By Marie Maxwell
Recently, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), a federal agency charged with planning for the Washington, DC area, released a draft study regarding the height of buildings inside the District of Columbia. The city of Washington, DC does not have skyscrapers like New York or Chicago, because of a law limiting tall buildings. This height limitation seemingly once was extended to Arlington, Virginia, a city-county which prior to the Civil War, was part of the District of Columbia.
Roughly thirty years ago the NCPC, with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Commission of Fine Arts, represented the government in Civil Case No. 78-872-A, United States of America v The Board of Supervisors of Arlington County, et al. In the series Rosslyn Skyline Files, 1952-2001 (National Archives ID 7479878), from Record Group 66: Records of the Commission of Fine Arts, are legal papers regarding this court case about then proposed changes to the northern Arlington skyline. Within the depositions, transcripts, exhibits and copies of court filed papers, the Commissions provided arguments for maintaining a height limit, and expressed concerns about what would be lost. Several of the exhibits are images of old Rosslyn with square boxes, representing the proposed buildings, superimposed upon them.
The relationship the District of Columbia has with the United States government is very different from other municipalities. Because of the District’s unique situation, the ability for various agencies to limit the city’s building height is more obvious than its ability to influence neighboring jurisdictions in Virginia. The defendants, the Board of Supervisors of Arlington County, in the series’ court documents, challenged the notion of the NCPC, the NPS, and the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) having any jurisdiction in the area of Virginia development. The CFA presented evidence of how changes to the skyline would impact the visuals regarding the Iwo Jima monument which fell under their jurisdiction.
This series may be of interest to local historians, urban planners, and academics interested in changing city landscapes. The United States government was unsuccessful in the court case and developers did go on to build at least two distinctive towers in the 1980s. Researchers who investigate this series may determine if the federal government’s concerns were valid and apply this knowledge to the proposed changes to height limit within the District of Columbia.