The Public Opinion on DC’s Height Act

by Shilpi Paul

The Public Opinion on DC's Height Act: Figure 1
The Cairo, one of DC’s tallest residential buildings.

Over the past year, the debate regarding the city’s Height Act, a federal law that limits the height of buildings throughout the city, has heated up. Would taller buildings increase office and residential space and bring down rents? Would less of a height restriction allow builders more creativity, and would we see fewer boxy structures that maximize square footage?

While the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning regulations governing height will not be changing anytime in the near future, the city has launched a study to investigate just how appropriate the Height Act still is to the city. In the fall, the National Capitol Planning Commission and DC’s Office of Planning announced the start of the Height Master Plan study. Tonight, they will hold their first public meeting at the Petworth Library.

Ultimately, the group is interested in figuring out of if DC’s Height Act, which is 100 years old, is still working. The first goal of the study, said NCPC project manager David Zaidain, is to determine if there are areas of the city where adjusting the height act wouldn’t impact federal interests.

“We have this federal law that is right now applied District-wide,” said Zaidain. “It’s applied the same way in Friendship Heights as it is next to the National Mall as it is in outer SE or NE.” If there are portions of the city that don’t have an effect on what is considered a national interest, perhaps those areas could be relieved from the federal Height Act and left to the discretion of local zoning regulations, thinks Zaidain.

Researchers involved with the study will also be modelling various possibilities, virtually adjusting height levels in various parts of the city and looking at perspectives from different vantage points. The results of this modelling will be released to the public in the summer.

Another aspect of the study is cross cultural: they will be looking at how different cities around the world manage the issue of height. “Whether it is a city like Paris, which has some similarities to DC, or a city like Vancouver, which has very tall buildings, or London which has clusters of high-rises, each city has taken a different approach to managing height,” said Zaidain.

Tonight, the NCPC will be discussing the larger goals of the plan with the public and soliciting feedback at this early stage. They have posted a few initial questions on their website with the hope that attendees will take a look and come to the meeting with thoughts. UrbanTurf will follow up with an account of the meeting tomorrow.

See other articles related to: national capitol planning commission, height act

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/could_the_height_act_be_modified_a_study_launches/7055


  1. Will said at 7:33 pm on Monday May 13, 2013:
    I can't help but be reminded of that alternate ending to Terminator 2 in which DC is pictured (in the not-so-distant future of 2027) having all sorts of modern skyscrapers. I think it would be nice to incorporate more modern structures alongside the beauty of the traditional national architecture. We could use a few taller buildings to spice it up.
  1. Ele said at 8:57 pm on Monday May 13, 2013:
    "Would less of a height restriction allow builders more creativity, and would we see fewer boxy structures that maximize square footage?" No - I am an architect. The height restriction has nothing to do with the design of most new buildings and everything to do with the greed or bad taste of the developer. Personally I think the height restriction is what keeps DC's character intact. DC feels different than any other city in the US with clear sight lines and buildings of an approachable scale with pedestrian friendly streets sides. It is our Capitol. Leave it be.
  1. justin s said at 9:02 pm on Monday May 13, 2013:
    Has anyone checked what percentage of city space is currently even close to being maxed out due to height? I'd be surprised if it was more than 1 to 3%. I've been watching this debate for a few years and it seems like a bait-and-swap where a few developers are playing to people's fears of underdevelopment in an effort to get a few random pet projects approved. The short of it is that most neighborhoods are full of 1 to 3 story buildings that are sitting on spaces that could be 5-14 stories under current zoning rules. No one's building on THOSE spaces, so doesn't that make most of the pro-height argument total BS?
  1. tim said at 3:53 pm on Tuesday May 14, 2013:
    Re: Justin. I agree with you in that officially only 1-3% of the city is maxed out due to the height limit. But, effectively only a small share of the city's core is left to develop. Yes, in theory DC could follow a European model and redevelop its core from 2-3 rowhouses and small yards into Parisian-style 5-6 apartment buildings. But, in practice we all know that is never going to happen. Seems a more realistic model is selectively raising the height limit in the CBD. Carve out protective zones from the WH, Penn Ave, and the Mall. But, raise the limit from 130 ft to even just 300 ft. Currently, 90% of downtown DC is a 9-5 office ghetto. Imagine how much different DC could be if we set a goal to add 100,000-50,000 residents. Connecticut Ave south of DuPont could be transformed into a grand shopping boulevard alla Michigan Avenue. Instead it’s largely lifeless (save some night life) lunch-break retail corridor. DC’s empty urban squares could become civic centers like Madison Square or Union Square in NYC. Peer cities like Philly, Chicago, SF, Boston have all embraced the living downtown movement. It’s DC’s time. Let’s turn Downtown from a soulless sea of 9-5 office blocks into a vibrant mixed use center that is truly the heart of a growing mega-region of 8 million people.
  1. dave said at 4:34 pm on Monday May 27, 2013:
    I agree with Ele completely. Removing the height limitiation won't make for a better city, it will only make for a different one. Have you been to Dubai? Interesting, but unlivable. If you want skyscrapers that shade our streets instead of trees, if you want an over development and acceleration of prices in one section (NW), while the rest of the City deteriorates, then move to NYC. And if you think traffic is bad now, add another city on top of the buildings we have and see how long it takes to get in or out or cross town then without a comprehensive metro.

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