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U.S. panel rejects changes to Washington skyline

The skyline of Washington DC looking at the U.S. Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue, May 22, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing
The skyline of Washington DC looking at the U.S. Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue, May 22, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal panel has left intact height limits that govern construction in Washington, but raised the prospect for penthouses and high-rise buildings in some parts of the U.S. capital.

The recommendation by the National Capital Planning Commission, announced late on Tuesday, comes after months of debate and public meetings over the century-old federal rules that have largely banned high-rise structures in the District.

Building heights in the 68-square-mile (176-square-km) area are determined by the width of the street on which a structure fronts. The maximum height is 130 feet, with some exceptions.

The result is a distinctive low-lying skyline that showcases historic monuments and distinctive landmarks such as the U.S. Capitol, National Cathedral and the Old Post Office. The tallest structure is the Washington Monument, which stands at the center of the Mall and is about 555 feet high.

The National Capital Planning Commission recommended leaving intact the federal height rules for the part laid out in the 18th century. The area of wide avenues and traffic circles is home to the White House, National Mall and museums.

The commission left open the possibility that buildings in the area developed beyond the city's original layout can be higher - but only after additional study and as long as they did not interfere with federal interests.

The two recommendations tracked guidance from Darrell Issa, a California Republican and head of the House of Representatives' Oversight Committee. The capital is self-governing, but Congress has overriding authority.

Issa's panel last year requested a study of the height limits to see if they were still needed. Mayor Vincent Gray had argued that limits should be eased somewhat to accommodate growth.

The planning commission called for greater protection for view lines to and from the Capitol and the White House. It also urged changing the rules to let people live in building penthouses, saying the move would add to city tax revenues.

Congress must approve the recommendations for them to take effect.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Edith Honan and Gunna Dickson)

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