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A Washington Post poll released last night shows that 61 percent of D.C. residents oppose changing the Height Act to allow taller buildings, to just 37 percent who support such a change. That should send a strong signal to Congress and Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who requested a study of potential changes to the law, as they weigh competing proposals from the District and a federal agency on what to do with the 1910 law limiting allowable building heights in the city.
Except that the Post didn’t really poll what Congress is considering. Because the principal question before Congress isn’t really how tall the city’s buildings should be, but who should be allowed to make that decision.
If instead, the poll had been worded, “Do you support giving control over D.C. building heights, which currently resides with Congress, to the District’s elected leaders?” I suspect the responses would have been different. Of course, I can’t be sure, since that’s not the question that was asked. But it’s clearly the main question that was on Issa’s mind in a hearing last month on the matter, at which he expressed incredulity that 12 of the 13 members of the D.C. Council, including its chairman, voted symbolically not to support changes that would hand some control over D.C. building heights from Congress to the Council itself.
Yes, one of the two proposals before Congress, from the D.C. Office of Planning, recommends not only giving D.C. more control over building heights in most of the city, but also changing the formula to allow slightly taller buildings in the historic L’Enfant City around downtown. And yes, both that proposal and the competing one from the National Capital Planning Commission, which recommends no major changes to the Height Act, endorse allowing human occupancy of mechanical penthouses. But the biggest question now is one of control: Should a law passed by Congress 104 years ago continue to govern D.C.’s skyline, or should the city itself be empowered to help make those decisions?
The Post didn’t ask that question. But the cross-tabs of the question it did ask are revealing nonetheless. While the majority of every subgroup polled opposed allowing taller buildings, some groups were more sympathetic than others. People making less than $50,000 a year were more open to Height Act changes than those making more than $50,000, and residents of wards 7 and 8 viewed Height Act changes more favorably than those of the other six wards. That implies that the city’s message of affordability has resonated to some degree—-that those most in need of affordable housing appreciate the potential mitigating effects that an increased supply could have on D.C.’s runaway housing costs.
Will some members of Congress who are already skeptical of changes to the Height Act seize on this poll to argue that the people of D.C. want the current law maintained? Probably. But in a matter that’s as much about home rule as it is about building heights, that would be the wrong conclusion to draw.
Photo and rendering of taller buildings from the Office of Planning