Is this really the best possible D.C. skyline, 103 years later?
Is this really the best possible D.C. skyline, 103 years later?

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The National Capital Planning Commission issued its final recommendations today for changes to the Height Act, and while they could allow for taller buildings in some parts of the city, they reject the pitch for home rule on building heights made by the District government.

A September draft report by NCPC Executive Director Marcel Acosta recommended that the 1910 law—-which limits D.C. building heights to the width of the street plus 20 feet, with a cap of 90 feet on residential streets and 130 feet on most commercial ones—-remain virtually untouched, with a suggestion only for a small change regarding penthouse occupancy. Two weeks later, the D.C. Office of Planning released its own recommendations, which called for an altered formula for the historic L’Enfant City to permit slightly taller buildings and for freeing the city from congressional control entirely on building heights outside the L’Enfant City.

Today, the NCPC—-which, along with the city government, was tasked by Rep. Darrell Issa with studying and suggesting changes to the Height Act—-has released its final recommendations. And while they would allow taller buildings outside the L’Enfant City, any changes would have to be approved by both the NCPC and Congress.

Within the L’Enfant City—-roughly bounded by Florida Avenue and the Potomac and Anacostia rivers—-the NCPC rejects any changes to the Height Act, including the Office of Planning’s call for a formula based purely on a ratio to the street width. Outside the L’Enfant City, the NCPC recommends leaving the Height Act in place, but allowing for the District to raise height limits through the Comprehensive Plan process. In making this shift from its earlier position, the NCPC concedes that federal interests “are less concentrated in this area, and from a federal perspective, opportunities for strategic change to the Height Act may exist.” The report also notes concerns by city officials that the city could have trouble accommodating its expected population growth without taller buildings.

But any such changes to the height limits would have to be passed first by the D.C. Council and then approved by the NCPC, which would have line-item veto authority to reject changes and send the recommendations to the Council to be amended. If the Council and NCPC agree to changes, those would then be transmitted to Congress for approval. If Congress does not expressly disapprove them within 30 days, the new height limits become law.

In effect, these recommendations could have much the same impact on the city’s skyline outside the L’Enfant City as the Office of Planning’s proposal, provided the NCPC and Congress see eye to eye with the District on the need for future height-limit changes. But in spirit, they’re quite different, since they leave the ultimate authority in the hands of a federal agency and the U.S. Congress rather than the District and its Zoning Committee (which does have two federally appointed members).

The NCPC report also recommends a further evaluation of policies to protect viewsheds of the city’s monumental core, and maintains its call to allow human occupancy of penthouses that are currently reserved for mechanical equipment. It also suggests changing some of the outdated language of the 1910 law that refers to fireproof construction.

The NCPC will meet on Tuesday to review the final recommendations and vote on sending them to Congress, along with the city’s recommendations that will either be included in a joint proposal or filed separately.

Photo via NCPC