Late last year, a congressional hearing on the century-old law governing height limits in the nation’s capital exposed dissenting views among the District’s leaders.
Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration pushed to amend the 1910 Height of Buildings Act to give the city more control over the shape of its skyline. The D.C. Council opposed his position, taking a nearly unanimous stance against any proposed changes that was at the time mocked by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Nearly three months later, with four councilmembers jousting to succeed Gray in his bid for another term as the city’s mayor and the April 1 primary approaching, each politician’s vision for the cityscape has become a bit more nuanced.
Councilmember Tommy Wells, who represents Capitol Hill and Ward 6, says he would need “a really good reason to change the historical character of our city.”
During a Feb. 12 debate, the smart-growth advocate gave two potential rationales for sending the height limit skyward: creating more real estate value in order to fuel more development or adding “more growth around transit-oriented development.” For now, he said, we “don’t need to put the gas pedal down any further.”
In November, Wells was among the 12 councilmembers who signed on to co-sponsor a ceremonial resolution objecting to revising or amending the Height Act.
The federal law sets building height limits on residential streets at 90 feet. 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. Further restrictions are imposed through the city’s zoning process.
The three other councilmembers campaigning for mayor — Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans and Vincent Orange — stand firmly by the Height Act. They would each oppose any changes to current restrictions if elected mayor.
“I do not support any changes to the Height Act,” Bowser, who recently won the Washington Post’s endorsement, said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.
Evans draws on his experience as a college student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“Back in the day, no building could be taller than William Penn’s hat on top of city hall,” he reminisced during the debate. At some point, a developer “broke that ceiling,” Evans said, effectively ruining the skyline.
Orange said he doesn’t buy into the premise offered by some advocates of retooling the height limit — including mayoral candidates Carlos Allen, Reta Jo Lewis and Andy Shallal — that taller buildings could bring more affordable housing options into the city.
Orange, who represented Ward 5 for two terms and is currently serving as an at-large councilmember, ticked off a list of stalled affordable-housing developments. He mentioned projects targeted for neighborhoods around the city, including Deanwood, NoMa, Anacostia and Park View.
“Tonight, there are 4,200 people that are going to be in shelters, that are going to be in recreation centers because we did not build the affordable housing,” Orange said, before slamming Gray’s administration for “backing away” from commitments.
Gray casts the debate about height limits as a referendum on home rule. His stance parallels that of Issa, who has suggested he wants to empower the city. “I didn’t have a proposal to raise a specific height limit,” Gray told CQ Roll Call. “What I wanted to do is to be able to turn the decision-making over to the people of our city.”
One of Gray’s chief advocates for giving the District more of a say in structuring its skyline was recently hired by the Obama administration. D.C. Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning announced earlier this month that she would be resigning, effective Feb. 23, to join the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Gray stands behind recommendations drafted under Tregoning’s leadership that suggest the District should be empowered to modify height limits through its comprehensive plan and zoning to meet increased demand for housing and office space, as projected by the Office of Planning.
Allen agrees that population growth will soon make it necessary to investigate how to lift height restrictions.
Lewis, who has spent most of her career in federal politics, also concurs. She supports changing height restrictions outside the downtown core or “federal city,” but she said leaders must do a better job of holding developers accountable for including affordable housing in their projects.
Also in favor of easing height restrictions in some neighborhoods is Shallal. The Busboys and Poets owner understands that District residents don’t want their town to feel or look like New York City.
“D.C. has a very unique character and part of it is you can actually see the sky when you are walking around,” Shallal said. If we want to have real walkable, livable city — a place able to sustain businesses built on the ground floor of residential building — “we need to have more density,” he argued.
Whoever wins the April 1 primary may have the chance to make their case to Congress for modifying or maintaining the Height Act. Issa has said he will not close the books on the issue without full consideration.