Greater Greater Washington

NCPC will likely recommend tweaking DC height limit

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) study considering whether or not to raise DC's height limit is unlikely to recommend major skyline-altering changes. But it will suggest tweaking the rules to add more flexibility, and leaves open the possibility of taller buildings outside downtown.


Downtown DC. Photo by the author.

In his report to NCPC, executive director Marcel Acosta will recommend against raising the height limit significantly downtown, but will suggest changing the rules regarding rooftop penthouses.

The rules currently allow unoccupied mechanical-only penthouses to breach the height limit by a few feet in certain situations. Acosta will propose allowing active human use of those spaces.

Acosta will also recommend that NCPC further consider raising the height limit for areas outside downtown, where the impact on the monumental core would be negligible. That might allow places like Anacostia or Tenleytown to develop along more similar lines to Arlington and Bethesda.

The NCPC will vote on an official recommendation in November, after hearing Acosta's report and gathering public feedback. Following that, Congress will have the power to either pass a bill making changes, or retain the status quo.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for Arlington County, but his blog posts represent only his own personal views. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives car-free in Washington. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post

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I like this solution. Originally I was for somewhat more substantial changes, but I think this is a commonsense approach. I still think Congress has no business telling DC how to look outside of the federal areas but it's probably not going to have a huge impact one way or another in the near future. I think a Metro station centric heigh limit makes a lot of sense too and is 100% in line with the Mayor's sustainability goals.

by BTA on Sep 11, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

Sounds like the rules are being made more complex. Cue more lawsuits.

by Jasper on Sep 11, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

I find the overall results of the study disappointing from this synopsis but that misses the larger point. A change to the height act is going NOWHERE in congress. It'll get held up for dumb reasons (I can picture some stupid southern congressman saying "this is america's city, it shouldn't change") and not go anywhere.

by jj on Sep 11, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

This is a Congress that can't pass a Farm Bill. Good luck getting anything done on this. And as a DC homeowner, that to me seems like the right result.

by RC on Sep 11, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

It sounds like there will be no real change to L'Enfant's DC plan since who cares if there are people in those roof top ornaments or not, yet the increase in height outside the core is interesing. On the one hand, it's the opposite of just about every other city in America with downtown being the alps crowning the foot hills, on the otherhand it will look more like Paris and Rome where they keep the really tall stuff at the perifery. I'd be curious to see if they come up with a visual model of this proposal to actually see what the city could look like in 100 years.

by Thayer-D on Sep 11, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

While the mocked-up images a few months ago of what a higher height-limit would look like were cool, they seem obviously designed to say: well we now have a 12-story blob skyline, what it it were a 18-story blob skyline? Wow, isn't that worse!

When in fact, a reasonable and more pleasing alternative would be small clusters of tall buildings -- Farragut North, K Street, Metro Center, maybe SW, Anacostia metro, etc. No sightline of the White House is endangered. No residential neighborhoods are overwhelmed. The low character of the federal core is preserved.

Build the new blue line, and presto, better transport too. Pushing denser development to the edges of a city is bad logic and bad transport policy.

And it has the advantage of reversing the crowding out of housing and other functions that has occurred as office space has sprawled out instead of up.

by 20015 on Sep 11, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

So where people want to work/live will be limited. Great forward thinking.

by NikolasM on Sep 11, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

I completely disagree with 20015 as it relates to, well the 20015 zip code. This would be the Friendship/Tenley corridor, a place that is incredibly well-served by mass transit, and has plenty of room to grow. And it silly that Montgomery County has no such height limits but when one heads south there is an 8 story limit.

I might agree for other parts of the city not served by mass transit.

Of course, the NIMBYs have gotten a comprehensive plan in place to help limit zoning changes in this area, so there's that hurdle.

by fongfong on Sep 11, 2013 1:50 pm • linkreport

While the mocked-up images a few months ago of what a higher height-limit would look like were cool, they seem obviously designed to say: well we now have a 12-story blob skyline, what it it were a 18-story blob skyline? Wow, isn't that worse!

My takeaway from those mock-ups was "wow, that's basically the same thing as we have now, just slightly taller."

by Alex B. on Sep 11, 2013 1:56 pm • linkreport

"That might allow places like Anacostia or Tenleytown to develop along more similar lines to Arlington and Bethesda."

HAHAHAHA. Good luck with that.

Tenleytown: http://dcmud.blogspot.com/2012/01/safeway-tries-again-with-revamped.html

Anacostia: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/2013/09/05/big-k-plans-draw-jeers-from-anacostia-crowd/

by Adam L on Sep 11, 2013 2:13 pm • linkreport

I found the mock ups fine up to about 20 stories then it got jarring mostly because there was nothing comparable nearby so it stuck out. In reality of course it wouldn't be monolithic but rather varied heights like you see in most cities with a few tall buildings amidst lower ones of varying heights.

As fongfong said though, I came away from the public presentations realizing that not much will happen anyway until zoning is modified so I'm guessing 20+ years which is why I'm fine with the current proposal.

As an aside, it annoys me that there were so many older residents who were so adamant nothing should change. I felt like saying, "You aren't going to be here in 30 years, why do you care?" But of course that would be mean spirited so I just grit my teeth.

by BTA on Sep 11, 2013 2:28 pm • linkreport

I think the mock ups were great because they showed how little of an impact bumping up to 20 stories would really have.

by drumz on Sep 11, 2013 2:33 pm • linkreport

I don't object to an 18-story blob vs. a 12-story blob, necessarily. Just saying it's probably less visually appealing than some clusters of tall buildings around transit amid shorter 6-12 story buildings.

On fongfong's comment about 20015 Zip, sure, more height/density on DC side near Friendship similar to Maryland side would make sense, no objections here.

(My comment about "residential being overwhelmed" was imprescise -- I just meant no height-limit-necessitated office sprawl into residential neighborhoods. I have no problem with density in 20015 or any other zip.)

I wouldn't complain about a sprawl of 12-story residential buildings. It's the bland office sprawl that kills the city's core, and makes commutes longer by pushing residents farther away.

Relatedly, Friendship is a conundrum. For an area that has so much going on, at least on paper -- high-end retail, Metro, movies, decent restaurants, Mazza -- it is a strangely dead place. But I'm getting off topic.

by 20015 on Sep 11, 2013 2:39 pm • linkreport

"That might allow places like Anacostia or Tenleytown to develop along more similar lines to Arlington and Bethesda."

Everyone panic!!! The buildings on the DC side of Friendship Heights might be as tall now as the buildings directly across the street in Maryland.

by 202_cyclist on Sep 11, 2013 2:41 pm • linkreport

Can someone give me a good reason this should be when there are vast areas downtown or near downtown that are 2 and 3 story row houses or land that is wasted be structures that have no useful purpose.

The following is a list of places where the height limit is no where near touched and could be turned to highrises and are close to downtown DC

Everything between the Convention Center and North Capitol Street north of New York Ave is less than 4 stories except for Dunbar High,

Capitol Hill nothing is over 5 stories

everything between Union Station and 15th Street NE except for about 3 buildings is less then 5 stories

Almost everything from Howard University to Rhode Island Ave Metro to Brookland Metro to Washington Hospital Center except for the universities, the hospitals and a few apartment buildings are below 5 stories

Georgetown

Judicary Square plenty of wasted space around Building Museum, DC Courts and US courts

Yes I agree that the city should build out but we have not maximized all available land in downtown or near it. There are row houses, vacant lots, parking lots and just wasted space with awkwardly shaped buildings.

by kk on Sep 11, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

Yes I agree that the city should build out but we have not maximized all available land in downtown or near it. There are row houses, vacant lots, parking lots and just wasted space with awkwardly shaped buildings.

1. Because nobody wants to raze perfectly good (and nice) rowhouse neighborhoods to build bigger buildings? Why is that desirable?

2. There is really not all that much vacant land/parking lots around DC that isn't already about to be developed (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/10752/where-are-dcs-downtown-surface-parking-lots/)

3. Why should every piece of empty space in DC (area around building museum) be filled up with something? Why is that desirable?

What exactly is the harm of allowing 15-20 story buildings in some places in DC?

by MLD on Sep 11, 2013 2:47 pm • linkreport

"Can someone give me a good reason this should be when there are vast areas downtown or near downtown that are 2 and 3 story row houses"

I would suggest that tearing down or popping up all the 2 or 3 story rowhomes would do more to alter the charecter of the city, than allowing new buildings in downtown to be 180 stories (or 25 stories) rather than 12 stories.

" or land that is wasted be structures that have no useful purpose"

There are finite number of such parcels near metros (esp near stations with multiple lines). If we build them out at 12 stories (rather than 18, or 25) we will be stuck for a long time.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 11, 2013 2:48 pm • linkreport

pardon to be 18 stories not 180.

180 would be interesting, but I am not suggesting it ;)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 11, 2013 2:49 pm • linkreport

@20015

Friendship Heights really isn't that dense. Sure there are some 8-10 story buildings right on Wisc Ave but you also have:

* large surface lots on both sides of the Saks Fifth Avenue
* surface parking behind the Giant
* the Lord & Taylor parking lot
* WMATA bus garage

On the DC side of Friendship Heights, on Wisc Ave, you have 2-story retail where the Barnes & Noble and Washington Sports Club is. There is also a large structured parking garage right on Wisconsin Avenue. South of the metro station, it is all low density development.

by 202_cyclist on Sep 11, 2013 2:53 pm • linkreport

Eh I'm not about kicking people out of existing homes plus some of the older housing stock is just beautiful. I don't see why that should prevent us from going a little higher in the places we do build though. You can build dense corridors even in cities and then let lower density residential zones sit in between. Kind of the best of both worlds. As I've said before I would be in favor of a new zoning schem that allowed property owners (that wished to!) to pool land in some of the more downtown areas and get exception to build higher such as in Capitol Hill. I fear that woudl be very unpopular though so I'd rather follow the more traditional route of just creating a transit zoning area that automatically bumped up anyway within say 1/4 mile of a metro station with maybe some stepped height at the edge to transition to residential.

Also moving offices out of downtown is a good thing. Reverse commute capacity is about all metrorail has left downtown.

by BTA on Sep 11, 2013 3:41 pm • linkreport

My usual rant about the quality of design affecting this discussion seems appropriate to being up since others have alloded to it.

"It's the bland office sprawl that kills the city's core"
"Because nobody wants to raze perfectly good (and nice) rowhouse neighborhoods"
"..plus some of the older housing stock is just beautiful."

It seems clear that many fear change becasue change is so often uglier than what we have, and while things have definatly improved since the horrible "mid-century' period, we still get some soul crushing glass walls that are passed off as avant guard. We don't need fake Parisian classicism with 2" limestone veneer, but I think showing some form codes with McMillan style renderings would go along way to getting more sign off on increasing density in Tenley Town and downtown.

I wouldn't consider touching areas like G-Town and many neighborhoods north of Downtown, but one can't help think about the transformation of low rise mid-town Manhattan in the 1910's-1930's. So much of that archietcture was enobling even though much taller.

It seems like if this strategy of spreading more of the density around has any chance of working, they need to move on spreading/improving transit throughout the city while developing some form based codes that would give the rich lawyers in NW a sense of what thier future might look like. While they're at it, hire real renderers rather than blob drawers.

by Thayer-D on Sep 11, 2013 5:00 pm • linkreport

Allow higher buildings and greater density downtown at Metro Center!

by Downtowner on Sep 11, 2013 5:39 pm • linkreport

Here is my problem with raising height limits, it prevents revitalization in neighborhoods outside downtown. Look at Baltimore, they continue to revitalize the Inner Harbor but ignore other parts of the city. The Inner Harbor is beautiful, but a majority of the city is poor and run down. Imagine DC without height limits, we would have skyscrapers where the current downtown is, but we wouldn't be seeing revitalization in NoMa, Southwest Waterfront, or Anacostia. The height limits push revitalization to other neighborhoods creating a more active city. Even if we started building skyscrapers in some part of the city, the world would just call our skyline weak and call it ugly. Let's just stay out of the skyscraper race and stay unique. The only place I would be okay with raising height limits is east of Anacostia because I see no difference between Arlington and East of Anacostia.

by Tyler on Sep 11, 2013 5:40 pm • linkreport

"Here is my problem with raising height limits, it prevents revitalization in neighborhoods outside downtown. Look at Baltimore, they continue to revitalize the Inner Harbor but ignore other parts of the city."

except there is revitalization in Fells Point, Canton, Brewers Hill, South Baltimore, Locust Point, Station North and Bolton Hill. probably a few other places, but I dont get around Baltimore enough to be sure.

In fact Baltimore has SO much revitalization that it, like DC, experiences gentrification and displacement.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 11, 2013 5:45 pm • linkreport

I'm a constant Baltimore booster as pound for pound its housing stock is more beautiful than ours, but it's hurt'n for cert'n. It feels like the slum to nice ratio is off the charts. I just hope the pockets of revitalization gain spead before demolition by neglect destroys much more of the historical fabric.

by Thayer-D on Sep 11, 2013 9:34 pm • linkreport

Spreading the density would make use of our under-used Metro stations. The core stations are full and new lines in the core are a pipe dream.

The roof structure top floor has already become a used floor- are we adding another?

by Tom Coumaris on Sep 11, 2013 11:23 pm • linkreport

Here is a link to the Executive Director's Recommendation ("EDR"), which runs 13 pages in all. On its last page is a promise of more, which will likely appear on the NCPC website later today or tomorrow.

http://www.ncpc.gov/DocumentDepot/Actions_Recommendations/2013September/Height_Study_Recommendation_6886_September2013_.pdf

by Lindsley Williams on Sep 12, 2013 7:52 am • linkreport

At the very least, a "downtown core" should be established. Within that core the limit should remain sufficient to preserve the view of major monuments but flexible enough to allow higher building in areas that wouldn't be blocking a major view. Outside the core, height should be even less restricted and allow for up to 15 or 16 stories. I see no reason why 14th and U and Columbia Heights and areas like that can't have some taller buildings when they already come close with 10-12 story buildings in some places.

by Matt S on Sep 12, 2013 9:30 am • linkreport

Stop trying to preserve the current skyline. First, it isn't all that great. If London and Paris, which have much better skylines than DC will ever have, can add skyscrapers, then so should DC. Second, the view capitol and all the other historic landmarks will be forever preserved by the nature of the street grid and the undeveloped parkland on the Potomac.

If DC does not give way to higher buildings, then Arlington and Tysons will keep growing taller, stealing more and more development that should be going to DC.

by Burd on Sep 17, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

"I'm a constant Baltimore booster as pound for pound its housing stock is more beautiful than ours, but it's hurt'n for cert'n."

It hasnt been helped by the movement of corp HQ to the suburbs. If baltimore had a height limit there would probably be even more of that - it would shift development to Hunty Valley, not to West Baltimore.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 17, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

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