Building out space on city rooftops for work and play is a common-sense and potentially lucrative tweak to a century-old law that restricts the height of buildings in the District, D.C. officials and analysts told federal lawmakers Thursday.
Typically home to mechanical equipment and "black tar paper," rooftops in the District could acquire office and residential space — even a gym with great views, if one pleases — if Congress considers changes to the Heights of Buildings Act and local zoning officials sign off on the plans, Harriet Tregoning, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, told members of a House subcommittee that oversees D.C. affairs.
The proposal was part of a broad hearing on the act from 1910, which restricts city buildings — based on the width of the street they face — to a maximum height of 90 feet in residential areas and 130 feet in commercial zones, with a few exceptions. It has provided the District with a unique aesthetic for centuries and preserved the view of the United States' most iconic monuments, memorials and houses of government.
Ms. Tregoning and a panel of architecture and planning specialists testified that small changes to the height restrictions could allow those who live and work in the District to effectively use existing space and beautify the growing city. Clusters of rooftop equipment have become smaller and more efficient, leaving room for usable space to be built around them.
"Restricting the use of roof structures to purely mechanical purposes forbids people's enjoyment of some of the city's greatest spaces and most striking views," Ms. Tregoning said.
D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi said the city is flourishing in population and economic growth, but its inability to tax commuters and segments of its footprint limit its revenue sources.
"The District's limited real property base is further constrained by height and density restrictions, which pose a risk to the city's ability to accommodate further growth in population and jobs," Mr. Gandhi said.
Excitement about moving the city into the modern era was tempered by a prevailing attitude about any change to the long-standing Height Act — be careful and do it right. After all, none of the stakeholders at the hearing appeared to be interested in wholesale changes to the city's charm.
"This committee has no desire to turn this city into the next New York," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's D.C. subcommittee.
Laura M. Richards, speaking on behalf of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, offered the strongest defense of the Height Act as it stands. She argued that it "should remain undisturbed and should be enforced vigorously."
"Be very careful as you gamble with the 100-year legacy of Washington's Height Act. I dare say, those height limits may be the single most powerful thing that has made this city so amazingly fulfilling," said Ms. Richards, who was recently sworn as a member of the new D.C. Board of Ethics.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the full oversight committee, enthused D.C. officials last year by proposing a bill that offers budget autonomy. On Thursday, he further heartened the likes of Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting member of Congress, by suggesting that city officials should be able to take charge of any master plans to alter the height restrictions.
"Should we empower the city to answer some of those questions itself? And would they appreciate the opportunity, even if they decided not to use that amendment to the Height Act?" Mr. Issa said to Ms. Norton on the dais.
"I think the city would be hard-pressed to refuse to accept the ability to responsibly handle its own Height Act decisions," she said.
Mr. Gandhi said financial benefits from changes to the height limit "will take time, especially given the slow recovery from the Great Recession and the underlying economic uncertainty."
Officials warned that any congressional action would have to be complemented by adjustments by the city's zoning board, a process that can be "long and contentious," in Mr. Gandhi's words.
They also agreed that the nation's capital will never look like Manhattan or Chicago.
"I believe that the District of Columbia will always limit the height of buildings," Ms. Tregoning said, "whatever the fate of a federal Height Act."
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