Housing Complex

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

  • Ralph

    Now that Tregoning has officially put herself in Mendo's sights, let's hope that the council pressures her to resign ... or defunds the rogue Office of Planning. Go Phil!

  • Kevin

    "Go Phil"??? He's trying to talk Congress out of giving DC autonomy it should already have?

    Are you nuts? Screw Phil. Vote him out ASAP.

  • George

    Home Rule is not going running to Congress for favors for developers after the Council and the citizenry have said "don't change the Height Act." Beware of Greeks -- or rich Orange County GOP Congressmen -- bearing gifts.

  • DC Guy

    Go Phil? Are you kidding? This is an affront to all who have been advocating for self-rule and autonomy. It is disgusting to have this person as our legislative leader.

  • gimbels lover

    Autonomy is oppression. Growth is poverty. Freedom is slavery. Mendo '14!!

  • Barney Rubble

    Phil's logic was cemented BEFORE Harriett and the Mayor decided to go ahead with their recommendation. It is absurd to make the claim that a city planner who anticipates growth is acting against the city's interests. She is acting against Phil's anti-growth friends in Ward 3, and he knows that future councils will not be very friendly to this group, hence his call for no home rule.


  • tntdc

    The Big Lie.

    The rule change would be made by the Office of Planning , which is run by the developers, against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of citizens.

    That's not home rule that's dictatorship by the rich.

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  • DC Guy

    I don't think that is accurate. I believe the areas under consideration would be jointly developed by DC Office of Planning and NCPC, with both Congressional and Council approval. So no, the DC OP wouldn't be able to change the rules unilaterally, nor would it approve them.

  • TM

    This is the email I sent to Mendelson, he replied by just copying and pasting his written testimony all over again:

    Chairman Mendelson,
    I am utterly shocked at the letter you submitted to the House Oversight committee. That you present the genuinely debated issue of building height as absolutely settled was alarming in and of itself. But that you argued that the citizens of DC can't even govern itself on matters of building height is absolutely shameful.

    I truly can't believe you've allowed your singular focus on this one issue blind you to the opportunity we have to claim our rightful autonomy. You would rather damn our future citizens with the dead hand of your particular policy preference than to trust them to decide on their own. That is essentially a fundamental rejection of the entire notion of self-governance. Hearing such a rejection come from the Chair of our Council is truly a punch in the gut.

    In one letter you have done more to undermine the cause of Home Rule than even an endless parade of indicted Councilmembers could.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AdamLDC Adam L

    I really don't get Mendelson's logic. He doesn't want the height act to change. Got it. He's entitled to that opinion. And under any proposal, as DC Guy has said, the ability to change height limits would be granted to the Council and NCPC for review by Congress. Those are some huge hurdles to clear and it's plain that any such actions would not come until after some very careful review processes. His right, about thing though: the ability of the District to have a tidbit of input into decisions concerning the Height Act cannot even been mildly referred to as a "Home Rule issue."

  • cminus

    Mendelson raises a valuable point -- citizens don't trust the government. For example, I don't trust Phil Mendelson any further than I can throw him, and I think we should abolish his office and give his powers to Congress. I'm sure he would agree!

  • E. Masquinongy

    Mendo's summary of how Ms. Tregoning has been driving this issue is spot-on. While I don't like him, he can be correct, if only occasionally.

    DCOP has been captured by developer interests.

    The *real* (but rejected) Home Rule deal was to appeal DC's gun control laws -- that were about to be overturned by the Supreme Court -- in exchange for Congressional Representation. Some people -- that's YOU, EHN -- don't recognize a good deal when it is offered...

    This little dust-up has nothing to do with Congressional Representation and/or Home Rule; it is all about lining developer pockets.

  • SEis4ME

    Gotta love the people who chomped at the bit to NOT have Orange as Chair..now cry over spilled milk. This is what you wanted so don't complain now.

    But he does make a reasonable point about how this issue has now morphed from an affordable housing one to home rule. I think we've seen enough evidence supporting the notion that not too few of the smart-sect's ideas are simply ruses for their own beautification plans.

    gotta keep the talking points consistent or it becomes all mucked up

  • JS

    E. Masquinongy - I'm genuinely curious to hear why you think DCOP has been captured by developer interests because of their advocacy in altering the height limit.

    Such a position strikes me as a necessary but insufficient condition in establishing that DCOP is now beholden to developer interests.

  • daOLeDC


    in da ole Dee Cee nobody ever talking about no necessary but insoofishent conditions. How you people TALK! Dat is Y even da folks who need new housing and more tax revenoos for Dee Cee a lot more than they need some views of monuments to dead slave holders, are gonna vote the same ways as those blue haired ladies in Ward 3.

    Mendo knows all that, and is voting accordingly.

  • E. Masquinongy

    JS: daOLeDC summed it up nicely.

    Taller buildings != lower rent --> EotR voters align with W3 preservationists.

    What would be sufficient proof that DCOP is strongly aligned with developers? Given its mission, I think a better question is how could DCOP NOT be aligned with developers?

  • Sally

    Excuuuse me. Isn't 'home rule' deferring (or at least listening) to the will of the DC Council not to change the Height Act? Issa wouldn't even hear testimony from Mendo, on behalf of the city's elected legislative body. As someone wrote earlier, home rule is certainly not a rogue planning director doing an end run around the city council to get something from Congress!

  • Sally

    "What would be sufficient proof that DCOP is strongly aligned with developers?"

    For one thing, the fact that Tregoning's husband works for a developer group. The second is that, ever since Tregoning came aboard, OP stopped being an objective broker and advisor to the zoning commission and became a cheerleading shill for the development lobby.

  • Ward1dude

    Very disappointed in Phil...another one of his loopy perspectives. I think OP btw is doing a good job under Tregoning.

  • DC

    Complaining about nefarious developers is the last refuge of a frustrated and intellectually bankrupt NIMBY mentality that believes the definition of due process is that the government has to do as they say or else.

    This new attack is the most preposterous and vacuous yet. Building height is primary governed by the zoning code. NO CHANGE TO THE ZONING CODE CAN BE MADE WITHOUT A CHANGE TO THE COMP PLAN AND AN ADOPTION BY THE ZONING COMMISSION! If the Height Act vanished tomorrow, this would still be true. Relying on the Height Act to smother any possibility of losing in these forum and then trying to make it out like you're forced to do this because Harriet is going to fucking build a 50 story building in the dead of night with her own fucking hands is comedic. Mendelson himself admits as much when he says that the only way he'd consider changing the Height Act is if we amend the comp plan first. In other words: only once I'm sure that the DC government adopts my way, I prefer to rely on the Height Act to keep things the way I want it. In other, other words: I don't trust DC to govern itself because I might not get my way. In other, other, other words: fuck you my constituents.

  • E. Masquinongy

    DC: who's complaining about developers? They are only trying to make a living.

    We are complaining about DCOP not doing its job.

  • Max Becker

    @Sally - please stop publishing slurs about peoples' husband and claiming things that aren't true. The group you refer to is not a developer group, their controlling board is rather a group of non-profit and foundation execs from across the country - http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/about/our-board/

  • Alf

    @Max Bicker

    Still doesn't change the fact that Tregoning is a putana (look up the word) for development interests.