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We Urge Rejection of Any Move to Relax Current DC Building Height Limitations

In last month’s issue we published an extensive report on various options being considered to amend 1910 Height Act to allow for taller buildings (August issue PDF page 1; Our reporter, who attended the first of five public meetings held in August, was struck by the sense of disappointment by those attending that meeting who had been, as he wrote, “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.”

Instead, as he further reported, the attendees were “instead being lectured to . . . on the cost/benefit aspects of providing different scenarios of additional building height, both for new and expanded structures” –- all for the apparent benefit of developers who, as the article’s headline noted, “would be winners.” (It should be noted that it is this commentator, this publication’s publisher, who is responsible for how our headlines read.)

What to us is even more distressing than this apparent headlong drive to figure out a way to line the pockets of commercial developers is what got it started –- in two words (actually, a name: Darrell Issa, the Republican congressman from California who strikes fear into all DC government officials and politicians thanks to his aggressive chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee which, among other matters, passes on District o Columbia issues. It was he who browbeat the National Capital Planning Commission and the Office of the Mayor to come up with a plan that presumably would make our city more like what he applauds in his own state.

Clearly, in our view, he has little or no appreciation for the uniqueness of L’Enfant’s vision and those who ensured its survival and viability back at the turn of the 20th century.

Fortunately, the proposals that have been now widely circulated and are receiving much analysis and critical review are galvanizing important voices in opposition. Among those, which we heartedly endorse, is that recently put forward by a coalition of 11 respected historic preservation groups from all corners of the city. We believe they have forcefully stated the case for not even tinkering with what has worked so well to preserve and enhance the uniqueness of this very special place, our national capital. Below is their well-articulated brief.

“The Historic Districts Coalition is an informal alliance of organizations and individuals representing Washington, DC’s historic districts —- those that have been designated under the provisions of the Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act of 1978 (D.C. Public Law 2-144) —- as well as others interested in historic preservation, including residents of undesignated neighborhoods and representatives of neighborhood organizations, historic preservation organizations, and preservation-related businesses.

“We . . . have developed the following position on the [proposed] Height Master Plan:

“The 1910 Height of Buildings Act, through its effect on physically shaping the nation’s capital, is no less important than the seminal 1791 L’Enfant Plan for the City of Washington.  The L’Enfant Plan, as revitalized by the 1901 McMillan Commission, provided the foundation by brilliantly imposing on the landscape a rhythmic pattern alternating open spaces —- streets, parks, and squares —- with closed spaces intended for structures. In so doing, the L’Enfant Plan effectively limited two of the dimensions of any structure. By regulating the third dimension through the Height Act, the Congress furthered the human scale of the city and created the iconic horizontal skyline that Washington enjoys today.

“There is no compelling case for allowing taller buildings to accommodate growth in population or economic activity. As noted in public presentations by the Office of Planning, large areas of the city are currently not ‘built out’ to the maximum allowed under existing zoning regulations. Ample long-term opportunities for commercial and residential development remain in the District of Columbia, many of which are outlined in the National Capital Planning Commission’s 1990s Extending the Legacy plan.”

The Coalition’s position was very simply stated, that it was endorsing the option presented for maintaining the status quo, that is, to make no changes to the Height Act. Further, they stated opposition to the proposal to allow for occupancy of penthouse structures which are those that accommodate elevator and mechanical systems; these set-back structures are permitted to exceed the stated height limits.

We strongly urge the mayor and all relevant city officials and the members of the city council –- and also our influential Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (yes, even in the Republican-dominated House) –- to stand firm against agreeing to mollify Congressman Issa and his developer pals.