Déjà View: DC Returns to Advocating for Relaxed Height Act

by Nena Perry-Brown

The Cairo, one of the tallest buildings in DC.

Over a century ago, Congress passed the Height of Buildings Act, a law which accounts for DC's largely squat skyline. Now, as the mayoral administration attempts to achieve greater housing capacity and production, the Height Act is once again making a bit of news.

Recently proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan reflect a slight pivot away from deference to the Height Act's restrictions, as the Plan includes the relaxation of Height Act restrictions among options worthy of study to increase production of affordable housing. A previous Height Act mention in the Comp Plan, which advocated for "protect"ing the historic horizontal character of the city, has been replaced by a new section softening that language:

"Utilize the basic principles for regulating buildings heights by street width of the Height Act, to guide redevelopment of corridors and new large site developments, continuing the Washington historic tradition of well-proportioned streets and consistent building heights. Examine opportunities where enabling buildings to exceed zoning height limits can encourage better site massing and architectural design."

The amendments also include a suggestion that the zoning code be reviewed to evaluate instances in which height limits more restrictive than established in the Height Act be evaluated as opportunities for additional affordable housing. Because the Height Act is a federal law, however, Congress would have to pass legislation handing purview over building heights to the city in order for DC to do much beyond studying options (and perhaps passing unenforceable zoning amendments in the interim).

This latest round of attention toward the Height Act is not the first time this decade where the DC mayor (and Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton) initiated efforts to break free of the Act's strictures. In 2014, these efforts culminated in a zoning amendment following passage of a federal bill to allow occupied penthouses which exceed Height Act constraints.

The bill came after Congress requested the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and Office of Planning study relaxation of the Height Act. NCPC expressed opposition, while OP recommended such a discussion be initiated via the Comp Plan, floating the notion of stricter height limits within the bounds of the L'Enfant Plan (north of the Rivers and roughly southeast of Florida Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway), and elimination of height limits beyond.

Then-Councilmember Phil Mendelson expressed disapproval of tampering with the Height Act, a sentiment he echoed earlier this year. It will be interesting to see when or whether this latest push will find traction with both NCPC and Congress and result in more progress.

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/deja-vu-city-returns-to-advocating-for-relaxed-height-act/16070

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