D.C.'s skyline could soon be altered. Very, very slightly.
D.C.'s skyline could soon be altered. Very, very slightly.

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After more than a century, the 1910 Height of Buildings Act is finally on its way to being amended. You’ll hardly notice the difference.

A congressional committee voted today to approve a change to the federal law that regulates the maximum heights of D.C. buildings. The change doesn’t allow the city to build higher than the 130-foot limit on commercial streets or to gain autonomy over building heights, as city officials had recommended. Instead, it would allow human occupancy of certain penthouses that are currently limited to mechanical uses.

If that doesn’t sound like much of a victory, you can thank your elected D.C. Council. Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who’s emerged as the District’s most powerful ally on Capitol Hill, asked the District and the National Capital Planning Commission to study potential changes to the Height Act and recommend changes to the law. The city pushed for greater autonomy over height limits, as well as a relaxed limit in the downtown area, while the NCPC advocated no major change. But then the Council shocked some observers by voting nearly unanimously in favor of a symbolic resolution from Chairman Phil Mendelson in opposition to any Height Act changes, including a change that would hand power from Congress to the Council itself.

Issa, who chairs the House of Representatives committee with oversight of District affairs, once again expressed his dismay today at the Council’s vote. “I understand that in this case, there may be some question about whether the city trusts itself with this responsibility,” Issa said at the hearing, according to the Washington Business Journal.

The bill now moves to the full House for consideration. It’s not clear whether Congress will undertake further changes to the Height Act. Issa spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll says in an email that Issa is “not ruling anything out for the future, but this is the only change we’re considering at this time.”

The change approved today won’t do much to change the skyline. According to the text of the bill, it amends the Height Act

by striking ‘‘and no floor or compartment thereof shall be constructed or used for human occupancy above the top story of the building upon which such structures are placed’’ and inserting ‘‘and, except in the case of a penthouse which is erected to a height of one  story of 20 feet or less above the level of the roof, no floor or compartment thereof shall be constructed or used for human occupancy above the top story of the building upon which such structures are placed’’.

For better or worse, D.C., don’t expect major changes to your cityscape anytime soon.

Photo from the NCPC