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House Approves Height Act Change to Allow Penthouses in DC Buildings

Congress wants to raise the roof, but only a little bit.

Putting a few penthouses up here shouldn't really change the view. Photograph by Flickr user Mr. T in DC.

The House voted yesterday to tweak the 1910 Height Act, governing the height of buildings in DC, to allow building owners to convert some downtown rooftops into habitable spaces.

The fairly mundane adjustment, which sailed through the House by a 367-16 vote, satisfied the DC Council’s desire to leave any changes to the city’s skyline in federal hands, a position it took last November when it passed a resolution opposing any Height Act rewrites and in favor of letting Congress handle the issue. 

The bill was sponsored by Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican who leads the House Oversight Committee, who has been pushing for changes to the Height Act since 2012, when, he asked the DC government to propose a rewrite. Former DC Planning Director Harriett Tregoning responded with a 200-page report last year recommending sweeping changes, including 200-foot-tall buildings downtown. Height Act supporters thoroughly bashed Tregoning’s recommendations and the DC Council rejected them when it absolved itself of any interest in raising the city’s skyline.

Instead, the current bill permits developers and other property owners to turn “mechanical penthouses”—rooftop areas reserved for heating ducts, elevator shafts, and water towers—into apartments, restaurants, or other office space.

Assuming it clears the Senate as easily as it did the House, the bill will have almost no effect on the precious views preserved by the 114-year-old law. “The height of buildings in this city will not change by one foot under the act,” said, Issa, according to the Washington Times. He told his colleagues the bill would allow buildings to hide ungainly industrial rooftop parts with “architectually pleasing” additions. 

The few detractors to the piecemeal modification were led by Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican with a knack for oddball metaphors. “I’m concerned this is the camel’s nose going above the tent,” Gohmert said, adding that even a slight change to a very restrictive law that could be the vangaurd of bigger Height Act amendments.

Despite his wish to preserve the status quo, Gohmert’s interest in the city’s welfare only goes so far: He supports ceding the land that makes up the District back to Maryland.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.