The General Services Administration, trying to squeeze as much rent money as possible out of its properties, is promoting a new plan to lease the rooftops of federal buildings here to private companies that want the space for installing satellite communication dishes.
GSA, the government's landlord, views the scheme as an untapped source of revenue to operate federal buildings in a time of budget cutbacks. It has been soliciting opinions on the plan from federal and local agencies that control various aspects of the Washington cityscape.
But just as in residential communities throughout the Washington area, where neighbors have engaged in temper-flaring wars of words over the intrusion of the dishes, the GSA plan has drawn caustic comments from some officials and words of caution from others.
"This is the coming thing; we thought we'd cash in on it," GSA space utilization specialist Marian Laster recently told the skeptical Commission of Fine Arts, the federal arbiter of architectural esthetics in much of Washington.
But J. Carter Brown, the commission chairman and director of the National Gallery of Art, quickly responded, "To have these elephants up there is not going to benefit society. It's a real denigration of everything that's been achieved in this country."
Another commissioner, sculptor Frederick Hart, said, "This is a monster that could get out of hand."
The staff of the National Capital Planning Commission, which oversees construction of federal buildings and structural changes to them, recommended against leasing any roofs of downtown federal buildings for the 2-to-12-foot-wide satellite dishes, to curb unwanted visual blight. The commission itself has deferred action on the proposal pending further study.
Conversely, John J. Cullinane, senior architect at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, said he is "confident that criteria can be worked out so that there would not be an impact by locating the dishes back far enough from the edges so that they won't be visible. Whether it's a good idea is not for us to decide."
He said the council, which reviews federal proposals for any buildings that are listed or are eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, would "evaluate on an individual basis if dishes were not hidden from view."
The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. last year adopted a satellite dish policy for properties bordering the avenue, saying that they must be "aesthetically compatible with the nation's Main Street." The policy limits their height to 18 feet 6 inches above the roofline, the same height as allowed for mechanical penthouses, and requires that the dishes only be located on the main roofs of buildings, be invisible from surrounding streets and be approved by the Secret Service.
"It's the wave of the future," said M. Jay Brodie, PADC's executive director. "That's why we adopted this policy. We only have a few now, but we expect more in the future."
Rodgers Stewart, GSA's deputy real estate director for the Washington area, said, "We have to recognize use of the satellite dishes is here to stay. It's not going to go away. We either have to adapt to it or be overrun by it."
He said that GSA would only sanction use of its rooftops for dishes that "would be essentially out of sight from someone on the ground or on the Mall. I think we'd only consider the buildings that could hide that kind of apparatus."
Critics of the dishes have been particularly upset by the line of them erected on the roof of the private Communications Satellite Corp. building at L'Enfant Plaza overlooking the Southwest waterfront. But Stewart said GSA was "not talking about this kind of visibility."
GSA's Laster said the agency, in developing its satellite dish policy, is trying to comply with an order by President Reagan to "maximize the use of federal space."
"When the government needs to put an antenna on a leased space, and the government hasn't leased the whole building, the government pays through the nose," Laster said. "We ought to be making some money for the government. It seems to be an opportunity."
She said the agency hopes to start leasing the rooftops sometime in the year starting Oct. 1, but does not know how much money it can raise from the effort. Laster said the government typically pays $10,000 a year to lease rooftop space for a satellite dish.
Laster said the leasing would start after the various local and federal agencies have a chance to suggest regulations.