Rep. Darrell Issa led a hearing today on reducing federal restrictions on the height of buildings in Washington, D.C., the first in decades on the subject.
It was the latest move from the California Republican to support giving the District more authority, making him one of its strongest and most unlikely allies in Congress.
The D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Issa chairs, explored revisions to the Height Act, the century-old law that governs the scale of buildings throughout the District.
Issa suggested it should be possible allow some buildings to grow taller while still maintaining the unique, low skyline D.C. is famous for, with all its monuments and historic structures.
In business areas, building heights are mostly limited to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet. There is also a general height limit of 130 feet, extended to 160 feet along parts of Pennsylvania Avenue.
But instead of Congress establishing the blueprint for implementing new Height Act strictures and imposing that on the city, Issa suggested Congress amend the Height Act to give local leaders, in consultation with their constituents, the necessary leeway to give exceptions to the law if they chose to do so.
“Should we empower the city to answer some of those questions [about the Height Act] itself and would they appreciate the opportunity, even if they decide not to use the amendment to the Height Act?” Issa asked.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) expressed her appreciation for Issa’s suggestion in a statement released after the hearing.
“The chairman’s comments today indicated another breakthrough with his willingness to consider greater authority for the city under the Height Act,” she said. “Such a change would simply acknowledge that in hometown D.C., local officials would be best able to make changes, if needed.”
D.C. Building Industry Association Counsel Christopher Collins, D.C. Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, architect and Washington Post columnist Roger Lewis, National Capital Planning Commission Executive Director Marcel Acosta and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi all testified in favor of increased flexibility in building in accordance to the Height Act, saying there were ways to build higher without imposing on the monumental core or detracting from the city’s unique look.
As an example, some argued the Height Act could be changed to allow “mechanical penthouses” — the top floors of buildings that house mechanical equipment — to be inhabited by people. The law currently allows buildings to rise above the height limit to accommodate such penthouses but bars them from human habitation.