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A congressional hearing on the Height Act this morning held out the prospect of greater local autonomy on building height limits, just two weeks after hopes for such a change were dampened by a report from the National Capital Planning Commission recommending no substantial alterations to the 1910 law.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the conservative California Republican who first suggested a reconsideration of the law capping D.C. building heights and chairs the committee with oversight of the District, convened today’s hearing to receive the recommendations for potential Height Act changes that he requested from the NCPC and the D.C. Office of Planning. NCPC Executive Director Marcel Acosta argued for retaining the existing height limits, while D.C. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning explained the need for additional supply to meet D.C.’s growing demand, but Issa, presiding over the hearing, appeared most sympathetic to the idea that the District should have a say over its own building heights.
Issa mocked the Nov. 19 D.C. Council resolution, introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson with the support of every other councilmember but Ward 8’s Marion Barry, that symbolically requested that the Height Act be left intact, even though proposed changes would give some power over height limits currently held by Congress to the Council itself.
“I heard to my astonishment, for the first time ever, a rejection of home rule,” Issa said. “I did not expect people to say, ‘Please don’t give me authority, I can’t be trusted.'”
Despite the differences between the Office of Planning and NCPC recommendations, Issa focused on areas that he saw as common ground. Both sides agree on the need for a minor change to the rules governing occupancy of penthouses. Issa also said it’s clear that federal interests in D.C. building heights are reduced as you move away from the Capitol and White House, and yet the federal government has “artificially created a limitation” in places like Friendship Heights when Arlington lies just across the Potomac River from D.C.’s monumental core and has much taller buildings.
Finally, Issa latched on to the idea that even if the Height Act is lifted, D.C. won’t be able to build taller buildings without going through the Comprehensive Plan process, which gives veto power to first the Council, then the NCPC, and finally Congress. “You both agree that there’s a check and balance,” he told Acosta and Tregoning.
Addressing Acosta, he said that the NCPC’s vote not to make major changes to the Height Act implied that in the absence of a Height Act, the agency could still take the same vote to reject any specific height increases with which it took issue. “Your 7-3 vote would have been exactly the same if there’d been no Height Act,” he said. Acosta agreed.
Issa also suggested that the Height Act’s very age made it suspect. The country’s founding fathers allowed wood buildings in the capital, he said, but those buildings were later deemed dangerous and prohibited. “There came a day when we realized we needed to do better in a high-density, modern city,” he said. Likewise, it may be time to reconsider the 103-year-old Height Act. After all, planning in the past century hasn’t always been what we’d like it to be now. “There are some butt-ugly buildings that were built in the ’60s,” he said.
Tregoning’s arguments about the merits of taller buildings in the District ran into skepticism from the four members of Congress present, including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who repeatedly questioned whether taller buildings would actually make housing more affordable. She had more success on the issue of autonomy and the idea that changing the Height Act wouldn’t result directly in taller buildings, but would simply give the District the ability to weigh in on that decision in the future, in concert with the federal government.
“I don’t know the next time we’ll have a chairman of this committee who’ll be as interested in these issues as the current chairman,” Tregoning said, a nod to Issa’s initiative on the matter, without which changes to the Height Act wouldn’t be under discussion. “We haven’t been asked this question before.” Issa’s tenure as chairman will end in January 2015, due to Republican Party term limits.
Issa closed the hearing with a pledge to continue working on the issue, but any concrete changes to the Height Act remain an uphill climb. For any changes to the Height Act to be enacted, they’d have to be passed first by Issa’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and then by the full House and Senate before being signed by the president. The committee has 23 Republicans and just 16 Democrats, and Republicans have generally been loath to give the District additional autonomy, although the leadership of an influential conservative chairman could sway the Republican majority.
Asked if the next step was likely to be for Issa to draft language based on what he perceives as the area of consensus on the Height Act and put it to a committee vote, Issa spokesman Ali Ahmad said after the hearing, “That is certainly a possible and practical path forward.”
For now, the city’s hopes for home rule over building heights remain on the shoulders of Issa, an unlikely but consistent ally on recent questions of autonomy. An elderly D.C. resident who approached Issa after the hearing summed up the feelings of many Washingtonians toward the Republican. “I don’t really like you,” she said, “but I appreciate what you did today.”
Photos by Aaron Wiener