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Public Now Being Introduced to Various Options Proposed to Amend 1910 Height Act to Allow for Taller Buildings; Developers Would be Winners

Accompanying images can be viewed in the August 2013 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

Those hoping for a city beautiful-style presentation and celebration of the District’s venerable 1910 Height Act, the federal statute that has served to control building height nearly all of the time since its enactment and ensure a continuance of L’Enfant’s horizontal design of this country’s beautiful national capital with its magnificent public buildings, were somewhat disappointed to find themselves instead being lectured to for several hours on the cost/benefit aspects of providing different scenarios of additional building height, both for new and expanded structures, for use by Washington’s ever eager and ambitious developers — this coupled with hypothetical views of the visual consequences of these different scenarios captured by a model in a dynamic, interactive video.

Seemingly less of concern by the tone of the presentation was that of the views of the city’s public buildings and its broad avenues and streets, all imminently walkable and interspersed with circular and square parks reserved for the public, together with an intended broad tree canopy.

This was the first of five public meetings — all being scheduled during the first half of August – was held at  the Tenley-Friendship Public Library on Saturday morning, August 3rd. This series of meetings had been well advertised by their co-hosts, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and the District’s Office of Planning (OP) in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for planning and Economic Development; the library’s large meeting room was packed — this in spite of August being the traditionally deadest month of the year.

In addition to this fast track of public meetings in the dead month of August, the reasons for such a study and presentation on the 1910 Height Act at this time have mystified many in Washington, especially when noting the name of its requester, namely, California Congressman Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the Republican controlled U.S. House of Representative — no fan of government planning of any kind, other than that of planning in order to shut down the government.

By letters to Mayor Vincent Gray and NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant, Jr. on October 3, 2012, Issa formally requested such a study, one that would result in a Height Master Plan report to be delivered to Issa’s committee within the year. Issa, after noting the singular importance of the Height Act in the development of the national capital, made special note of that the study focus on the economic development goals of the District.

NCPC’s Bryant’s November 1, 2012 response assured Issa that such a study effort would be guided by three core principles: “ensuring the prominence of federal landmarks and monuments by preserving their views and settings; maintaining the horizonality of the monumental city skyline; and minimizing the negative impacts to nationally significant historic resources including the L’Enfant Plan.” The report and recommendations were promised by Bryant for September, 2013.

Mayor Gray echoed Bryant’s articulation of the principles to be followed in the study, stating in a November 8, 2012, press release that “in addition to these principles, careful consideration will be given to the pedestrian and human scale of taller buildings as perceived from the street level.”

For the few in Washington not knowing the background of the Height Act, OP’s Director Harriet Tregoning and staff offered a summary explanation, namely that the mid-1890s construction of the 164-foot high Cairo apartment building in the 1600 block of Q Street, NW had raised the issue of the adverse affects on air, light, and fire safety of a building that tall; an initial act with height restrictions that exempted federal and municipal buildings from height restrictive provisions was consequently enacted in 1899.

The subsequent 1910 federal statute, which currently governs such matters, reversed that omission and included these public buildings in the restrictions, with a formula that allowed residential buildings to be the height of the width of the street they faced, with a limit of 90 feet, and commercial buildings being allowed to be the height of the width of their respective streets plus 20 feet, with a limit of 130 feet; further, grand avenues such as Pennsylvania being allowed a height equal to their street’s 160-foot width.

Local zoning rules and regulations have since served to further limit these heights. Tregoning further noted that the first building code in Washington — issued in 1791 — limited building heights to 40 feet anywhere in the city and required all buildings on the grand L’Enfant avenues to be at least 35 feet in height.

Attendees at the August 3rd meeting were then provided with a deftly presented summary of the study’s findings and conclusions regarding the economic consequences — and alternatives — of several different height increase scenarios. These were developed by study consultants from selected professional firms: namely, Partners for Economic Solutions; Structures, Inc.; and James G. Davis Construction Corp.

Four approaches were considered and were used in both the economic analysis and the computer modeling: no increase in height other than through the use of the mechanical penthouse and its set-back space to add 18½ feet to a building’s height; reinforcement of the street width to building height relationship by adding the resultant formulaic feet; increasing height in selected areas; and increasing height citywide but only on specific sites.

Fourteen illustrative areas were selected. The study and modeling did not include federal properties, historical sites, low density residential areas, and low density historic districts. Potential economic impacts of higher buildings were identified for both office and residential construction. These included: the ability to pinpoint preferred locations; lower construction costs and rents; more competitive designs — especially higher ceilings, more windows, and better views; attraction of more knowledge workers; more retail amenities; Metro accessibility; and neighborhood amenities. Potential benefits in the new construction were estimated to be even more important in its enabling the District to better compete for regional development.

While at times difficult to follow and challenging to interpret, the display of computer modeling was the high point of the morning. Developed by a team of experts led by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, LLP, along with others from Cybercity 3D, Inc., AMT LLC Consulting Engineers and Land Surveyors, Digital Design and Imaging Services, Inc., and Capital Pixel, attendees were suitably fascinated by being shown, dynamically and in beautiful color photography, what increases in height and depth would look like at different increased heights. Using block massing symbology, the increases from certain vantage points looked ominous. Panoramic and skyline views from north, south, east, and west were shown.

Unfortunately, there were few, if any, views from the street given nor were pedestrian relationships to the heights shown. In answers to several questions, attendees were directed to the NCPC/OP study website at http://tinyurl.com/m6cqqzq for additional views. Further, unfortunately, for a number of attendees, the two-hour session ended just as the questioning was getting interesting, and many lingered in animated conversation and in rapt examination of the boards outside the meeting room.

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 Reader Comment

Kudos to Tony Harvey for his excellent coverage and subsequent reporting on the Height Master Plan issue. His observation that the city we have today is in part the result of the 1910 Height of Buildings Act and is rooted in the City Beautiful movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is spot on. Mr. Harvey’s reporting takes on even greater importance given the fact that the Washington Post, of which I am a subscriber, has not, to my knowledge, provided one word of coverage on this important local and national issue.

Depending on what actions the National Capital Planning Commission and its commissioners take at their September 12 meeting, there is potential for considerable change in the look of our city in the future. It seems to register with only a very few that Washington, DC is not like any other city in the United States. It is our nation’s capital and as such, it does not have to look like every other city in the country. The tools that have guided its development during the past 200-plus years have been the 1791 L’Enfant Plan, the 1901-1902 McMillan Plan, the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, and NCPC’s own Legacy Plan of the 1990s. The city and its horizontal skyline, punctuated by the Capitol’s dome, the WashingtonMonument, and the tower of Washington National Cathedral, is iconic, recognizable worldwide! Why would our city’s leadership and the U.S. Congress want to mess with that, unless the current review is a smokescreen to hide a move for increased development opportunities. If the latter, then they need to study carefully the existing development possibilities on the city’s generalized land use map and under existing zoning regulations.

Richard Busch, Dupont East