La Defense. Photo by Yu on Flickr.

DC needs to find a place for substantial new housing and jobs in the future, and federal planners now seem to acknowledge that fact. They’re willing to create a process, though an exhaustively long one, by which some future growth could exceed the federal height limit.

It’s a tiny step forward for the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), a very cautious federal agency, but actually a significant one. The blanket height limit made it impossible to even consider creating a skyscraper neighborhood somewhere in the city, perhaps like Poplar Point, or even having an occasional, iconic tower amidst lower buildings.

Last night, NCPC staff published an updated recommendation for changing the federal height limit. They’ve decided to insist on absolutely no change in the original L’Enfant City (basically everything between Florida Avenue and the rivers), but are willing to open a gate to a very long road for taller buildings elsewhere.

To recap, the federal law, which only Congress can change, limits heights of buildings in DC to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet, up to a maximum of 90-130 feet depending on the area. Outside downtown and downtown-ish areas like NoMA and the ballpark, local zoning restricts buildings far more, however.

The local zoning can change if the Zoning Commission, a board with 3 local and 2 federal representatives, agrees, but that board can’t pierce the blanket federal height limit. Under NCPC’s proposal, that could happen, but DC planners would first have to define the taller-building area in an amendment to the official Comprehensive Plan, a voluminous document updated every 5 years.

The DC Council, which otherwise has no voice in zoning, would have to approve the plan change, and NCPC, the mostly-federal board with representatives from agencies like the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration, would also have to assent. Congress would then have its own chance to overturn the changes if it chose.

But if, and it’s a big if, a future plan for some tall buildings somewhere gets enough political support to convince the DC government, the DC Council, and NCPC, it could become a reality.

It’s not a bad idea to ask that a taller building area undergo thorough planning and community discussion. Certainly many argue that we should simply have fewer restrictions on buildings. But that isn’t a majority view right now. Eventually, however, enough residents may recognize that severe limits on our housing supply push up costs and be willing to explore solutions.

Those solutions could simply entail upzoning many areas around Metro stations and transit corridors (which wouldn’t require height limit changes). Or, maybe it means a lot of tall buildings in one small space, like Paris’ La Defense. Or each section of the city has an architectural competition for one distinctive and exceptional taller building.

Under this plan, at least we could have that debate. Those alternatives are within the realm of the possible. The city could try to trade extra height for important amenities that residents really want, as Montgomery County is doing with its White Flint plan.

On the other hand, this path certainly means a lot of veto points. And we know that any change engenders strong opposition, almost no matter what the change. It will be mightily difficult to get a plan for taller buildings past all of these boards.

Still, at least NCPC is willing to entertain the notion. The staff recommendation still reserves for NCPC control over any height limit exceptions, but that’s a lot different from a Congressional law totally banning it. Which means that if and when DC needs more height, at least there’s a way, even if it’s a hard way.


Is this flatness necessarily in the federal interest? Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.


One change would make a lot of sense at this point: if the process for allowing greater height involves so many steps of local and federal approvals, it now seems silly to completely exempt the L’Enfant City. There are tradeoffs between growing in the center, where it’s already busy but there is more infrastructure, and at the edges, where some people crave economic development but taller buildings would stand out more.

NCPC staff argue that the federal interest is greatest in the L’Enfant City, where most federal land is, and lesser outside. Plus, just outside the L’Enfant City in Arlington there are already tall buildings, so it seems silly to insist on such a strict rule outside in other directions.

But it’s still unclear that having buildings low, boxy, and boring — the height limit’s effect downtown — is really in the federal interest, or why an avenue of mid-sized buildings that frames a monument looking tiny in the distance is better than framing the same monument with taller buildings, as many other world capitals do.

A joint local-federal discussion about where to add height should encompass downtown and L’Enfant city neighborhoods as well as outlying areas. Why simply exclude a place like Hill East/RFK stadium from this discusssion? Or NoMA? NCPC can veto a proposal in those areas if it’s not on board, but given that it would have to agree to any change, there’s no need to exclude whole sections of the city at the same time.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.