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Hearing of the Health Care, District of Columbia, Census, and the National Archives Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee - "Changes to the Height Act: Shaping Washington, DC for the Future"


Location: Washington, DC

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) released her opening statement for the hearing today on "Changes to the Height Act: Shaping Washington, DC for the Future" in the Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census, and the National Archives at 1:30 p.m. in 2154 Rayburn House Office Building. The Congresswoman says she sees today's hearing, the first on the Height Act in decades, as informational, informing the subcommittee about the basics of the Height Act, enacted over a century ago, and its uses and purposes today.

Norton's full statement follows.

Statement of

The Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton

Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia

Census and the National Archives

I want to thank Chairmen Issa and Gowdy for the first hearing in decades on the Height Act of 1910. The Height Act, which remains virtually unchanged, sets limits on the height of buildings: (1) in residential areas to 90 feet, (2) in commercial areas to the width of the street plus 20 feet, but no greater than 130 feet, and (3) along the North side of Pennsylvania Avenue between 1st and 15th streets Northwest to 160 feet. The record does not show that there were hearings before these standards were adopted, apparently, from other cities. Rarely, since the enactment of the Height Act over 100 years ago, has it been seriously analyzed at the congressional or local levels, despite great changes in the city since then. There have been only seven amendments to the Height Act enacted into law, the most recent in 1945, and only two of general applicability. One of those amendments raised the height limitation for residential buildings by five feet, and the other increased the number of permitted floors in residential buildings from eight to 10, while the other five amendments granted height exemptions for specific new buildings.

The federal government has an interest in protecting the views of its signature buildings and monuments located in the monumental core. Beyond this interest, there is little information on the public record concerning the Height Act or its uses and purposes today. However, whether or not intended, the discipline embedded in the Height Act flows naturally from Pierre L'Enfant's original vision of the city and the McMillan Plan, and accounts for the distinctive look that sets the District of Columbia apart from every city in the world. We have the Height Act to thank for the livable scale of our city and the vistas that feature its unique historic monuments and sites that attract visitors and revenue from them to the District of Columbia. Over the years, a common understanding appears to have developed that our identity as a city depends on the Height Act, and it has been so strong that no one has approached my office about changes in the height of buildings permitted here.

The only specific idea for change I know of is permitting human occupancy in structures currently permitted at the top of buildings, known as mechanical penthouses, which house mechanical equipment. On its face, this idea appears to offer the benefit of additional habitable space without affecting the status quo or interrupting current views and vistas. At the same time, little is known about the effects of human occupancy of this space, such as why the mechanical equipment is on the top of buildings, whether it could go elsewhere without adverse effects on cost or attractiveness of buildings, or what retrofits would be necessary to make occupancy possible and their possible costs. The questions that surround human occupancy of the mechanical penthouse space, without major changes to the Height Act, are largely technical. These are the major questions for me at today's hearing.

Far more difficult would be consideration of further relaxation of the Height Act in residential D.C. This issue should be approached with caution. Its home-rule implications are profound. Does the city feel a need to ask Congress to alter or relax the Height Act? What are the economic, planning and neighborhood-by-neighborhood implications? Would there be a need for more than one building height law, depending on the topography of the neighborhoods? How does the city square its planning, which encourages smart growth in the city, with existing Height Act constraints? Considering that changes in the Height Act implicate almost everything important about this city, including its identity and shape and its history and future, I believe that only a set of comprehensive studies and hearings that engage a range of actors, from experts to residents, would suffice. This hearing, of course, does not have this weighty task. I will be satisfied if we are able to get enough information to feel comfortable with the circumscribed issue of occupancy of existing space. I look forward to learning about the Height Act and its implications from today's witnesses, and I thank them for preparing testimony. I also ask for unanimous consent that the statement of one of my constituents, who is also an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association, be included in the record.

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