Should DC Have Control Over the Height of its Buildings?

Cairo HotelThe House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform held a hearing on the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 yesterday morning. While the primary purpose of the hearing was to discuss whether or not there should be an increase in the height of buildings in DC, the discussion has also begun to focus on whether building height limits should be a federal or local responsibility.

Growing up in the suburbs of DC, I always knew there was a height restriction on buildings in the city. With that being said, most people (including myself) assumed that restriction was put in place to make sure no buildings were taller than the Capitol building.

When I was doing some reading prior to the hearing held a House Committee yesterday, however, I found out that long held belief was wrong. It turns out the Height of Buildings Act of 1899 (the precusor to the current one passed in 1910) was passed in reaction to the construction of the 164 foot tall Cairo Hotel in the Dupont Circle neighborhood.

It was in reaction to how the 12 story building towered over neighboring buildings that residents of DC lobbied Congress to pass a law limiting the height of buildings in the city. They didn’t want to see a “race to the sky” that was prevelent in other cities such as New York.

This is significant because it was indeed local DC residents who went to Congress asking for the legislation to be implemented — it wasn’t the Federal government trying to impose its will on local residents.

Now that rent is skyrocketing in DC and there isn’t much room for development, however, there’s some discussion about what should be done (if anything) with the Height Act. A recent report shows that the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in DC runs $1,670 a month. A two bedroom would cost you $2,042. And just in case you thought that’s the highest it’ll go, you should consider that the average monthly rent of a one bedroom apartment has increased over $70 during the last six months.

The growing rents in the City will only continue as population growth makes limited space even more costly. Based upon the current rate of growth, for instance, the DC Office of Planning put out a report that projects a need of up to 317 million square feet of new development by 2040. The current height limitations will apparently make that extremely difficult.

The business community — especially developers who are wealthy and influential — have used these arguments to create support for increasing building heights. And especially when it comes to some of the outer edges of the city where sightlines or the historical feel of the community won’t be impacted, even strong supporters of the height limits agree they make some valid points.

Despite plenty of people being concerned about the need for more development in the District, however, the more vocal side appears to be those who support keeping Height Act as it is. As Roll Call pointed out, for instance, the hearing room was filled yesterday with people wearing “Save the Height Act” stickers. And that gets to the heart of how there is a strong debate even among long term DC residents about how to move forward on the issue of building height.

With that being said, one of the more interesting aspects of the Congressional hearing was it tended to highlight how there’s not only debate over whether or not to increase the building heights, but over who should be in charge of making the decision — Congress or local district officials.

The DC Council, for instance, passed a resolution that recommended making no changes to the Height of Buildings Act. This is important to note because not only do they want to keep the building height the same, but it also means they want to keep Congress in charge of making that decision. Part of the Council’s reasoning is that although some studies have shown the need for more development in order to keep people in the city at affordable rates, they believe the past decade of growth proves that’s not necessarially the case.

Congressman Darrell Issa actually ended up expressing some “astonishment” at hearing members of the DC Council say they didn’t support a move that would end up giving more power to the District. For years, after all, there has been a lot of discussion about increasing voting rights for DC residents and the fact that DC laws face legislative review by Congress. So having members of the DC Council say they want Congress to make such an important decision is somewhat surprising.

The DC Office of Planning Director Harriot Tregoning, however, seems to share in Issa’s astonishment and has been rather outspoken in her support of making the District in charged of the decision.

“I don’t understand why we would leave it to congressmen who are all too often indifferent and in the future may never entertain any interest in advancing our issues of Home Rule,” Tregoning said at a recent NCPC hearing. “Would a future Congress care if longterm residents couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore?”

Tregoning’s reasoning doesn’t automatically mean she supports having an increase in the height of buildings. She even used the hearing as an opportunity to remind people that “a change to the Federal Height Act does not change the height of buildings in the federal city.”

Despite the debate over who should be in charge of the decision and Rep. Issa’s announcement that he’ll continue examining the issue, however, there does seem to be some consensous. The vast majority of DC residents and community groups believe there shouldn’t be any significant increase to the building heights in DC.

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