House to review D.C. building height limits

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Photo - Development in Northeast D.C. (Examiner file photo)
Development in Northeast D.C. (Examiner file photo)
Local,Congress,DC,Alan Blinder

The District's delegate to Congress said Thursday that she does not expect quick changes to the federal law that limits the heights of buildings in the city, even as a top lawmaker announced the first legislative study of the capital's architectural restrictions.

"I wouldn't think that we're about to see changes in the Height Act," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told The Washington Examiner. "This is only the beginning of a process that would be very lengthy."

Norton's comments came after Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House committee with oversight of the District, said federal and local planning officials would submit a report to Congress by next September about the 102-year-old Heights of Buildings Act, which generally limits buildings in the city to 120 feet.

"The study will help Congress and local leaders evaluate the case for expanding existing boundaries for vertical growth," Issa said.

The existing law has helped the District preserve its largely uncluttered skyline, but Issa said he wanted to ensure the guidelines "still pass the test of common sense" after some local officials cautioned the law might be stifling the District's economy.

"Elimination of the height and density restrictions on the District's already-limited real property base could be an important step toward maintaining the city's long-term ability to accommodate further growth," D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi said in July.

Don Hawkins, a former chairman of the Committee of 100, a preservation group, warned Thursday that the study could lead to a complete erosion of the rules.

"Setting up a blue-ribbon panel is just the first step in handing something over," Hawkins said. "As soon as the 1910 laws have been fiddled with, they are vulnerable to more change."

But Norton said she has no interest in disrupting the architectural rhythms of the city's center.

"We don't need much of a study to tell us we want to preserve the downtown core with the monuments, the Capitol and the views that the nation and District alike benefit from," she said. "But what we need to know is whether any changes in the Height Act in the neighborhoods would be advisable."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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