The DC Office of Planning (OP) suggests replacing the blunt citywide height limit with more targeted rules that would slightly increase heights downtown, and give DC the option to allow taller buildings elsewhere.

Under the proposal, the existing federal height limit would only apply to the L’Enfant City, and would change to allow modestly taller buildings. Elsewhere, DC would set its own limits using the local zoning process, which already requires federal and public input.


DC’s skyline today. Photo by the DC Office of Planning.



In many parts of DC, the zoning code already restricts height more than federal law, so this would result in no change for those areas. But for other peripheral neighborhoods, especially near Metro stations, it could potentially allow taller buildings.

Even so, it would take long public processes to rezone any land for taller buildings. To do so, the change would first have to be part of the District’s Comprehensive Plan. After that, the Zoning Commission has to approve specific new zoning. At each stage there are opportunities for public feedback, and 2 of 5 members on the Zoning Commission are federal appointees.

Within the L’Enfant city, the report recommends modifying the height limit to allow slightly taller buildings. The current height limit restricts buildings to the width of the street plus 20 feet. OP recommends changing that to be simply 125% the width of the street.

In practice that’s a very modest increase. Pennsylvania Avenue is 160 feet wide, so its height limit is currently 180 feet. Under OP’s 125% proposal, it would rise to 200 feet.

OP’s report follows a National Capital Area Planning Commission (NCPC) study of the issue. NCPC’s own recommendations earlier this month called for similar but more modest changes.

For downtown DC, NCPC recommended allowing humans to use mechanical penthouses, which would effectively raise the height limit by one floor, as long as there are setbacks. Outside downtown, NCPC suggested further study but not yet any action.

OP argues that ensuring the economic stability and vitality of the capital city is a compelling federal interest, and reason to modify the height limit.

The ultimate decision will rest with Congress, which passed the original height limit law and is the only body which can change it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.