Dear PoPville – Loss of Historic Property Due to Zoning Hold Over

1511 A Street, NE

“Dear PoPville,

A single-family home on our street of single-family homes in northeast Capitol Hill recently sold to a “developer” who it now appears is planning on putting in 18 apartments. The house, 1511 A Street NE, a lovely home built in 1923 with an oversized lot and wrap-around porch, was owned by Mr. & Mrs. Byrd for many years. This couple, who lived there until they passed away in their late 90s, maintained the property impeccably, and always had a beautiful garden. Now, this beautiful and historic house may be lost because of a zoning hold-over from the time that the Car Barn, the next block over, was an actual functioning street-car barn. Half of the Car Barn, which is now condos and a registered historic building, as well as half of the adjacent square 1070 (which is where this house sits), are zoned C-2-A, a much more permissive zoning than R-4, which is what the other half of 1070 is zoned. All but a handful of buildings in square 1070 are single-family homes, with a few businesses fronting East Capitol Street.

The company that purchased the house is 57th Street Mews of Mitchellville, Maryland. They have a history of finding areas of the city that are zoned C-2-A and constructing large and unsightly boxes while seeking variances and zoning relief. One of their colleagues, a real estate consultant who has been quietly obtaining permits for the developer, has this mission statement listed on his website — “This company is designed to consult on land use and development with particular focus to find nuances in DC regulations that govern land use, construction and occupancy of structures in the District.” He finds the overlooked zoning mistakes ignored by the city and gets paid to do so. Genius.

My neighbors and I are increasingly concerned, both with the lack of response from our government officials and the failure of our city to identify this zoning problem in the first place.

We have since received plans from the developer, which I’m attaching with this email. We’re shocked that something like this could be built in our neighborhood as a matter of right.”

1511 A Street_Front View n (2)

107 Comment

  • Seems a waste to build multi-unit on C-2-A without building SOME sort of retail.

  • gotryit

    I kind of like the small apartment / condo buildings mixed with townhouses. I have that in my neighborhood too. As a plus, it allows a bit more diversity in home price compared to just townhouses.
    With 18 units will they need to have a couple of units below market rate for inclusionary zoning? What about parking?

    • Agreed. This house sold for $1.5 million. In its current form with renovations, I’m sure the house would be worth over $2 million.

      I’m sure the new condos won’t be cheap, but a lot more people will be able to afford them compared to a single family home.

    • Me too. I live a block from the old Hine school and can’t wait for that to be redeveloped. I love being in a istoric district but it’s nice to see big modern buildings here and there. Replacing an ugly rundown building that has no historic value and is across from a metro station is a little less controversial though (or at least it should be).

      • What is taking so long with Hine? I was over that way last week and couldn’t believe the building is still just sitting there…..and has a parking lot filled with MD plate cars? Is the city at least collecting parking fees for this, since it’s no longer operating as a school.

        • You know, I should probably be paying attention to the saga since I live so close but I’ve lost interest over the years. I think some neighbors filed a petition that is further holding up the process. Really frustrating.

  • What makes this particular house “historic”?

    • I was thinking the same thing. I own a Wardman rowhouse built in 1916. It’s old, but not “historic” – a term that usually carries with it significant restrictions on what can be done with the property. I sympathize with the OP but at least the new building is on a corner, as opposed to being plopped down in the midst of the existing houses.

    • I had the same question. The term “historic” usually carries with it specific restrictions on what can be done to the property. My house was built in 1916, as were all of the Wardman rowhouses on my block. They are historic in the sense that they are old, but not in the sense that a decisions has been made to preserve them as is in perpetuity.
      I sympathize with the OP but at least the new building is on the corner. It doesn’t stick out quite as much there.

    • “Historic” means we like it and we want to keep it. This house was built in 1923 and represents 90+ years of history. On the other hand, a couple days ago an unsightly old facade of a building 50+ years older than this, elsewhere in Old City NE, was posted here and deemed not apparently historic. People like to say things.

      Take your “Wardmans.” They likely are Wardmans only in the sense that your agent told you they are, because most Wardmans aren’t Wardmans.

      Local history – Everybody’s doing it!

      • So we can never have new history? The city isn’t the same as it used to be, it won’t continue to be the same as it is now, but it’ll sure as hell get there slower if we feel the need to preserve everything.
        Imagine if DC had preserved Columbia Heights as a horse race track, far from the not at bustling downtown DC. Our deference to history is limiting our progression.

      • Brian, I googled you and know you do a lot of great work and see historic preservation as a personal hobby but I want to say something: You sound like a jerk in this comment.

        “We” don’t want to keep it. You do. And based on the comments here, you are in the minority.

        • your reply doesn’t seem to indicate you understand what he wrote. or you’re just being mean.

        • Yes, Anonymous, it is amazing how people read into what other people write! I was intending only to offer my insight into how and why we use the word. In fact, I generally confound my preservationist friends and colleagues.

          My opinion on the development: The design could be much better, but if it meets zoning and the facade is flush with the rowhouses, I think this development is fine. In other words, I don’t think the current building is particularly historic until someone tells me why/how it is historic.

          Likewise I don’t think the much older eyesore of a facade posted earlier this week is necessarily historic or worthy of preservation either, but I’m calling out PoP for kicking off that conversation by offhandedly telling us that it didn’t appear to be historic. He had no idea whether is was historic or not, he just knew it was an eyesore, so he positioned it as not historic.

          Because of the way we use the word, it has come to mean nothing. It merely indicates a preference. I hereby deem the older building in question here NON-HISTORIC!

  • That really sucks, but there’s not much you can do about it (other than opposing the zoning variances/exceptions).

    This should serve as a lesson to everyone buying in this city – check the zoning class of your adjacent lots!

    • why does it “really suck” that a bunch of affordable condos will be built to house residents who can’t afford $2M houses?

      • Because the new building doesn’t fit in with the character of the existing adjacent buildings, that’s why. There are other things to consider besides affordability.

      • It sucks for the homeowners of the immediately adjacent houses. It will cut off light, add noise, reduce parking, etc. It sucks because it is (presumably) something other than they were expecting when they purchased their house.

        Also, I highly doubt these condos will be “affordable” in any meaningful way.

      • and they won’t really be affordable and not for those most in need of it — maybe a unit or two will be affordable to someone with a high 5 figure salary. think teacher or non-profit sector employee — that’s the target for developers, not Section 8

  • Areas like this need more dense housing mixed in with single family homes. The design is a bit unattractive, but I think this is a fantastic use of land. How is this a “zoning problem”? I think it’s more of an issue that DC has, in many cases, zoning regulations that are too strong and prevent innovative solutions to increasing the supply of housing in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill.

  • I don’t particularly mind the loss of that house, but the proposed building is ugly beyond reproach. It seems as if there was absolutely zero thought that went into designing the facade. I would be embarrassed to put my name on something like that.

    • It’s horrendous…looks like it was drawn by somebody just out of architecture school who graduated bottom of their class.


      That said, if you look closely, the “porch” and entry door/windows on the new rendering appear suspiciously like those on the current house. Any chance this developer is planning to save the “facade” of the older building so that the project will count as a “renovation” per the discussion earlier in the week?

  • I don’t get the problem. Sure, they found some zoning loophole…but what’s so appalling about having a multi-unit building on that lot?

  • the house isn’t historic it’s just old. mixing multi units with row houses isn’t a new thing. i do sympathize with OP as the building is fugly.

  • 1) This house is not historic, in that is isn’t on the national register of historic places.
    2) The house is not in a historic district
    Old does not make a house historic, in the legal sense, and offers no extra protections outside of the zoning regulations.

  • Here come the sheep braying – predictably – for “density.”

    • PDleftMtP

      Or, you know, property rights.

    • gotryit

      How condescending.

    • God forbid we let more people move to places that are desirable.

      • Exactly.
        “I love this neighborhood, it’s so amazing, it’s the best in the city!!!! You should move here too and bask in its amazingness with me! Oh, wait, there’s no room for you.”

      • Yeah but if developers start replacing every single family home that comes on the market with larger condo buildings or popups will the neighborhood remain desirable? It’ll lose part of its charm. Besides, it’s not like a $600K condo is affordable housing. It’s affordable for rich people who aren’t quite rich enough to buy a $2million house…

        • gotryit

          Take a couple of working class folks that make ~$100k/yr combined and can afford a $600,000 condo. Yeah, let’s keep them out of the neighborhood. (sarcasm)

          • You really think a couple of working class folks combined can afford a $600K condo? Hahahahahahah. Good one.
            Also, what working class couple makes a combined income of $100K? I don’t think they’d qualify as “working class” at that point.

          • Uhhh, I don’t know if you realize this, but working class in DC is different than working class in Ohio.

            Working class to me is a GS-9.

            We don’t have manufacturing, or anything else that you would traditionally call working class.

          • gotryit

            Fair point – forget the terminology. How about a teacher married to a police officer? Or the example of a GS-9, which in the DC area looks like $52,000 – $67,000. So a couple making more than $100K? Sure. I’d like to have place that are affordable at that level (and lower too).

          • gotryit

            I take that back about working class. I pay the equivalent of a small job construction / renovation lead the equivalent of $60,000-$70,000. If he was married to someone making $15/hour (~$30K/yr), that would put them around $100K per year. Blue collar jobs.
            I also just don’t like the term “working class”. Unless you’re “independently wealthy” or retired, you’re working.

        • They can’t replace every row house. They can, however, replace row houses like this that are zoned for such development.

  • Following the law isn’t cloak and dagger drama just because you don’t like the law. You write like these people are doing something wrong, but they aren’t. Hopefully you’ll be kinder to your new neighbors than you are to the developers because there are a lot of people in this city who can afford condos, but not houses and they don’t deserve your condescension.

  • Yikes. As others have said, I’m not sure what can be done for your specific situation, but I completely understand how distressing it is to see your otherwise quaint SFH block upended with a monstrosity like this.

    Hopefully your careful documentation and speaking out will prompt city leaders to revise some of these zoning laws.

  • “This company is designed to consult on land use and development with particular focus to find nuances in DC regulations that govern land use, construction and occupancy of structures in the District.” He finds the overlooked zoning mistakes ignored by the city and gets paid to do so. Genius.
    I understand the hurt feelings but why take pot shots at the consultant. That mission statement can just as easily be read as helping developers navigate the morass that is known as the permitting process in DC, as opposed to finding “overlooked mistakes ignored by the city.” Based on the portfolio of projects on his website, he doesn’t appear to be in the business of plopping huge buildings in the midst of residential areas. The only project I saw that might fit that description is the condos that went up next to the Florida Ave Grill. But I don’t remember what was in that space before, and there is a medium size office building on that block which preceded that project.

  • Calling this a zoning “holdover” is disingenuous. I remember when looking for a house around 2008 and thinking that was a weird place for C-2-A zoning. And I’m sure it existed that way for a long time. Why were no steps taken to downzone this block?

    I have a lot of issues with the building. I wish the massing were more in the back. You have 50 feet to work with and only a 2.5 FAR to work with. And I wish the facade extending the whole portion of the house. But those are aesthetic issues and nothing legal to force anything.

  • I called the C-2-A zoning a mistake because that’s what an official in the zoning office called it. She said that it was likely an overlooked holdover from the last time DC did a zoning overhaul in 1958. At that time, the Car Barn was an active streetcar terminal. The C-2-A zoning allows for a building up to 50′ in height, which will tower over everything else on the square. The house actually sits in the middle of the block, on a small alley. If it were zoned R-4, the limit would be a less monumental 40′. We are also worried about the design of the new structure, which, from the rendering, appears to incorporate the main structure and to build around it. If it were another developer, we may have some hope that the finished product wouldn’t be hideous, but their portfolio speaks otherwise. I wish I could post some photos here of their other work, but you can do a Google street view of these two prime examples:

    1235 Morse Street NE
    1609 17th Street SE

    • ok i will agree that those two projects you just posted are horrific beyond compare.

    • what company is this? do they have a website?

      • The company is 57th Street Mews. It’s owned by a Mr. Demuren and his agent is a Mr. Bello. Mr. Bello was formerly a zoning administrator for DC. In 2007, he approved a project that was out of scale for the zoning. The approval was for … 57th Street Mews. He left his position with DC shortly thereafter and began working for Mr. Demuren. We’re not opposed to increased density or even redevelopment of that property. But we don’t trust this company.

    • Wow, you’re right. Their projects are awful. Cheap, shoddy-looking, and completely unoriginal. Sorry your neighborhood may soon be blighted with this mess.

    • Wow, those are atrocious. Seriously.

    • I live near 1235 Morse. If that’s the same company, may God have mercy on your poor soul.

      • Tell us more. L

        • janie4

          1235 Morse Street is a residence for women and children whose husbands/significant others are in prison. Aside from the ugliness of the front, which is a three story, vinyl sided (with no windows in the stairwell on the far side of the house) structure with no architectural features, somehow the developers got their hands on the yards of the houses to the side of it, and then expanded to those yards in another three story (now triple-sized) vinyl sided structure – with more windows but still ugly as all heck. There is some talk that the acquisition of the back yards of the houses on the side was illegal, involving council members, and nobody wanted it. There’s also talk that it isn’t actually permitted/zoned for the occupancy it has.

  • I like that they’re going to keep the brick and porch, but otherwise, it’s atrocious!

  • that building design is extreamly unsightly. I hope this plan does not ever see the light of day!

  • Did a google images/map of that location. This building would stick out like a sore thumb being inappropriate to the historic design and purpose (SFH) of the neighborhood. How on earth could the accommodate 18 vehicles?? not to mention trash cans, and blocking of light to neighbors.

    Does ‘by right’ allow you to deprive someone of the health benefits of sunlight?

    • the “health benefits” of sunlight striking your roof? how farcical.

      • Rickets is condition that is not “farcical” I hope this plan gets shut down and permanently.

        • gotryit

          Are you a webMD doctor? You can say you don’t like it because it’s ugly. You don’t have to make stuff up about a building causing rickets.

          • Then how come DC has height restrictions? Yes, for some of the philosophical reasons but also to make the city a pleasant place to live.

            Height restrictions were part of the comprehensive design of the city

          • High restrictions occured when a bunch of neighbors were upset that one property owner decided to build matter of right on his lot way back in 1894. You’re absolutely wrong when you say they were part of the original city design.

          • My understanding is that the original plan of the city included height restrictions governed by the width of the street/avenue that property abutted (wider streets = taller buildings).

          • Your understanding is wrong. Neighbors got angry when the Cairo was built on Q St NW and agitated for height restrictions. DC Commissioners enacted height limits in 1894 and Congress passed the Height of Building Act passed 1899, later revised in 1910.

      • That makes me curious though… is there anything a homeowner can do if they have rooftop solar panels and a new development will render them useless?

    • Zoning only requires six spots.

  • At least they’re planning to keep the porch?

  • if they included parking in that monstrosity, though I may not like it, I can’t see any real “legal” reason to oppose it….but I highly doubt there’s parking for (at least) an additional 18 cars….

    • Zoning only requires one spot per three units. So only six spots. And they can only build on 60% of the lot (which is just under 6,000 feet). So I’m sure they’ll find a way to put in six parking spaces.

      • 8 spaces – Oy! I live around the corner – this will truly suck. And yes, maybe I am being unrealistic, selfish and vain about our neighborhood but this this is so hideous…

  • You make it sound like that zoning consultation service is doing something nefarious. They are simply people who have made their expertise in zoning law and the processes in DC. As a homeowner, I utilized someone similar to this (thankfully, on a pro bono basis as it was a friend) to help me file my variance to build a deck on my house. (Worth noting that said deck was the exact same kind all my neighbors had already illegally built). I assume you would have the same distaste for a defense attorney who helps you find the law that gets you from serving time for a traffic ticket?

  • The sentimentality toward the former owners of the house is coloring this person’s argument. The house is pleasant enough but I wouldn’t call it beautiful and certainly not historic. Houses like this are a dime a dozen in DC. I do understand the disappointment at losing the green space around the house and the uninspired design of the replacement building.

  • justinbc

    Unless you buy in a historic district (actual term, not sentimental) in DC then you really have no formal expectation of what will be happening to lots around yours, unless you’ve taken the time to research them all before deciding to buy (who does this?).

  • Hmmm…it’s almost as if DC needs to update its zoning laws? Maybe we should get started on that. Oh, right…

  • I suspect the only use of this lot that would satisfy the OP is to leave it untouched.

  • The DC area has a great job market, and there’s not nearly enough housing… this seems to be a great development on the whole.

    • Amen. If this is a land use debate, I can’t really get too worked up. If this is a “that design is ugly” debate, to each is own (and I’ll throw my hat in the “it’s ugly” pot).

  • NTHP might be able to help. The National Trust for Historic Preservation may be able to hep you discover and/or enforce any historic restrictions that may halt destruction of historic property. They’re located in DC.

  • It isn’t in the L’Enfant Historic District – just by one block – but could the developer instead build something that looks like the Wardman Condos in Woodley Park?
    Density is fine, but bad architecture is not okay.

    • It’s the Capitol Hill Historic District. The original L’Enfant plan extended to what would be 22nd (or 23rd?) St NE/SE and has nothing to do with the historic district regulation.

      Also, the developer is building 18 units. And purchased the property knowing they could put in 18 units. And paid for it. You can’t put 18 units in Wardman-style condos the width of two rowhouses.

    • the BZA doesn’t regulate bad architecture.

  • Very nice house. Very hideous renderings. But I don’t see why these things always have to turn into all-or-nothing arguments. D.C. needs to increase its housing supply. But there’s surely a way to do this while still respecting the character of currently attractive, established blocks. Nothing about this design complements the surrounding area.

  • The story in this city post-recession has been the unaffordability of housing. It’s everywhere. It’s in our politics, it’s in our pocketbooks, it’s on our streets. The DC housing market, on its own, would become much, much denser and prices would drop, thereby appeasing all sorts of constituencies. This attitude that everyone has a right to control what every building on their street looks like isn’t the biggest problem, but it’s a significant problem that we have going forward in our attempts — at least, those of us who aren’t transient and want to make a long-term home here — to get this city to grow and turn into the world-class capital it should become. Distaste for the architecture simply isn’t good enough, and the willingness of otherwise Progressive people to use zoning and government to make housing prices high is somewhat deplorable. I dissent with the general attitude here, and I think that everyone who has just a passing interest in this, whether they agree or disagree, ought to study this issue a bit.

    • Um, I’d wager most people who are already homeowners would NOT want property values to drop and thus would be even more opposed to something like this aside from the fact that it’s hideous. It’s not that hard to understand.

      • Umm, yeah. I’m a homeowner, and I want more people to live in this city so that I can have more things to do. My home price isn’t falling any time soon. It’s not hard to understand. It’s also not hard to understand that if we adhere to these sorts of random aethetic judgments from the likes of world-class architects like you, 14th Street between Thomas Circle and U Street would look as it did in 1972.

      • It is your contention that this project will lower adjacent property values. I can list off 20 identical projects in Logan, U Street and Columbia Heights where the opposite occured.

        • Maybe there’s some confusion in that I wrote that prices would drop. I simply meant that more density would lead to prices not skyrocketing as they have, and perhaps they’d level off and increase at a model 3% yearly, or whatever the historical average has been. I don’t actually mean they’d drop, and I obviously don’t want to see the price of my house fall. But living in upper Columbia Heights, where 14th Street is still a mess, I’m not in danger of that happening. What we all need up there is development — homeowners, renters, business owners, hobos, and so on. It’s not some cliche to want density in this city. It’s progressive.

        • Maybe there’s some confusion in that I wrote that prices would drop. I simply meant that more density would lead to prices not skyrocketing as they have, and perhaps they’d level off and increase at a modest 3% yearly, or whatever the historical average has been. I obviously don’t want to see the price of my house fall. But living in upper Columbia Heights, where 14th Street is still a mess, I’m not in danger of that happening. What we all need up there is development — homeowners, renters, business owners, etc. It’s not some cliche to want density in this city. It’s progressive. And it’s even conservative, since the DC government won’t have to dedicate millions to “affordable housing.”

    • You sir/madam are eloquent and spot on. Kudos!

  • This thread has blown up so my comment is of little value, but I wanted to chime in and give my support to the developer. We need more housing, the property was zoned as it was and everything seems to have been handled above board. Personal preferences on aesthetics are immaterial to this argument and it is sad to see neighbors try exert pressure on others when they wouldn’t want others to do the same back.

  • Do you think “something should be done” about the zoning in this situation and throughout the city?

    The DC Zoning Code is currently being updated and the process has been extended for six month.

    NOW IS YOUR CHANCE — this extension gives YOU the opportunity to get involved.
    Don’t like pop-ups? Get involved.
    Don’t like condo buildings in neighborhoods with single family houses? Get involved.
    Think parking requirements drive up the cost of housing? Get involved.

    Don’t leave it to someone else, and don’t just express your opinions on neighborhood blogs comments.
    Get involved in the Zoning Update Process and make a difference.

    Find out everything you need to know at zoningDC(dot)org

    (I am in no way connected with the Office of Planning or any DC government entity. I just think people should get involved.)

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