The view down 16th Street NW (left), and a rendering with buildings as high as 200 feet in select locations (right).
The view down 16th Street NW (left), and a rendering with buildings as high as 200 feet in select locations (right).

Just two days after releasing revised recommendations for changes to the Height Act that would have opened the window to future changes to D.C.’s building height limits, the National Capital Planning Commission voted to strip the proposal of its only meaningful alteration to the 1910 law and send a watered-down recommendation to Congress.

Commissioner Peter May, representing the National Park Service, spoke up as soon as the presentation of the proposed NCPC recommendations concluded and introduced an amendment to cut out the provision to allow the city to study and propose future changes to the cap on building heights in select areas, which would then have to be approved by both the NCPC and Congress. Several hours of public testimony later, a majority of May’s colleagues voted in favor of his amendment, replacing the key provision with vaguer language: “There may be some opportunities for strategic change in the areas outside of the L’Enfant City where there is less concentration of federal interests.”

The resolution does not specify how that change would take place. Currently, the Height Act can only be changed by an act of Congress.

The recommendations the NCPC will send to Congress would leave the Height Act almost entirely intact. The only proposed changes are a small alteration to the allowed occupancy of penthouses and the removal of some obsolete language relating to fire safety.

Voting in support of May’s amendment was NCPC member and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson—-a paradoxical move, given that the language May stripped out would have given the Council some say over height limits, which it does not currently have. Earlier in the day, Mendelson introduced a symbolic Council resolution opposing any changes to the Height Act, and all but one of his colleagues signed on as co-introducers.

It now remains to be seen whether the D.C. Office of Planning—-tasked by Congress with conducting a joint study of the Height Act with the NCPC—-will issue a separate set of recommendations that continue to press for a degree of home rule over building heights, or simply acquiesce to the NCPC’s decision not to change the law meaningfully.

Photo and rendering via the Office of Planning