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The study area.

In some parts of the city, building heights are limited to 90 feet, in others to 130 feet, by Congressional decree. But some areas have been kept even lower with self-imposed zoning overlays, and one of them—8th Street SE below the freeway—has outgrown its usefulness, says a “visioning report” put out by local organizations.

At the suggestion of the Office of Planning, the Capitol Riverfront BID and Barracks Row Main Streets convened a series of sessions with other local groups and residents to figure out what to do with the several blocks between 7th and 11th Streets SE, north of M Street. Aside from a few restaurants and historic structures, it feels cut off from the rest of Barracks Row, lost in the cluster of highways.

It’s not like that entirely by sad historical accident. In 1999, the area was placed under a 45’ height limit as a way to preserve the historic building inventory after the relocation of the Naval Sea Operations from Northern Virginia to the Navy Yard. No historic buildings have been destroyed—but not much has been built, either.

To help attract investment, the visioning people commissioned some sketches of what new buildings at 65 and 85 feet would look like. They decided that heights should stay low along 8th Street, but could go higher on the surrounding blocs, subject to several conditions:

  • Community involvement in the development of and review of the proposed plans.
  • The renovation and re-purposing of significant historic structures as a meaningful part of the overall project.
  • The quality of the proposed development’s site plan, massing, and architecture.

Not gigantic new buildings. Just enough to attract people under the freeway, with an opportunity for community leverage over design standards in exchange for greater height.

It’s the new fashion at the Office of Planning to respond to well-organized proposals from broad coalitions of neighborhood stakeholders, so this report could be the first step in the long process towards a text amendment to the overlay, such as the one obtained in Midcity to relax restrictions on bars and restaurants.

What the area could look like with some taller buildings.