DC’s Sky-High Penthouses One Step Closer to Reality

by Lark Turner

DC's Sky-High Penthouses One Step Closer to Reality: Figure 1

A law that should make DC’s rooftops a friendlier place to live came closer to being a reality on Thursday.

As we’ve previously reported, a mid-May change to the Height Act allows DC developers to add residential penthouses on rooftops up to the height that mechanical penthouses are currently allowed; in briefer terms, to allows penthouse to be built 20 feet above what the Height Act dictates. The idea behind the law change was to take advantage of rooftop space in sought-after neighborhoods. Currently, those vantage points are often populated solely by unsightly stair towers, elevator shafts and other utilities.

But developers can’t take advantage of the law until the Office of Planning (OP) and the Zoning Commission (ZC) actually make it a reality, which has required months of work. Developers, according to OP, are anxious to get started on the penthouses; no surprise there, given how lucrative the new rules may prove.

On Thursday, the ZC voted unanimously to set down a body of rules regarding the penthouses as well as an alternative to those rules, both proposed by OP. That means the public will have the chance to weigh in and the rules will likely change before they are eventually adopted.

But the ZC is approaching this issue with caution. At a previous meeting to set down the rules for public comment, the commissioners asked OP to go back to the drawing board and be more specific about regulations. They also came at OP with some requests: They want the lucrative new housing to fall under inclusionary zoning requirements, or be even more stringently tied to developer contributions to public housing. That might mean that when a penthouse is built, a developer has to donate or include in a project an equal amount of affordable housing, rather than a percentage as is the case for regular housing. Commissioners continued to express concerns about the proposed rules on Thursday.

The rules proposed will also be subject to the keen eye of Commissioner Peter May, who, as the commission’s National Park Service designee, is not exactly excited about the change to the Height Act. In hearings, May is generally dogged about protecting the Act and excoriating designs that fail to respect it. On Thursday, he made his dislike of the new law pretty obvious.

“Anything we can do to tighten it up would be an improvement,” he said.

See other articles related to: penthouses, penthouse, height act

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/dcs_penthouse_height_exception_one_step_closer_to_reality/8938


  1. Ed said at 6:14 pm on Monday September 8, 2014:
    Does this apply to existing as well as new buildings?
  1. Lark Turner said at 6:41 pm on Monday September 8, 2014:
    Hi Ed, Thanks for your comment. The legislation (view it <a href="http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CRPT-113hrpt418/html/CRPT-113hrpt418.htm" title="here">here</a>) generally permits "approval of the erection on rooftops of human occupancy penthouses of a height of one story of 20 feet or less." It modifies the Height Act and applies to both existing and new buildings. As you might expect, though, developers may in some cases have more trouble building a penthouse on an existing building thanks to infrastructure needs, like elevators. That's part of the reason that developers who are currently constructing buildings in DC want the law to be buttoned up as soon as possible, <a href="http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/federal_change_to_the_height_act_makes_residential_penthouses_legal...but_n/8814" title="according to the Office of Planning">according to the Office of Planning</a> — they want to change around their design to accommodate well-planned penthouses.
  1. John said at 10:45 pm on Monday September 8, 2014:
    "Well-planned penthouses" would certainly be an improvement over the eyesores that litter the city currently. Sometimes it appears as though design review in DC ends "at the neck" as building after building goes up with the ugliest of mechanical utilities sprouting on top. Considering how highly regulated our developments are, in a city where viewsheds are sacrosanct, I often wonder why so many otherwise stylishly clad structures wear such hideous "hats." Particularly given the height limitations, everyone should know the caps of our buildings will be visible down the sightlines of our major streets and avenues. Perhaps now, to accommodate clients' aesthetic wishes, if not any governmental mandate, builders will actually care whether the top floors are attractively outfitted.

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