Housing Complex

What the Height Act Poll Didn’t Ask


Washington Post poll released last night shows that 61 percent of D.C. residents oppose changing the Height Act to allow taller buildings, to just 37 percent who support such a change. That should send a strong signal to Congress and Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who requested a study of potential changes to the law, as they weigh competing proposals from the District and a federal agency on what to do with the 1910 law limiting allowable building heights in the city.

Except that the Post didn't really poll what Congress is considering. Because the principal question before Congress isn't really how tall the city's buildings should be, but who should be allowed to make that decision.

If instead, the poll had been worded, "Do you support giving control over D.C. building heights, which currently resides with Congress, to the District's elected leaders?" I suspect the responses would have been different. Of course, I can't be sure, since that's not the question that was asked. But it's clearly the main question that was on Issa's mind in a hearing last month on the matter, at which he expressed incredulity that 12 of the 13 members of the D.C. Council, including its chairman, voted symbolically not to support changes that would hand some control over D.C. building heights from Congress to the Council itself.

Yes, one of the two proposals before Congress, from the D.C. Office of Planning, recommends not only giving D.C. more control over building heights in most of the city, but also changing the formula to allow slightly taller buildings in the historic L'Enfant City around downtown. And yes, both that proposal and the competing one from the National Capital Planning Commission, which recommends no major changes to the Height Act, endorse allowing human occupancy of mechanical penthouses. But the biggest question now is one of control: Should a law passed by Congress 104 years ago continue to govern D.C.'s skyline, or should the city itself be empowered to help make those decisions?

The Post didn't ask that question. But the cross-tabs of the question it did ask are revealing nonetheless. While the majority of every subgroup polled opposed allowing taller buildings, some groups were more sympathetic than others. People making less than $50,000 a year were more open to Height Act changes than those making more than $50,000, and residents of wards 7 and 8 viewed Height Act changes more favorably than those of the other six wards. That implies that the city's message of affordability has resonated to some degree—that those most in need of affordable housing appreciate the potential mitigating effects that an increased supply could have on D.C.'s runaway housing costs.

Will some members of Congress who are already skeptical of changes to the Height Act seize on this poll to argue that the people of D.C. want the current law maintained? Probably. But in a matter that's as much about home rule as it is about building heights, that would be the wrong conclusion to draw.

Photo and rendering of taller buildings from the Office of Planning

  • SEis4ME

    I believe those people EOTR who seem to believe that increased supply "could" mitigate housing costs are likely those who believe electing Democrats will eventually get them to the promise land of milk and honey.

  • Corky

    I'm convinced the the Citypaper writers and Tea Partiers hav emuch in common in that they both simply refuse to accept facts that they disagree with. First, you disregard a poll that shows Mayor Gray in the lead and now you think the poll that goes against some newcomer hipster's vision for DC must be flawed. Why is it so hard to accept that people actually like the unique nature of DC's lower buildings? If you want tall buildings, move to Philadelphia. Washingtonians know that this height change proposal is just nonsense from a few outside developers who have probably paid off a few politicians and regulatory officials. They couldn't care less about the historical significance of Washington. The Council voted against these changes because they know that DC is historically unique and that allowing taller buildings would destroy the character of the city.

  • drez

    The left side of the photo is prettier. The right side just looks... gray. Like it's in... shadow.
    Which I think really gets to the question of "who should decide"?

  • E. Masquinongy

    People are opposed to changing the height law because they do not trust local control to be immune from moneyed and/or corrupt influences of developers. Also they understand that ups and downs of the markets -- that we are in a huge up, that will soon crash. And the smart growth commentariate has trouble accepting 'no'.

    This is really really really really getting boring. Please move on.

  • tom

    It would be interest to ask people if they think DC should aspire to be a major world city, on the scale of Paris?

    There is clearly not suport for tall buildings, but I doubt there is the support for dense redevelopment of our currently low/mid density SFH/row house residential neighborhoods either.

  • Luis Alberto Sanchez Cordero

    The District like any other cities (London, Berlin, Brussels Madrid) deserves the right to be in control of its own issues.

  • Dean Martin

    Homerule! No taxation without representation.

  • Bob See

    "newcomer hipster's vision for DC "
    Right on cue and rote as hell.

    "The right side just looks..."
    like a simple massing study.

    "People are opposed to changing the height law because they do not trust local control to be immune from moneyed and/or corrupt influences of developers."
    Height is already limited by zoning and f.a.r. irrespective of the height act.

  • Tom M

    @ Bob See - And each and every development is limited and totally compliant with existing zoning. Right?

  • Bob See

    Tom M, BZA allows developments to be non-conforming when presented with a good case, but more often than not developments are stunted by NIMBYs.

  • NE John

    My crunch of the data reveals that the lower IQ and less experienced individuals favor height restriction easement.

  • E. Masquinongy

    "Height is already limited by zoning and f.a.r. irrespective of the height act."

    This is the nose of the camel under the tent. Of course, as soon as the Federal Height Act is loosened, zoning will follow. Otherwise, why else are we doing this?

    Mr Weiner: your entire post is to dismiss the political sophistication of the voters that disapprove changing the law. But to the contrary, most voters have a very good grasp of this issue. Certainly the member of the DC City Council understand it, and they voted similarly.

  • drez

    Zoning can be rewritten. Development zones can be created. PUDs can be built.
    Saying that our local zoning laws are protection enough in the event the Height Act is repealed is, at the end of the day, akin to arguing that the Height Act should not be repealed at all.

  • Bob See

    "This is the nose of the camel under the tent. Of course, as soon as the Federal Height Act is loosened, zoning will follow. Otherwise, why else are we doing this?"
    The Height Act is a blunt city-wide hammer while zoning is nuanced.

  • drez

    Bob- Maybe someday. At this point in time, with fresh stories of tax officials embezzling $50 million, with 3 city councilmembers, including the Council Chair, pleading to bank fraud and graft and bribery, with the Mayor the subject of a federal probe into election fraud and multiple guilty pleas in that, with locals recalling crony appointments and jobs, union bosses stealing, and inspectors demanding payoffs, it's just not going to happen.
    Fact is, DC citizens who have been around for more than a minute- those who've invested their lives and families here despite the flaws- know bette than to trust our local government with this.
    Sorry. I hate to say it. This opinion isn't one I'm proud of, but it is hard-earned.

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


    Yet we let these people control $6 billion in our tax money, make decisions about police and schools, determine transportation policy and criminal penalties, yet we draw the line on this one issue?

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  • drez

    It's a matter of narrow local interests having an outsized influence (money) in local matters.
    Also, the majority of DC residents do not want the height act repealed, rightly see the administration as wanting to do just that, and don't trust them with the power to go against local wishes.
    Sorry. It really is a trust issue.
    (as one long time resident to another).

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


    I hear you. But it seems like the two things are contradictory -- special interests have outsized influence one hand, but then the DC Council voiced the will of the people on the other. So which is it?

    The only way that argument works is to say *if the Council where given the power* to change the Height Act that they would *then* be more susceptible to special interests than they are now... but I don't buy it.

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  • Skeptic

    The proposal wasn't to give DC control over heights. It was, first, for Congress to raise allowable heights downtown (over the objections of a supermajority of the DC Council) and then to give DC the power to create exceptions to the Height Act elsewhere in the District. The process for creating such exceptions wasn't clearly defined -- because the proposal didn't get that far -- but the major players would have been the Office of Planning (Mayorally-controlled), the Zoning Commission (five member unelected board, two of whom are federal appointees), and NCPC (mostly federal appointees). The DC Council would have been a marginal player, at best.

    In other words, Issa's offer was, essentially, DC can do anything it wants to do -- as long as what it wants to do is loosen height restrictions in places where the feds don't object. (And in places where DC doesn't want to loosen the Height Act restrictions, the feds will do it for them.)

    Long story short, The proposal was not to transfer power from Congress to the DC Council. It was to allow for taller buildings. So debating whether that's desirable here and now is more sensible (and more intellectually honest) than pretending this is a home rule issue.

  • gimbels lover

    But... but... the process was flawed!! We can't argue the merits of controlling our own land use if some of the politics was unclear during political maneuvering!! Think of the process!!

  • DC Guy

    The local politicians who favor favor Congressional control when given a choice should be ashamed of themselves.

    And, what is the Federal interest in building heights in Deanwood or Friendship Heights?

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