Those who oppose changing the District's building height limit say raising it to appease developers would not only be unfair to builders who played by the rules, but renege on the city's promise to residents who have invested in it.

That drama plays out even now in the District when developers try to get exemptions for their projects. In Southwest, residents are opposing a developer's push to rezone a parcel on M Street so it can build a 110-foot-tall apartment building. The current zoning designation limits heights to 40 feet.

Residents say that violates an unspoken contract with the neighborhood.

"People who buy a home are investors in their neighborhood," said Michael Krause. "If you willy-nilly change this at the drop of a hat for a big developer ... anything goes."

Experts said it's not uncommon for developers to find ways in which the rules can be bent, and if building heights across the city are raised, that wouldn't be the end.

"You know if they [allowed] an additional floor ... things will just keep going higher," said historian Don Hawkins.