House Votes to Give D.C. More Penthouses

Take that, Height of Buildings Act of 1910.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: The sun begins to rise behind the Jefferson Memorial and Washington, Monument as the cherry blossoms begin to bloom at the Tidal Basin April 10, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
April 28, 2014, 2:58 p.m.

Mem­bers of the House on Monday waded in­to the on­go­ing battle between Con­gress and Wash­ing­ton over the city’s de­sire for home rule, passing le­gis­la­tion to elim­in­ate the city’s height re­stric­tions for build­ings — if only for pent­houses.

Since 1899, Con­gress has re­stric­ted the heights of all build­ings in the Dis­trict of Columbia. The law, altered once in 1910, re­mains in ef­fect, pre­vent­ing de­velopers from build­ing any struc­ture taller than 130 feet with­in Wash­ing­ton’s bor­ders. As such, many of the city’s monu­ments are widely vis­ible from all over the na­tion’s cap­it­al city and dom­in­ate Wash­ing­ton’s sky­line (The At­lantic‘s Kaid Ben­field mounts an in­ter­est­ing de­fense of the law, based par­tially on that fact, here). But crit­ics say that the law has pre­ven­ted the city from ex­pand­ing and kept real es­tate prices high.

The new House le­gis­la­tion passed Monday, which is just three para­graphs long, does little to change that. Rep. Dar­rell Issa, R-Cal­if., a strong pro­ponent of home rule for the Dis­trict, offered a par­tial solu­tion. Cur­rently, some build­ings are al­lowed to breach the height re­quire­ments for util­ity-only pent­houses; this bill would al­low those areas to be oc­cu­pied by res­id­ents and for ar­chi­tects to con­struct new pent­houses for hu­man oc­cu­pancy.

In oth­er words, the bill merely takes the 1910 law’s sec­tion re­gard­ing the con­struc­tion of floors above roof level and in­serts the words “ex­cept in the case of a pent­house which is erec­ted to a height of one story of 20 feet or less above the level of the roof….”

The le­gis­la­tion, which passed over­whelm­ingly with 366 yea votes on Monday, fol­lows a year­long study Issa re­ques­ted that was con­duc­ted by the Na­tion­al Cap­it­al Plan­ning Com­mis­sion and the D.C. Of­fice of Plan­ning. The pent­house ex­cep­tion is just one of sev­er­al pro­pos­als that came out of the study. Those re­com­mend­a­tions, re­leased in Novem­ber, also in­cluded that Con­gress al­low the city to make ex­cep­tions to the Height Act in its Com­pre­hens­ive Plan (which re­quires con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al) and al­low Wash­ing­ton to in­crease its build­ing height based on street width, with a max­im­um height of 200 feet.

The Wash­ing­ton Post has some fas­cin­at­ing graph­ic­al rep­res­ent­a­tions of what the city might look like if some of the city’s re­com­mend­a­tions were ap­proved by Con­gress, in­clud­ing the pent­house ex­cep­tion, which you can check out here.

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