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Tension Between District, Feds Might Define Height Act Debate

The most recent meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission previewed potential tensions between federal and District interests in raising the height of D.C.’s buildings. It’s a dynamic likely to become more vivid as Mayor Vincent Gray’s draft recommendation is targeted for release soon.

As the 12-member commission on Thursday reviewed NCPC Executive Director Marcel Acosta’s draft recommendation finding no federal interest in lifting the century-old 130-foot limit on the height of D.C. buildings, District Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning reminded the body that the city and the NCPC might not see eye to eye ultimately.

“We’ve always known at the end of the day that we may not be utterly in lockstep, in terms of what our recommendations are for the city,” Tregoning said. “I appreciate the delicacy that the commission has exercised in not getting out in front of the mayor.”

Elaborating on the differences, Tregoning said: “The federal interest described in this report doesn’t encompass the city’s own economic interests in its vitality, in its livability, in its ability to be financially secure and accommodate the growing population that not only wants to be here in the District, but also is necessary to our fiscal stability,”

The bottom line is that, with fixed borders and a burgeoning population, District planners see a denser, higher future as a viable option to meet demand and maintain livability.

In October 2012, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., requested that the NCPC and the District conduct a joint study on whether the limitations on the city’s building heights, passed by Congress in 1910, continue to serve the interests of the federal and District governments.

“Congress has a clear and appropriate interest in preserving both historic characteristics of our nation’s capital and ensuring that long-standing rules and regulations still pass the test of common sense,” Issa said. “As time has elapsed and opportunities for economic growth in our nation’s capital continue to present themselves, this study will help Congress and local leaders evaluate the case for expanding existing boundaries for vertical growth.”

Tregoning said she hopes the two bodies can reach agreement before they present the findings of their report to the committee later this fall. But she reminded her colleagues “the mayor was independently asked for a position, and if there’s not a consensus, [then] we’ll be sending a separate report, under the mayor’s signature, to the committee.”

Economic development seems likely to be the most contentious issue.

NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, said in an interview that the economic strength of the District is a federal interest.

“The District has been running hundreds of millions of dollars in surpluses; they’ve had a great economy. The vacancy rate of offices and such downtown are minimal. It’s one of the most attractive real estate markets in the country, and the federal government is very happy about that. We want that to continue,” he said.

During a working session in July, Tregoning offered a summary of the results of economic studies that pointed out some of D.C.’s commercial real estate interests.

Studies focused on 15 sites around the city, including the central business district, Friendship Heights, NoMa and Buzzard Point.

In the regional office market, D.C. has to compete with locations such as Arlington and Alexandria, and other locations with no height limits that can offer business tenants a greater range of rents and amenities.

“Often, one of the predominant features of Washington office buildings is their generally low ceilings, because everyone wants to get as much, you know, square footage as they can into the building under the height limit,” she said. “That means ... they might be less attractive spaces than if that limit wasn’t there.”

By contrast, the NCPC’s draft recommendation finds “no specific federal interest in raising heights to meet future federal space needs” and points out that the Office of Management and Budget predicts a “flatline” in demand for federal agency office space.

When asked how these two might be melded in a final report, Bryant said: “We’ll have to wait and see. We haven’t seen any detailed studies of that. They’ve done some high-level, top-line kinds of studies trying to project developable land and generally speaking trying to project when that might be under serious pressure. But we don’t have sufficient details to be able to discuss that.”

Bryant said the NCPC “pointed out in the report that those are the kinds of data that we really need in order to have a more constructive and solid dialogue with the city on real estate development.”

“We have not weighed in on District issues, nor would the District want us to weigh in on their issues at this point. So, I think it’s important that the federal government give Mayor Gray and his administration space to come up with the data and such that we can factor in,” he said.

Tregoning said that “unlike some other actions that the commission takes, the District doesn’t feel like it’s bound by the commission report.”

The NCPC will hold a special commission meeting on the Height Master Plan on Oct. 2.

NCPC Commissioner Robert E. Miller, who was appointed by Gray in 2011, said Thursday that he hopes the commission’s work, plus District interests and some of the public input they had received, can all be combined.

“I think it’s stronger if it is a joint report,” he said.

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