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D.C. moves quickly to get Height Act changes on the books

Monday - 7/28/2014, 11:20am  ET

The District is moving quickly to enact rules that will allow developers to take advantage of key changes in the recently amended federal Height Act.

The Office of Planning has released proposed amendments to the Zoning Regulations that authorize a maximum height of 20 feet for all rooftop penthouses, permit two levels within that 20 feet if the penthouse falls entirely below the Height Act limit, eliminate the rule that bars penthouses from consuming more than a third of the roof area, and allow all forms of habitable space within a penthouse.

Until May 16, when President Barack Obama signed a bill to amend the 1910 Heights of Buildings Act, human occupancy of any penthouse was prohibited.

According to a staff report, dated Thursday, the issue is complex, "with ramifications to the city's built form, policy objectives and land and building economics." But there is also "much concern in the development community," especially among developers with projects in the planning and design phases, regarding how they should proceed given Obama signed the legislation but the planning office has not yet amended the Zoning Regulations.

"The changes would provide a valuable new source of taxation revenue, and present an exciting opportunity for better utilization of our land-base within the confines of the Height Act limits," per the staff report.

That positive spin aside, the changes represent a relatively minor change — significantly less than what Mayor Vincent Gray and the planning office wanted.

The Gray administration bid to largely lift Height Act restrictions outside the traditional L'Enfant City, and to ease the rules in and around the Central Business District. At the very least, Gray sought congressional approval for the District to set some of the rules itself, rather than leaving the decision to the federal government.

But those proposals were blocked, not only by the National Capital Planning Commission, but by the D.C. Council. Instead, a compromise was brokered that largely left the Height Act in place, with minimal changes to the penthouse regulations.

"The height of buildings in this city will not change by one foot under this act, but the beauty of the tops of buildings and their usability will," U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who shepherded the change through the House, said in April. "The revenue to the city can increase because of the value of these top floors and yet we will cover up mechanical penthouses that today are simply elevator shafts, rooftop air conditioners, water towers and the like."

© 2014 American City Business Journals, Inc.