Testing the Upper Limits of D.C. Building Height Act
By Roger K. Lewis
The press release was unambiguous: The Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects "opposes Congressional legislation to modify D.C. Building Height Act." The "Legislative Alert" was more specific: "Congressman Introduces Legislation Negating Long-Standing Interpretations of Building Height Act."
The congressman is Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.). The Building Height Act, adopted in 1910, ensures that "among the most attractive features of our Nation's Capital is its skyline," in Stark's words. And the interpretations in question are those made by local government agencies concerning the placement and configuration of rooftop mechanical penthouses, plus other elements, projecting above the legal height limit.
Here is a yet another chapter in the contentious 200-year history of Washington's struggle to answer, with ever greater precision, that age-old question: how high is up?
Two coexistent, powerful urban design legacies have given shape to Washington. First came the L'Enfant plan, establishing in two dimensions the capital's memorable, baroque-inspired pattern of avenues and streets, squares and circles, Mall and, ultimately, monumental landmarks. Then came building height regulations, the crucial third dimension of the plan.
Building height in the new capital was an issue from the moment the city was conceived. Thomas Jefferson greatly admired Paris, the houses of which were "low & convenient, and the streets light and airy," he observed. With Paris as his model, Jefferson favored comparable height limitations for the District of Columbia.
President George Washington issued the first building height regulations for the city in 1791, concerned as much about structural and fire safety as about urban design. However, he also worried about buildings being too low, potentially falling short in dignity and scale befitting a national capital.
Nevertheless, for most of the 19th century, building heights were governed less by law than by local tradition and technology. Accordingly there was little controversy until the advent of elevators, electricity and steel-frame construction.
In 1894, architect-developer Thomas Franklin Schneider stepped over the line when he built the 14-story, 160-foot-high Cairo apartments at 1615 Q St. NW. Towering above its low-rise, row house neighborhood, the Moorish-styled building shocked both residents and Congress, which subsequently passed the 1899 Heights of Building Act. This law stipulated that privately built structures could be no higher than the Capitol Building or other significant government edifices.
Eleven years later Congress enacted a new law limiting building heights to the width of the right-of-way of the street or avenue on which a building fronts, plus 20 feet. For example, buildings facing streets 90 feet wide could rise to 110 feet. Facing a 110-foot-wide avenue, a building could be 130 feet tall.
Now comes the source of controversy. The 1910 act also stipulated that "spires, towers, domes, minarets, pinnacles, penthouses over elevator shafts, ventilation shafts, chimneys, smokestacks, and fire sprinkler tanks may be erected to a greater height," subject to approval by the District's mayor, "provided that penthouses, ventilation shafts, and tanks shall be set back from the exterior walls distances equal to their respective heights above the adjacent roof."
Thus the law envisioned that architectural embellishments, no matter where located on the roof, could exceed the height limit if approved as a variance by the mayor, a power subsequently delegated to the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
Consequently, architects long have been able to design buildings with more complexly composed roofscapes and silhouettes animated by decorative elements thrusting above the legally mandated, dominant roof line. Clearly such embellishments could be integral with the street facade and did not have to be set back.
By contrast, forcing mechanical equipment penthouses back from the building's roof edge -- one foot of setback for each foot of height above the roof -- diminished penthouse visibility along the architectural skyline as seen by people looking up from street level. Pedestrians thus would take little notice of these featureless enclosures set back from the street wall since they played no part in the composition of street facades.
But what about setbacks from other exterior walls, either along the sides or rear of buildings? For 84 years, the District has interpreted the 1910 law regarding penthouse setbacks to apply only to facades or walls facing streets or avenues. Facing alleys and rear yards, or along party walls between abutting buildings, the setback wasn't required.
As a result, architects have had considerable flexibility in positioning penthouses on roofs, often pushing them back even farther than required to render them even less visible from the street. Sometimes this interpretation made it possible to build on narrow lots that otherwise could not have been developed.
This is what Stark seeks to change. He wants penthouses set back from any and all exterior building walls, no matter which way they face, except in special cases. And he wants to expand the building height police force.
Introducing his first bill (H.R. 4121) in Congress last month, Stark stated objections and assigned blame.
"Since enactment in 1910, the Height Limits Act has been assaulted frequently. Creeping administrative actions -- in the form of zoning decisions, regulatory interpretations, or minor violations ignored by enforcing authorities -- threaten to chip away, inch by inch, at the height restrictions.
"My bill would confirm the clear meaning of the 1910 act and the intent of Congress that it be strictly construed," he said.
The most significant amendments would "clarify that an exterior wall is any outside wall of a building" and then "give the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) a more authoritative role in applying and enforcing the Height Limits Act," Stark said.
Currently, the NCPC does not normally have jurisdiction over most building projects in the District unless they are federal projects or directly affect federal property.
This latter provision, as the American Institute of Architects press release notes, "would add new and unnecessary layers of bureaucracy to the design review process." With the NCPC reviewing all new projects seeking height limit variances, "the authority of duly appointed local agencies such as the Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment would be severely compromised."
Stark's legislative initiative seems motivated by a specific project, the proposed WETA building to be built on the campus of George Washington University at the corner of 21st and H streets NW. Designed by Ayers/Saint/Gross, the 100-foot-tall building would have a penthouse rising 18.5 feet above the roof and set back 18.5 feet from both the 21st Street and H Street facades. But there would be no penthouse setback from the rear wall, facing a service court, or the side wall, abutting a row house.
The project has been vigorously opposed by neighborhood residents objecting to the site's rezoning from residential -- which many prefer -- to denser commercial use, the increased project height and the expected increases in traffic and parking. Generally skeptical about the motives and methods of George Washington University, they also worry about the impact of WETA's antennas and electromagnetic emissions.
Despite neighborhood opposition, the Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment approved the zoning changes and proposed design, including the penthouse. The NCPC, having review authority over this site because of its proximity to Pennsylvania Avenue, also approved the project on a 7 to 5 vote, contrary to the NCPC staff's negative recommendation based on reinterpretation of the Building Height Act. A representative of Congressman Stark, who as chairman of the House District Committee is an NCPC Commissioner, voted in the minority.
This week Stark revised his original bill, removing many of its restrictions, but is introducing another bill explicitly intended to block the WETA project as designed.
Whatever the merits of this specific building and its design, using a single project as an excuse to tinker with the 1910 Building Height Act and long-standing regulatory practices and interpretation is dubious at best.
The District has plenty of problems that need fixing, but this isn't one of them. How can anyone become alarmed about building heights and penthouses in light of all the much more serious matters facing the District, the region and the nation? Why is Stark wasting his, and the Congress's, time and energy on this unnecessary, highly localized legislation that affects so few?
For more than eight decades, the city interpreted and enforced its Building Height Act without meddling by Congress or federal overseers. Numerous architectural precedents have been set, based on the street-fronting interpretation, without adverse aesthetic consequences. A reasonable regulatory tradition has been established and is worthy of preservation. This particular law "ain't broke -- don't fix it!"
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.
© 1999 Washington Post Newsweek Interactive