Office of Zoning Response to CM Jim Graham’s Inquiry about Pop Ups


From Council Member Jim Graham:

“Last November 6, I took the issue of PopUps in residential neighborhoods to the DC Zoning Commission, which is now conducting an extensive review of Zoning regulations. This issue has been ongoing for some time. Ann Hargrove led the effort some years ago on what became known as the Belmont Tower. Since then there have been many new examples.

Rest assured, attn I am not talking about a simple addition to a row house. But what we have in various areas is a major and dramatic increase in size and density.

I communicated the exasperation that many residents about row houses that have their height or density expanded with little or no formal opportunity for public review and reaction.

Throughout Ward 1, and presumably the city, these PopUps are occurring with increasing frequency. In Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, east of Georgia in Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park and Shaw/U Street, “towers” are being erected which were previously normal size row houses. This is also occurring in Historic District(—a separate issue that I have taken before the Historic Preservation Review Board.)

The line of sight, the historic streetscapes that are hallmarks of Ward One neighborhoods are very negatively impacted as a direct result. Where once there was light and air, there are now structures that shadow the block. In the current red hot real estate market– found in all parts of our Ward–we need relief from this problem as soon as possible. If that does not occur, the drive for profits will insure that one Popup will be followed by others inalterably changing the character of our neighborhoods!

I asked the Zoning Commission for guidance on what they could do, and what the Council could do, to restrain this development.

I have now received the response from OP Dir Bardin, which I find encouraging as a step of progress. Of course, we await more definitive action. The letter is attached and also reprinted as text below.”

Dear Councilmember Graham:

The Office of Zoning (OZ) is writing to update you on the status of “Pop Ups” as they relate to the Zoning Regulation Review (ZRR).

As you know, the Zoning Commission has demonstrated its commitment to determining whether there is an appropriate way to address this issue in the new zoning regulations. Following public testimony on November 6, 2013, the Commission asked questions of the Office of Planning (OP) pertaining to Pop‐Ups, including questions about the idea of design review. As a result of this conversation, OP committed to submit regulatory options for the Commission to consider as part of the revisions to the zoning regulations.

OP has advised the OZ that they are reviewing ways to address inappropriate upper additions through development standards such as upper floor setbacks and changes to permitted heights, and by creating applicable guidelines for these additions that respect neighborhood character. As a companion to the regulations, guidelines would be developed and posted on their website as a resource along with best practices for achieving compatibility.

In addition, they advised that through the current proposed revisions to the zoning regulations, there is a proposal to reduce the maximum permitted height of penthouses in rowhouse zones from 18 feet 6 inches to a maximum height of 10 feet; and that there is a proposal for two new residential zones that would limit the amount of dwelling units to 3 and 4 units, which would help relieve the economic lure to overdevelop larger row homes. Lastly, they committed to continue to research other possible proposals. OZ will make sure it forwards any information it receives concerning “Pop‐Ups” to your office. If you have anyadditional questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sara Bardin

58 Comment

  • Oh, thank god, rents will continue to be astronomical! We can all rest safely now as our wallets continue to be gouged.

    • Please, with the amount of demand for housing in this city, adding 3 units to the top of a rowhouse is not going to appreciably change pricing in the housing market. Even if you do this to 100 rowhouses, it still won’t make a dent – except that perhaps housing becomes less desirable because the appeal of the neighborhoods has decreased as a result of these places that soar 400% higher than the their frontage width.

      • A. Its more than 100 rowhouses – or why is this such a huge deal?
        B. There are already so many limits – from the height limit to the historic districts to the parking minimums to the existing FAR limits in residential zones – this would be one MORE. And yes, this is reflected in the rents and prices. It may well be that opponents of popups want to hold back supply to keep the prices of their units up.

        • A. EVEN if it were 1000 rowhouse popups – that satisfies some of the increased demand for maybe 6 months – not a real solution – at a huge cost to the homeowners in these communities. B. I don’t think they want to hold back supply – I think they simply want to prevent poorly constructed monstrosities from destroying the character of the street/block/neighborhood that they purchased in. This is exactly the same sentiment that undergirds Homeowners Associations in the burbs. The pop-ups in question are those being done by quick-flip developers looking to turn a fast profit – they have less of a standing than those that are invested in the neighborhood.

          • That something does not completely solve a problem is not a reason to not do it. It will reduce rents from what they would be “all other things being equal” Not by very much, but a small change in rent impacting a LOT of people – so the total benefit would be significant. As for destroying the character – you’ve already destroyed its character by gentrifying it. You mean its architectural character – and really “destroy” here just means “change”. Cities change all the time. And there are neighborhoods in many parts of the world with very atrractive 5 and 6 story rowhouses.

            As for HOAs – one more time, go ahead and form one. They are formed voluntarily, not by govt action.

            And development is a competitive business, so profits are passed on to the homebuyers who sell out – if it was an easy risk free profit everyone would become a developer.

    • Keep dreaming if you think allowing pop-ups will reduce or keep rents low.

      • Why, doesn’t everybody want to live in a studio apartment on the 9th floor of a rowhouse?

        • “Not everybody” =/= “no one.” If it’s in a nice area, someone will want to live there.

          • The question is and has always been at what cost? In my mind, my block becomes less of a “nice area” when a 5-storey “rowhouse” comes in next door.

          • Ive been in neighborhoods in NYC and Boston with 5 stories rowhouses that are absolutely lovely. Granted street width comes into play – but it looks like the limits Graham wants go beyond the narrowest streets.

            Then there’s this

            Its odd how in discussions of the height limit, people always say that DC needs to retain its European look and feel with no skyscrapers. But when people try to make DC actually more like European city, with mid rise buildings virtually everywhere, all of a sudden people (often the same ones) scream against that.

          • When the pop-ups look begin to resemble anything nearly as nice as what you find in mid-height Amsterdam or Paris, I’ll stop complaining about them.
            But seriously, what an absurd comparison. Yeah, it looks just like Europe when a developer vomits up a two-story vinyl sided addition on top of a row house. Riiiiiiiiiiiight.

        • 9th floor is hyperbole, but I’d live in a studio walkup up a few flights of stairs. Sure beats renting a room in a group rowhouse, which would be the other alternative.

    • Yes, restrictions on supply (of housing) tend to raise prices (rents). File under “duh.” How much is a legitimate question; whether is not.

  • Those proposals would have done nothing to prevent the abomination that is the V Street Gloryhole. FAIL.

  • With ~1000 new people moving to D.C. every month, something’s got to give. Cities are supposed to be dense. Stop with stupid rent-seeking regulations just for your precious fucking sightlines.

    • Yes, these pop-ups are viable long term solution to the housing demand…let’s provide every new person seeking a place to live in DC a 400sq ft fifth floor walk-up. The fact is, there is plenty of space in DC for housing and new high density development – just not where you and others may want to live. You don’t have a right to inexpensive housing in a great area.

      • No, but the desirable areas are the ones with good transit. Not exclusively, but in large, large part. And everyone should have the right to transit access.

        • I guess the federal government should should subsidize car purchases, seeing as everyone has a right to transit access, and much of the country is not well served by mass transit.

          • Does Cash for Clunkers ring a bell? The government already subsidies EVERYTHING you buy. Stop pretending like we live in a free market. Especially real estate, the most heavily subsidized and artificially-priced industry in the U.S.

          • I think its a bit different saying that in a major metro area, with a major mass transit system (that the federal govt DID largely pay for) everyone should be able to AFFORD to live near it, than to say mass transit should actually run everywhere.

          • Cash for Clunkers was a program to help buoy a struggling auto industry and promote more fuel efficient vehicles – not because people had a “right to [vehicular] transit.

        • You don’t have the right to transit access. You have the right to walk/bike/drive to transit if you choose to.

        • There is still room for infill development near Metro stations like Georgia Avenue and Fort Totten… and that’s not even counting the Metro stations further afield.

          • Those are rapidly being built out (and at least on Ga Ave, with accompanying gentrification). There is rapid development happening at metro stations in the suburbs as well – look at Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, White Flint, every station on the Orange line from Rosslyn to Vienna, etc, etc. Theres less in PG but thats in part cause its very difficult to walk to those stations due to PG’s layout.

      • by the same token you don’t have a right to control what your neighbors do with their property.

        Under current law and zoning these popups are legal. You are proposing a change in the law. The change would have some benefits, accruing mostly to owners of nearby properties who do not themselves want to popup. It would also have costs, both to those property owners who want to popup, but also to would be buyers/renters who do not want to move to Deanwood, to residents ot places like Deanwood who do not want to see their areas gentrified, and to anyone with an interest in the city gaining population and tax revenue (since many would be pop-up residents will remain in the suburbs rather than move where you think they should move.)

        • + everything

        • What ZoningBudget said x 1000+

          • Of course you have the right to control what your neighbors do with their property…that’s the stupidest thing i’ve every heard. Why don’t i paint a 5 story naked woman on the front of my house or put a giant paper mache phallus up there that gushes milk when you ring my doorbell? This is a freaking city and people have to conform to what the social norms and laws dictate. It’s called a social compact and it’s been well discussed from the time of Thomas Hobbes and before. I don’t think that this issue is that people want NO pop ups…they just don’t want unregulated designs that look like mobile homes and shipping containers sitting across from their own investments. Pop ups in need to be regulated and need to be negotiatied because they are in the public commons. (the streetscape). You shouldn’t have the right to put a shipping container on top of your property to increase square footage if it means that it decreases the value of my house and the houses on either side of it. Simple as that.

          • I’m going to open up an Arby’s on the top floor of my row house. Free market =rooftop horsey sauce

      • Correct. No one has a “right” to inexpensive housing a great area. But no one also has a “right” to sight lines in the middle of a major city. You don’t own your neighborhood; you own your rowhouse. You have the right to do whatever you want to your house. Just as a developer does when they buy your neighbor’s.

        • Disagreed. We need conservation districts (basically “historic districts lite”) to be established to stop developers from ruining D.C.’s historic architecture.

          • If it was really historic architecture, it could and should be a full historic district. I also have to question preserving all the historic architecture, at the expense of sacrificing DCs historic income diversity – DC was never a city just for the affluent – but if we keep gentrifying additional neighborhoods as we push the young and upper middle income to areas that used to for the poor and working class, we are moving in that direction.

        • This logic runs contradictory to how most of this country operates. The fact is – my neighbors’ actions with their homes affect the value of mine, and my actions affect theirs. This principle is the reason why so many communities have HOAs. Because if my neighbor doesn’t mow his yard/paints his rowhouse neon green/puts a permanent portapotty in his front yard – that significantly and appreciably lowers the value of my home. Furthermore, the majority of these in question aren’t NEIGHBORS. They are developers looking to flip for a profit. Profit is fine, but I’d wager that these developers aren’t building popups next door to their permanent residences.

          • HOAs are established voluntarily by homeowners, not by govt action. Its trure there is a lot of zoning that protects a few at the expense of many who want to come in – but those are controversial (and downzonings usually require compensation) – and are often opposed by govts who need the tax revenues from growing populations.

            As for developers, who do you think they buy the houses from? Homeowners. Whose houses would be worth less if they couldnt sell to a developer. If thats not the case, why dont you go around to your neighbors and get them to agree to RE covenants to limit the heights of their houses. That is, in fact, how HOA’s work. You could achieve all you want, with no govt action needed. You need govt action because some of your neighbors do NOT want that, and you want to tell them what to do.

            Or, pass Grahams downzoning, but give an exemption to folks who live on the block. I think you will find A. A lot of professional developers happy to move into your block and B. A lot of your neighbors happy to get into the development business.

    • People really need to stop panicking over population growth in DC. The population grew 2.1% in 2013, and that was actually a slightly slower growth rate than in the three years before that. The statistics plainly show that growth here is in a slight downtrend, and in case you haven’t noticed, the federal government, along with the military, are actually getting smaller right now, not larger. I think we can all step back from the ledge.

      • In the long run the federal govt is probably going to grow as the US population grows, and it is project to grow for some time yet. Additionally there appears to be a growing preference for living in walkable urban places close to work. That favors continued growth in DC.

      • Seriously. People need to get real. The Financial Crisis and War on Terror were great for DC, but the government is in the earliest phases of a long-term, multi-decade contraction.

      • That number must be effected by a pretty high outflow of people who can’t afford it here anymore.

      • The federal government isn’t getting smaller, it is hiring more contractors.

    • These are our neighborhoods. We’re not obligated to change them just because someone else wants to live there.

      • “These are our neighborhoods.”

        You do not own your neighborhood.

        “We’re not obligated to change them just because someone else wants to live there.”

        You are not obligated to change them. But you do not have the right to stop someone else from doing so, on their property.

        • Do you own a home/condo in DC? Would you really, truly, be OK with your neighbor/developer/slumlord next door doing whatever they care to do with their property so long as it was legal? It’s hard for me to comprehend someone spending hundred of thousands for a property with a value that is greatly contingent upon the surrounding area not having a legitimate interest in protecting their investment. I have no issue with development; I have no issue with people expanding their properties. I have a problem with this:

          • I doubt there are many who would defend that particular pop-up but it amounts to something of a straw man argument if you use one or two bad examples to try to ban all pop-ups when most do try to blend into the neighborhood.

        • Sure we have that right. That’s what zoning is, after all. Whether these particular changes are good is debatable but I don’t think the idea if zoning itself is debatable, and zoning means stopping people from doing things on their property.

      • you are confusing the issue. not changing means keeping the law as is, which means continuing to permit pop-ups. and the neighborhood is a collectivity of interests – of which there is obvious difference of opinion. change the law to (try to) keep things the same; keep the law same and continue to permit change.

      • And you are not obligated to stay if you are unable to adapt to the changing times.

        • total bs….all cities have some sort of controls….and thus all neighbors have some sort of controls of what you do on your own property….just try burning down your own garage or raising a pride of lions in your backyard. You’ll see how much control you have over what goes on your property. Complete nonsense.

  • A good idea would be a zoning budget. Whenever some place is downzoned, as CM Graham wants, some other place has to be upzoned to allow more sq footage/units. So the capacity to absorb population is not reduced.

    I await CM Graham’s suggestions on where to upzone.

  • LOL. Of course Graham in burst of pandering recently came in OPPOSITION to the zoning changes that he is now apparently championing as way to fight the scourge of pop-ups.

    So what is it? You want to cherry-pick all the NIMBY goodies you want while excising the sensible and extremely modest changes (lowering mandated parking minimums, allowing accessory dwelling units, etc) because they freak out your NIMBY base?

    I really hope Graham doesn’t win the primary. A snippet from greatergreaterwashington:

    “Unfortunately, Graham has responded to this threat by appealing to the most reactionary voters in Ward 1 on growth and development. He started the campaign simply expressing concern about certain “pop-up” additions atop row houses (some, admittedly ugly), then moved to stridently warning about “overdevelopment,” and has more recently promised at a candidate forum to “do everything in my power” to halt the DC Zoning Update.”

    • This. Election year pandering by Graham, plain and simple. Knee-jerk broad opposition like this does nothing to fix the problems and only creates headaches.

  • Why are they so flippant that this won’t affect people wanting to add to their single-family home? What steps are they taking to make a single-family-home carve out? Maxing the top floor at 10 feet will be a serious issue, and this will seriously affect my property rights if you are taking away my ability to add a floor because of these damn NIMBYs in Lanier Heights. There is a reason I bought a house and not a condo!

  • It’s funny how much debate this specific pop-up on Lanier is actually causing. In the grander scheme of pop-ups all over the city, it actually looks really good and maintains the look of the other houses on the block.
    The amount of trash and dog poop on that street should be a more pressing issue for the neighborhood NIMBYS on Lanier. It’s disgusting.

  • The letter from Zoning says “there is a proposal for two new residential zones that would limit the amount of dwelling units to 3 and 4 units”

    But even that is too many for the SAVE OUR NEIGHBORHOOD crowd that put up all those ridiculous yard signs. They demand a 2 unit maximum on a row house lot. Many of those houses already have separate basement apartments so they have already hit the 2 unit maximum. And the so called “ugly pop-up” project that got them all riled up in the first place was only a 4 unit development.

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