Mendelson Explains Opposition to Height Act Autonomy: “Citizens Don’t Trust the Government”
In a wide-ranging discussion of potential changes to the Height Act this morning, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had plenty of criticism to dispense, with targets ranging from "butt-ugly" 1960s architecture to the annoying air-conditioning unit on his roof that prevents him from peacefully enjoying views of the city's skyline. But he saved his biggest dose of incredulity for the D.C. Council and its chairman, Phil Mendelson.
"I heard, to my astonishment, for the first time ever, a rejection of home rule," said Issa, who had asked the city and the National Capital Planning Commission to recommend chances to the 1910 law governing D.C. building heights. "I did not expect people to say, 'Please don't give me authority, I can't be trusted.'"
Issa was referring to two things. The first was a symbolic Council resolution introduced by Mendelson last month in opposition to a proposal from the Office of Planning and Mayor Vince Gray to give D.C. greater autonomy over its height limits. The second was a letter Mendelson subsequently sent to Issa (reprinted below) in which he said he was "shocked to learn through the media" of the city's Height Act proposal, which is "almost universally opposed by citizens throughout the District."
So why is Mendelson so adamantly opposed to a proposal that would essentially take a small amount of power away from Congress and hand it to the D.C. Council? The reason, he says, is that the city government hasn't proven that it can be trusted with autonomy over its building heights.
"Citizens don't trust the government," Mendelson says. "As I wrote to Congressman Issa a week ago, the way the Office of Planning has handled this underscores this sense of distrust."
In his letter, Mendelson lamented that the mayor and the Office of Planning had submitted recommendations to Congress that ran counter to the majority of public testimony on the Height Act—testimony that came largely from the same group of people at Council and NCPC hearings. "It is a core value of our local government that when we disagree with each other we do not go to Congress to get our way," he wrote. "Yet in essence that is what our Executive has done."
There's no small degree of irony in the fact that Mendelson is complaining about skirting the local government in favor of congressional decision-making, when the position he supports is explicitly about allowing Congress, and not the local government, to rule on D.C. building heights. But Mendelson says the Height Act is simply "not a home rule issue."
"As a matter of priority, what’s more important with home rule is voting representation in the House and in the Senate, and being able to control our own budget," he says. "In the last 20, 30, 40 years, nobody’s talked about, 'We need to amend the Height Act as part of our home rule strategy.' This is an issue that the Office of Planning has made, and I think the Office of Planning has been disingenuous about it. They spent a year talking about how we need to raise the height limits to expand affordable housing, to expand our tax base, I mean, name some issue, architectural diversity. It’s only in the last month that they’ve talked about it being a home rule issue."
Mendelson also argues that D.C. shouldn't be given any more control over building heights until it comes up with a Comprehensive Plan that assesses what heights are needed and where. "If the Office of Planning were to do the planning first, this might be a better conversation," he says. "But to say, 'Just give us the authority, make it easier for us, but we don’t know where and we don’t know how much and we don’t know why'—without the planning preceding, this becomes more objectionable."
But if the city waits to get permission to make height-limit decisions until after it's worked out a detailed plan, it might be too late. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning emphasized at today's hearing that it was important to change the Height Act before Issa ceases to be chairman of the committee with oversight of the District in January 2015. Otherwise, it could be decades before another chairman takes an interest in this issue and restarts the conversation.
Mendelson remained studiously neutral in the Council hearing on the Height Act last month. But now that he's made his opinion so forcefully known, it's clear that he and Tregoning have emerged as something of nemeses on planning and zoning issues. That's not terribly surprising, given that Mendelson has a history of anti-development leanings, particularly in Ward 3, home to the bulk of the opponents to Tregoning's proposals on the Height Act and the zoning code. Tregoning, echoing Issa's bafflement at Mendelson's position, said at this morning's congressional hearing that she was "confused and appalled" by Mendelson's opposition to greater local autonomy on building heights.
Here is Mendelson's letter to Issa:
Photo by Darrow Montgomery