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.

SHA2016-logo1

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

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Recommended Links

http://planning.dc.gov/historicpreservation

http://planning.dc.gov/page/archaeology-district-columbia

http://planning.dc.gov/publication/2016-district-columbia-historic-preservation-plan

http://tiny.cc/ArchyTour

http://www.nps.gov/rap/

http://www.nps.gov/rap/archeology/spotlight_ROCR.htmhttp://www.mitchellparkdc.org/history.html

http://www.archaeologyincommunity.com/

http://groundworkdc.org/programs/urban-archeology-corps/

http://ncptt.nps.gov/blog/nps-archeology-program-urban-archeology-corps/

http://www.maacmidatlanticarchaeology.org/