.

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  • Mike

    @Alberto Sanchez, Your comment is already in the NCPC record, and was included in their tabulation of submitted comments:

    488 individual residents testified or submitted comments:
    122 supported changes in the Height Act
    366 against any changes in the Height Act

    29 civic associations testified or submitted comments:
    2 supported changes in the Height Act
    27 against any changes in the Height Act

    23 issue and advocacy groups testified or submitted comments:
    2 supported changes in the Height Act
    21 against any changes in the Height Act

    4 development and business groups, while not advocating “formal” positions, supported exploring Height Act changes.

    In addition, we have seen the recent action opposing any changes in the Height Act by 12 of the 13 DC Councilmembers.
    122 supported changes in the Height Act
    366 against any changes in the Height Act

  • peter perenyi

    Based on the last posting, it looks like the same old story. The general public - the people who live in the place - have one view, pushy monied special interests - in this case realtors and developers, have another. Sometimes it's actually in the general interest to help special interests. But when these interests can't be reconciled the broader public ought to win every damn time. Unfortunately that doesn't happen. Lobbies, including in DC, pour money into the political system to put their thumb on the scale and keep bad ideas alive.That's why political reform consists in breaking lobby money power at every level of government.

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