A rendering of Pennsylvania Avenue with 200-foot buildings.
A rendering of Pennsylvania Avenue with 200-foot buildings.

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D.C. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning paid a five-hour visit to the D.C. Council today to lay out the rationale for the major changes to the Height Act her office has suggested—-and to bear witness to overwhelming opposition to her proposal from the members of the public who testified at the hearing.

Tregoning pointed to the city’s current and anticipated population growth as a reason for the need to increase D.C.’s housing and office supply to meet demand. “Not changing is not an option,” Tregoning said. “We are changing. We’re changing already. The question is, are we going to let those changes roll on and let housing prices go higher and higher without doing anything about it?”

According to Tregoning, only 4.9 percent of D.C.’s land has significant capacity for new growth. Under the Office of Planning’s high-end projections, the city will run out of growth capacity before 2030—-and, Tregoning said, market pressure and prices will increase well before then. Theoretically, she added, the city could meet its needs for the next 100 years under the existing Height Act, but that would require changing zoning to allow much greater density in residential neighborhoods, something that’s anathema to many of the people who oppose raising the height limits.

The city’s proposal to modify the Height Act—-in response to a request from Congress to study potential changes to the law in conjunction with the National Capital Planning Commission, which released its own draft recommendations that would leave the law virtually unchanged—-would allow the city to set its own height limits outside the historic L’Enfant City. Within the L’Enfant City, the proposal would increase the ratio between building height and street width slightly and do away with the maximum heights, which are currently 130 feet on commercial streets, 90 feet on residential streets, and 160 feet on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue downtown.

“We just don’t see the need to arbitrarily cap it at 130 feet,” Tregoning said of the antiquated 1910 law. “That had to do with fire suppression.”

But the public witnesses at the hearing saw it otherwise. “A disgraceful proposal,” said Nancy MacWood, chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which rallied supporters to oppose the changes at today’s hearing. The Office of Planning “sp[a]t in the eye of the citizens of the District of Columbia and of home rule” by submitting its proposal to Congress without the prior approval of the city or the NCPC, said Erik Hein, a trustee of the Committee of 100 who said he was speaking only as a Columbia Heights resident. “Changing the Height Act will just exacerbate the problem” of unemployment and poverty, said Laura Richards of the Penn Branch Citizens Civic Association. Chris Otten, director of the Ralph Nader-backed District Dynamos, questioned Tregoning’s population growth forecasts, saying they do not account for increased cancer rates from disasters like the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

Even Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser dropped in to heap on the criticism. “It hasn’t been demonstrated that we need to increase the height limits,” she said. Bowser complained that current development projects are already blocking important viewsheds and worried about the additional problems that could result from taller buildings.

The witnesses represented a diverse array of esoteric groups, from the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington to the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia, whose testifying president was in fact probably younger than the average witness. The witness list of a Monday morning D.C. Council hearing is, almost by definition, not representative of the District population or its views. But it’s clear that the most passionate observers of the Height Act debate with the most time on their hands are by and large opposed to the proposed changes.

The Council has no direct role in the changes; a final proposal will have to be submitted by the NCPC and the city, and then Congress will decide whether to take action on it. But opponents of the changes encouraged the Council to pass a symbolic resolution in opposition to the Office of Planning’s proposal.

Still, the opposition—-representative of the majority opinion or not—-could have an effect on the proposal that gets sent to Congress. Tregoning, under questioning from Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, emphasized that her proposal was simply a draft. “I expect that there will be changes to it in response to the public comment,” she said.

Rendering from the Office of Planning’s report