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Morning Read: Should DC Ease Its Strict Building Height Restrictions?

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A boom in D.C.’s population has prompted city officials to reconsider the city’s century-old height limit on buildings that has come to define the landscape of the nation’s capital.

The city’s buildings are currently limited to 11 or 12 stories in deference to the national monuments and U.S. Capitol.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Mayor Vincent Gray and Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, are considering easing central elements of the height law for the first time since the laws were enacted 100 years ago.

Officials say the changes would be modest -- allowing builders to add an extra 15 feet or so -- but the consideration has ignited a debate between preservationists and activists of more growth.

The Journal reports that D.C. is experiencing a revitalization of its downtown similar to what is happening in Boston and Chicago, where rising demand for apartments and retail space has helped boost tax revenue. The historic downtown is almost entirely full and some estimates say the surrounding areas could be built out in less than a generation’s time.

"This dwindling supply of space in central Washington comes amid growth in the office sector over the years and a population that is back on the rise after decades of decline. Washington's population has grown 8% since 2000 to more than 600,000, adding an estimated 46,000 residents, as young people in particular have flocked to live there.

Vacant space has long been in short supply in Washington's most desirable office districts, such as the lobbyist-filled K Street corridor. But until recently, there were plenty of empty lots for new development north of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol.

Now, development sites in that area also are running short. After 24 million square feet of new development was added between 1997 and 2010, only about five million square feet of developable area remain, according to the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District.

"This is purely a supply-demand question, and we need more supply," said Christopher Leinberger, a developer who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington."

* A group of church-led activists in Maryland plan to submit signatures to petition Gov. Martin O’Malley’s same-sex marriage bill ahead of this week's deadline. They say the number of signatures far exceed the amount needed by the first deadline to get the issue on the ballot.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the group has to submit a third of the 55,736 signatures needed to petition a law to referendum by Thursday, or 18,579 signatures. The group says it will have more than twice that by Tuesday. The law’s opponents will then have until June 30 to submit the balance of the names.

“There's little doubt that the Maryland Marriage Alliance, a group opposing the law, will eventually have enough petitions to trigger a referendum this fall. At this early juncture, both sides will be looking at the number and geographic spread of the signers to gauge ground-level enthusiasm for the repeal effort.” 

* Marion Barry said he misspoke and should have said Polish instead of “Polacks” during a public apology he made last week to Asian business owners and Filipino nurses in D.C.

During the apology the D.C. councilman said, “The Irish caught hell, the Jews caught hell, the Polacks caught hell. We want Ward 8 to be the model of diversity.”

Via the Washington Post:

“I misspoke: I should have said, Polish,” Barry said.

* Last week inmates at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia went on a hunger strike to protest the treatment. The Roanoke Times' editorial board writes that solitary confinement in prisons is cruel and expensive, and Virginia should follow other states’ leads and rethink its practices:

"Virginia prison officials say isolation is necessary to impose discipline and to protect some inmates from harm, but a growing number of states are rethinking its value. While 44 states still permit solitary confinement, New York, Mississippi, Texas, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Washington and Maine are putting the brakes on the practice.

Finances should not be the only cause for reform, but they argue against widespread use of solitary confinement. The New York Times reports that Virginia taxpayers spend $90 per day for prisoners housed at Red Onion, compared to just $60 daily at a prison in Sussex County where isolation is far less common.

State leaders have promised to conduct more thorough reviews before inmates are condemned to solitary confinement, but outside experts need to be included. The rumblings both inside and outside prison walls are a warning against further delay."

In a Sunday front-page story, the Washington Post had a piece laying out the beginnings of D.C.’s 2014 mayoral race where Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans and Tommy Wells are already preparing for their runs.

"The convictions last week of two of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s former campaign aides have scrambled local politics in the nation’s capital, dimming Gray’s influence and brightening the political prospects of some other city leaders.

Not even 18 months in office, Gray (D) is threatened with being a one-term mayor, political analysts say, and the electoral scandal has opened the door for at least two white candidates in 2014.

“I don’t see any scenario in which Vince Gray could win another race,” said Johnny Allem, a supporter of Gray’s 2010 campaign who has been active in city politics for four decades. “The issue of his last campaign won’t go away. You can make the argument that the city government hasn’t suffered, and I think it’s running fairly well. But that’s not what’s on people’s minds.” 

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