Should Pop Ups be Legislated? CM Jim Graham Issues Statement on Pop Ups to the Zoning Commision

V Street Pop Up (just east of 11th St.), November 2013

Yesterday the CityPaper noted:

“Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham is tired of the “monstrosities” growing from the tops of rowhouses, and he wants the Zoning Commission to do something about it.”

Following is Council Member Jim Graham’s full statement to the zoning commission last night:

“Good evening Chairman Hood and Zoning Commissioners.

I want to congratulate the Office of Planning, the Zoning Task Force and the Zoning Commission for taking on the Zoning Regulations Review (ZRR) and for the comprehensive, and effective process that has been created as part of revising our 1958 Regulations.

I have come here today not with answers but with questions and an inquiry of you. Over the past few years, everyone knows from observation in Ward One and elsewhere, an issue that has come to be known as “Pop Ups”. That happens when infill development dramatically differs in massing and design from the existing buildings. To some extent, I have already raised the issue at a Council hearing with OP Director Tregoning. I suspect this is a complex issue, one that involves change, economic development, design, zoning, planning and the pattern of preservation and growth of neighborhoods. As part of the ZRR (Zoning Regulations Review) process and the forthcoming zoning regulations, are there new means to address this situation? What is the authority of the Zoning Commission to do so? Is there legislation that I might introduce?

The fact is that many of the ‘Pop Ups’ comply with the current zoning regulations. Context is part of the issue —–that is, how does the massing integrate or not with the surrounding buildings? I understand the reason “pop up” projects are created and perhaps become controversial involves numerous issues, such as:

Older areas are rezoned thus new structures may be different in massing, height and even use.

The increase in new infill projects in existing neighborhoods may be a direct reflection of the increased demand and value of a neighborhood and area, and the desire of profits.

Execution and administration of compliance with the zoning regulations may not be equitable throughout the City– are illegal (non zoning compliant) developments allowed in certain areas or overlooked? Are there “Pop-Ups” in Georgetown or if not, why not?

A project’s design is new or of poor quality and differs from the existing nomenclature. Is there proper review for these types of occurrences? What body has or should have jurisdiction? How do we create an environment that will encourage good urban development and not be over burdening with numerous reviews often by those not qualified for such tasks?

What controls can Government have on areas that are changing and buildings that are constructed in compliance with current zoning and building regulations?

It is clear to me that Zoning is a tool (local governments) used to manage the physical development of land and regulate its use in order to protect our residences while enhancing their quality of life.

Can the Zoning Commission review neighborhoods that were rezoned to levels that are dramatically different than the current building context to see if the zoning is appropriate for today and for the future?

It is my understanding that in the ZRR, the Office of Planning and the Zoning Commission are not proposing to lower the permitted height of structures in any zone. That is, as part of the Zoning Regulations Rewrite, the City is not being remapped and Zone Districts are not changing.

There is however one change to how height is measured in lower density zones – I am advised that, currently, height is measured to the underside of the top story, allowing additional massing above that height. I understand that OP has proposed to change this to measure height to the mid-point of a pitched roof or the top of a flat roof. This can result in a reduction in the massing and visual height of the building.

This may be an excellent way to manage more contextual or sympathetic heights of new structures, without requiring the burden of design review or review by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). Are there other ways the new zoning regulations may address the issue?

I understand that the ZC can address any issue related to zoning, (and is in fact an unchecked legislative body). Are your intentions to address the issue of “POP Ups” in some form or fashion?

The height, use and lot occupancy in every neighborhood can be restricted, and it is restricted in every area of the City by zoning.

However, if new structures are to only match what currently exists then there is a simple course of action, Zone areas to reflect what is there. I am here this evening with questions. What is the Zoning Commissions intent in addressing the issue of “Pop Ups”?

Is there any authority vested with the Zoning Commission that addresses this issue, aside from remapping and down zoning areas with existing structures?

As I think most of the “Pop Ups” are conforming to zoning regulations (otherwise there would be an address to their existence), are there other means or thinking within the DC government to address these circumstances?

I am aware that this is a rather complex topic, but I request that you provide for me answers to the inquires made this evening and to provide me with an idea of how the ZRR and Zoning Commission intents to address the issue of “pop ups”.”

V Street Pop Up, December 2012

73 Comment

  • The reason that you don’t see “pop-ups” in areas like Georgetown is because areas designated as historic districts have additional review processes. While designs like these may be permissible by zoning standards, the HPRB, Fine Arts Commission and the like would never allow this to happen in districts where they have oversight. You can view that as a positive or a negative….but that’s the reason.

  • I do think that there needs to be some sort of review process, especially for cheap, tacky monstrosities like The Ella.
    I think a fair assessment might be if the pop-up increases the building height by more than 75% (or 100%) of the height of the original structure, then you automatically have to go through some sort of historical/aesthetic review process. All neighbors within 400 feet should be notified and be given the opportunity to submit comments or provide testimony to the review board. This would scope out the people who want to just want put a one-story addition on their place, which is the vast majority of pop-ups in DC.
    I do think that most pop-ups in DC are reasonable and tasteful, especially when it’s just a home owner using for his own personal use. The issues arise when it’s a flipper – who has nothing invested in the long term well-being of the community – tries to maximize profits and adds multiple floors to the building as cheaply as possible.

    • I agree with this proposal to just create more hoops to jump through on the super popups. A lot of row houses in DC are quite narrow and have small bedrooms, closets, and bathrooms. I don’t think it should be illegal for me to add a floor onto my house for a new master bedroom and bath. I even think an additional level for a roofdeck should be ok as long as the entrance to that level is in the back of the house.

    • This is just NIMBYism plain and simple. Pop-ups will generally self-regulate against being hideous: nobody wants to live in a hideous home.

      D.C. desperately needs more housing to meet all the demand.

      Every pop-up replaces two ugly houses on former farmland in northern Virginia or Maryland. NIMBYism kills the environment.

      • Lighten up, Francis.
        Communities in VA and MD also have HOA’s that strictly dictate aesthetics. Do you also oppose those?

      • No, this is not pure NIMBYism. Anon at 11:19 actually made a pretty thoughtful and balanced proposal. One that would leave most pop-ups undisturbed, but would create an extra layer of review (not prohibit!) mega-popups. Seems like a reasonable way to balance the need for in-fill with negative externalities.
        october, beware of extremism; it leads you to be, well, extreme.

      • NIMBY, if that’s what you need to call review of construction overhaul, is not evil. I second/third Anonymous’ 11:19 am post.

    • OMG “The Ella.” I can’t believe they gave that building a name. How…absurd.

  • I wish Jim Graham would get tired of street crime.

  • I’m pretty opposed to this. I think everyone hates the V st popup in the picture, but I see several issues.

    1. We need more housing in the city since we have grown and are still growing.
    2. If you don’t allow popups, where will people with kids live? Popups, when split up usually have 2-3 bedrooms. This allows familes to live in the city without the larger cost of a whole house.
    3. Its a giveaway to big developers. Without popups the only way to increase housing stock is through big developments.

    • Red herring — plenty of people with kids live in houses that don’t have popups!

      • How is this a red herring? If you have a couple kids you need more bedrooms. The popups allow larger places in the space of 1 house, at a cheaper price than a whole house. If you want a viable city, you need a way to keep people in the city after they have kids. Not everyone wants to move to the suburbs, and not everyone has enough money to buy a $700 rowhouse, but they may have enough to buy a $450k condo in a 2-unit popup that has more than 2 bedrooms.


    • I have to disagree. You can increase housing stock in a neighborhood without destroying the fabric of that neighborhood. Living in MtP, I’ve seen several large single-family rowhouses get split up into fairly large condos while still maintaining the historic integrity of the outside structure. And what’s so bad about big developments, so long as they ‘re located along major thoroughfares or major transportation hubs? For example I would argue that all the large condo developments along the 14th Street corridor have done a lot to raise up the entire neighborhood.

      • +1. Really, all three of the original points are red herrings (though the one about kids was the most glaringly so).
        I’d be interested in seeing a breakdown of how many pop-ups are put in by owners planning to continue living in a house, vs. by developers/flippers. It seems to me like the majority are the latter.

    • saf

      Where will people with kids live? Where they have always lived – in row houses, apartments, detached houses…

      My house now has 2 people and a bunch of cats. But the people we bought from raised a family here, and they had 4 kids.

  • justinbc

    It’s embarrassing how many of the answers to his litany of questions should be relatively easy for someone in his position to find out. They’re already regulated by numerous bodies in the District, as he even states himself, but whether those bodies are doing their jobs effectively or not is an entirely different issue.

  • If a pop-up complies with building code and isn’t within a historic district then the OP would be doing a disservice by requiring hoops to jump through based upon aesthetic. The market will do a much better job of choosing which aesthetic is pleasing and will do so without creating bureaucracy that will only raise the price of rent in DC. With rent at current levels, when it comes to building, the OP should be doing as much as they can to accommodate demand. That’s the best service they could provide to low and middle income residents.

    • The only issue with your statement is the idea that the decision to build one of these only impacts that one property. It doesn’t. I would hardly want to buy either of the homes on either side of this or across the street from it. Someone might, but if it lowers the resell value on neighboring homes, I see no reason it cannot be regulated. I’m not saying ban them. I think there is some happy medium that can be reached.

      And I disagree that housing is at such a shortage in the city that regulations are bad. There are plenty of areas of the city to be developed. Get real. But I totally agree that adding one floor for a deck or master bedroom or something should not require an act of Congress. But this popup in this picture is atrocious and I feel very sorry for its neighbors.

      • justinbc

        “I see no reason it cannot be regulated.”
        It is regulated. As he included with the caveat in his post “If a pop-up complies with building code and isn’t within a historic district”, there are multiple ways these things are regulated.

    • “The market will do a much better job of choosing which aesthetic is pleasing”?? Pleasing TO THE BUYER OF THE POP-UP, maybe.
      Pop-ups is are a “ME ME ME” thing — no respect for the block’s architectural context, no respect for the neighbors, no respect for anything but the individual homeowner’s desire to have more space and/or the developer’s desire to make as much $ as possible.

      • Buying a house is a risk and you should bear it alone. I don’t understand why people think they’re entitled to regulating their neighbors property to prop up their own investment. Talk about selfish, the value of your property isn’t some inherent right to be protected by the government.

        • The idea is to formalize community standards into regulations.
          This is about more than monetary value; it’s about aesthetics too.

          • Then we have a fundamental disagreement. I think the governments job should be to institute policies that help foster affordable housing for residents though the free market when possible. You think it should be to make sure nobody’s aesthetic sensibilities are impugned.

            Additionally, while a homeowner will occasionally violate the majority’s view of a pleasing aesthetic I would argue that the government will systemically violate aesthetics on a much larger scale.

          • Wildcat – wait, what ?? the role of the government is by no means to keep housing prices down. it should, however, function to work toward the well-being of all. thus, regulations to ensure that neighborhoods maintain a certain integrity – if that’s what the people of that neighborhood want – is most certainly proper.

        • The government protects my property value in some ways; it doesn’t in others. The question here is whether this should be one of the ways.
          “the value of your property isn’t some inherent right to be protected by the government” is both silly (because the gov’t does do this in many ways and of course shouldn’t do it in all ways) and a red herring that does not advance the discussion.

          • Wow. Alright I’ll play. The government shouldn’t infringe upon another person’s right to build, above their house, a pop-up (not a strip club) to protect the value of your home. Is that better? Glad the convo is advancing now.

        • Thank you, thank you, thank you. The most sane statment I’ve read on this subject.

      • justinbc

        If you want that type of preservation you should buy a house in a historic district, which is much more heavily regulated.

        • There are plenty of non-historic towns (I am thinking of the suburbs of Columbus, OH in particular) that regulate the aesthetics of people’s homes. It isn’t completely in left field to put in some measures to protect the look and feel of a community. I don’t think it should be completely prohibited, but there could be some reasonable rules.

          • justinbc

            Absolutely. If you happen to live in one of those places then you’re aware of that going in, or should be, and can participate in forming such a thing if not. The reality is many DC neighborhoods do not fall under that type of legislation and getting it enacted now is incredibly difficult. You can’t just go around labeling everything historic, some things were built just as poorly in the 50s and 60s as they are today.

      • If the block’s architectural uniformity is so important, wouldn’t it just be a historical zone? I think the real solution is to make the entire city a historical. no more development!

        sorry the neighbors are too poor to live in an area of town that is designated as historical and comes with the price tag and benefits of having quintessential historical dc housing, or chose to live in a neighborhood that is “vibrant”, where vibrant means things like housing aesthetics are not strictly dictated by the hprb.

    • I have absolutely ZERO faith in the market’s ability to protect the fabric of residential neighborhoods in the District. Just look at the number of horrendous pop-ups already littering neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Petworth. The market creates perverse incentives that ensure that developers will use the cheapest materials with no regard for aesthetics in order to keep costs down and maximize profits. And people will buy them, because folks are hungry for cheap housing. It doesn’t matter how ugly or how poorly constructed. Some one will buy them. It’s a race to the bottom. DC has been a planned city since its inception. Our residential neighborhoods have been planned developments. What makes you think that turning into the Wild West all of a sudden will lead to a better result?

      • justinbc

        I don’t think he implied any of those things you’re inferring.

      • So much win in this post.

      • We disagree on what a “better result” is for one thing. I don’t see a problem with keeping costs down and maximizing profits. If the “cheap materials” you mention aren’t up to building code from a safety standpoint then that’s another issue.

        One of the results of your “planned city” is an income gap as great as anywhere in the nation.

        I actually don’t begrudge homeowners for wanting to regulate their neighborhoods to improve home prices. I just don’t see how anyone can make the case that it’s better for city as a whole. And you won’t convince me that a few people having a view of the Capitol is better for the city as a whole.

        • And you won’t convince me that DC’s income inequality is due to planned development by pointing to a study that doesn’t even remotely make that argument. The report points to two important tools in our government’s arsenal that should be used to increase affordable housing in DC (rent subsidies, and funding the Housing Production Trust Fund). Neither of these have anything to do with allowing fly-by-night developers to build horrendous pop-ups. Please don’t try to paint smart development and affordable housing as contradictory goals. They’re not.

          • When you “protect” current property owners with zoning regulation and only allow qualified, low-income residents to reside in large blocks of subsidized housing, the net effect is a squeeze on the supply of housing for everyone in between. And you don’t see how that is contradictory to the goal of affordable housing? I’d love to hear your definition of “smart development.”

          • DCDude,

            Rent subsidies and the HPTF increase subsidized housing, not affordable housing. Increased supply is one surefire way to increase affordable housing.

          • My definition does not rely on the bogus assumption that the best way to increase population density in residential neighborhoods is to allow the unbridled construction of horrendous pop-ups. I can assure you of that.

          • Thank you for addressing the substantive point I posted about the difference between affordable housing and subsidized housing.

          • JS, I was only borrowing the terminology used by the study that Wildcat cited.

    • “The market will do a much better job of choosing which aesthetic is pleasing and will do so without creating bureaucracy that will only raise the price of rent in DC.”

      You’re kidding, right? The argument that the city has no right to impose it’s own (or a panel’s own) esthetic judgment on a private transaction has legitimacy, but the idea that market economics results in esthetically pleasing design flies in the face of virtually every un-paneled development (to be fair, most development, period) since perhaps the 1920s. Cheap, utilitarian crap is the norm.

      • justinbc

        Then the market has deemed that cheap, utilitarian crap is sufficient. If people could afford to live in houses made out of pretty, sparkly gold bricks, then they would. Most can’t, and so the market provides them things at a price they can afford.

        • Indeed. That’s why I not a free-market cultist. There world is full of cheap utilitarian crap — or mid-priced, OK stuff — while there is a finite supply of aging, intriguing, vaguely “historic” neighborhoods and housing stock which have hard-to-calculate but nonetheless real value that the market does not take into account (the value of an old-growth forest is not measured purely in board-feet) and we certainly have a right, if not an obligation, to protect that.

          • Well put, Irving Streete.

          • justinbc

            I completely agree with that. The problem is that everyone thinks THEIR corner of the world is sacred, when it in fact is not. This is why historical preservation societies exist, because collectively they’ve pooled their assets or influence or keep something intact. If folks in these unprotected areas want to do the same then they certainly should, but don’t go complaining when rat and bum infested row houses in less desirable areas sit vacant because developers aren’t allowed to touch them.

      • Not flaming here but do you have any evidence (links) you could pass along? I seem to be in the minority on aesthetics here.

  • While I don’t love the design of the V-street building, I think it’s unfair to present it as it is pictured here – making it seem like the whole block and area is petite row houses. Within a few years, that block will sport several large buildings, and the older small townhouses will be just part of the mix.

      • doesn’t look any better, There should be a height restriction based on widths. had three of those row homes been made into one then popped up this high, different story

        There here plenty of building rules that are ignored on a daily basis by the city. The builders know this and that is why garbage gets built everyday. A well done quality and respectful pop up is fine. Slapping 4×8 sheets of fake siding on top of a brick home is not.

        Seems DC has so many large scale projects happening, the small popups and medium sized builds are going under the radar

        • I didn’t say it looks good – I hate the design. I just said that I think the pictures showing it without the broader context don’t honestly portray the impact it has on the neighborhood. With all the hubub, you would think this had gone in on a beautiful historic block. In truth, there are large condo developments just feet away, and several vacant lots within a couple hundred feet that will soon turn into similar developments.

          More generally, though, I agree that if we don’t allow additions like this (within zoning limitations, of course) we will artificially limit housing supply (see: San Francisco) and prices will suffer. If you own a house (as an investor or person with kids, per the above) you should be able to make such additions (within limits). If we try to legislate design (which no one here is really suggesting) we will inevitably get something worse, in the long run, than the occasional overly tall building.

          • Phred – You are the man. You basically surmised my complete train of thought regarding pop-ups. Yes, if the design is bad, the building will look awful. A one story building with a terrible and cheap design will look awful as well, it just so happens that when a building stands out from its neighbors, AND looks awful, it gets all the more attention for doing so.

            Its not so much the pop-ups that are the problem as the design, I believe. Set back the top stories a bit so it doesn’t look so massive, and mix in some brick with detailing, and it would look fine.

    • Exactly. Where pop-ups are occurring it is because they are allowed by zoning. That is a very, very, very limited subset of the areas currently developed with rowhouses. That part of V Street happens to be zoned for higher density and height, but 99% of the District’s rowhouse neighborhoods are limited to 3 stories and 40 feet in height.

  • If you want to see what the market will do, just visit Manhatten: Almost all the row houses are gone below 72nd Street, even then.

    However, I think the ‘Purity’ regulations in Historic Disctricts are way overboard. Many of DC’s older homes are way plain and I’m always stunned when “in character” upgrades including tasteful popups’s (1 story) are refused in the name of purity.

    • Exactly – the market has done a great job in Manhattan of keeping housing affordable by replacing low density row houses with large apartments and condominiums. Without this progress, middle class folks would no longer be able to afford housing below 72nd street!

      • Middle class people can’t afford housing below 72nd Street in NYC, unless they buy through a subsidized housing program administered by the city. 600 sq foot 1BR apartments start at $600K. That’s not a middle-class price.

        • this is wrong – the market has filled lower manhattan with large buildings that allow middle class people to live wherever they want in manhattan at affordable prices.

      • I think DC and Manhattan differ on a number of different levels. Manhattan has been fueled by growth. The buildings brought in businesses, people wanted to be closer to the businesses and so that required more buildings, and soon you have massive construction.

        DC, however, is lucky enough to have the federal government as its anchor. Without that, you would probably be begging for more development. That would be a sign of prosperity and bring more prosperity with it (as is the case with Manhattan).

        If you would like for DC to reject more private enterprise, vibrant commercial venues, and density and remain always how it is (or perhaps let it fall into a spiral of decay from decreases in federal spending) Then go ahead and discourage development through legal action. If you want to make this city continue to succeed and push our housing standard up as high as possible (making it a more desirable place to live), then perhaps the occasional bad design is part of the process.

  • Speaking of historical districts…

    I got a letter in the mail protesting a proposal to turn my neighborhood (east side of Meridian Hill Park) into a historic district. I wasn’t aware of such a proposal and was amused that someone really thinks it is going to happen. Given how many places in the area are pop ups and the high number of row houses being converted into condos, I think that ship sailed long ago. Maybe if they had tried 5-10 years ago, it would have made more sense…

  • brookland_rez

    I don’t want to see redevelopment held up by bureaucrats, but something does need to be done. So I say yes.

  • The Ella looks much better in person. and looks much nicer than the houses next to it. and besides that whole block is kinda whack.

  • i do sympathize a little with the idea that in 50 years, the whole block will probably have a popup so it wont be dangling up in the sky by itself. That being said, it looks bad in the meantime

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