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Agreement in D.C. a tall order

City officials differ on lifting 103-year-old height limits on buildings

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The head of a powerful House committee told a roomful of planners and development watchdogs that he would not let a 103-old law limiting the heights of buildings in the District to go another century without addressing its impact, even as the law continues to divide city leaders.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, who asked for a height study last year, said Monday he was astonished by the differing opinions of the D.C. Council and the city's Office of Planning on the future of the District's skyline.

"I did not expect for the first time ever to have people say, 'Please don't give me authority, I can't be trusted,' " said Mr. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "I am here today because we will not close the height act without full consideration, full recognition of benefits and challenges or any changes to the height act and let it go to sleep for another 100 years."

The Heights of Buildings Act dates back to 1910, and 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.

Prompted by Mr. Issa's request last year for a study, D.C. planners proposed changes to the law that included setting a new maximum building height of 200 feet for 160-foot wide streets in much of the downtown area and allowing penthouses to be used by people instead of just housing mechanical equipment.

City leaders, including Mayor Vincent C. Gray, support easing the restrictions for the sake of future development and broadening the tax base.

"We're punching above our weight in terms of jobs and housing," said D.C. Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning. "That may or may not continue in the future. If our supply continues to be restrained we don't have the diversity of jobs, diversity of housing. People who can't afford to be here start somewhere else because rents are too high."

But last month, 12 of the 13 D.C. Council members sent Mr. Issa a "sense of the council" resolution declaring their opposition to the proposed changes. In the resolution, council members stated that the act's effect "serves to highlight such monumental buildings" as the United States Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Washington National Cathedral.

"This is because the restriction on building heights has limited the concentration of skyscrapers and density that characterize the downtowns of major American cities," the resolution stated.

The National Capital Planning Commission last week voted to recommend no changes to the height act except for occupying penthouses.

"We understand that change may occur in the future, but there is sufficient time to fully review any new growth forecasts in the context of a larger discussion about the city's future development, which may or may not include changes to the federal Height Act," planning commission Executive Director Marcel Acosta said.

Under the Home Rule Charter, Congress reviews all bills passed by the D.C. Council before they become law. But the charter also specifically prohibits the District from passing changes to the height act.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat and member of the planning commission, called the infighting among the District's leaders "a national shame."

"Politics shouldn't have anything to do with it," he said. "I think we would be loath to involve ourselves unless clear, federal issues are involved, and this issue, like many issues involved with home-rule, should be largely left to the discretion of the local government."

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting congressional representative, chastised D.C. leadership, saying that "elected officials have an obligation to avoid home-rule division if at all possible."

"I hope that the city confronts the issue before us consistent with its position for two centuries that the District, not Congress, must make its own decisions."

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