DC’s Pop-Up Proposal Brings Heated Debate to Zoning Commission

by Lark Turner

DC's Pop-Up Proposal Brings Heated Debate to Zoning Commission: Figure 1
A pop-up on Buchanan Street NW.

A proposal to limit residential pop-ups in the District went before the Zoning Commission on Thursday night in a contentious hearing that was ultimately extended to February because so many people showed up to speak for and against the plan.

The Office of Planning (OP) is proposing rules it says would limit the increasingly common pop-ups, residences which rise above DC’s iconic rowhouses and are frequently used to enable two-unit conversions of single-family homes.

Here’s a quick primer on what the Office of Planning has proposed for the city’s R-4 zones:

Note: R-4 districts in DC permit matter-of-right development of single-family residential uses (including detached, semi-detached, row dwellings, and flats), churches and public schools.

  • Height: Planning wants to limit by-right height in R-4 zones to 35 feet, with homes up to 40 feet allowed by special exception. Roof structures on detached, rowhouse and residential buildings would be limited to ten feet. Planning says more than 90 percent of buildings in R-4 zones have heights no taller than 35 feet.
  • Conversions: Limit conversions of buildings into multi-family structures to the reuse of non-residential buildings, like schools. If this proposal is not accepted, Planning suggested a number of alternatives, including reducing lot area requirements per unit and establishing inclusionary zoning for any units beyond the first two.
  • Mezzanines: Redefine the zoning code’s definition of “mezzanine,” spaces between floors frequently seen in loft-style architecture, so that they count as a story.

The Office of Planning says pop-ups, especially pop-ups built to aid the conversion of a rowhouse into a two- or three-family building, are at odds with the zoning goal for R-4 districts, which are intended to facilitate single-family homes. Several ANCs in R-4 districts showed up to support the proposal. Some critics say the proposal doesn’t address the unattractive design of many pop-ups; opponents suggest it goes too far to limit development in a growing city. While one of the more infamous pop-ups is a five-story building on V Street near the U Street Corridor, that building is commercially zoned, meaning it wouldn’t fall under the proposal. The Office of Planning’s proposal would only limit pop-ups in R-4 zones.

OP says its preferred proposal, which would limit development, is legally in line with the city’s goals for growth.

“The zoning cannot be inconsistent with the comprehensive plan,” said OP’s Jennifer Steingasser. “We don’t think that these efforts to protect the R-4 zone are going to have a significant impact on the growth of the city.”

DC's Pop-Up Proposal Brings Heated Debate to Zoning Commission: Figure 2
The pop-up has inspired protests from the neighbors.

Many of the testimonials on Thursday night were made in support of the proposal, though some dissenters told the Zoning Commission to reject OP’s plan. One was Jeffrey Brune, a homeowner on Capitol Hill who says that under the proposal, he would be unable to convert the unused basement in his two-unit rowhouse into a third unit because of the restriction on conversions. Another Capitol Hill homeowner, Daniel Garry, told the Commission that the proposal ignored DC’s housing needs.

“The Proposal’s purpose appears to be to appease District residents who refuse to acknowledge that the District is a growing city that requires additional housing,” he wrote in a letter. “The solution to a housing shortage is not to downzone an entire area of the District and prevent housing and density.”

David Alpert, the owner of website Greater Greater Washington and a proponent of smart urban growth, also spoke in opposition to Planning’s proposal. Alpert pointed out that a recent Planning document indicates that available land for new housing will run out in about 25 years or less if growth continues at a faster-than-expected pace.

“Twenty-five years is not a lot of time to find opportunities for more housing,” Alpert pointed out in a letter to the ZC. “Yet OP now proposes to limit opportunities to add housing in many zones.”

Sanjay Bajaj, a developer, told the commission that limiting the height would take care of the pop-up problem. “Don’t kill the value of R-4 properties by discouraging development,” he told the Commission in a letter.

But many neighbors of the pop-ups had a very different plea before the ZC: please, end the pop-ups.

“I can think of only one or two pop-ups in my neighborhood that are acceptable,” said Betsy McDaniel, a Bloomingdale resident, giving an example she called “particularly heinous.”

Or as DC resident Todd Crosby wrote: “I do not want to BBQ in a Panopticon.”

Because public comments went so deep into the night on Thursday, the Zoning Commission did not deliberate on the issue, scheduling another hearing on the proposal for February. But early comments indicate it could be contentious; at the beginning of the meeting, vice chair Marcie Cohen suggested the proposed changes concerned her, and said “Economics 101” indicated DC’s housing squeeze is a supply and demand problem aided in part by increased density.

“I mean we’re actually downzoning R-4 and that makes me very uncomfortable,” she said. “There are other ways of addressing the issues with pop-ups, for example a design review.”

“We’re not downzoning the R-4,” Zoning’s Jennifer Steingasser replied, suggesting DC needs more housing for families and the proposed changes would help address that.

“A lot of planners would argue with you,” Cohen said.

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/pop-up_proposal_brings_heated_debate_to_zoning_commission/9413


  1. Lee said at 6:01 pm on Friday January 16, 2015:
    I would argue that there were more people speaking against the proposal then for it. As the evening went on (the hearing went until 11pm), more and more opponents of the amendment gave testimony. Because people were called in the order they arrived, those who had to be at work until 6pm were not able to testify until the end of the hearing. The last 30 or so witnesses were all (except for 1 or 2 individuals) opposed to the amendment.
  1. skidrowedc@gmail.com said at 9:12 pm on Friday January 16, 2015:
    First and foremost -- Lark, thank you for using illustrations relevant to the discussion (i.e. a pop-up that's actually in an R-4 zone), and for specifically mentioning that the infamous V Street pop-up, being in a commercial zone, would not be not affected by this proposed change. Your TV clip the other day showed only the V Street image -- I realize that's not your fault, but it helped perpetuate the hysteria. I think that the powers-that-be are going about this the wrong way. I agree, however, that we have a problem, and I feel that throwing our hands up in the air, saying "It's the will of the Market!" is not an adequate response. We need to balance the legitimate desires and needs of individual owners, the immediate neighbors, broader neighborhoods/communities, and the City. The current proposal focuses almost entirely on the immediate neighbors' desires since, of course, they're yelling the loudest. The neighborhood also gets a little, too, but the individual homeowner and City at large are left out in the dark. I think there's a more effective solution which balances the needs and desires more evenly. A simple setback requirement would preserve the roofscapes and streetscapes which almost everyone rightly treasures, while allowing for expansion. A setback is agnostic about architectural style or the quantity of units within the rowhouse. It has inherent flexibility to apply to the varying circumstances of different rowhouses and neighborhoods. The problem comes from two main sources: 1) Additions to rowhouses that are ruinous to the individual rowhouse's roofscape. For example, rowhouses with turrets or mansard roofs (such as almost all of them in Bloomingdale) are very hard to expand vertically without horrible architectural results. In contrast, one can expand a flat-fronted Federals or 1930's rowhouse without much aesthetic difficulty to the individual rowhouse -- but doing so might negatively affect the broader streetscape. 2) Additions to rowhouses which are ruinous to the unified visual character of a streetcape. The Wardman rows of Petworth (such as the one on Buchanan Street illustrating the article) are prime examples of this situation. In some cases, the expanded individual rowhouse looks fine, but the collective is diminished. Both problems could be addressed via a simple setback requirement--a tested tool of historic preservation, as well as the way that many homeowners and developers are already doing pop-ups. The logic is traightforward: If one sets back the addition at 1:1.5, the design of the pop-up can be of most any architectural style (or lack thereof, that being so much of the problem with pop-ups) with minimal effect on the streetscape of the block or the roofscape of the individual rowhouse. To accommodate those circumstances where a non-setback pop-up is not problematic, there should be a Special Exception (BZA variance) with obvious but flexible criteria about "not negatively affecting the streetscape or the existing building's roofline features." Whether the resultant buildings have one or two units doesn't really matter. (Or even 3- units or more, although so rare is the lot that meets the existing standard of minimum 900 sf of lot area per unit, conversions to 3- unit will remain exceptionally rare.) Nor does the distinction between a 40' height limit (current) and 35' (proposed) matter much. With the setback, the streetscapes and roofscapes we rightly treasure can be preserved, while allowing expansion of existing buildings. And while avoiding the onerous design review of Historic Preservation or some other entity. The height of roof structures in lower-density areas needs revision anyway. Including it in this pop-up fracas muddies the water, and reduction shouldn't be limited to R-4 only. The 18'-6" current standard is set to the requirements of a commercial elevator. In zones that are unlikely to have such elevators, a 10' roof structure is perfectly adequate.
  1. Lee said at 8:19 pm on Friday January 23, 2015:
    I agree with everything skidrowedc, why not propose a solution to the actual problem rather then passing height and conversion restrictions that do nothing to address neighbors actual complaints. I would only suggest that a 1:1 or 1:.75 setback should be sufficient. If you want a 10' vertical addition, then set-back from the front property line 10'. Even a 7.5' set-back while visible from the street would be viewed on a different plane then the original structure and would not effect the neighborhood roof line or massing.
  1. Another Bloomingdales Resident said at 3:21 am on Tuesday May 12, 2015:
    While the setback solutions seems to be a plausible compromise, people do not understand what is really going on here is greed. We should not compromise with the devil... These developers and relators will all but trick and steal houses from sellers. We've all seen the letters. The faux-pas handwritten text directed specifically at old, and hopefully naive owners. They are shameless thieves!! Does anyone really believe these guys are paying $500-600k for a house, gutting them to make two or more condos, which they are listing for $650K to $800K because they are 'concerned' about the availability of "affordable' housing stock in the District? Because they are concerned with places for 'families' to raise their children? Since when have 'families' in Washington, D.C. sought out cheaply constructed condo units as their dream homes!? They're only concern is profit, and the fact that we are reduced to haggling with these snakes about what the limits of their greed should be disturbing. There is no debate in Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Crestwood, Adams Morgan, Mt Pleasant, (for the most part). LeDroit Park is protected, Logan Circle is protected from such obvious ignorance. Over there these folks would be tarred and feathered and sued out of business for the crap they are constructing in Shaw, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Petworth, NoMa, K Street NE, etc. Really!! The battle is being waged east of 16th, where developers and relators think they can take advantage of the less powerful, and frankly, the less wealthy. Their goal is too destroy the historic character of these neighbors, to force the conversion of 'our' houses into multiple units over time. We must confront our elected officials with the disingenuous nature of their affinity for these folks east of 16th street -- and their disdain for them west of 16th Street. We must tell them if it is unacceptable in Georgetown, on Capitol Hill, in LeDroit Park, or in the Logan Circle part of Shaw, then it should be unacceptable where we live as well! Before our neighborhoods look like Georgia Avenue. Unregulated construction is destruction.

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