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A congressional committee will gather this morning to debate the future of D.C.’s skyline. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has been presented with two recommendations for revising the 1910 Height Act: one from the National Capital Planning Commission that would leave the law largely intact, and one from the D.C. Office of Planning that would allow slightly taller buildings in the historic L’Enfant City and free the District from federal control over building heights elsewhere.
One proposal they won’t be considering is a pilot program to bring taller buildings to K Street NW. But the NCPC and Office of Planning did. The two agencies tasked by Congress with providing recommendations for changes to the Height Act discussed—-and ultimately rejected—-a plan to raise building heights on K Street as a testing ground for other parts of downtown.
Why K Street? As part of the NCPC’s report to Congress, the agency looked at the streets within the L’Enfant City whose height limits would be increased under the Office of Planning’s proposed “ratio approach” (where a building could grow up to 1.25 times the width of the adjacent street), then removed any corridors that aren’t designated for medium- and high-density growth, have important viewsheds of the monumental core, or are considered to be substantially in the federal interest. Here’s what remained:
In other words, a couple of slivers, a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, and the majority of K Street NW. K Street, the NCPC noted, is an exception to the rule, both because of its unusual 147.67-foot width and because it’s the lone commercial street (as opposed to “civic avenue”) in the L’Enfant City whose current height limit makes it wider than its buildings are tall.
Planning Director Harriet Tregoning confirms that the K Street pilot program was under consideration. While it might differ in spirit from what the Office of Planning ultimately proposed for the L’Enfant City, in practice, she says, “it was a significant amount of what we would have gotten with our proposal.”
Allowing taller buildings on one street wouldn’t have had much effect on the city’s rising housing and office costs, which Tregoning and others hoped could be addressed by creating additional supply. But K Street does make sense as a starting point. One of the principal arguments against allowing taller buildings in the city is made on aesthetic grounds, that the city’s charm comes from its low skyline. But it’s hard to argue that K Street is charming. For most of its length, it’s a double-wall of unremarkable buildings of near-uniform height.
It’s also where much of the demand is. While critics of changes to the Height Act claim that height limits downtown encourage new development in other parts of the city, the fact is that people want to work downtown—-because it’s where all the Metro lines converge, because it’s where all the lunch spots are concentrated, and because most people they’ll be meeting during the day also work downtown. And so allowing 15-story buildings on K Street would actually result in 15-story buildings on K Street, whereas allowing 15-story buildings in Anacostia wouldn’t change the fact that developers haven’t found it possible or practical yet to build even six stories there.
This is now merely one item that was left on the cutting room floor. But if Congress grants nothing more than minimal changes to the Height Act, as the NCPC has requested, then perhaps the next sympathetic Congress, some indeterminate number of decades down the road, will consider proposals such as this one.
Images from the NCPC report