Sunday, November 23, 2014

Penthouses: The Conversation We Should be Having (and how you can help make it happen)

Sometimes the best way to figure out what's going wrong is to start by taking the enterprise seriously and at face value -- in this case, "Let's reconsider how we use the space on top of roofs" -- and then play out what candid and responsible people would do prior to making policy choices on the issue. By starting from scratch with a simple question -- if I wanted to make an intelligent decision, what would I need to know and to consider? -- you can strip away a lot of BS pretty quickly.  And what you come out with is a path forward rather than simply a critique of where we are now.

Toward that end, here's my take on what the penthouse discussion should look like.  Three basic questions frame the issues.

1.  What do (and don’t) we want happening on rooftops (and where)? 

The Wall Street Journal suggests that what's at stake here is trophy party space for out-of-town guests.   The article establishes that this can be a very lucrative enterprise -- the Newseum charges $30,000 a night for rooftop rentals.  But creating more such space is hardly the sort of emergency that justifies passing broad new regulations without any consideration (beyond revenue) of their implications.  Nor do the proposed regulations limit uses -- restaurants, nightclubs, office space, luxury housing, or any other use allowed in a zone could be located on the penthouse level(s).

Are we truly indifferent as to what uses this space is put to?  Does the answer depend on where the space is located?  If we want to create a "living" downtown, how will rooftop party spaces and the noise, light, and privacy issues they create affect the residents of neighboring buildings?  Are there safety and/or security issues affecting rooftop uses in some areas?  In areas where our goal is to create more "vibrancy," what happens to street life if we move restaurants and clubs to the sky?  Do we want rooftops to be shared (by building tenants), commercial (open to the public -- for a price), or private? What do we hope to accomplish by making this space more usable?  At this point, "sold to the highest bidder" is the operant logic of the new regulations.  To me, that's the opposite of planning.

2.  What's happening on rooftops now?  If we introduce new uses, what gets displaced -- and to where? 

In essence, the Office of Planning is proposing to commodify rooftop space.  This is a major change.  Under current zoning regulations, the rooftop uses that are allowed in DC typically don't generate revenue -- at least not directly.  Since the highest floors of a building typically command the highest rents and sales prices, adding one or two more inhabitable stories creates a strong incentive for every new building to maximize the built space above the roof.  In lower-density zones, where two extra stories (even with setbacks) could represent a major increase in merchandizable square footage, there's a potential incentive for teardowns.  And once roofs become a profit center, to what extent will beneficial but less lucrative uses survive?

Under the current zoning, rooftops typically house mechanicals -- elevator overrides, vents, HVAC equipment, antennas, and the like.  If these necessary-but-less-than-aesthetic pieces of equipment don't go on the roof, where will they go?  One developer's submission suggests that the top floor of the basement is the next-best location in commercial buildings -- in which case parking and/or storage space is likely to be displaced.  If mechanicals stay on the roof, will they be re-located in ways that make them more objectionable? In addition to being ugly, such equipment can be noisy, hot, and/or smelly depending on its function.  

More recently, rooftops have provided space for environmentally-friendly features like solar panels, green roofs, and stormwater management systems.  In addition to helping meet sustainability goals or green building requirements, such features can lead to reduction in utility costs for building owners and/or residents. But, once these features are placed in competition with revenue-generating uses, they are unlikely to be allocated prime rooftop real estate.  Solar panels, which need direct access to sunlight, face new constraints on height and orientation under the proposed guidelines as well as the likelihood of a shrinking footprint.  To what extent -- and where -- is it desirable to preserve rooftop space for uses that contribute more to sustainability than to profitability? New York, for example, has recently prioritized "green" rooftop uses in its zoning code.

Finally, some residential buildings have provided communal recreational space -- like swimming pools -- on their roofs.   In the not-too-distant past (up until 2006), on-site recreational space was required of multifamily residential projects.  But once inclusionary zoning was contemplated, developers argued they couldn't be expected to do both.  So, at their behest, OP proposed and the ZC agreed to repeal recreational space requirements for new multifamily buildings.  (Ultimately, the downtown developers who pushed for this repeal then proceeded to get themselves exempted from inclusionary zoning requirements as well.  Which makes it pretty outrageous when they suggest that the usual IZ requirements should govern penthouse construction.  For them, the usual = "none."  But I digress.)  

The absence of recreational space has been a real issue in NoMA, where thousands of units of housing came online after the repeal of the requirement.  The solution has been for DC government to spend $50 million to create parks in the neighborhood but the available land is so expensive that these recreational facilities may end up located in freeway underpasses.  

At any rate, we're now at a stage where, at least in some areas, there's a market incentive for new apartment buildings to provide rooftop pools (see, e.g. the Park Van Ness project in Chevy Chase).  But that's likely to change once that same space could be turned into two floors of luxury penthouse units instead.

What can/should we do to incentivize the use of rooftops in a way that will benefit DC residents generally?  Or do we plan to make our rooftop spaces the private preserve of a handful of super-wealthy owners of pied-a-terres?  

3.  How should we regulate what happens on roofs? 

Setbacks aren’t enough -- they address street-level views -- but view isn't the only issue and the street (much less the sidewalk immediately in front of the building) isn’t the only relevant vantage point.

These amendments are being sold as ways to prettify our skyline -- but there are no requirements, no review, no design standards to achieve that end.  

Serious thought needs to be given to what can and cannot be placed in the setback areas -- can it include outdoor seating and associated temporary structures (bars, tents, heaters), mechanicals that are no more than 4 feet tall, solar panels, or green roofs?  

Shouldn't the relationships among different rooftops be considered?  Can one building place its mechanicals in a way that spoils another’s view?  Or its penthouse in a way that undermines the efficacy of another’s solar panels?  On the ground, we pay attention to how the actions of one property owner affect the interests of neighbors -- don’t we need to look at that issue in the air as well?

The Bottom Line:  We need to establish public priorities regarding rooftop uses and then create an incentive structure that reinforces our policy objectives.  

"Maximize developer profits" is the only objective that can be deduced from OP's current proposal.  And that's not public policy.  That's a parting gift to developers (former contributors? future clients?) from government officials who are no longer accountable to the public they are supposed to serve.  

Too much is at stake here -- both in the regulations themselves (20 extra feet of height in every commercial or multifamily zone citywide) and in the precedent they'll establish (that the interests and preferences of city residents can be ignored with impunity) -- to let this pass. 

What you can do:

The right approach would be for the question of rooftop uses to be taken up as part of the forthcoming Comprehensive Plan amendment cycle (scheduled to begin in early 2015). This is what the Office of Planning repeatedly promised both DC residents and Congress throughout the Height Act debate.  See, for example, OP's statement that

The Height Act is a federal law that can be modified only through 
congressional action.  Any relaxation by Congress of the current
Height Act restrictions would still require further review, public
participation, and decisions by the District and federal governments
about whether, when and where any changes to building heights
would actually occur. The District would undertake amendments to
its Comprehensive Plan and then initiate any zoning changes deemed 
appropriate through its normal processes, including substantial public
input, to respond.[1]  (emphasis added).

Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser and Council Chair Phil Mendelson are the people who have the power to ensure that this promise is kept.  If you feel strongly about this issue, please send them an email ASAP, letting them know that you'd appreciate their intervention. Their addresses are and 

[1] Government of the District of Columbia,  Height Master Plan for the District of Columbia: Final Evaluation and Recommendations, November 20, 2013, page 7.  See also pp. 2, 45-46 of that document as well as similar comments in the September 20, 2013 Draft Recommendations, pp. 1, 10, 44.