House passes modest modification to D.C.’s Height Act

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The House easily passed legislation Monday that allows the nation’s capital to use more of its rooftop space without spoiling the city’s iconic views.

By a 367-16 vote, the chamber tweaked the Height Act of 1910 to create living space inside “mechanical penthouses,” which were once reserved for water towers, chimneys and the tops of elevator shafts.

Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and bill sponsor, stressed that the measure will have little outward effect.

The Height Act “is every bit as important today as it was in 1910,” Mr. Issa said. “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.”

The century-old law restricts city buildings — based on the width of the street they face — to a maximum height of 90 feet in residential areas and 130 feet in commercial zones, with a few exceptions.

Aimed at preventing a New York-style skyline, the act has provided the District with a unique aesthetic for centuries and preserved direct views of the United States’ most well-known monuments, memorials and houses of government.

“The height of buildings in this city will not change by one foot under the act,” Mr. Issa said.

The congressman said the measure allows the city to wrap mechanical space of up to 20 feet in height with “architecturally pleasing” structures, such as offices, cafeterias or top-of-building apartments.

Mr. Issa, who has federal oversight of the city, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s non-voting member of Congress, had worked with city officials in recent years on potential updates to the Height Act.

Changes to the act allow the city to enjoy greater autonomy from federal regulation and reap economic benefits from using its vertical space. Yet any talk of amending the Height Act courts controversy, and city officials in recent years have not chosen not to push for sweeping changes.

Mr. Issa said Congress will not “thrust” authority upon the city that it doesn’t want.

The bill passed under a suspension of the rules, a way to quickly pass noncontroversial bills while requiring two-thirds support of the chamber.

Fifteen Republicans and one Democrat voted against the measure.

One of them was Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican who said in floor remarks that he respects the wishes of D.C. residents, but feared any small change to the Height Act could be the “camel’s nose under the tent” that prompts larger changes, especially if building higher into the skyline becomes too lucrative to turn down.

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