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Darrell I.
Republican CA 49

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  • Clarification of Rules Applying to Human Occupancy of Penthouses in District of Columbia Buildings

    by Representative Darrell E. Issa

    Posted on 2014-04-28

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    ISSA. Madam Speaker, I move to suspend the rules and pass the bill (H.R. 4192) to amend the Act entitled ``An Act to regulate the height of buildings in the District of Columbia'' to clarify the rules of the District of Columbia regarding human occupancy of penthouses above the top story of the building upon which the penthouse is placed, as amended.



    The Clerk read the title of the bill.

    The text of the bill is as follows: H.R. 4192 Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, SECTION 1. CLARIFICATION OF RULES APPLYING TO HUMAN OCCUPANCY OF PENTHOUSES IN DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA BUILDINGS.

    (a) Permitting Human Occupancy of Penthouses Within Certain Height Limit.--The eighth paragraph of section 5 of the Act entitled ``An Act to regulate the height of buildings in the District of Columbia'', approved June 1, 1910 (sec. 6- 601.05(h), D.C. Official Code) is amended-- (1) by striking ``penthouses over elevator shafts,'' and inserting ``penthouses,''; and (2) by striking ``and no floor or compartment thereof shall be constructed or used for human occupancy above the top story of the building upon which such structures are placed'' and inserting ``and, except in the case of a penthouse which is erected to a height of one story of 20 feet or less above the level of the roof, no floor or compartment thereof shall be constructed or used for human occupancy above the top story of the building upon which such structures are placed''.

    (b) Effective Date.--The amendment made by subsection (a) shall take effect on the date of the enactment of this Act.

    The SPEAKER pro tempore. Pursuant to the rule, the gentleman from California (Mr. Issa) and the gentlewoman from the District of Columbia (Ms. Norton) each will control 20 minutes.

    The Chair recognizes the gentleman from California.

    General Leave Mr. ISSA. Madam Speaker, I ask unanimous consent that all Members may have 5 legislative days in which to revise and extend their remarks and include extraneous materials on the bill hereto under consideration.

    The SPEAKER pro tempore. Is there objection to the request of the gentleman from California? There was no objection.

    Mr. ISSA. Madam Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

    Madam Speaker, in 1910, the Height of Buildings Act was signed into Federal law. That bill, in fact, envisioned a prevention of New York- style skyscrapers from being erected here in the Nation's Capital. That bill is every bit as important today as it was in 1910.

    The District of Columbia has a unique visual requirement. We should not, cannot, and will not obstruct the Mall and the major parts of this historic city.

    It is important that we maintain the skyline and the access, and we do so in every single consideration in this city. The memorials and monuments and public safety must be considered.

    However, over the last two Congresses, the committee has been working on several small modifications that, really, time has said its time has come. After 100 years, the current legislation makes a small but meaningful change. Let me put it in words the American people can easily understand.

    One hundred years ago, they put a limit on the height of these buildings, and then they put 20 feet beyond that limit of occupancy for water towers, coal stacks for the chimneys, and, of course, the tops of elevators. Those water towers, elevator shafts, chimneys, they were certainly pretty hideous, but they were necessary.

    It is now 100 years later, and, in fact, the absence of other uses for these buildings often means that these tops of these buildings are not considered to be an aesthetically important part, and there is no funding and no source of revenue to make them better.

    Under this modification to the Height Act, we allow for what have been called penthouses but, in fact, are simply industrial rooftop air conditioners and the like to be covered, wrapped, if you will, by architecturally pleasing structures.

    These structures may be occupied. They may be offices, cafeterias, or, in the case of a residential apartment complex, it could be a top apartment.

    Under the legislation, they have to have a setback. The setback is roughly 1 foot per foot of height, or 20 feet of setback if they go to the full 20 feet. So these are not a monolithic increase and, in fact, a setback consistent with that 100-year-old law.

    Last Congress, the committee held numerous hearings on the Height Act and listened to countless witnesses. I subsequently wrote to the National Capital Planning Commission, often called the NCPC, and the mayor's office, asking them to jointly study modifications to the Height Act and recommend any changes they saw appropriate. For those who are unaware, NCPC is the regional planning commission that includes representatives of both the Federal interests and local interests.

    The Height Act study is impressive. Aside from the research work, a series of meetings were held featuring considerable input from experts and the general public alike. Afterward, the mayor's office and NCPC provided separate recommendations.

    The mayor's specific recommendation: increase the height limits in downtown. The mayor also recommended that the city and NCPC work together to be able to use the city comprehensive plan as a tool to adjust height limits outside the L'Enfant city region.

    This is not in today's proposal. Ultimately, only after considering these broader changes, NCPC's only recommendation from the overall plan submitted by the mayor is, in fact, the modest proposal before you today.

    Let's understand: the height of buildings in this city will not change by 1 foot under this act, but the beauty of the tops of buildings and the usability will.

    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.

    So long as that ratio of setback and the other provisions of the 100- year-old act are maintained, the city will have the ability to approve structures.

    But let's understand: those structures will still go through a rigorous program before they can be approved, and they will continue to be consistent with the 1910 Height Act.

    NCPC itself recommended that human occupancy be allowed in such rooftop penthouses, so long as the setback ratio was maintained and that the penthouse does not exceed one story and that no more than 20 feet of height be maintained.

    Our bill does everything in the NCPC recommendation. So this bill simply gives the city a little more latitude in [[Page H3208]] allowing human occupancy in penthouses where ugly mechanical penthouses already exist and are allowed.

    I would like to have gone a little further on this bill, and I am very candid. There are areas well outside the city, as most people interpret it, far up in Northeast, where there are railroad tracks and industrial buildings, and down in Southeast, an area that Eleanor Holmes Norton has worked tirelessly to improve, that could have been given additional options for higher buildings because they are outside of the area of concern for the Mall and monuments.

    The city is not prepared to take that authority yet, and Congress is not prepared to give authority that, in fact, its city council is not prepared to handle. That is the consensus that came from the city council in their own resolution, and we respect that if the city does not want an authority, we are not going to thrust an authority on them.

    So, with respect to the Height Act, let me close by saying there will always be somebody who doesn't want a law changed, who, in fact, wants the buildings shorter. There are people who want their private home to be able to see all the way to the Mall. I would love to own one of those homes, quite frankly.

    A few feet away from here I would like to be able to walk out onto the Speaker's deck, his balcony. I would like to be able to see the White House, but I can't because the Treasury building was built in front of it and others.

    This legislation will not cause any of those shortcomings that have occurred in the past; just the opposite. It will beautify the tops of buildings if the city approves those specific projects, while maintaining the absolute limit that has been on these buildings since 1910.

    Madam Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

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