Housing Complex

D.C., NCPC Considered Pilot Program for Taller Buildings on K Street

K Street as it is today (left) and as it would be with 160-foot buildings.

K Street as it is today (left) and as it would be with 160-foot buildings.

A congressional committee will gather this morning to debate the future of D.C.'s skyline. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has been presented with two recommendations for revising the 1910 Height Act: one from the National Capital Planning Commission that would leave the law largely intact, and one from the D.C. Office of Planning that would allow slightly taller buildings in the historic L'Enfant City and free the District from federal control over building heights elsewhere.

One proposal they won't be considering is a pilot program to bring taller buildings to K Street NW. But the NCPC and Office of Planning did. The two agencies tasked by Congress with providing recommendations for changes to the Height Act discussed—and ultimately rejected—a plan to raise building heights on K Street as a testing ground for other parts of downtown.

Why K Street? As part of the NCPC's report to Congress, the agency looked at the streets within the L'Enfant City whose height limits would be increased under the Office of Planning's proposed "ratio approach" (where a building could grow up to 1.25 times the width of the adjacent street), then removed any corridors that aren't designated for medium- and high-density growth, have important viewsheds of the monumental core, or are considered to be substantially in the federal interest. Here's what remained:

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 10.46.07 AM

In other words, a couple of slivers, a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, and the majority of K Street NW. K Street, the NCPC noted, is an exception to the rule, both because of its unusual 147.67-foot width and because it's the lone commercial street (as opposed to "civic avenue") in the L'Enfant City whose current height limit makes it wider than its buildings are tall.

Planning Director Harriet Tregoning confirms that the K Street pilot program was under consideration. While it might differ in spirit from what the Office of Planning ultimately proposed for the L'Enfant City, in practice, she says, "it was a significant amount of what we would have gotten with our proposal."

Allowing taller buildings on one street wouldn't have had much effect on the city's rising housing and office costs, which Tregoning and others hoped could be addressed by creating additional supply. But K Street does make sense as a starting point. One of the principal arguments against allowing taller buildings in the city is made on aesthetic grounds, that the city's charm comes from its low skyline. But it's hard to argue that K Street is charming. For most of its length, it's a double-wall of unremarkable buildings of near-uniform height.

It's also where much of the demand is. While critics of changes to the Height Act claim that height limits downtown encourage new development in other parts of the city, the fact is that people want to work downtown—because it's where all the Metro lines converge, because it's where all the lunch spots are concentrated, and because most people they'll be meeting during the day also work downtown. And so allowing 15-story buildings on K Street would actually result in 15-story buildings on K Street, whereas allowing 15-story buildings in Anacostia wouldn't change the fact that developers haven't found it possible or practical yet to build even six stories there.

This is now merely one item that was left on the cutting room floor. But if Congress grants nothing more than minimal changes to the Height Act, as the NCPC has requested, then perhaps the next sympathetic Congress, some indeterminate number of decades down the road, will consider proposals such as this one.

Images from the NCPC report

  • name

    Agreed that changing the height to 1.25 on K street doesn't really screw up K St more than it already is.

    But now you have one block of DC that's higher than all the other blocks and that does start to put pressure on the view of the city.

    More importantly, once you allow K St. to be higher all the same developers that are fighting for higher limits, and the media folks who are subsidized by them, come back around asking for higher limits in more places. It's not like the beast gets fed and goes away.

  • tntdc

    Tearing down 12-story buildings to replace them with 15-story ones is the most environmentally destructive plan possible.

    Hopefully the environmentalists will prevail over developer greed.

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    tnt

    1. Some 12 story buildings will be torn down and rebuilt anyway - but at the same height - the demand for NEW space is that strong.

    2. You could tax such rebuilds, and use that money to buy carbon credits, to fund public transit, or even to buy easements in rural areas to preserve green space and trees.

    the claim that the height limit is for the sake of the environment is mostly a red herring.

    name

    that pressure will only arise it the program actually works, and makes K street more attractive.

  • http://westnorth.com PCC

    Additional development along several of those streets could also, if structured correctly, generate substantial value to expedite improvements like the K Street Transitway or new transfer walkways at L'Enfant Plaza station.

    @tntdc: Since residential uses are lighter than office uses (-20% live floor load), an office-to-residential/hotel conversion can stack more floors atop the same foundation & structure, without demolition, similar to how Foundry Lofts at The Yards grew 50% taller. Even offices are lighter-weight now, as heavy file rooms disappear.

    @name: there are already numerous exemptions written into the Height Act, doled out as Congressional favors over the years to entities like the Press Club and the Freemasons. That "slippery slope" began decades ago.

  • noodlez

    I NEVER AGREE WITH THE COMMENTER WHO POSTED COMMENT #1 BUT THE USED ASSWIPE’S OBSERVATION IS NOT ONLY ON POINT BUT MAKES THE ARGUMENT ABOUT HEIGHT CREEP EVEN MORE COMPELLING!

    ALSO TNT MAKES THE GREATER POINT ABOUT THE JOB CREATING SHAMOCKERY AND MONEY GRAB OF TEARING DOWN TO REBUILD!

    @WALK-LOVE THE WAY YOU FRAMED "GREED"!
    FOLK AND THEIR ABILITY TO FLIP WORDS TO MAKE THEIR POSITION SEEM MORE PALATABLE ARE NOTHING BUT FOLK TONGUED FOOLS QUESTING FOR WEAK MINDED INDIVIDUALS TO LINE UP BEHIND THEM.

    WHO IS THE BIGGER FOOL THE FOOL OR THE FOOLISH FOLK THAT FOLLOW THE FOOL? SLIM GO TAKE THAT TIRED ASS BULLSHIT SOMEWHERE ELSE!! I HEARD NORTHERN VIRGINIA IS SEEKING RELEVANCE.

    NO TO INCREASED BUILDING HEIGHT ANYWHERE IN THE CITY!
    LET ALONE THE BASTION OF GREED IN THIS CITY WHICH IS K ST NW.

  • mne

    Aaron, stop with this line of inquiry. -thanks noodlez

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