WASHINGTON — A House committee chairman made clear at a hearing on Monday that it may take Congress years to determine whether to amend a nearly 100-year-old law to allow the District of Columbia to raise the heights of some buildings to accommodate increased growth and obtain more tax revenue.
"I'm not done looking at this. I'm not done listening and reading," Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said at the end of a hearing on the issue.
Issa, who owns a co-op in the district and pays property taxes here, said he wants to talk with fellow lawmakers and hear more from district residents "to get it right."
"This is an ongoing process. It won't be closed during my tenure," he told the two witnesses.
Harriett Tregoning, director of the district's Office of Planning and one of the witnesses, pushed for the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 to be amended to allow the district to propose raising the heights of some buildings. The law restricts building heights to 130 feet or the width of the right-of-way of the street or avenue they front, whichever is shorter.
Tregoning noted the district's population has been growing robustly after five decades of steady losses. Since the 2010 Census, the district has grown to 632,323 residents, a number not seen since the early 1980s, she said.
"This hard-won population growth and the accompanying boost in the local tax base are critical to the district's fiscal stability because this city ... has nearly 50% of its land off the tax rolls," she told the lawmakers.
She reminded committee members that Natwar Gandhi, the district's chief financial officer, previously told them last year that allowing taller buildings would increase the value of the district's property base and slow the rising cost of housing and office space.
Tregoning said the district examined a "high growth scenario" — using growth rates that are considerably lower than the current one — that "indicated the district will begin to experience capacity shortages well before 2040 even if we re-zone land throughout the city."
"Currently zoned land available for development will become increasingly scarce and see price pressure by the next decade," she said.
The district has three proposals for modifying the Height Act. One would be to use a ratio of 1:1.25 for street width to building height, which would result in a new maximum building height of 200 feet for certain buildings on 160-foot wide avenues in the historic part of the district, called L'Enfant City. Another proposal would remove any federal restrictions on the human occupancy of penthouses, setting a maximum of 20 feet and one story. A third idea would be leave the Height Act restrictions in place, but get Congress to approve targeted exceptions that meet certain criteria.
Tregoning said the district has recommended "very modest changes to the Height Act" that would add about 109 million square feet of new building space over time in L'Enfant City, the borders of which are the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers as well as Florida Ave. They would add 317 million square feet of new building space outside that area, but still in the district, she said.
But Marcel Acosta, the executive director of the 12-member National Capital Planning Commission who also appeared before the panel, said that while he generally supports changes for penthouses, no proposals for changes to the law should be considered until after the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital, a plan for the next 20 years, is completed. He told Issa it would take two or three years to complete the plan.
Tregoning said she was "confused and appalled" because even if the law is amended, the district could not do anything without approval of the city council, the NCPC and Congress and without input from residents. She said it is important to act now because Issa is interested in this issue and the next committee chairman may not be.
"Our approach shifts more decision-making to local control — while maintaining a strong federal consultation and approval role — in order to accommodate future population growth while at the same time protecting prominent national monuments, memorials and the unique character of local neighborhoods," she told the lawmakers. "The alternative — retaining unchanged a century-old law that constrains the city's ability to accommodate growth — will place the district on the path of becoming a city comprised primarily of national monuments and civic structures surrounded by exclusive neighbor holds affordable only to the very few."
Eleanor Norton Holmes, the district's non-voting delegate in the House, was concerned about providing more affordable housing and not just increasing space for lobbyists on K Street.
Tregoning said the average price of a house in the district is currently $800,000, up 22% from last year.
"Part of it is increasing the supply" of housing to keep costs down, she said.
Issa noted that district and NCPC officials agree on some issues, such as allowing more space for penthouses and permitting higher buildings in some areas like those near Bethesda, Md., where buildings are already much higher.
But he also said he needs a lot of time to study this issue.