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Nothing brings out Washingtonians’ most vicious animal instincts like a debate over a 103-year-old urban planning law. In late 2012, Rep. Darrell Issa—the overlord-in-chief among D.C.’s congressional overlords—called for a review of the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, setting up 2013 as the year for everyone’s passions about aesthetics, demographics, affordable housing, and the very soul of our city to come pouring out together in a highly combustible cocktail.
Officially, all that happened was a joint study by the D.C. Office of Planning and the federal National Capital Planning Commission of the law, which sets limits on the height of D.C. buildings, and the presentation of their findings to Congress. But what we really saw was open warfare from the halls of Congress to the chambers of the NCPC, from the hearing rooms of the D.C. Council to the ungovernable wilds of the Internet.
It began with visual modeling studies, which showed what D.C. would look like with 160-foot or 200-foot buildings—if all the buildings were uniform, gray, and faceless. Naturally, residents weren’t thrilled. Nor was the NCPC, which released a draft report in September calling for no substantial changes to the Height Act. The Office of Planning responded with a report of its own, calling for very substantial changes: a revision to the formula for determining height limits in the historic L’Enfant City, and the liberation of the District from federal height controls elsewhere (though still with federal approval for changes to the limits).
Meanwhile, the D.C. Council was getting an earful from residents who didn’t want taller buildings, leading Chairman Phil Mendelson to introduce a baffling resolution—supported by all his colleagues but Ward 8’s Marion Barry—urging Congress not to give the city any additional autonomy over D.C.’s building heights. Issa himself was completely befuddled by Mendelson’s resistance to his attempt to expand D.C. home rule: “I did not expect people to say, ‘Please don’t give me authority, I can’t be trusted,’” Issa said.
Now the NCPC and the Office of Planning have submitted their recommendations, the Council has spoken its puzzling piece, and the citizens of the District have let their venom fly. The future of D.C.’s power over its building heights is in Issa’s hands, and the hands of his mostly Republican colleagues. 2014 will be the year we learn the fate of the Height Act—but rest assured, Washingtonians: Given all the checks and balances and constraints and approvals involved, it will not be the year we start seeing skyscrapers in the District.