From the District’s perspective, the National Capital Planning Commission’s final recommendations for changes to the Height Act represent a marked improvement over the commission’s September draft recommendations. The earlier version was essentially a rejection of any alteration of the 1910 federal law that sets height limits for D.C.’s buildings, other than a small change to allow occupancy of some penthouses. The new version, set for NCPC approval and transmission to Congress tomorrow, also keeps the existing height limits in place, but allows for future changes to those limits outside the historic L’Enfant City—-provided the NCPC and Congress sign off on them.
The final recommendations take a flexible approach and could give the D.C. government 80 percent of what it wants: the ability to raise building heights in select areas to meet growing demand amid a population boom. (The other 20 percent, the District proposal to allow slightly taller buildings within the L’Enfant City, was rejected outright by the NCPC.) But even where the report is more forward-thinking than its predecessor, it remains, in its underlying assumptions, cynical, illogical, and a tad self-serving.
The District has had home rule for 40 years, and has recently enjoyed economic growth, balanced budgets, and a lack of political gridlock that the federal government could only dream of. (Not to mention that we picked up their trash for them when they couldn’t figure out a way to avoid a shutdown.) And yet there remains the assumption that we simply can’t take care of ourselves without ruining everything. We’ve already conceded the L’Enfant City, essentially telling the feds that we’ll let them continue to set the cityscape rules for such historic federal enclaves as 14th and U streets NW.
But why, exactly, shouldn’t the District be able to set its own rules for building size in Friendship Heights or Deanwood? The only logical answer is that the feds think they know better.
Of course, the NCPC would answer differently, arguing that taller buildings in those neighborhoods could disrupt important viewsheds of the Capitol and the White House. But Chevy Chase Pavilion is seven miles from the Capitol, and directly across the street (and Maryland border) from high-rises that are already doing as much viewshed disruption as is possible from that distance. By contrast, the office buildings of Rosslyn—-neither lovely nor low-slung—-are just across the Potomac River from the monuments, yet can rise as high as local and state officials see fit.
If the feds were truly concerned with unobstructed views of the monumental core, they’d pass a law requiring that Rosslyn be razed and rebuilt no higher than 130 feet. Of course, they won’t, and they shouldn’t. But the fact that they continue to apply those rules in the far corners of the District, and to make themselves the arbiters of any future exceptions, implies that the real goal is to retain a degree of authority over a jurisdiction they once controlled outright and still don’t entirely trust to rule itself.
As it stands now, if D.C. wants to allow taller buildings in a particular neighborhood (within the Height Act limits, naturally), the body that needs to approve the change is the Zoning Commission, three of whose members are District-appointed and two of whom are federally appointed. If the Height Act is amended in accordance with D.C.’s wishes to allow building-height home rule in much of the city, before developers can start building higher than 130 feet, the zoning would need to be changed, and approved, once again, by the Zoning Commission. The NCPC has no direct role in this process.
But if Congress decides to adopt the NCPC recommendations, all of a sudden the NCPC has a big say in the matter. That’s because any changes to height limits would come through the Comprehensive Plan process, where the D.C. Council would pass and transmit the changes to the NCPC, which would then have line-item veto authority over them. As long as the NCPC didn’t like what the Council had approved, it would continue to send the proposal back to the Council for modification until it finally found it acceptable.
Additional control over building heights doesn’t represent some sort of huge power grab by the NCPC. But for an agency that’s lost some of the relevance it once had as the planning body for D.C. before home rule, it’d mean additional authority, and one has to wonder whether that aspiration factored into the NCPC’s report.
Photo from the NCPC draft report