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DC building height limits under study

WASHINGTON (AP) -- At the request of Congress, federal and District of Columbia agencies will conduct a nine-month study on potential changes to building height restrictions in the nation's capital, officials announced Thursday.

Under the Height Act of 1910, most buildings in Washington have been limited to about 12 stories.

Advocates say easing the restrictions only slightly could open up new opportunities for development and accommodate the city's swelling population.

But preservationists have vowed to fight any changes to the law.

The study was requested by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. -- who chairs the House committee that oversees the district and first suggested easing the height restrictions this spring -- and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the district in Congress.

It will be conducted by the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal agency that oversees building heights, and the city's planning office.

The study will launch in December and conclude next September, officials said.

“As time has elapsed and opportunities for economic growth in our nation's capital continue to present themselves, this study will help Congress and local leaders evaluate the case for expanding existing boundaries for vertical growth,” Issa said in a statement.

The height restrictions are 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 law ensures that the Washington Monument -- the tallest structure in the district -- and the Capitol dome tower over the section of the city known as the “monumental core,” which includes downtown and the National Mall.

Officials stressed that any potential changes recommended by the study would take care to ensure that federal monuments and landmarks remain prominent and that the city's skyline remains horizontal.

Supporters of changes to the height restrictions have argued that outer portions of the city -- such as economically depressed areas east of the Anacostia River -- could accommodate taller buildings without affecting the monumental core.

Both NCPC and city officials have said they are open to incremental changes to the law, such as allowing habitable rooftop structures.

Preservationists have argued that minor changes could open the door to more drastic ones that damage the city's scale and character.

George Clark, chairman of the preservation group called The Committee of 100, said he didn't think there was broad support in Congress for changing the law.

“The Height Act has made this city for 100 years and it will continue to,” Clark said. “I don't see it as changing.”

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