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Washington tries to preserve its unique skyline

One of the perks of living in this city is the short elevator rides. Building height has been strictly limited since early in this century. The resulting low-slung pattern of development has helped preserve the architectural prominence of national monuments, such as the 555-foot high Washington Monument and the 300-foot Capitol dome.

But the latest chapter in this story - involving a developer who wants to build a highrise just outside the border of the District of Columbia - has raised questions about how far the federal government can or should go to preserve the American capital's skyline, or lack thereof.

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Called PortAmerica, the billion-dollar project was designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee and includes four hotels, a shopping complex, several small office buildings, and more than a thousand housing units. The original plan also called for a 52-story (700-foot) office tower, but this was later reduced to 42 stories.

Local officials in the suburban county where PortAmerica would be built are eager to see the whole thing go up. They point out that the project would create hundreds of jobs and generate needed tax revenue.

But official Washington went into a dither when it saw what was on the drawing board. The National Park Service and the National Capital Planning Commission registered objections. The planning commission prepared projections showing what the tower would look like from central Washington and a report in which it charged that the highrise would diminish the visual dominance of the city's national monuments.

Meanwhile, Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York and Alan Cranston (D) of California introduced legislation to block the project.

Air safety experts said the building would create dangers for planes operating out of National Airport. And last month, the Federal Aviation Administration ruled that the tower poses a safety hazard. Developer James Lewis has until late next week to appeal the decision, but he says he has not yet decided whether he will.

``That one building won't keep me from going ahead with this,'' he says, adding that two or three smaller buildings could be substituted for the one tower. The result, however, would ``be dumpy, rather than soaring.'' Mr. Lewis insists the tower would not impinge on the skyline.

Objections to the highrise are at least partially based on the precedent it might set.

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There are already clusters of moderately tall buildings (about 30 stories) in Rosslyn, Va., across the Potomac from central Washington. Urban development experts say federal authorities want to avoid a situation in which Washington becomes like Paris - a classical, low-level central city ringed by enormous highrises.

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