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The current plan, unless Shalom Baranes designs some really excellent buildings.

It’s time for the National Capital Planning Commission to weigh in on a new zoning district for the air over the Union Station railroad tracks, and in its staff recommendation, the federal body found that the proposed heights of the new buildings would threaten the city’s “horizontal character”—but stopped short of outright condemning the measure outright.

During discussions on the Comprehensive Plan, NCPC made clear that it opposed allowing developer Akridge to measure the heights of the Burnham Place buildings from the H Street bridge (as have local preservation groups). Since December, they agreed with the Office of Planning on language that essentially allows the Zoning Commission to interpret the Height Act as it sees fit. That opens the door for the Zoning Commission to measure heights from the H Street bridge after all, which NCPC still thinks could be detrimental.

“The effect of this will be the creation of uneven building heights in the area and potentially negative impacts to the character of the horizontal city, a character created by the consistent buildings heights established in the Height Act,” the staff write. “Allowing this measurement could establish a precedent that would allow similar development out of scale with other areas of the city in the future.”

Furthermore: The current plan is for the building heights to step back from Union Station, starting at 90 feet, going to 110 feet, and then the full 130 as allowed by the Height Act. However, if the Zoning Commission determines that the plans architect Shalom Baranes comes up with are of “exceptional architectural quality,” they may go 20 feet higher. That, according to NCPC staff, would also create buildings out of scale with their surroundings.

Instead of outright opposing the new zoning district, though, NCPC has simply asked that it be consulted on future steps in the process, just like District agencies would (Akridge will have to go back twice more to get approvals on the uses, materials, and design of the buildings, unless they manage to consolidate the rounds of review). And that has the developer looking on the bright side.

“We’re pleased to see that their recommendation includes a request for more input rather than a stronger statement of dissatisfaction or direction to the Zoning Commission to expressly go in a different direction,” says Akridge’s David Tuchmann.