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D.C. Height Limits Could Change As Mayor Vincent Gray Discusses Modifications (POLL)

Posted: 04/12/2012 8:49 am Updated: 04/12/2012 10:01 am

Dc Height Limit

WASHINGTON -- Should the nation's capital do away with its building rules that have limited the height of structures and protected the sight lines of the monumental cityscape? That's been an idea that's been tossed around for decades, but something that's died in the face of pressure from some community and congressional members.

Now, according to The Washington Post, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray has recently discussed altering the city's rules on height limits with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

While there may be more political capital behind changes to the height limit, don't expect skyscrapers to dot D.C.'s skyline.

Reports the Post:

Issa, Gray and Norton said they primarily envision minor modifications to the height restrictions, perhaps an additional story onto some projects. But even a small change could make District buildings sleeker, raise ceiling heights and provide more opportunity for green space, architects said.

Issa said he’s also exploring whether the District should have greater flexibility to consider even taller buildings in areas away from downtown, a change that could one day remake parts of Northeast and Southeast and help the city absorb new residents and businesses.

As downtown has grown and become more dense, there are fewer and fewer places left to build. The height limit has also forced developers to maximize the space where they're allowed to build, which has led to boxy architecture in certain parts of the central business district.

As Lydia DePillis laid out in a December 2010 Washington City Paper cover story advocating for changes:

The District desperately needs more capacity. The way to build it intelligently is to let the market and the city decide where tall buildings might or might not prove valuable. The idea of buildings puncturing D.C.’s squat skyline might seem unsettling at first—especially to those who absorb the terrifying rhetoric from the District’s preservationists. But even as scrapping the law would involve some tricky maneuvering around the District’s relationship with Congress, abandoning the Height Act and letting zoning rule would be worth it.

Proponents of changing the Height Act will face D.C.'s entrenched preservationists, who argue the city's monumental beauty should not be marred by tall buildings. "Over the years, the notion of Washington as a vertically abbreviated city has moved from legislative edict to local custom to holy writ. Question the Height Act at your peril," DePillis wrote.

While it is popular belief that D.C.'s height limits were enacted to prevent buildings from being taller than the Capitol or Washington Monument, the D.C. Height Act is more complicated. We Love DC separated fact from fiction in a 2009 blog post:

The 1899 Height of Buildings Act established that no building could be taller than the Capitol (289 feet), but if that’s the case, why don’t we have a city full of 28-story buildings? Well, in 1910 the act was amended to restrict building heights even further: no building could be more than twenty feet taller than the width of the street that it faces. So, a building on a street with an 80-foot right-of-way could only be 100 feet, or 10 stories. This preserved the “light and airy” character of Washington that Thomas Jefferson envisioned. This 1910 law is still in effect today, and it essentially means that no building can be taller than about 13 stories (with the exception of Pennsylvania Avenue, which is zoned in some places to allow buildings of up to 160 feet).
DePillis points out that other exceptions and modifications have been made over the years.

Should there be more changes made to the city's height limits?

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Should the D.C. Height Act be changed?

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Filed by Michael Grass  |