Height Act debacle shows politicians aren’t serious about D.C. autonomy

The House of Representatives voted earlier this week to change the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, and it soon will be legal to build habitable spaces in buildings’ penthouses. Prior to the legislation, that space could only be occupied by machines—usually elevator and air conditioning units.

This change to our local rules is positive, though extremely minor. A handful of new buildings will likely have office, event or living space where they previously would not. But this tiny concession from our federal rulers is really a major loss, and a self-inflicted one at that.

When Rep. Darrel Issa, R-Calif., offered the D.C. government autonomy to decide how tall buildings can be,  every District Council member, with the notable exception of Marion Barry, asked the federal government to deny District residents control over how tall our buildings can be.

Council Chair Phil Mendelson, Chair Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie and members David Catania, Vincent Orange, Jack Evans, Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Anita Bonds, David Grosso, Jim Graham, Mary Cheh and Yvette Alexander submitted a  resolution to Issa stating that no “big city municipal government in this country has been able to resist the allure of easy real estate money,” an argument that the District of Columbia simply can’t be trusted to make the right decision.

Though they would have you believe otherwise, amending or repealing the Height Act wouldn’t make tall buildings legal. It would just give us the power to do so in the future. As I wrote last year:

 [R]emoving the federally-imposed height limitation wouldn’t legalize tall buildings in the District. In addition to the federal rules, there are local rules about height that are difficult to get around without changing the zoning code. The PUD process allows small increases in height in exchange for offering community benefits, but those increases are very modest.

In addition, local parking minimums, floor area ratio maximums and setback requirements serve as strict de facto limits on height. The D.C. Code also gives neighbors many opportunities and venues in which they can halt a project or severely limit its scale.

The actual stakes of what is being proposed–tiny, incremental changes to the Height Acts–tend to get lost in exchanges like council hearings, but let’s make it clear here:

Entirely removing the federal height limits in the District, which is not even being proposed, would only be a first step in a long process to make tall buildings legal. Before anything gets built, the District government would have to remove height limits in the zoning code, amend or remove parking restrictions, more than double the maximum floor area ratio and lower setback requirements. The only immediate effect of a full repeal would be that the local government, not the feds, would choose how tall buildings can be within the District of Columbia.

That is, nearly every current council member would disenfranchise residents for the foreseeable future rather than give voters the opportunity to elect leaders who disagree in this policy area.

Pretty much every candidate for local office will support autonomy gimmicks they know have no chance of being implemented, but when offered the real thing for building heights, nearly all of them balked.

When Mendelson came forward with his anti-autonomy resolution, Marion Barry wrote that the “District is only 68 miles square, 10 of which are water. Therefore, in my view, we have to do all that we can to maximize height on the land that we have.” He’s right.

A more affordable District requires that we allow greater density where people want to live and work. That means downtown office buildings taller than currently allowed by federal law. In other parts of the city, it means building taller residential buildings to accommodate all the people who want to call D.C. home.

The status quo might allow for the “human scale” and “horizontality” that our council members value so much, but is that worth the cost of displacing working families and low-income residents? Unless views are more important than people, our council members have let us all down.

The next time a local politician claims to support District autonomy, don’t forget to laugh.