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Raise The Height: Should DC Alter Its Cityscape?

by Borderstan.com August 2, 2012 at 3:00 pm 0

"Borderstan" "Lincoln Memorial"

DC’s height restrictions allow for great views of the city’s monuments, such as this one from the Lincoln Memorial. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Rachel Nania. Check out her blog, Sear, Simmer & Stir. Follow Nania on Twitter @rnania, email her at rachel[AT]borderstan.com. 

Recent debates on Capitol Hill have led us to believe that our vertically challenged city may gain a little height in the not-too-distant future.

Congress is considering a revision to the District’s building height restrictions, established over a century ago in the Height of Buildings Act. It seems that raising the roof on our city’s skyline could raise the city’s bottom line.

City officials say the District suffers a disadvantage because the federal government owns approximately 40 percent of its land, rendering it non-taxable. Therefore, adding additional real estate in the District (be it vertically or horizontally) would provide a new source of tax revenue for the city.

According to an article in the Washington Post, DC is growing at a rapid rate, thanks to a recent surge in population and a steady job market. The District boom has created an increased demand for downtown office and residential space — but DC is running out of room to expand.

In the Post article, Natwar M. Gandhi, District chief financial officer, reports that the city’s potential for growth is nowhere near exhausted, even though the city’s land is.

But have no fear – the proposed revisions will not transform DC’s signature stunted buildings and open views of the monuments into the next New York. In fact, the proposed revisions actually recommend minimal changes, leaving many city officials, architects and residents wondering if the debate is worth the trouble.

The proposed change would allow building developers to use the tops of buildings (which may currently house the building’s mechanical equipment) or roof space for interior office and residential purposes. Essentially, DC’s skyline could grow by one story.

According to the Post, Congress first approved the city’s current height restrictions in 1899, in response to the construction of the Cairo, a 160-foot-high apartment building on Q Street NW. Shortly after the Cairo controversy, Congress passed the Height of Buildings Act in 1910, which set height restrictions for buildings on both commercial and residential streets, based on the width of the street. (Buildings on commercial streets cannot exceed 130 feet and building heights on residential streets cannot exceed 90 feet.)

In addition to adding height to the city’s buildings, the potential change in legislation would give DC’s city government more authority on building height limits — a change that DC’s Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton calls a “breakthrough” in the Post article.

But on the heels of Mayor Gray’s recent scandal involving  misreported campaign funds, is DC ready to handle such an economically and aesthetically important task? Are we ready to put the fate of our skyline into the hands of a notoriously corrupt government? And is one story even worth the trouble?

A seemingly arbitrary building law established in 1910 does not allow for our city’s current and future growth opportunities. But does it have the District’s best interests (and views) at heart?

According to the Post, it is unclear whether the Congressional committee will hold another hearing or propose legislation on the limits anytime soon.

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