Get our free newsletter

Phil Mendelson bids farewell to rationality.

Presented with the opportunity to take a small degree of control over D.C.’s skyline from Congress, the D.C. Council this morning overwhelmingly offered the equivalent of “no, thanks.”

Later today, the National Capital Planning Commission will vote on whether to approve and send to Congress a proposal to alter the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which caps the height to which D.C. buildings may rise. The NCPC’s recommendations are modest: They keep the existing height limits in place, but allow future changes to the limits outside the historic L’Enfant City. Those changes would need to go through the Comprehensive Plan process, which means they’d need to be approved first by the D.C. Council, then by the NCPC, and finally by Congress.

But the Council apparently doesn’t want any control over D.C.’s skyline. This morning, Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced a “sense of the Council” resolution opposing any changes to the Height Act. And every one of his colleagues but Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry signed on as a co-introducer.

This is, frankly, insane. Right now the D.C. Council has no power to increase height limits in the city. If the NCPC proposal (or the similar Office of Planning proposal) is approved by Congress, the Council will have a say. That doesn’t mean there’ll be taller buildings. The Council would have a complete veto over any proposals for additional height, as would the NCPC and Congress. It just means that the city’s elected leaders would have a chance to weigh in on the city’s verticality, rather than leaving that power exclusively in the hands of a federal body in which D.C. has no voting members.

“The Height Act of 1910 should not be amended or revised at this time,” states the resolution, citing the city’s horizontal skyline, the spread of development to new neighborhoods, and opposition to changes from members of the public who testified before the Council. The resolution continues, “Someday there may be need to revise the Height Act.” It fails to note that the city will have no power to do so unless it is given that ability by a change to the law now, as the NCPC and Office of Planning have proposed.

Fortunately, Mendelson’s resolution carries no actual weight, since the Council, for now, has no authority over the height limits. I suppose if the Council is going to pass irrational legislation, it might as well do so meaninglessly.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery