Proposed Penthouse Regulations Part 2

The recent posting for Zoning Commission Case 14-13 provided a summary of the proposed amendments, and alternatives, to the penthouse regulations in the District.  Since that posting, OP has compiled additional maps, showing the proposed alternatives for where habitable space would and would not be permitted.  Under the current zoning regulations, habitable space (living space, offices, enclosed recreation space, etc.) is generally not permitted within a penthouse, with the exception of limited recreation space on a residential building.  Instead, penthouses tend to be limited to mechanical equipment and elevator overrides, or stair access ways to the roof.  However, the Height Act was recently amended to permit habitable space within rooftop penthouses located above the Height Act building height limit, if the penthouse is one story and 20 feet in height or less.

Essentially, the Zoning Commission is considering two alternatives for the permissions for habitable space:

  • Alternative 1 – Permit habitable space within a penthouse only in zones allowing a building height of more than 40 feet, by right (i.e. do not permit habitable space in a penthouse in any zone in which the building height is limited to 40 feet or less).
  • Alternative 2 – Permit habitable space within a penthouse only in zones allowing a building height of more than 50 feet, by right (i.e. do not permit habitable space in a penthouse in any zone in which the building height is limited to 50 feet or less).

The maps show these two alternatives by mapping the zones limited to 40 feet and 50 feet, respectively.

The Zoning Commission also invited the public to comment on whether some specified uses, such as a nightclub, bar, lounge, restaurant, or others, should be permitted only by special exception within a penthouse, in some or all zones.

The Zoning Commission public hearing for these proposals will be held April 30, 2015.  For more information or if you have questions about this proposal, please contact the Office of Planning at 202-442-7600.  Thanks!

Rooftop Penthouses

First – what is a rooftop penthouse? In DC, it is a (usually) small rooftop structure sitting on top of the roof, containing things like mechanical equipment, elevator or stairwell over-runs, and sometimes a room supporting a rooftop deck – storage, washrooms, etc. Not every building has one, in fact, most one-family homes and rowhouses and many small commercial or apartment buildings do not. Where they do exist, you may not always notice them, since they are required to be set back from the edge of the building below, to minimize their visual impact.

Mechanical Penthouse 2

Penthouses are regulated by zoning, including their size, height, setbacks, and permitted uses. Generally, the current penthouse regulations:

  • Limit penthouses to a height of 18’-6” above the building roof;
  • Do not limit the number of stories within the penthouse;
  • Require the penthouse to be set back from the edge of the building roof below by a distance equal to the penthouse height (a 1:1 set back); and
  • Do not permit “habitable” space in the penthouse. Habitable space includes uses such as residential living space, office space, conference rooms, or rooftop commercial space like a rooftop bar or lounge.

penthouse - aerial

The federal Height Act of 1910 also regulates penthouses. It was amended in 2014 to allow any use, including habitable space, within a rooftop penthouse which is one story and 20 feet in height or less. The intent was to allow greater use flexibility for roof tops and penthouse space. The DC zoning regulations are more restrictive than the federal Height Act, and any new building or addition must conform to both the zoning and the Height Act. To bring the Height Act and the more restrictive zoning regulations more in line and to implement the intent of the Height Act changes, amendments to the penthouse regulations would be needed.

The Zoning Commission held a public hearing on November 6, 2014 on the original OP proposed amendments to the penthouse regulations. In response to the public comments received, the Commission instructed OP to prepare an amended set of penthouse zoning regulation alternatives, to be re-advertised for a new public hearing. The new alternatives include the following:

  • Permitted penthouse height: Allow a penthouse of 20 feet in height above the roof it sits on (an increase from the currently allowed 18’-6”) in some higher density zones, but limit height to 10 feet (a decrease from the currently allowed 18’-6”) in any zone in which the building height is limited to 50 feet or less by right. The Commission is also considering an amendment to not allow a penthouse at all on a single family dwelling or rowhouse.
  • Permitted number of stories, not currently regulated by zoning: Allow 2 stories in zones that would allow a penthouse of 20 feet in height, but one story where the permitted penthouse height is limited to 10 feet. In the alternative, allow one story of habitable space in any zone, but allow a second story for mechanical space in zones where a 20 foot tall penthouse is permitted.

penthouse - 50' building

  • Permitted uses in a penthouse: Allow habitable space (residential units, office space, commercial space) in a penthouse in higher density zones, but not allow habitable space in zones where the building is limited to either 40 or 50 feet in height, or on top of a single family home or rowhouse. The Zoning Commission will also discuss whether certain uses such as a restaurant or nightclub (if permitted in the zone) would be permitted in the penthouse only with Board of Zoning Adjustment review of a special exemption request, to assess potential impacts on neighboring properties.
  • Penthouse setbacks: Essentially retain the current requirements, but provide clarification in the language when the setback is required, and also require a new penthouse setback from an adjacent historic property.
  • Penthouse area: Alter or generally eliminate current restrictions on the area of the roof that could be covered with penthouse structure – penthouse size would mainly be limited by required setbacks.
  • Penthouse walls: Amend and clarify design-related requirements for penthouse structures.
  • Affordable housing: Apply existing affordable housing requirements to new penthouse residential and non-residential space, and apply them more broadly and potentially at a deeper level of affordability.
  • Parking: Consider whether new penthouse habitable space triggers additional parking requirements.

For more detail and additional analysis, including a comparison of the proposals to existing zoning regulations, please refer to:

These changes will be discussed at a Zoning Commission Public Hearing to be held the evening of April 30, 2015 – you can participate by providing written comments to the DC Office of Zoning in advance of the hearing, or you can submit written comments in advance. More information on how to do this is available on the DC Office of Zoning website. Please also feel free to contact the Office of Planning if you have additional questions or comments.

Archaeology on a Shoe-String in the District of Columbia: An Introduction to the DC Historic Preservation Office

The District of Columbia is a strange political entity and our unique status has unexpected effects on local archaeology. But that makes it a perfect place to focus on the upcoming 50th anniversary of the National Historical Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 and the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, to be commemorated at the #SHA2016 conference. Why? Because Washington is a “special” federal enclave rather than a state and many District affairs are subject to federal laws. The District has a State Historic Preservation Office, or SHPO, that was established by, and is annually funded as a result of the NHPA regulations. The federal government owns 21.6% of the land in the District, so one-fifth of our land mass is directly subject to Section 106 of the NHPA. And 17% of District land is managed by NPS, making them a major partner in many archaeological projects.


Washington, D.C. is also a residential city with numerous historic districts and its own preservation laws, and procedures. The SHPO also serves as the “local” Historic Preservation Office (DC HPO). The District has a rich cultural history that began long before it was chosen for the nation’s capital which includes both prehistoric and colonial resources. In recent years we’ve seen an explosion of development that has led to dozens of city-funded archaeological surveys in addition to the ones conducted for federal projects. The bulk of these local projects were on city park and school properties, which comprise some of our largest non-federal open spaces. Among the sites identified are significant prehistoric camps and quarries, Civil War-era military and contraband camps, antebellum estates and tenant farms, former cemeteries, and urban row houses and alley dwellings. Archaeology offers a unique perspective – and sometimes the only material evidence — on events that were often ignored or overlooked in documentary sources. As the city’s Archaeology Team, we operate at both the federal and city levels, consulting with agencies on project concepts to ensure locations that merit survey are identified early on in the planning process, reviewing survey work plans, and commenting on draft technical reports. We are also responsible for maintaining and managing the archaeological collections, all paper and digital records, the site files, our Geographic Information System (GIS), and the archaeological survey report library. Any outreach, and education we get to conduct is pure “gravy!” Our efforts are somewhatconstrained because Chardé Reid, the assistant archaeologist, is a limited-term contract. Despite the challenges, we have forged a public outreach program on a shoestring! We have developed strategic partnerships with a variety of groups, and rely on the contributions of our graduate student interns and volunteers. Stipends are sometimes available for our interns, but the real payoff for them is the experience in a SHPO, and mentoring as they enter the job market.

Archaeology has quite a bit of community support in the District and Washingtonians turn out at our events, tune in to radio shows, and email us all the time! Mitchell Park is a great example of this. The park is located on the site of a large farm-house built by Anthony Holmead in 1795, and is a National Register-listed property. When a neighborhood group, Friends of Mitchell Park, raised funds to renovate and improve the park, they also funded an archaeological investigation of the Holmead House site. Community members now serve as site guardians and vigilantly protect the resource, which remains buried beneath their feet. Community support for archaeology may be tied to other concerns, as when groups attempt to use site preservation as a tactic to impede development even before any investigations occur. This is a tricky line for us to walk, since we promote an archaeological preservation ethic, but we also need to be sensitive to public benefits of development. We can’t short-circuit the review process to appease one constituent, because there are many competing needs and perspectives.

We do as much public outreach as possible given all our other responsibilities and limited staff. As the city grows and our demographics change, it becomes increasingly important for residents (especially young people) to understand the city’s history, diversity, and unique neighborhoods. We talk to schools, clubs, community history and heritage groups, and at neighborhood libraries, and we bring along displays and artifacts from our collections. Student interns are a big part of these outreach events and often plan and program them. We have gained the most ground by partnering with local non-profits, such as Archaeology in the Community. They have the capacity to organize annual events like Archaeology Day (in October) and Day of Archaeology (in July). Even NPS has gotten involved at the local level by starting a summer Urban Archaeology Corps program comprising District high school through college-age youth, who learn about local history, archaeology, and NPS careers. While few UAC participants plan to study archaeology, their feedback indicates they like learning about their neighborhood history and regret not getting more of it in school.

The lens of archaeology is our tool for providing alternative perspectives on the District’s long and diverse history. We have the ability to look at groups often overlooked by more traditional history. The lens, while powerful, requires that some remnants of the past remain in the ground. Therefore, continued protection and management of archaeological resources are needed. But our efforts also need support from an educated and empowered public, who embrace and advocate for archaeology because they believe it enriches historical narratives. Identification and preservation of archaeological resources is best done by concerted efforts of preservation partners at every level, including Federal, District, and neighborhood entities. We look forward to engaging more groups as we increase our outreach capacity and visibility through our limited – but successful — “shoestring” efforts.

Chardé Reid, Assistant City Archaeologist, DC Historic Preservation Office

Lois Berkowitz, volunteer at the DC Historic Preservation Office

Ruth Trocolli, City Archaeologist, DC Historic Preservation Office


Recommended Links

Over the river and through the woods

over the river
by Tim Dennee

On those crisp clear days following a snowstorm, the hills east of the Anacostia River have always drawn scores of children to their slopes for winter recreation. In the pre-snowplow era, steep roads, almost impassable to other vehicles, were paths of least resistance and maximum fun.

Still partly wooded, Naylor and Good Hope Roads as they dropped from Good Hope Hill were famous sledding or “coasting” routes before the end of the nineteenth century. Home-made and commercially made sleds—tall curved-steel-runnered sit-down cutters, long and short clippers often ridden belly down, and multi-person “trucks” or bobsleds—all plied the powder together. In the heart of Anacostia, sledding parties would commandeer Morris Road, Maple View Place, the eastern end of W Street, and 15th Street below Frederick Douglass’s Cedar Hill.

“Coasting Out of Doors,” an 1857 magazine engraving of a Winslow Homer drawing.

“Coasting Out of Doors,” an 1857 magazine engraving of a Winslow Homer drawing.

Early sleds couldn’t be steered or braked except by dragging the feet. The combination of speed with a variety of stationary and moving obstructions—pedestrians, curbs, utility poles, other sleds—made for plenty of accidents, most happily not serious. But being thrown from his clipper head-first down Maple View Place in December 1890 left little Claude Allen wishing his two front teeth back for Christmas. The number of crashes plummeted when the police forbade further coasting on Good Hope Hill and Asylum Hill in 1895.

Asylum Hill was the popular name for the long slope from the main gate of Saint Elizabeths Hospital to the doorstep of Anacostia, along the road now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. It was the main drag through the aptly named Hillsdale and one of that neighborhood’s sweetest sledding spots. It was the collision of two sleds here that was responsible for police closing the street to coasting. But Hillsdale children had alternative runs along the entire Stickfoot Branch valley through which Sheridan Road snaked. In the 1930s, Louise and Henry Sayles sailed down the slope behind their parents’ home on Sheridan near MLK, where generations of kids had joyfully preceded them.

Looking downhill at a snowless Nichols Avenue in Hillsdale, 1903.  Library of Congress.

Looking downhill at a snowless Nichols Avenue in Hillsdale, 1903. Library of Congress.

At least one late-nineteenth-century Hillsdale sled has survived its wear and tear and the passage of years. Until a few months ago, in an attic on Stanton Road—among jars, kerosene lamps, a saddle, luggage and hats dating from the 1890s to the 1930s—sat a dusty 1880s-vintage clipper, likely built in New England. A quick clean-up revealed the stenciled image of a thrush on its faded red paint, and the name of the original owner, Frank Williams, hand-lettered on the underside. Of nearly all-wood construction, just a handful of nails secure the runners, and four screws fasten the single-plank deck. Two steel rods bent around the pine runners provided the biting edge. A frayed hemp rope, mended with cotton cord, remains to tug the sled uphill once more, and it served too as a handle for its riders while shooshing down.


The sled was a second-hand toy, as the Stanton Road house and its attic treasures had belonged to the family of Annie D. and Edward E. Taliaferro (pronounced “Toliver”), who built the frame building about 1887 and resided there until the 1930s. The Taliaferros were Virginians and had probably grown up enslaved. In the mid 1880s they moved from Loudoun County with their five children, born between 1872 and 1883. The kids were the right ages to have enjoyed a sled of this vintage. It was likely put away for good when the youngest, Olivia, outgrew it in the late 1890s, explaining why this “Rosebud” was tucked into their attic’s farthest corner for some distant day.

Guess DC’s 2014 Population!

On Tuesday December 23rd the US Census Bureau is expected to release current and revised population estimates for states across the country; the District of Columbia is also included. Care to put your thinking cap on and take a guess as to what the District’s 2014 population number will be? Sign up and take the Office of Planning’s (OP) survey. The person who is able to come the closest (+/-) will receive a prize (a hard copy of the 2013 Indices: A Statistical Index of District of Columbia Government Services report).

Please complete the survey and provide your name, email and which ward you live in. We will announce the winner after the Census officially releases the District’s 2014 population estimate. Due to the scarcity of the 2013 Indices report (it’s a collector’s item!), we request that no one enter who has direct prior knowledge of the 2014 population estimate. The last day to enter your guess is Monday December 22nd at 5:00pm.

As a reference point, the US Census’ original 2013 estimate was 646,449 (see graph below — click to enlarge).

dc population 2000-2013
Source: US Census Bureau.

DC Office of Planning Projects Recognized As Outstanding Plans in DC Region

The DC Office of Planning (OP) announced today that the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Planning Association (NCAC-APA) selected three OP plans and projects among the winners of the 2014 Chapter Planning Awards. The awards recognize initiatives, public education efforts and individuals for leadership in planning in the DC region over the last two years.  NCAC-APA is a professional association dedicated to the promotion of sound planning and land use practices. Its members include city, town and county planners, related professions, elected officials and citizen planners in Washington, DC and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland.

“The District of Columbia prides itself on being a leader among our peer jurisdictions by utilizing creative approaches to address our residents’ needs and by developing innovative solutions,” said Mayor Vincent C. Gray. “The NCAC-APA’s awards to our Office of Planning are a welcome recognition of our work.”

The three OP award-winning projects under the category of “Outstanding Plans and Projects” are:

  • Play DC – Parks and Recreation Master Plan, in partnership with the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR)—winner of the Award for an Outstanding Regional or Comprehensive Plan: The Play DC Plan is the District’s first-ever comprehensive master plan for the city’s parks and recreation system.  The plan evaluated parks and recreation needs citywide and sets a roadmap for investments over the next 10 to 15 years.  It lays out major policy moves that will drive tangible improvements in local neighborhoods and sets quantitative targets to measure results.
  • Mid City East Initiative, in partnership with the District Department of Transportation (DDOT)—winner of the Harold Foster Award for Distinction in Community Outreach and Engagement: The Mid City East study area is predominantly in Wards 5 and 6 with a portion in Ward 1 and is traversed by five major corridors: North Capitol Street, New York Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue, New Jersey Avenue, and Florida Avenue.  It includes the neighborhoods of Bloomingdale, Bates/Truxton Circle, Eckington, Hanover, LeDroit Park, and Sursum Corda, as well as portions of Edgewood and Stronghold.  The Mid City East Initiative comprises two components: the Mid City East Livability Study by DDOT and OP’s Mid City East Small Area Plan. The Small Area plan provides a vision to improve quality of life and enhance neighborhood amenities and character while supporting a community of culturally, economically, and generationally diverse residents and outlines strategies that will develop more mixed-use and walkable neighborhoods.  DDOT’s Livability Study is an in-depth companion study on transportation and the public realm to guide neighborhood-scale mobility improvements. Both studies are the product of OP’s and DDOT’s intense joint collaboration with approximately 2,200 community stakeholders as well as other District agencies.
  • DC Vibrant Retail Streets Toolkit Initiative—winner of the Current Topic Award for Innovative Smart Growth Initiative: The DC Vibrant Retail Streets Toolkit is an innovative approach towards retail analysis that enables neighborhoods and cities to assess their starting point on an eight-step ‘retail vibrancy scale’ and offers customized solutions for helping retail areas improve and progress on the scale. OP piloted the implementation of the Toolkit in 11 diverse neighborhoods across the District, focusing on improved management of emerging retail corridors, local capacity-building, and the fostering of retail streets that are safe, active, and walkable. The Toolkit has allowed OP to have a very different conversation with retail stakeholders that is grounded in a shared understanding about retail realities, championed by neighborhoods, and geared towards realistic implementation.

“I am very excited that OP’s exceptional work is being recognized among the region’s top notch planning initiatives,” said Ellen McCarthy, Acting Director of the DC Office of Planning. “OP strives to think out-of the box to address important issues, and to use creative approaches to public engagement.  Our work with DDOT on the Mid City East Initiative used everything from online crowd-sourcing to holding ‘office hours’ in the community to get the broadest cross-section of public opinion possible.”

NCAC-APA will present the 2014 Chapter Planning Awards on November 20th in Silver Spring.

For more information about OP’s award-winning projects, please visit the DC Office of Planning’s website at

OP’s Park(ing) Day event inspires international action

by Andrea Limauro

When OP’s staff first joined the global Park(ing) Day movement last year, they surely did not think they would inspire a replica as far away as Italy. However, as OP’s staff plans to launch their second Park(ing) Day event today, they will be joined, at least in spirit, by Italian counterparts in the town of Conegliano, Italy. How did this intercontinental partnership happen? Last year, OP hosted an Italian planning student, Matteo Larese Gortigo, as part of an on-going internship agreement with the Planning Department of the University IUAV of Venice. Matteo and OP staff joined together to launch OP’s first experiment with temporarily transforming a parking space in front of its office at 1100 4th St SW into a welcoming place for socializing, meeting and talking planning. OP’s Park(ing) project was one of a handful of similar efforts in the District and thousands around the globe.

Italian article describing OP's 2013 Park(ing) Day

Italian article describing OP’s 2013 Park(ing) Day

As Matteo went back to his hometown of Conegliano with the goal of putting into practice what he learned from his internship, Park(ing) Day stood out as a fun and easy to replicate project. So, after putting together a small group of volunteers, he planned Conegliano’s first version of Park(ing) Day and Italy’s only second Park(ing) project this year.

Parking Day 2014 in Conegliano, Italy

Parking Day 2014 in Conegliano, Italy

The Parking Day website describes the event as “an annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public places. The project began in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in downtown San Francisco. Since 2005, PARK(ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organizations and individuals (operating independently of Rebar but following an established set of guidelines) creating new forms of temporary public space in urban contexts around the world.”

OP Park(ing) Day 2014

OP Park(ing) Day 2014

If you are curious about what Park(ing) Day is all about, and maybe thinking of joining the movement next year by replicating a project in your own neighborhood, you should come and visit OP’s project at 1100 4th St SW today from 9am to 3pm (or, if you are in Italy, you should take the opportunity to visit charming Conegliano and see Matteo’s project!).

‘Nonument Park’ Coming Soon to Southwest DC

by Josh Ghaffari

5×5 – A Temporary Public Art Project – through the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), has a new site opening soon called ‘Nonument Park’. It is located directly to the north of the Office of Planning (OP) in a vacant lot just off of 4th Street in Southwest. 5×5 explores new perspectives on the District through temporary public art from the lens of its curators and artists. ‘Nonument Park’ is being curated by Lance Fung and will feature a series of work of the following 5 artists during the Fall: Jonathan Fung, Cameron Hockenson, Peter Hutchinson, Naranjo Morse and Jennifer Wen Ma. The site is described as “a temporary sculpture park featuring ‘monuments’ devoted not to the great but to ordinary people, to the ideals of democracy, and to the common struggles of humanity.”

‘Nonument Park’ is located at 1000 4th Street SW and is officially opening on September 6th, with special events taking place from 11am-1pm. The 5×5 Temporary Public Art Project will be on display in Southwest and at various sites throughout the District from September to December. Additional information on 5×5 can be found at the following website:

 Nonument Park Pic


R-4 Text Amendment Proposal Update

There have recently been a few items in the blogosphere about the recently submitted R-4 amendment proposal, and whether or not OP’s current R-4 proposal is resulting in building permit issuance being halted while the ZC review is underway.

The R-4 proposal (Zoning Commission Case 14-11) was submitted to the Zoning Commission, and was “set down” on July 17 for a public hearing. The public hearing date has not yet been set, but is likely to be in the late fall.

A proposed change to the zoning text does not change the existing regulations until the Zoning Commission takes final action, after a public hearing. There has not been a public hearing or any action by the Zoning Commission, therefore the existing regulations continue in effect. As such, any building permit application that has or will be filed during the time this proposal is under review will continue to be evaluated by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) under the current regulations. There is no halting of permits.

A copy of the OP report, with the OP recommended changes, is available on the DC Office of Zoning website. You can also read a summary and an explanation of the proposal on OPinions. We will be posting more information on the proposal and the alternatives that the Zoning Commission requested. Please feel free to contact OP (202-442-7600) if you have any questions.

Why is DC a Food Co-op Desert?

By Edward Giefer, Office of Planning

What are the makings of a great urban neighborhood? Good schools, walkable tree-lined streets, neighbors you know, transit options, attractive houses and buildings … and a food co-op?

Well Washington, DC, doesn’t have many food cooperatives, and I’m curious to know why. My favorite food store is The Wedge in south Minneapolis, a place I shop at only about once a year now, since moving from Minnesota many years ago.

The Wedge

The Wedge is customer/member-owned: you can buy an annual membership and receive discounts on purchases throughout the year and a cut of any profits at year end; non-members are welcome to shop anytime. Closer to home, the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op in Maryland is also customer/member-owned, but co-ops can also be employee-owned, like Glut in Mt. Rainer, MD. In DC’s Mt. Pleasant the City Garden co-op is “labor-based” (customers must work a certain number of hours at the co-op) and is currently only open for three hours on Saturdays.

(photo credit: Glut)

(photo credit: Glut)

Food co-ops generally have a focus on foods that are local, organic, natural, whole grain, unique, and offered in bulk bins, at prices that are often lower than you would find at for-profit supermarkets. Whether they are customer- or employee-owned, co-ops foster a strong sense of local involvement and investment, and a commitment to ensuring success: customers/members, not a corporate office or a focus group, decide what should be on the shelves in their local store and what would sell well.

And co-ops also often boast a broader mission – The Wedge, for example, has philanthropic and educational components, and owns a small farm which they invite the community to visit. These outreach activities (along with low low prices on lentils!) have endeared this 40-year old store to its community, and it has become a treasured neighborhood asset.

In recent years, DC has seen several new retail food stores open in DC, including Wal-Mart, and maybe a Wegman’s is in our future. But all of them are for-profit, more or less traditional grocery stores, and most are headquartered outside of DC and operate nationally with little product variation from store-to-store.

Are there reasons that there are so few food co-ops in DC currently? Would you support a food co-op in your neighborhood? Share your thoughts in the comments below.