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D.C. leaders consider easing height restrictions

WASHINGTON — A leading House Republican is talking to District of Columbia leaders about easing the height restrictions that have limited buildings in the nation’s capital to about 12 stories for more than a century.

Advocates say easing the restrictions only slightly could open up new opportunities for commercial real estate developers and accommodate the city’s swelling population.

Those limits, however, have long been guarded by preservationists because they ensure unobstructed views of landmarks that include the Capitol and the Washington Monument.

Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the district in Congress, have spoken recently to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., about easing the height restrictions. Issa, who chairs the committee that oversees the district, has indicated he plans to draft a bill, Gray said Thursday.

Building heights in Washington have been restricted to about 130 feet, with a few exceptions, since Congress last amended the Height Act in 1910. The law was initially enacted in 1899, prompted by outrage over a 160-foot-tall apartment building, the Cairo, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The height restrictions are also considered in keeping with Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the district and Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a capital city in the mold of Paris, with “low and convenient” housing on “light and airy” streets.

The initial change Issa is considering is not dramatic. The law allows buildings to exceed the height restrictions by 18 feet to make room for mechanical equipment on their roofs. The congressman is considering allowing an extra floor of residential space within that 18-foot area.

Issa was not immediately available for comment Thursday. His interest in modifying the height limits was first reported by The Washington Post in Thursday’s editions, and he said he thought he could get a bill through Congress later this year if he framed it as a nonpartisan issue.

“If the mayor and Ms. Norton and I can all agree on it, my suspicion is we can get the president to agree on it,” Issa told The Post.

Smart-growth advocates vs. preservationists

Gray, a Democrat, said he would support changing the law to allow for an additional story of living space, and he said further changes to allow taller buildings away from the downtown core were worthy of study.

“The buildable land in the District of Columbia is very limited, and certainly in the downtown area now it’s almost nonexistent,” Gray said, noting the city’s booming commercial real estate market and large population gains. “The demand to live in this city is increasing daily.”

Smart-growth advocates have long supported easing height restrictions to allow for denser construction around public transit. But preservationists vowed to fight any change to the Height Act.

“Washington, D.C. is a different city than anywhere else in the United States, and all you have to do is talk to any visitor who comes from anywhere, whether in the U.S. or overseas. They are immediately struck by the scale of the city,” said George Clark, chair of The Committee of 100, a preservation group. “If you like living in cities with large canyons, my recommendation is to move to one.”

Clark and other preservationists say they fear any small change to the height restrictions would open the door to more dramatic changes. Some say that’s exactly what’s needed, especially in economically depressed communities east of the Anacostia River.

“There’s absolutely no reason, as an example, that we should have a height restriction in Anacostia, where we’re trying to do a lot of development,” said Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Issa told The Post he thought the district should have more freedom to make decisions about the height of buildings far from the Capitol and the National Mall. Norton said she appreciated that Issa has involved city leaders in all discussions about changes to the law.