NCPC releases study on D.C. height limits, opponents insist on preserving skyline

Washington, DC, Skyline

The National Capital Planning Commission recently released a draft study on Thursday, September 12 regarding proposals to raise building height limits in the District.

The study, worked in collaboration with the District of Columbia Office of Planning, includes preliminary findings, evaluation, and policy recommendations. It was commissioned by request from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), in October 2012.

Washington’s architecture has long been regulated by the federal Height of Buildings Act of 1910, which mandates height limitations on all buildings constructed in the District. In addition to the Act, many local zoning laws implement further restrictions in various areas. However, due to the rising urban population and concerns about high housing prices, many citizens have pushed to raise the height limits in particular areas of D.C.

Many argue that rescinding height limits is a necessity to accommodate burgeoning economic and demographic growth and create more affordable housing. “If we were to continue to grow at our current pace, well before 20 years from now, we would exhaust the capacity of our city to accommodate the population growth that would be coming to the city,” Harriet Tregoning, Director of D.C.’s Office of Planning, said in the September 12 presentation of the study.

In addition, according to an economic feasibility study, released July 24 and conducted by Partners for Economic Solutions for NCPC, raising the height limit to just between 130 and 160 feet would attract new businesses and create a projected 7,100 to 14,000 new jobs, or around 1 to 2 percent of current total jobs in the District over the next 20 years. Height limits currently restrict buildings on residential streets at 90 feet, on commercial streets at 130 feet, and on a small section of Pennsylvania Ave at 160 feet.

Others, however, cite the need to preserve D.C.’s symbolic low skyline and iconic image, especially in L’Enfant City, the central region of D.C. that holds landmarks such as the National Monument, White House, and Capitol Hill.

The joint report concluded that the District should seriously consider permitting the use of penthouses and found no adverse effects if allowed in most areas of D.C. Currently, the Height Act and D.C. Zoning Regulations prohibit the use of penthouses for anything except mechanical equipment.

However, it was completely inconclusive about actually raising height limits. Even though it considered multiple approaches for changing building heights, including maxing out to current limits, raising the height in select “clusters,” increasing the street width-vertical height ratio, and raising the cap uniformly city-wide, the report found that all of them might have adverse impacts on the “federal interests.”

It recommended further study to fully evaluate other interests including national security, such as lines of sight, and infrastructure, such as demands on road and transit capacity.

The NCPC and DCOP have emphasized that they have worked to actively seek citizen feedback through holding multiple public meetings and collecting citizen feedback in person and online. The study is currently open for a thirty-day public review and comment period.

The deadline for public comments on the NCPC’s recommendations is October 15th. Final recommendations will be approved by November 7th and will be sent to Congress, which has ultimate jurisdiction over D.C. height limits under the Height Act.

Photo: euthman via Flickr.

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