Is The Prospect of a Taller DC Really Dead?

by Shilpi Paul

Is The Prospect of a Taller DC Really Dead?: Figure 1
The Cairo, one of DC’s tallest residential buildings.

This past Tuesday, advocates for a taller DC were dealt what was considered at the time a lethal blow when the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) scaled back a recommendation that laid out a path to taller buildings outside the L’Enfant boundaries of the city, instead recommending to Congress that the federal Height Act of 1910 be kept as is.

At a press hearing the following day, Mayor Vincent Gray expressed his disappointment. “People don’t like change, period,” the mayor said. His two proxies on the NCPC, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning and Robert Miller both argued throughout the NCPC hearing that the Congressional request marked a rare opportunity to give the city back some autonomy.

So, what now? Is the idea of a taller and/or a more autonomous DC dead?

Perhaps not.

When Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) began examining the prospect of revising the Height Act back in 2012, he requested that NCPC and the city’s Office of Planning (OP) conduct a study into relaxing the height limits.

On Wednesday, the Office of Planning announced that it was submitting its more aggressive recommendations separately, giving Congress the chance to consider both positions. In their final recommendation, the OP again stressed autonomy.

From the OP’s press release:

The District’s intent is not to raise height with its recommendations. Rather, the District is asking Congress to give it the ability under the Height Act to make these determinations in consultation with its residents in the future.

In the conclusions, the Office of Planning lays out a process for increasing heights in a targeted manner, similar to the process in the NCPC draft released on Monday prior to the amendments made at the commission hearing.

The federal Height Act should stay in place, recommends the OP, “unless and until the District completes an update to the District Elements of the Comprehensive Plan.” In the future, if the city decides during a comprehensive planning process that heights should go up in some areas, and the NCPC and Congress approve of the recommendation, the Height Act would be lifted in those areas and remain in the rest of the city. Any zoning changes would need to be approved by the Zoning Commission.

What Will Congress Do?

Now, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Issa, has two sets of recommendations to consider. The committee will likely hold a hearing in December.

Since he first issued his request to study the issue in the summer of 2012, Issa has professed that he is sympathetic to a more autonomous DC. As Roll Call reported on Wednesday, Issa stated that the final decision will probably lie somewhere between the NCPC and OP’s recommendations.

From Roll Call:

“We don’t expect to have a radical change or a significant change to the Height Act as a result of the study, but we do expect to empower the parties to bring forth future plans,” Issa told CQ Roll Call, adding that he had not yet reviewed the final NCPC report.

Why A Taller DC?

So, why does the Office of Planning want the ability to increase heights, in the face of vocal opposition from residents and the Council?

One concern is that without a change, DC will “grow low.” With the city attracting many new residents, growth of the built environment is inevitable. Revising the federal Height Act, Harriet Tregoning said at a Council hearing in October, would give the city the ability to be more intentional with new construction, rather than building up to the current limits throughout DC.

For example, instead of a city that uniformly grows to 10 or 13 stories high, revising the Act may allow planners to keep some neighborhoods very low, while allowing others to rise to 20 stories or higher. Floor area ratio (FAR) requirements could also be altered, necessitating that developers make taller building less boxy and thus more set back and sculpted. The OP is also worried that DC will run out of space, driving housing prices up for those units that do exist.

“Not changing is not an option,” said Tregoning in October. “We are changing. Will we allow housing prices to get higher and higher, or will we try to address real capacity constraints?”

How Soon Would Change Happen?

If, in December, the Congressional committee opts to support the OP’s pathway to higher buildings, we are still a long ways away from a taller DC.

Given the City Council’s expressed belief that the Height Act should not change, it is highly unlikely that they would opt to alter the comprehensive plan to allow for taller maximum heights at any point in the near future. However, if a future Council wants to make that decision, they could follow the laid-out path.

If Congress opts for the NCPC’s recommendation, the Height Act would remain as is. The NCPC recommended “further study,” but eliminated language laying out a pathway. It is less clear when the study would happen, when the results would be considered, and who would consider them. The city would likely have to wait for Congress to give them another opening by making a specific request.

Many are in favor of this set-up, which leaves control of the Height Act in the hands of Congress; at the hearing on Tuesday, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson balked when Tregoning related the height decision to Home Rule.

“Home Rule is about representation in Congress,” said Mendelson. “I think of the Height Act as like something that’s part of our constitution.” The Height Act should be hard to change, believes Mendelson, and the OP’s recommended pathway would make it too easy.

So, that’s the scoop for now. Of course, UrbanTurf will be following the saga as it moves to Congress next month, so stay tuned.

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/op_released_their_own_height_act_recommendation_what_now/7845


  1. Katie said at 3:39 pm on Friday November 22, 2013:
    Thanks for a comprehensive look at an issue that has had my head spinning this week, and a look at where things could go from here. Other than the Roll Call article, has Issa given any sense as to which way he is leaning when it comes to the Office of Planning recs versus the NCPC recs?
  1. 202_cyclist said at 4:50 pm on Friday November 22, 2013:
    “Peter May, a National Park Service official, said the commission’s action is “affirming that this law contributes to a unique and special experience” I will pay the bar tab at Bluejacket for any NCPC member who can tell me the unique and special character of Van Ness.
  1. 202_cyclist said at 4:53 pm on Friday November 22, 2013:
    @Katie: I watched the House Govt. Reform & Oversight Committee hearing about the Height Act last summer and Rep. Issa seemed willing to relax the height limits. Darrel Issa certainly is conservative but he seems more like an establishment Republican
  1. Grind Old Party said at 5:28 pm on Friday November 22, 2013:
    If Issa is for it, it must be a bad idea. The guy is a jerk.
  1. hoos30 said at 5:51 pm on Friday November 22, 2013:
    @GOP: Even a blind squirrel can find a nut. Issa being a jerk doesn't preclude him from being right on this one issue.
  1. Susan Murany said at 7:50 pm on Friday December 6, 2013:
    The argument re higher building heights will allow DC to grow less expensively is false - note Manhatten as one of the most expensive places to live.

DC Real Estate Guides

Short guides to navigating the DC-area real estate market

We've collected all our helpful guides for buying, selling and renting in and around Washington, DC in one place. Visit guides.urbanturf.com or start browsing below!

Northern Virginia

Profiles of 14 neighborhoods across Northern Virginia

Looking to Give People A Reason to Stay Past 6pm
Happily Straddling the Line Between City and Suburb
Columbia Pike
Arlington’s Neglected Stepchild is Getting a Makeover
Crystal City
Turning Lemons into Lemonade
Lyon Village
Developing An Air of Exclusivity?
Hitting Its Growth Spurt
An Urban Village Hitting Its Stride
Del Ray
Virginia’s Small Town Near the Big City
Eisenhower Avenue
The Vibrancy Might Take a Few Years
The Quiet Neighborhood By the Beltway
Old Town
Mayberry By The Potomac
132 Commerical-Free Acres
Downtown Falls Church
Staying the Same in the Midst of Change
Tysons Corner
Radical Change Could Be On The Way

See more Northern Virginia »


Profiles of 14 neighborhoods in suburban Maryland

Small-Town Living in the State Capital
Bedroom Community Gets Buzzing Cache
Cabin John
In With The New While Maintaining the Old
Chevy Chase
Affluence, Green Lawns and Pricey Homes
Downtown Silver Spring
Experiencing a Resurgence After a Bumpy History
A Suburb on Steroids
Rockville Town Square
Despite the Dynamism, Still Somewhat Generic
Takoma Park
More Than a Little Bit Quirky
A Foodie Magnet on the Verge of Change
Capitol Heights
Kudzu, Front Porches and Crime
Glass Half Full or Half Empty?
Mount Rainier
Artists, Affordable Homes and A Silo Full of Corn
National Harbor
A Development Rises Next to the Potomac
Riverdale Park
A Town Looking For Its Identity

See more Maryland »

Northwest DC

30+ neighborhood profiles for the city's biggest quadrant

16th Street Heights
DC's Sleeper Neighborhood
Where (Almost) Everyone Knows Your Name
AU Park
One of DC’s Last Frontiers Before the Suburbs
DC’s Northern Neighborhood on the Cusp
DC’s 535 House Neighborhood
Cathedral Heights
Do You Know Where That Is?
Chevy Chase DC
Not to Be Confused With the Other Chevy Chase
Cleveland Park
Coming Back After A Rough Year
Columbia Heights
DC’s Most Diverse Neighborhood, But For How Long?
An Island of Serenity East of the Park
Dupont Circle
The Best of DC (For a Price)
Foggy Bottom & West End
Where the Institutional Meets the International
Forest Hills
Ambassadors and Adventurous Architecture
Foxhall Village
350 Homes Just West of Georgetown
Friendship Heights
A Shopping Mecca With a Few Places to Live
History, Hoyas and H&M
Glover Park
One of DC’s Preppier and More Family-Friendly Neighborhoods
A Posh View From Embassy Row
LeDroit Park
A Quiet Enclave in the Middle of the City
Logan Circle
Trendy Now, But Not By Accident
Mount Pleasant
Sought-After Homes Surround Main Street in Transition
Mount Vernon Triangle
From Seedy to Sought-After
The Long, Skinny Neighborhood at the City’s Northwest Edge
Park View
It’s Not Petworth
Penn Quarter/Chinatown
DC’s Go-Go-Go Neighborhood
Getting a Vibrancy of Its Own
The Duke’s Former Stomping Ground
Shepherd Park
DC’s Garden of Diversity
Spring Valley
A Suburb With a DC Zip Code
Not To Be Confused With Takoma Park
Not Quite Like Its Neighbors
U Street Corridor
The Difference a Decade Makes
Woodley Park
Deceptively Residential
Adams Morgan
No Longer DC’s Hippest Neighborhood, But Still Loved by Residents

See more Northwest DC »

Southwest DC

The little quadrant that could

Southwest Waterfront
A Neighborhood Where A Change Is Gonna Come

See more Southwest DC »

Northeast DC

Profiles of 10 neighborhoods in NE

New Development Could Shake Up Pastoral Peace
A Little Bit of Country Just Inside the District’s Borders
Not to Be Confused With Bloomingdale
Fort Totten
Five Years Could Make a Big Difference
H Street
A Place To Party, and To Settle Down
The Northeast Neighborhood That Few Know About
Michigan Park
A Newsletter-On-Your-Doorstep Community
Evolving from a Brand to a Neighborhood
Ripe for Investment Right About Now
The Difference 5 Years Makes
Big Houses, A Dusty Commercial Strip and Potential

See more Northeast DC »

Southeast DC

6 neighborhoods from Capitol Hill to East of the River

Capitol Riverfront
Still Growing
Hill East
Capitol Hill’s Lesser Known Neighbor
Congress Heights
Gradually Rising
Notable for Its Neighborliness
Historic Anacostia
Future Promise Breeds Cautious Optimism
Eastern Market
A More European Way of Living

See more Southeast DC »