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.
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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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