Where Zoning Commissioners Stand on DC’s Proposed Pop-Up Rule

by Lark Turner

Where Zoning Commissioners Stand on DC's Proposed Pop-Up Rule: Figure 1
A pop-up on Buchanan Street NW.

The Zoning Commission is strongly divided on a proposed rule aimed at stopping residential pop-ups in DC. But if commissioners’ opinions hold steady, the rule is likely to be implemented on a divided vote.

The proposal, floated by Office of Planning, would limit the by-right height in R-4 districts to 35 feet and essentially prevent conversions of rowhouses into apartments in these districts. It’s been applauded by neighbors of some existing pop-ups, but also critiqued for being overly broad without addressing the real issue many have with pop-ups: Ugly design. For a primer on what’s being proposed by the Office of Planning, head over here.

Here’s the breakdown of where commissioners seem to stand on the issue currently:

Chairman Anthony Hood: In favor of the rule. Hood says he is ready to adopt the rule and tweak it if necessary, and seemed annoyed at requests to slow down the process and get more data and information. Key quote: “There’s a crisis out there. There’s something that needs to be done.”

Vice Chair Marcie Cohen: Strongly anti-rule. She said it will limit housing supply in R-4 neighborhoods and drive up prices, with an adverse impact on affordability. Key quote: “We need to continue to increase the supply of housing. … To downzone — and it is a downzoning — I don’t think that’s the proper road to take.”

Robert Miller Strongly anti-rule. Miller believes it infringes on property rights and doesn’t address bad design. He pointed out that many of the young people coming into the city can’t afford rents in high-rises on 14th Street and in NoMa. Key quote: “I think the issue is obviously a design issue. I think this proposal has taken a sledgehammer approach to a legitimate concern about the design of some of the pop-ups.”

Michael Turnbull: In favor of the rule. Turnbull agrees that there’s a design issue with pop-ups, but doesn’t know how the zoning regulations can address that problem. He thinks action should be taken right away. “I think OP has done a lot of hard work and held a lot of meetings on this already. We don’t need to beat this horse into the ground.”

Peter May: In favor of the rule, though he says pop-ups have been going on for decades and agrees the problem is largely a design issue. He believes three-bedroom family housing should be protected in the District. Key quote: “We do need to reduce the incentive to take regular rowhouses and turn them into these multi-unit buildings.”

Though May and Turnbull agree that there’s a design problem with pop-ups, both seemed comfortable with the broadest implication of the proposal: Limiting conversions. If the commissioners hold their ground — and many seemed resolute at a hearing on Monday night — the vote will come out 3-2 in favor of the proposed rule or something similar to it. The commissioners won’t vote on the proposal until a later date.

Both Miller and Cohen, who were wary of the new rule, pointed out that the city’s demographics are rapidly changing. They’re right. Middle-class families with young children are more likely to move away from the District (many say that has to do with the District’s public schools). Developers say there’s little demand for larger residential units. And between 2010 and 2020, the city’s expected to add 200,000 people aged 25-34.

Those are mostly single young people living alone or with roommates who won’t be able to afford rents over $1,750 a month at the very high end, according to George Mason University’s David Versel. Studios in DC’s Class A housing stock, where the vast majority of housing stock is being added, generally eclipse $1,750. But as Versel told UrbanTurf, many young people share housing in more far-flung parts of the city (often R-4) that rents for much less a month. Hood, May and Turnbull didn’t address the demographics argument in Monday’s hearing.

See other articles related to: zoning commission, pop-ups, office of planning

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/zoning_commission_divided_on_proposed_pop-up_rule/9513


  1. skidrowedc@gmail.com said at 9:14 pm on Tuesday February 10, 2015:
    One facet of this that proponents, OP, and especially the preservationists don't seem to have considered is that one can still fit 3 stories in 35' height. Easily; even if the 1st floor is raised. The proposal puts a lid on demand via eliminating the "flat" (2-unit building) as a by-right option. (You'd never know it from the rhetoric, but doing 3 or more units is already essentially outlawed in R-4 due to a lot square footage restriction that 99% of R-4 lots do not meet.) But for those single-family owners who want a larger house, most will still be able to pop up a 3rd floor easily enough. The main difference is that under the current 40' height limit, there's more wiggle room to work with the existing architecture (cornices etc.), whereas a 35' limit pretty much forces one to chop off the existing top of the building. In short, although the proposal may disincentivize pop-ups by reducing demand (by stripping existing owners of their current rights), the proposal incentivizes pop-ups that are even less architecturally appropriate than the ones we're currently dealing with.
  1. Tracy Hart said at 10:23 pm on Tuesday February 10, 2015:
    I was in attendance last night. I live near a single-family home which is in the process of permitting for a 7-unit apartment house. In the middle of a row of fully attached rowhouses, in the middle of a block of all rowhouses. So let's not speculate on square footage restrictions, because everyone (especially developers) know that there are special exceptions granted 99% of the time. I also take exception to the proposition that 35' in lieu of 40' height will lead to "better cornices", i.e. better design. Design incentives aside, it is the conversion of single-family homes to multi-unit condos in the middle of residential zones that is the primary issue. If one wishes to look at demand for single-family house stock versus condo stock, look at the days on market averages for these two. Single-family houses are in very strong demand relative to condos. With respect to the meeting last night, there were red herrings thrown into the discussion in order to delay a vote: more information on solar access, more information on demographics, and a request for the Office of Planning to offer some additional design considerations to complement what currently is in 14-11. Let's be clear: those single-family homeowners who wish to put in an addition will still be able to under 14-11. Those single-family homeowners who wish to put in a rental unit will still be able to under 14-11. It is the conversion to multi-unit condos that will be stymied. If you look at the 190+ exhibits on the Zoning Commission website pro- and con- 14-11, you'll see that every ANC on the record sits on one side of the fence. The ANCs represent the citizens of the District of Columbia. I'm wondering who Cohen and Miller represent .....
  1. adriana said at 11:16 pm on Tuesday February 10, 2015:
    I live in a condo rowhouse, i.e. one of those so called single family homes that was split into condos. (It's not a pop up however) I love my place, and I don't see why people would have a problem with my place. I would have loved to buy a house, but obviously couldn't afford it. I didn't want to live in a high rise, so the rowhouse condo is a great fit. I plan on owning my place for a long long time. Down the road - as DC grows and we all make more money (that is - the other unit owners) - if there is ever a need to rebuild or expand, I would be pretty annoyed at any additional restrictions. Big developers can pretty much do whatever the heck they want. I'm not sure why homeowners here are so eager to surrender their property rights.
  1. Lanier Neighbor said at 11:28 pm on Tuesday February 10, 2015:
    Here's another takeaway quote from Chairman Hood: "Affordable to who? $2200 a month is not affordable. Affordable to who?" Chairman Hood is pretending that a 3 bedroom row house priced at $900K is more affordable than one converted into three condos selling at $300K, $500K and $700K (for 1, 2 and 3 bedroom units).
  1. Lanier Neighbor said at 12:04 am on Wednesday February 11, 2015:
    Regarding Solar Panels: according to the link provided by the Office of Planning http://www.mapdwell.com/en/dc D.C. has about 1,100 buildings with solar panels out of a total of more than 160,000 buildings. So more than 99% of D.C. buildings lack any solar panels. In Lanier Heights there are only 4 row houses that show solar panels, and none of the apartment buildings show any solar panels. So I think solar panels ARE a red herring --- but one put forth by the downzoner groups.
  1. Tracy Hart said at 9:31 pm on Thursday February 12, 2015:
    On solar panels: Rather than citing the current number of DC homes with solar panels, one needs to look at the rate of adoption/uptake, as well as DC's policy for expansion of alternative energy. A more general comment: it's ironic to read the article above at the same time that an advertisement runs at the top of Urban Turf for 1726 Lanier Place, multi-unit condos.
  1. Lanier Neighbor said at 5:44 pm on Friday February 13, 2015:
    Good idea. What is the rate of adoption of solar panels, etc? We would truly like to know. We believe there are alternative solutions to the (still largely hypothetical) problem of solar panels blocked by pop-ups. Solutions that make more sense than downzoning 35,000+ D.C. homes. Another issue is PEPCO. Does anyone have information on how many solar panel inputs Pepco's grid allows? We've heard that there is a limit. If that is true then expanding that limit is another issue solar power advocates need to address. Would appreciate info on the question of limited solar power inputs to Pepco's grid.
  1. Ken said at 6:46 pm on Saturday February 14, 2015:
    Whatever happened to Commissioner Hood's concern for aging in place citizenry? Sorry fixed-income elders, you can't put in that extra rental unit or live on the popup floor because, well, it doesn't look right.

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