Height Act Hearing Reveals Opposition To a Taller DC

by Shilpi Paul

image
Image from the OP’s plan.

A DC Council hearing regarding the Office of Planning’s recommendation to alter the Height Act revealed an emphatic wave of opposition from the public.

On Monday, Harriet Tregoning, Director of the Office of Planning, presented the OP’s recommendations to Congress regarding the Height Act of 1910 to the DC Council. Thirty-five attendees also presented their testimony.

As we’ve reported in the past, the OP recommended that the federal height limit should be raised within L’Enfant City, and eliminated beyond it. (See the L’Enfant City boundaries here.)

If the federal ban is lifted, we wouldn’t immediately see a taller city: there would have to be a new comprehensive plan, established by the DC Council, and new zoning code, established by the Zoning Commission.

By giving the city the ability to raise heights, said Tregoning, they will have the opportunity to accommodate a growing population. “If we don’t act, there will be issues in regards to our capacity to grow,” stressed Tregoning.

image

After about five hours of testimony from residents, Councilmembers Phil Mendelson and Muriel Bowser grilled Tregoning, trying to get to the root of the overwhelming opposition. Mendelson noted that 33 of the 35 witnesses spoke out against the plan.

Many witnesses emphatically defended the current look of the city, stating that changing the height limit would alter something that is crucial to the character of the city.

Some also expressed skepticism that supply-and-demand holds in this situation, and that lifting the limit would trickle down to alleviate the District’s need for affordable housing. Multiple witnesses mentioned that the apartments and condos in “high-rise” buildings would be luxury units with high price tags.

Tregoning defended the logic.

“It ends ups affecting everybody,” said Tregoning. “Let’s say we don’t build new $600,000 units. Then people looking for those units start looking at $400,000 properties and bidding those prices up. It affects our entire housing market.”

Tregoning stressed that housing prices in the city were on a steep upward curve, in danger of keeping people from being able to afford DC. “Attracting and maintaining middle class households is vital,” she said.

Bowser was in agreement, but more hesitant. “I share your view that more people paying taxes here is a good thing,” said Bowser. “We should grow, as a city. But I don’t want us to go willy-nilly into changing the very thing that makes us special in how our city looks.”

Tregoning also reiterated that their recommendation simply shifts the decision from Congress to the District, empowering the city and its residents.

If the Council does not want to raise heights anywhere, said Tregoning, they can opt to change nothing in the comprehensive plan. But if, twenty years now, they want to, they won’t have to first convince Congress.

“I made the presumption that we are interested collectively in more autonomy for the District,” said Tregoning.

Bowser diagnosed what she felt was the issue: “It’s about trust. You want the District to control heights outside of the core [L’enfant City]. Do people trust us?”

The Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission are holding a public hearing on Wednesday evening. They will be revising the drafts of their recommendations before sending them to Congress in November.

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See other articles related to: office of planning, height act, harriet tregoning, dclofts

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/height_act_hearing_reveals_opposition_to_a_taller_dc/7749

23 Comments

  1. chris said at 9:49 am on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    Harriet Tregoning +100.  Too bad the Committee of 100 will probably will probably ensure this plan never sees the light of day.

    Yeah, it’s true that land costs and market pressures probably will mean that most ADDITIONAL high density housing will probably be filled by new “luxury housing.”

    But so what?

    If we don’t build additional housing, the hypothetical residents of these un-built units will still need a place to live.

    Either they will:

    1) Compete with current residents for the existing housing stock, thereby driving up prices on EXISTING units and making the District more unaffordable for lower/middle class residents.

    2) They will go to the suburbs. Without more housing, these people will live in the ‘burbs taking their tax dollars and consumer expenditures with them.

    Additionally, DC could set up a program where developers are allowed to build higher in exchange for contributions to an affordable housing fund. Thereby, increasing both the market rate and affordable housing supply.

    Plus in a generation, today’s luxury Class A becomes tomorrow’s affordable Class B housing.

    Yeah, people always say point to NYC to say more density doesn’t equal lower prices. And they are right. It’s not density per say, but rather how much supply is created relative to demand.

    Cities like Toronto and Chicago which build aggressively remain affordable to middle class residents. While places like SF and Boston which constrict supply are unafforable.

  1. StringsAttached said at 10:40 am on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    If you think D.C. does not have room for new residents, please don’t post a comment because you don’t know what you’re talking about. What D.C. has is a group of individuals who want to live in a limited number of areas within the District. OF COURSE prices in those areas will be high! Raising the height limits won’t lower ANY prices; it will actually raise them as developers start pricing in the new “views” into property prices. Let’s not kid ourselves here.

    And as if people don’t already live in the ‘burbs!!??

  1. RC said at 10:43 am on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    A NIMBY for the first time EVER on a development issue, I’m comforted by the fact that Congress has to sign off on any change.  This is a Congress that can’t pass a Farm Bill—I certainly can’t imagine this will be anyone’s priority.  Good luck, guys.

  1. chris said at 11:29 am on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    Just as a factual matter, the District plan calls for raising height downtown by 30-40 ft in most places.  With no place being higher than 200 ft, up from a cap of 160 ft currently.  Not building high rises DT, which nobody is proposing.  The plan preserve’s the horizontal nature of the city skyline and specifically protects views of the Capitol, White House and Washington Monument.

    “If you think D.C. does not have room for new residents, please don’t post a comment because you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    Classy….glad we can have a civil debate.

    Not arguing that at all.  But, relaxing the height limit will create MORE opportunities for housing.  Say the District has opportunities for 50,000 units under existing zoning.  Allowing additional density could push that number up to say 70,000 units.  Yeah, these 20,000 “bonus” units will skew pricy.  But, as I said above those people need to live somewhere.  If they don’t live in the 20,000 new units they will displace 20,000 lower income households in existing neighborhoods or move to the suburbs.

    Clearly, the downward impact on region or District wide housing prices will be modest.  It’s not like DC will become Atlanta.  But, every bit helps.  Plus, we will be creating MORE opportunities for car-free urban living.  Building 1,000 new units downtown at the heart of the public transit system and adjacent to several walkable neighborhoods is more effective in that requard than adding 1,000 new units in low density outlying neighborhoods.

    “And as if people don’t already live in the ‘burbs!!?? “

    Of course, people live in the suburbs.  But, allowing more people to live in the District (within reason) is ultimately good for the District and the region.

  1. Juanita de Talmas said at 1:25 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    DC had 200,000 more people in 1950 than it does now.  The idea that we are running out of room to put new people is ludicrous.

  1. AWalkerInTheCity said at 1:32 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    “DC had 200,000 more people in 1950 than it does now.  The idea that we are running out of room to put new people is ludicrous. “

    Household size was much larger then. More families with kids, and the families had more kids each. Lots of kids sharing bedrooms. 

    This isn’t 1950.

  1. Zesty said at 1:35 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    The economic argument behind raising Building Heights is totally non-sensical. Look at Rosslyn, VA; it has towering building taller than DC and yet prices there are through the roof! Developers won’t build unless they can price at a certain level for a certain return. DC doesn’t have enough affordable housing because on an inept government; not because of a Height Act! Removing the Height Act will serve to contain development in the downtown area; there is so much of DC left to develop doesn’t make sense to limit it to downtown

  1. AWalkerInTheCity said at 1:35 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    “What D.C. has is a group of individuals who want to live in a limited number of areas within the District. OF COURSE prices in those areas will be high!”

    The limited number of areas is about half the city, and will be 2/3 the city within 5 years or so.  Basically almost everywhere west of the Anacostia River. 

    Of course keeping the height limit will accelerate the pace of gentrification EOTR. Which is great if you own property there, not so great if you are renting there.

  1. saladman8283 said at 2:55 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    AWalker - Perhaps part of the reduction in the # of DC residents is because families are smaller.  I suspect the main force that drove people out of DC and that continues to keep them out is the abysmal state of the public schools.  Plenty of kids still share bedrooms in expensive cities like NYC, where the public schools are head and shoulders above DC’s.

  1. Juanita de Talmas said at 3:09 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    This isn’t 1950.

    No shit.  However, 63 years ago there were far fewer highrises, more undeveloped land.

  1. JBD said at 5:04 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    Seems like there are a lot of knee-jerk, angry reactions among folks who oppose eliminating height restrictions in the District. The bottom line is that anything that improves supply will ultimately reduce prices- this is pretty basic economics.  It holds true for real estate, but folks have to understand that given the construction duration and purchase/rent behavior associated with the real estate market, it takes longer for the market to adjust than it does for other products. However, for evidence of that it does respond to supply and demand forces, look at condo prices in DC around 2004-6.

    In addition to improving supply, reducing height restrictions also reduces the price of each individual unit (because fixed construction costs get spread over a larger number of units, the cost per unit goes down). Same situation for reducing regulations on zoning and permitting: those processes add considerable costs to any residential construction/renovation project. If our city council members are truly concerned about affordability, they should look at reducing the time required for permit changes and zoning decisions.

    “What D.C. has is a group of individuals who want to live in a limited number of areas within the District. OF COURSE prices in those areas will be high!” For people who say that areas east of the river are “affordable”, I encourage you to venture east of the river and look at pricing. It is not nearly as low as you think and folks have been leaving DC for Maryland by the droves for a long time now because of this. It may be “affordable” relative to NW, but it’s not at all affordable compared to comparable areas of Maryland.  And, this trend is not likely to reverse, given the opening of the new St. Elizabeth’s pavilion, the planned streetcar, the new 11th street bridge, and all of the other improvements that are happening East of the River.

    “Look at Rosslyn, VA; it has towering building taller than DC and yet prices there are through the roof!” Again, you have to compare apples to apples. The closest DC neighborhoods to Rosslyn are Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, and the West End.  Prices in Rosslyn are considerably lower per square foot than prices in those neighborhoods.

    “No s**t.  However, 63 years ago there were far fewer highrises, more undeveloped land.” See above regarding knee-jerk, angry reactions. Let’s refrain from using 4-letter words on UrbanTurf!

  1. AWalkerInTheCity said at 5:25 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    “No shit.  However, 63 years ago there were far fewer highrises, more undeveloped land. “

    There arent really any true high rises now. More like tall mid rises.  And thats not a lot of units, compared to the effect of two people living in houses that used to have 5 or 6 people, in wide areas of the city, both SFH and townhouse areas.

  1. AWalkerInTheCity said at 5:27 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    “Plenty of kids still share bedrooms in expensive cities like NYC, where the public schools are head and shoulders above DC’s. “

    Do we want DC to be as expensive as NYC?  And if it were, would we get kids sharing bedrooms, or just more people fleeing to the further suburbs (which are much generally a much better deal than NYC’s suburbs)

  1. Adam L said at 5:52 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    AWalkerInTheCity hit the nail right on the head. The District has more housing units today than we did in 1950 ( http://books.google.com/books?id=UazGctVY6Y4C&pg=PA1 ) but the number of people per unit has gone down. If downtown hadn’t been completely bulldozed to make way for a giant office park, we’d probably have even more units but that ship has sailed.

    I agree that the OP’s height plan is sound but Sensational headlines like “DC plans to eliminate height restrictions” generates mass hysteria. The fact is that instead of following a one-size-fits-all standard set by Congress over 100 years ago, we should be able to set those standards ourselves (or, at least, through the hybrid federal-local zoning commission). Case in point: Friendship Heights. These height-act boosters would have you believe that having an 10-story building on the Maryland side of Western Avenue is just fine but an 8-story building on the District’s side would somehow ruin the character of the city. Yeah, sure.

    The idea that if we didn’t have the federal Height Act governing the District that all hell would break loose is also ridiculous. The vast majority of the District doesn’t come close to hitting the federal height limit because local zoning keeps heights lower than would otherwise be permissible. Those local limits are what give the District a truly unique character and wouldn’t change overnight just because Congress decides to lift its paternalistic hand.

  1. danny said at 11:19 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    Harriet Tregoning isn’t listening. We need a city that promotes livability, sustainability, and environmental soundness. OP rhetoric often underscores ‘a sense of place,’ yet it’s the fundamental uniqueness of DC’s skyline, sunny streets, and historic buildings that are at stake.
    The height limitation contributes to the reasons why people want to live here. Plus, there are many quality-of-life issues at stake that her dogma neither considers nor plans for, such as responsible storm water management, reduction of light and green space, traffic management, noise pollution and other pollution created by the would-be, irreversible, new high-rise buildings.  Furthermore, if she has her way and achieves her claim-to-fame development goals, will she continue through the revolving door, relocate to greener pastures, and leave us with the inherent problems of her short-sighted development agenda?

  1. 202_cyclist said at 11:26 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    There are 15-20 story buildings directly across the street on the Maryland side of Friendship Heights,  6-7 miles from the Capitol, Washington Monument and the memorials.  How will having 15-20 story buildings directly across the street from the 170-foot buildings that already exist here detract from views or ruin quality of life one bit? 

    We have invested tens of billions of dollars in our regional metro-rail system.  We should have modestly more density within walking distance of the outer stations in DC (Friendship Hts, Van Ness, Minnesota Ave, etc…)

  1. Reggie said at 11:27 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    I don’t actually see what’s the big deal in altering D.C’s height act. If people would READ what they are trying to do it actually will D.C have more affordable housing and market rate apartments in the city. So those that are saying it won’t help out with affordable housing YOU ARE WRONG. I spoke with someone that actually works for Clark Construction and he told me that building taller in D.C would actually make high rise apartments and condos affordable, more floor plans more units offered.

    London England had the building height laws as D.C, now they have changed their ways and it didn’t hurt the cites historic views at all. London saw it was time to change and they did it and it’s working for them so why can’t we do it here in the Nations Capitol.

    I’m going to back to what I said before if everyone just READ their plans and stop saying they don’t want D.C to look like New York it’s not going to. Building heights downtown will only be 200ft tall in certain parts, anything within a curtain mile radius of the capital and monument will still have the same height act law.

    Its time for D.C to change and that change is building our buildings taller. Everyone wont be complaining once apartment and condo prices drop and the city will look even better. I hope the bill gets passes by congress!

  1. rickie said at 11:31 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    Dear Muriel Bowser and Harriet Tregoning,

    We do not trust the DC Council or DC Agencies to make the right choices to manage our collective resources; nor to act in the best interest of the people.  Ruining DC for “more tax dollars” is irresponsible.

  1. 202_cyclist said at 11:32 pm on Tuesday October 29, 2013:

    Here is an honest question for opponents of modifying the Height Act—- these 400 foot radio towers in Tenley and along Nebraska Ave (http://www.flickr.com/photos/80004228@N05/10142341705/in/set-72157632619894141) have not ruined views of the Capitol, monumements, etc…, but a 175 foot tall building in Friendship Height, directly across the street from a 175 foot building in Maryland will ruin views? 

    Do any of you Who oppose modifying the Height Act seriously believe this?

  1. Adam L said at 10:55 am on Wednesday October 30, 2013:

    @rickie

    Perhaps you aren’t aware that building heights are set by the Zoning Commission, which is a hybrid body comprised of local and federal officials. The concern that somehow the Zoning Commission would go “buck wild” and start up-zoning vast areas of the city isn’t credible. As I mentioned above, there are plenty of areas of the city that are zoned at lower heights than are otherwise allowed by the federal Height Act. Are you saying that these same bodies could not be trusted in the future?

  1. Zesty said at 11:15 am on Wednesday October 30, 2013:

    @Reggie, Condos and apartments that are affordable are not the same as “affordable housing”. “Affordable housing” usually refers to minimum wage workers or hill-staffers(joke). So there’s a difference between a $2,000 apartment being reduced to $1,800(apartment that is affordable) and “affordable housing” set-aside that provides the apartment for $1,300 with maximum income restrictions. There is a huge difference here; we are referring to the latter which will NOT BE CHANGED by elevating the Heights (developers are like politicians, they’ll promise anything to get what they want).

  1. david said at 3:31 pm on Wednesday October 30, 2013:

    I know that I don’t like the propose “new height” limit.  Too boxed in for me.  We’re not New York.  I like to see the sky above and ahead of me to the distance.

  1. StringsAttached said at 4:49 pm on Thursday October 31, 2013:

    I understand the SIMPLE economics behind supply and demand. However, I disagree with the premise that building more units will lower prices. What do the posters who keep referring to these “lower priced” units think will happen to the lower priced units when they are put up for sale on the market? Two words…bidding war. So that means these nice “lower priced” condos aren’t as low priced in the end as you hoped them to be. That’s one of my main issues with raising the height limit. It won’t achieve one of its primary objectives, it will increase population density, and as a result, drive up the prices of services due to increased demand. In the end, DC becomes even less affordable! I know some of you took basic micro/macroeconomics in college but there’s more to it than a simple “increased demand equals lower price” analysis.

    To add on, what exactly is “lower priced”? And what do we mean by “affordable”? I don’t really think a unit in the area going from $200/sq. ft. to $198/sq. ft. is a bargain. You will realize your arguments will fall short when you really dig into what you’re saying. Further, has anyone compared the property tax rates in MD vs. D.C.? I’m getting a chuckle reading some of these comments. You must consider total cost of ownership! This issue isn’t as black and white as some people are attempting to make it.

    Finally, thanks @Chris for calling me out on my rather short-sighted comment. My intent was not to stifle debate; my apologies.

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