Dear PoPville – Any way to stop a pop-up?

Ed. Note: This is an old pop up from 2008 on P St, NE

“Dear PoPville,

My block in Shaw has fortunately been spared from all the popups … until now. I just noticed a house under construction just erected the start of a pop-up. Since it has literally just started, is there a way that I can check or even oppose its permits? I never saw any notices on it before now.”

Ed. Note: Last month we discussed if pop ups should be legislated.

109 Comment

    • it seems like dcra is already employed by people whose sole intention is to stop all construction in DC. You wouldn’t believe how many architects/engineers/contractors I find that refuse to do work in DC. Talk about a city shooting themselves in the foot.

      • Yet we have more cranes in the sky than almost any other major American city. The architects, engineers, and contractors you find that refuse to do work in DC are the ones shooting themselves in the foot.

      • Maybe it’s not them. It’s you. The contractors are just too chicken to tell you straight up, so they blame the people not in the room.

  • Buy the house and don’t put a pop-up on it.

  • The short answer: NO. Why are you opposed to it anyway, if you don’t even know the details?

  • Why would you oppose a pop-up? Are you opposed to other people’s lifestyle choices? Do you think you should also be allowed to control what they eat (say, no smelly Indian food) or the music they listen to? Do you think you should have veto power over which new neighbors move in, whether they own cars or dogs, and whether they have children? If you live in a city, you should be accustomed to the idea that people will do things near you that you don’t particularly like, but that’s part of the dynamism of a healthy city.

    Unless they’re doing a pop-up of *your* house without asking, you should probably just smile and live your own life.

    Or you could move to Detroit. There are no pop-ups in Detroit.

    • “say, no smelly Indian food” – was that really necessary to help further your point?

      • Indian food does smell……….it smells delicious! *droooooool*

      • no, not picky, it obnoxious to uneccesarily insult an ethnic group’s cuisine.

        • I think Chops might have been trying to highlight the offensiveness of legislating other people’s lifestyles based on personal opinions.

        • I think he meant that Indian food has distinctive smells, as in they are generally aromatic. Some people prefer less aromatic foods. I don’t know why. More Indian food for me, though!

    • Wow, what an aggressive response. So, if a pop-up like in the photo above on P Street was being built on the rowhouse next to yours, you’d “just smile and live your own life.” I didn’t think so.
      If it’s a horrible pop-up, it can have a significant effect on the nearby neighbor’s property value and their ability to sell their homes. Pretty sure the neighbors’ choice of ethnic food or music doesn’t have the same effect. Granted, this poster doesn’t seem to have any indication his neighbor’s will be that bad, but I think there is an argument for fighting some pop-ups.

      • Scrillin

        You wanna know when this city’s soul started to fade?

        When folks’ #1 concern became their property values. Do you guys even consider that not everyone owns property to begin with?

        There used to be a time when the point of buying a house was to build a home. Now it’s an investment, and ever since that became the sole focus of property owners, our nation’s communities have come unglued.

        • +1,000. Too many a-holes who only care about $$$.

          • Once things like living in a decent neighborhood with good schools and low crime become free I will stop caring about $$$

        • yes, it’s the effort to protect one’s property value that led to the downfall of the “city’s soul.” Because blight is soulful. If only we could bring back the higher murder rate, so we’d have a really awesome city.
          My street in Eckington five years ago must have had a ton of soul, because every building on the street except the one I moved into was vacant and/or abandoned. I bought there because I saw the potential, and five years later all the buildings have been renovated and turned into condos. And while there was one pop-up, it was tastefully done and no one cared.
          But, as I made clear, “there is an argument for fighting SOME pop-ups,” like the one in the photo above. I wouldn’t just fight it because of its potential effect on my property value, but because I wouldn’t want to look at it everyday and don’t think it adds to the “city’s soul.”

  • The only good pop-up is a pop-up that’s not visible from the street.

    • With some (very rare) exceptions.

    • That’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

    • I don’t mind the one-floor ones that look just like an extension of the roof. Those are pretty cool when they’re done right.

      • They’re called “Mansard Roofs” and I like them as it’s relatively easy to pull it off well.

        • There are a lot of pop-ups with mansard roofs that look tacky, but the mansard approach does at least stand a chance of blending in, unlike some of the others.
          I wouldn’t say I love this one, but they made very good use of the turret that was already there: The fact that the house is an end unit also works in its favor, lessening the roofline disruption. (See also
          I think this pop-up at 2922 Sherman Avenue NW (now completed — I’m not sure if there’s a thread showing its current state) is a good one:
          It’s the widest building of a small group of three, and the existing rooflines for the three were all different anyway, so the pop-up doesn’t disrupt a uniform roofline. The addition of the mansard roof actually makes the rooflines _more_ even rather than less. They added a whole story of apartment housing (and I think also extended the building in the back), AND improved the look of the (formerly dilapidated) building. So the end result is improved housing density — _significantly_ improved density, not just “family making room for second child” density) — and improved aesthetics.
          But then there’s When Mansards Go Bad (Like, REALLY Bad):

    • This is a little like saying the only house that is good is one that is not visible from the street. What is so holy about a roofline that it can’t be changed over time? Why do you get to consign DC to be static in time. When should we consider it “finished”…now? Keep it all the same…now? Or how about……….now? Nonsense. Cities are not built in a day, and they will forever be rebuilt and rebuilt, popups and all.

      • justinbc

        I think the underlying presumption attached is that most pop-ups are aesthetically juxtaposed to the original facade of the building, which is unpleasant to most eyes. That’s obviously subjective, but it’s an opinion pretty commonly held. If the quality / cohesiveness were more generally highlighted, then perhaps this might slowly change.

      • Most blocks of D.C. rowhouses were designed with the whole block having a coherent look, not some mishmash of differing styles.
        Many (most?) D.C. rowhouses got “bump-outs” (rear additions) fairly early on. Some (many?) of these aren’t so attractive, but they’re visible only from the alley, so it’s not a big deal.
        Putting a pop-up on your house and disrupting the coherence of the block is like giving a big middle finger to the neighborhood. More and more people have come to feel that this is the case, which is why we’re starting to see people like Jim Graham bringing up the issue.
        I’m surprised that so many people argue in favor of pop-ups. I’d be curious as to how many pop-up supporters and opponents are owners of rowhouses and how many are owners of condos (and how many are renters).

        • Come on, now. Everyone’s opinion is just as valid whether they’re owners or renters or what type of building they live in. Let’s not start invalidating people’s opinions just because they can’t afford to buy a place or live in a different type of house than you.

          • I didn’t say anything about anyone’s opinion being more valid than anyone else’s — I posed the question because I wondered if condo dwellers are less focused on the exteriors of buildings than are rowhouse dwellers.
            My experience as a condo dweller was that I didn’t feel the same sense of “ownership” of my building’s exterior as I did when I bought a house (and rightly so, since I didn’t actually own the building’s exterior). That doesn’t mean that I had zero interest in what the buildings on my block looked like, but I think one tends to perceive things somewhat differently when “home” begins at a door that’s up an elevator and down a hall than when you’re right on the street.

          • Oops… I didn’t mean that final sentence to have a mix of “you” and “one” (when it should’ve been one or the other). Editing FAIL.

        • For every uniform block, there is one that sports different styles, with rooflines of differing heights. +1 for everyone in this thread who is pointing out the structural issues underlying how/why popups are happening.

          • Yes. And those two side by side pop ups on Kenyon, on the block with Wonderland, are on a block with at least three different styles of house. Yes people still complain that they aren’t going to be uniform!

          • “For every uniform block, there is one that sports different styles, with rooflines of differing heights.”
            In what neighborhoods? The blocks of rowhouses I’m thinking of — in Park View, Petworth, Brightwood, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, most of the U Street corridor, Capitol Hill, Dupont, etc. — were built to have rooflines of the same heights.

    • +20,000,000,000

  • A pop-up is going in five houses from me (and turned into three units of condos). I can’t tell you how thrilled I am at this development and increasing the number of households in my neighborhood. Yay pop-ups for densifying without razing and re-building.

  • Short answer: No.

    Long answer: Mind your own business.

    Most (all?) of Petworth is zoned R-4. People can build pop-ups (up to something like 40 ft) as a matter of right. The only way you can oppose the construction is if it is being done illegally (i.e., without permits) or otherwise conducted in an unsafe or unlawful manner. There are other exceptions that apply to historic districts.

  • Also, you can check permits here:

  • You want to stop pop ups? Support pro-growth development, changes to the zoning code and other new urbanists policies. I dislike the aesthetics of popups as much as anyone, but they are a symptom of regulatory failure. Our zoning regulations and knee-jerk opposition to housing development leaves developers no choice but to pop up to meet demand. It’s ironic because most people who oppose pop-ups are probably urbanists that would never consider themselves NIMBY’s, but that’s sort of what’s going on here.

    • justinbc

      That really only applies to developers though. It’s kind of irrelevant if some actual resident decides they need more space when that 2nd kid comes due.

      • Right, but I think that it’s developers that are guilty of some of the more horrendous aesthetic crimes. Plus, an existing homeowner has incentive to do something that looks good, or else they’re going to decrease their home value, whereas a developer is going to make money either way.

        I just think it’s too bad that people don’t think about this stuff as a civic issue and can’t see how it’s connected to larger housing issues like the Height Limit and zoning regulations. There’s huge demand for housing in DC, and not a lot of supply. That dynamic is great for existing homeowners, and horrible for economic growth (higher office rents discourage new businesses from growing and hiring) and a tough break for young folks looking to become homeowners. If you want to stop pop ups, don’t go online to make fun of them and shame the people building them. Support politicians that support things like the new zoning regulations, ending the height limits, etc.

        • can we be friends? seriously. i want to be your friend. the lack of DC support for raising the height limit is galling.

        • justinbc

          I completely agree on what’s needed. But I think that the presumption homeowners always do what’s in the best interest of the house they’re living in is a really flawed one.

          • That presumption is flawed. But there are failsafe protections against homeowners not doing what’s in the best interest of their home – things like building codes, zoning regs, nuisance laws. With respect to a pop up, a collective decision has been made, through zoning regs, that a homeowner can build vertically on an existing structure up to a certain height as a matter of right. There’s no mandate that the homeowner consider whether what is being added will “fit in” with the rest of the neighborhood. And if there were such a mandate, it would be problematic because whether something “fits in” or not is a subjective judgment.

          • I think what’s driving the widespread popups is developer rowhouse to condo conversions. I agree that there’s not zero instances of homeowners creating ugly additions to their houses, but hiring a GC to do a popup costs north of $100K, and I just don’t think there’s that many homeowners with that kind of surplus cash who wouldn’t just sell and move to a new place. Again, from a policy perspective, I think the challenge is the incentives for developers to do these conversions. And with housing supply constrained by height limits, zoning restrictions/parking minimums, developers have strong incentives to pop up, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

        • How about DC govt. offers financing to pop up ALL the houses on any given block to double the infill housing stock and provide more affordable housing?

  • I’m surprised at all the “short answer, no” responses. This town has gotten a lot less imaginative since 1968.

  • My goodness have these boards turned nasty lately. As a homeowner in Shaw, I can fully understand why OP would be wary of an eyesore pop-up coming onto his or her block. I wouldn’t want to live next to the V St. monstrosity, either.

    OP: are in in the historic preservation district? I’m guessing not, but perhaps you can make an effort to attempt to expand its boundaries. When I first bought my house, I thought historic preservation was a nuisance. Now, with rampant development, I think it is on the whole quite useful.

    • I got mine. Nobody else can come into the neighborhood. Classic NIMBY.

      • Again with the nastiness, sheesh.

        I moved into the neighborhood with the historic preservation board protection in place. It’s still there, and I’m glad it is. That’s not nimby; simply being grateful for a regulatory body that puts some checks on what can be built in the area.

      • you have no idea who has what. Why not recognize this for what it is — a zoning loophole which rather than our government addressing developers are exploiting. If someone want to take a dump on my frontporch does that make me NIMBY too?

        • In no way is this is a zoning loophole, pop-ups up to 40 feet can be built matter of right in an R-4 neighborhood outside a historic district.

          • I believe what anon 3:43 pm meant is that the fact that R-4 zoning currently allows for such popups is not a good thing, and that the zoning rules should be changed.
            I’m curious as to what the history of pop-ups in D.C. is; it seems like a pretty recent phenomenon. So whereas the current zoning rules might have _allowed_ for pop-ups for a long time, it’s only recently that people have been taking advantage of that provision. I imagine that’s what anon 3:43 pm was perceiving as a loophole.

    • +1 — popups::urban dwellers mcmansions::suburbanites

      this argument is no different than the ones going on in Bethesda over teardowns, overbuilding to the edge of property lines, excessive size in relation to neighbors . . . just being grossly out of scale and taking a disproportionate and unwarranted share of visual and physical space.

      Just because someone lives in city doesn’t mean they understand or appreciate good urbanism. It’s the same hackneyed libertarians rants defending this nonsense. If you really needed additional space you could expand this house sensable in a way that respect the neighbors and the surrounding community. That’s not what this is about.

      This is why I’d never buy outside a historic district, but even those are getting more relaxed. At a minimum it prevents the really horrid and unfortunate design choices made with some of these overreaching developments.

      • I’m practically a socialist, but I certainly don’t understand why there need to be laws enforcing a particular aesthetic standard in housing construction.

        • who said anything about “aesthetic” value? It’s clearly lacking here, but that’s besides the point.

  • I thought people on this blog HATED pop-ups….I’m so confused…

    • I can hate your pop-up while still defending your right to build it.

      • But outside of a libertarian fantasy, this makes little sense.

        Folks defend the right to engage in speech that they hate because they believe in the underlying necessity of free speech.

        Few people, however, believe in the necessity of utterly free zoning, which is why as a society it is not a “right” that we broadly embrace. That is why a developer can’t generally purchase a house in the middle of a quiet residential street and turn it into a bar and restaurant. It tramples the rights and expectations of neighbors in the community. Unless you embrace some extreme libertarian notion that the government has no role to play in zoning whatsoever (I view that I think most people, if given the right hypothetical, would overwhelmingly reject), I feel to see why there should be any protected “right” to build a pop-up.

        This is why I fully support historic preservation board protections and again urge OP to visit it. While it won’t likely help you in this issue, it will in the future.

  • Something this hideous should not be permitted. This is the equivalent of a mobile home on top of your house. Just a few of these on your street and everybody loses property value. I’m ok with your popup if you respect the neighbors by making it blend with the architechture, look like a natural extension of the house.

    But let’s be serious. The rash of popups isn’t driven by people who want to add space for their families. It’s done by developers who speculate and then create more space to increase their value.

    You can defend that if you want. I say you’ll defend it right up till someone builds this right next to your house and you realize that you can’t sell yours because a mobile home moved in next door.

    Let’s be serious people. I’m so sick of hearing “my right” arguements. No city lets you build whatever you want wherever you want to build it.

    • Why should your aesthetic preferences be given the force of law?

      • If enough people support the idea, why shouldn’t it?
        Zoning laws/regulations tend to reflect the will of the people. There seems to be a rising tide of opposition to pop-ups, and that may well end up getting reflected in zoning laws/regs and/or the creation of more historic districts.

      • Give me a break. Too many of these pop ups are pure crap and are ruining neighborhoods. Who would want to live near crap like that?

      • I’d take the burned out shell two doors down and live with it as-is over this POS

      • Carlos, why don’t i build a giant clown on the top of my house? Would that be in poor taste? Why not have some guys spray a giant tableau of a Roman orgy on my facade? If you don’t like it, don’t look at it. How about if i just take the wheels off my car and leave it in my front yard? No problem?
        The fact is that this is a city. Cities are built on “social compacts”…. this isn’t the Colorado outback where you can run around naked and free ….you can’t have a chicken coop and you can’t ride donkey down the highway. In short, You can’t do things that impact other people negatively. It’s not about aesthetics…it’s about property values. I’m livid for the people that have to live next to the chaps that pull this crap and who just lost tens of thousands of dollars due to what their neighbor (probably a developer) decided they would like to do to earn an extra buck.

        • Thank you for the common sense. A great post.

        • Agreed – part of living in a city is agreeing that you live by a certain set of rules that can be summed up as “if it doesn’t hurt anybody else, do what you want, but if it hurts other people, think twice”.
          Now, there are excellent pop-ups out there. The big white mansion on Dupont Circle at P Street on the east side is actually a pop-up. I’d argue it increased, rather than decreased, property values nearby. And, it added much needed density. That’s an example of one done well.
          However, I live in this city. I don’t want my neighbors painting a swastika mural glorifying Hitler on the side of their home, and I don’t want my neighbors putting a beat-up Chevelle with no wheels on the front yard (as if you could fit a Chevelle in the front yards on my block). Whenever I go to sell me home, who would want to live next to that and stare at it every day?
          My commitment to my neighbors is that I will do whatever I like in my personal life and with my own home, but that I will not do anything that either disrupts their ability to live in and enjoy their homes or anything that willfully reduces the value of said homes. I expect them to do the same. That’s not really a big leap. That’s called living in a city.

      • If “aesthetic preferences” didn’t have the force of law, we would have no such things as fines levied against the owners of nuisance properties. How would one define “nuisance” without aesthetics? Prohibiting certain types of pop-ups would just be a (slightly extreme) extension of this concept.

        Has everyone answering the OP been consulting the Zoning regs? There really is no remedy on the books to prevent an unwanted popup from being built?

  • Live and let live. If a pop up makes people happy, let them have it, since it’s their right to do what they want to their property. If you want uniformity, there are lots of nice suburban enclaves in the DC area where they have rules about how tall your grass can be and the colors you can paint your townhouse. Conformists can go there and live happily ever after.

  • Pop-ups are hideous. Admit it. They are ruining the city, just look at that hideous example in this article, let along countless other examples throughout the entire city.

    • Increasing density is ruining the city? Yeah, it really sucks that the tax base is growing and that so many people want to live and work here and frequent local businesses . If you love your city and your neighborhood that much you should want to share it with people, not keep them out. And the more people you keep out, the fewer people will patronize your favorite places. How is that helping them stay in business?

  • Buy in an historic district where homeowners have already agreed to give up certain property rights in favor of preservation, with this trade-off reflected in the value of their propery (for better or for worse). If you’re not in an historic district, then generally you have little right to intervene in the design decisions of your neighbors, though the city does use zoning regulations to regulate the height and uses allowed. Think of it this way – if the owner of the pop-up bulding doesn’t like the color you have chosen to paint your house, do you want to give him/her the right to force you to choose another color, or even to choose the color for you?

    I will say what I say every time this pop-up angst arises on Popville:
    1. Learn the zoning in your neighborhood – and that includes your block, both sides of the street and the block behind you, because their zoning might be different from yours. Learn what is allowed on theese properties ‘by right’ – meaning without anything more than a building permit, and with no input from neighbors. (I will guarantee you that the height allowed by right will be higher than you realize. And the uses allowed on those properties might surprise you too.)
    2. Do not asume that what you see from your property is the view you will always see. Things change, and much of it is beyond your control.
    3. Get involved in the planning process. Zoning can be changed, though it isn’t always easy. Pay attention when you see land use notices posted on a property – they usually indicate that the owner has applied to make a change that needs a specific approval (a variance) and that there will be a public meeting which will allow you to voice your opinion on the proposed project. This is generally your only chance to be heard.
    4. Don’t wait until something is under construction – it is almost always too late for you to have any input by then.

    All this applies to renters as well as property owners.

  • Yeah, unbridled unmanaged density is great. Ask those folks in Calcutta or Soweto. Really makes for great cities there. I don’t care how dense you want to get. I don’t care who you are and what you look like and how much money you earn…you’re welcome. But don’t do it by destroying my street by building a shanty on top of it. Build an apt building if you want whatever….

  • Here’s an idea: Move to a down and out neighborhood. Dodge the bullets and don’t get your head bashed in for the first few years. March every weekend with your friends to make the streets safer. Bake your neighbor a pie and go and visit them and call the cops when someone is stealing their car. Plant some trees in the tree box and cut your neighbors lawn when they can’t do it themselves. Slowly other people will get into that vibe and move there. Some will open bars and other restaurants. God forbid someone opens a coffee shop. Then you will own a house in a neighborhood where everybody want to build a popup. And because you worked hard to help build it, you’ll have the right to have a say in what that neighborhood should look like.

    Short: great neighborhoods are built on the work of the people who live there who work together to make it a place. I got mine is so…. whatever.

  • The scare tactic of claiming that pop-ups lower house values is a lie. This has never happened. In fact, it actually raises house values, because (1) the square footage of the pop up house is increased allowing it to sell for a higher price, which (2) then allows neighbors to inch up the prices of their homes when they sell, and (3) mortgage lenders can justify the higher appraisals for buyers’ mortgages because the comps in the area are higher. This happens after just one pop-up is sold in a neighborhood. The best you can argue is that a potential buyer didn’t like the street because of the aesthetic of the pop-up…but that is a specious argument and quickly examining the average days on market for single family homes quickly disproves it.

  • I would like for pop ups to be regulated in the whole city the same way they are in historic districts. All you have to do is allow them as long as they cannot be seen from the street. I believe that would be a good compromise between those who hate pop ups and those who support them. Personally, I am not concerned about the value of my house since I’m planning to live here until I die, but I would like for DC to keep its charm as much as possible and not only next door to my house but everywhere.

  • I would encourage you to work with your neighbors, your ANC, the Historic Preservation Review Board, and your city councilmember (half of Shaw is Jack Evans in Ward 2 and half is Tommy Wells in Ward 6 – you didn’t specify a block) to establish a historic district in your area. Having a historic district actually allows an excellent balance with things like pop-ups. If they are, in fact, historically consistent with the property and the neighborhood, they are allowed, but things like the infamous V Street Popup would never be permitted. As a bonus, homes in historic districts typically sell for 5%-15% more than equivalent homes just outside the district.
    Your other option is to research the house in question and see if you can find some sort of historic relevance that could lead to a historic landmark application (admittedly, this is highly unlikely).

    • In Bloomingdale we’ve been asking for this for a long time. People have the impression that it creates an onerous level of oversight….that you have to have 5K windows …etc. We are hoping that there is a compromise to be struck somewhere… perhaps a package of pre-emptive ordinances (ordinances that anticipate the types of issues that would be problematic) that we can get passed rather than going all the way with historic designation. I would totally be in for H. D. but lots of my neighbors aren’t for it.

  • Contribute to the Mid-City East Small Area Plan and Livability Study.

  • This country was founded on one ideal above all others: Freedom. If you want to restrict someone’s freedom, you better have a good reason for it. Offending someone’s eyes or aesthetic sensibilities is not good enough.

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