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After more than 100 years of architectural strictures imposed by the federal government, the District should prepare to endure them for the foreseeable future. National Capital Planning Commission Executive Director Marcel Acosta has drafted his recommendations in response to a congressional request that the NCPC and the city explore revisions to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, and Acosta’s conclusion is, in essence, to stick with the status quo.
The NCPC will officially present the report at a meeting tomorrow. Acosta notes that his report is not a joint report with the District, which “has not identified a preferred approach(es) to strategically changing the Height Act; nor has it has provided completed detailed urban design and economic studies that support a preferred approach.” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the congressional committee that has oversight over District affairs, requested a joint study last November, to be submitted by this month.
“Based on the visual modeling work conducted as part of the Height Study, changes to the Height Act within the L’Enfant City and within the topographic bowl may have a significant adverse effect on federal interests,” Acosta writes. “These include the views and setting of the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, National Mall, national parks, and other nationally significant civic and cultural resources. Increases may also impact the character of L’Enfant streets and public spaces.”
Acosta’s conclusions are sure to please fans of D.C.’s low-slung skyline. But they won’t please everyone. For instance, me. Here are five reasons why I think Acosta’s arguments are dead wrong:
1. One of the main arguments in favor of amending the Height Act and allowing buildings to rise higher than the current limits—-the width of the street plus 20 feet, with a cap of 90 feet on residential streets and 130 feet on most commercial streets—-is that this city is really expensive. By some measures, we’re the most expensive housing market, rental market, and office market in the country. Acosta writes, “In the short term, agencies anticipate a flatline in demand for office space and will be seeking to use existing federal assets more effectively to meet future needs.” Sure, office costs aren’t booming like they once were—-but they’re flatlining at a pretty darn high level. Raising height limits would ease this pressure and make office space more affordable for private companies, and, yes, the federal government, too.
2. Acosta’s only proposal to amend the Height Act involves mechanical penthouses, those rooftop structures that house equipment for heating and air conditioning and the like. He recommends “support[ing] communal recreation space on rooftops by allowing human occupancy in roof structures, as defined in District Zoning Regulations, where use of those structures is currently restricted under the Height Act to mechanical equipment, so long as those structures continue to be set back from exterior walls at a 1:1 ratio.” Most people are in agreement that this is a good idea. But it’s laughable to think that it’s the only needed modification to a 103-year-old law.
3. “From a federal operational and mission perspective, the Height Act continues to meet the essential interests and needs of the federal government and it is anticipated that it will continue to do so in the future,” Acosta writes. “There is no specific federal interest in raising heights to meet future federal space needs.” Granted, Acosta works for a federal agency. But it’s infuriating how little mention he makes of the District’s own interests in this law. The Height Act became law more than 60 years before D.C. gained home rule. Since then, the city’s population and economy have declined, and then boomed. Development was driven by cars, and then by Metro and walkability. Industries that didn’t exist in 1910, like Internet technology, are now helping drive the city’s economic growth. How can regulations from 1910 possibly be the perfect ones for a city in 2013? The feds stand to gain from a well-functioning city, and they’d be wise to give that city at least a passing thought when legislating its future.
4. Acosta does give the city some minimal consideration when he writes, “Large or uniform increases in height may impact the city’s infrastructure.” He’s right. But if anything, greater density would be a good catalyst for infrastructure improvements that are overdue as it is. By Acosta’s logic, we should never build anything new, lest it require investments in related areas.
5. We’re missing a tremendous opportunity. Congress has hardly ever given the District an ounce of additional control over its own destiny. Now, we have a conservative Republican who’s actually asking us to tell him how this law ought to be changed, for the sake of the city and the federal government. And the NCPC is blowing it with small thinking. Who knows when an opportunity like this will come along again?
The NCPC has a model in its lobby of what the District could have looked like under smarter planning. It’s enough to make any Washingtonian sigh wistfully. But to achieve a better city like that, we have to take advantage of chances to make real change. And for now, it appears that the NCPC is choosing not to.