Zoning Commission votes to Restrict Pop Ups to 35 feet for R-4 neighborhoods, Final Vote Later this Spring


Big pop up update from the Washington Post:

“The D.C. Zoning Commission took its first action on Monday night against developers building the city’s growing number of pop-up homes, voting to reduce the maximum by-right height of single-family rowhouses to 35 feet, down from 40, in some of the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Shaw and Columbia Heights.”

The Post does note that the vote, “also allowed residents or developers to pursue a special exception if they want a 40-foot tall building.”

58 Comment

  • This actually seems like a great compromise – it addresses the height concerns, but it doesn’t dramatically limit density. I wish that it required pop-ups to host neighbors’ solar panels rather than prohibiting development in the presence of solar panels.

    • Does the 30ft start from first floor or basement level? Say If basement is partially up ground? Or if there is 5 steps up to front door of first floor?

      • It’s my understanding that the measurement starts from curb height in front of the property (,put another way, from sidewalk level). So if you have basement that is half-above grade, you have less vertical room to expand than a two story house that basically sits at ground level.

        • Seriously? That makes no sense at all. What about houses – like in Mt Pleasant and Park View/Pleasant Plains – that require you to walk up a long set of stairs from the sidewalk because they are on a serious slope? Some of these would probably already be violating the 35′ height limit as measured at the the curb

          • I imagine existing houses are grandfathered in. Mount Pleasant is a historic district, so popups aren’t an issue, but if the limit is indeed x feet above the curb, I wonder what would happen if an existing house on one of those serious hills deteriorated to the point where it had to be razed and a new, HPRB-approved house built.

          • It makes perfect sense if you’re at all familiar with the history of development in DC. The current zoning code was implemented in the 50s and all previous nonconforming structures were grandfathered in. I can think of at least three ways my house is in violation of R-4 zoning regs and it was built some time before 1903.

      • That sucks because many streets in dc slopes and lots of homes sit higher up than others even on the same block. some homes would have more advantage of building up vs others

  • Seems reasonable to include some form of architectural review for pop up applications as well.

    • brookland_rez

      I agree. I’ve seen some decent pop-ups, but a lot of ugly ones, like the one in the post.

    • I completely agree. My biggest problem with pop-ups concerns aesthetics – most of look like they were propped up by a blind oaf. The problem here is legislating “ugly”; I’m not sure that “you know it when you see it” would stand here.

  • Good… but I hope that this doesn’t mean that developers will routinely be greasing palms (?) to get height variances, the way they currently seem to be doing with variances for lot coverage.

    • justinbc

      Seems like they only reduced the height by 5 feet, and if you want that 5 feet back you can just get an exemption (presumably by paying enough). Basically, they’re changing nothing.

  • This seems completely reasonable. It will avoid the largest popups in areas where they are inappropriate, and hopefully developers can get exceptions where 40ft is clearly not out of place (there are plenty of places like this). Kudos to the board for being reasonable.
    Like others I’d like some design review, but there’s a lot of potential pitfalls there. I’m curious about what other cities have done about this.

  • Let’s find a way to prevent homeowners who live in their house from popping up (and probably doing so tastefully) but let developers continue to do it. Never mind, this is it. This is an emotional, reactionary decision. Developers already get special treatment from DCRA. Don’t have the right permit? No worries we’ll issue it in a day retroactively. Meanwhile if you’re a homeowner trying to do it right, you have to wait 6 months. This sets up the framework for well-connected developers to continue to pop-up but blocks homeowners from doing the same. This is the worst way to approach pop-ups. If you are worried about developers changing the character of the neighborhood, pass a law that says pop-ups will only be allowed if you own the property for more than 2 years. Instantly, developers pop-ups are blocked but people who live and own homes in DC don’t lose their rights. Even if it doesn’t stop, it will even out changes to a neighborhood. It will give all of the NIMBYs who want to dictate what you can do with your own home time to adjust to change.

    • This isn’t preventing homeowners from popping up any more so than it is allowing developers to do so. You still have to get a plethora of permits in order to build an addition, regardless of its ultimate height.

    • “If you are worried about developers changing the character of the neighborhood, pass a law that says pop-ups will only be allowed if you own the property for more than 2 years. Instantly, developers pop-ups are blocked but people who live and own homes in DC don’t lose their rights.”
      This would just force developers to sit on an unused property for two years before they begin construction. That does not seem like a productive use of space.

      • Given the high cost of the funds many developers use to finance these type of renovations I don’t think most would just sit on them paying interest.

      • So make it after two years of receiving the homestead deduction.

        • That does nothing to avoid the problem that many owner initiated remodels are as ugly or uglier than those done by developers.

          • True, but I’m not trying to solve that problem. I’m solving the problem on how you prevent developers from building popups, without constraining homeowners.
            Personally, I believe people should be allowed to do ugly things to their houses, even if I’d prefer they didn’t. I’m not a fan things like restrictive homeowner covenants.

          • Not sure why pop-ups are a problem unless they’re ugly. Developers are homeowners until they sell the home, not sure why we should restrict their property rights.

    • Many developers may be well connected (though some aren’t and they are the truly scary ones) but they also want to get in and out of a project as fast as possible. Time=money. Anything that adds to their time – as this would – may discourage some of the lazier developers like the one featured in this project or the V Street Monster. If they really want it they need to work for it and it is going to cost them. Homeowners have more time on their hand. Yes it is annoying to them but they will likely have to go though lengthy permitting anyway particularly if they are in a historic district.

    • Well first of all I disagree with the entire premise of your comment. But beyond that, it doesn’t take much walking around Petworth to realize most of the really hideous modification to row houses is construction done by the owners.

      • Even though much of Petworth is R-3 and unaffected by this farce? I’m glad you disagree with the premise (that developers should be stopped from popping up) because no one should be stopped from popping up. From your comment, it sounds like you want to be the final authority on what is tasteful and you want only what you call tasteful allowed.

      • Not saying I (or anyone) should be the final authority. Many of the anti-pop arguments have focused on aesthetics. I’m simply pointing out that most pop-ups are attractive because they need to sell, and that privileging owner/occupants over developers does nothing to correct aesthetic problems. Indeed many of the most egregious crimes against taste are committed by owner/occupiers (since their concern is for space needs and construction cost, not market value of the house).
        I never expressed a desire to be the “final authority”. I don’t propose legislating my tastes or imposing them on property owners in any way other than rolling my eyes at your terrible taste as I walk by your house.

  • I better get my pop-up in before my neighbor gets solar panels.

    • I haven’t read the details I see this bit about solar panels as potentially creating a lot of problems.

    • Strictly speaking I don’t think you actually need panels, just the permit. So just get permitted and wait until someone nearby pops up so you can extort them.

      • I want to pop up my own house in a few years because I only have two stories and no basement. My home is an end unit and goes in and east/west direction so my pop up would shade all my neighbors to the north. Luckily they are all renters at the moment because if they get panels I would not be able to expand my house vertically.

        The new rules look like they would prevent me from going back more than 10 feet as well.

        • I am confused about that bit. Am I not allowed to go back more than 10 ft? That’s a huge, huge issue for me as an owner if that is the case. I bought my property (which is way too small now) with the intention of expanding – I’m R4 and using < 30% of the property. Does anyone have a clarification on the 10 ft back issue.

          • If that’s the case, looks like you lost a lot of rights.

          • Yep, sounds like this will totally blow the current lot coverage limits and tremendously reduce homeowners ability to add on vs. the zoning that existed when they bought. I always wanted to add a couple feet to the back of my house to fit a second master suite. No big deal under the current zoning as I’m well under the lot coverage, but since one neighbors’ house is significantly shallower than mine (different builder, different year — 1912 v. 1919), I guess now I won’t be able to add even one foot? This has got to be the stupidest attempt to fix a non-problem. None of the “famous” pop-up cases have even been in R-4 neighborhoods.

          • Compounding the stupidity many R-4 districts are already also historic districts and therefore not a problem anyways. This really applies only to parts of Petworth and Columbia Heights, a few neighborhoods near North Capitol not covered by historic districts, and hill east/trinidad/H st. Most of the opposition seems to have come from outside these neighborhoods.

          • To be clear the decision was to limit going back 10ft beyond the neighboring house…if your neighbors house already has an addition then you might be able to go back further.

          • Most of the pop-ups currently under permit review or construction are in 16th St. Heights, Petworth, Bloomingdale, Capitol Hill and Columbia Heights. With the exception of part of Capitol Hill, none of these R-4 zoned neighborhoods are in historic districts and have NO protection under the current zoning rules. That is why developers are targeting these neighborhoods. People, please check your facts. Those of us fighting against pop-ups are doing so because they are in our neighborhoods and have 30-50 foot rear additions. Many neighbors are dealing with damaged homes caused by pop-up developers. There is much more to the story; it is not about aesthetics. Be honest, who would want to live next to a three-story, giant 30-50 foot wall in their back yard?

          • brandy1979: I understood the non-historic R-4 zoning of my 16th street heights rowhouse when I bought it — THAT’S PART OF WHY I BOUGHT IT. If you didn’t understand the zoning and floor area ratios, that’s on you. This change is nothing more that NIMBY downzoning by people who didn’t do their due diligence, and it’s taking away by-right expansion rights that I specifically sought out when I bought in 2008.

  • I think it’d be better if this post had a picture of a popup from an R-4 zone, not one located in a commercial zone (the one pictured is in C-3-C).

    Without design review, you’re still going to get ugly popups. Revising zoning regs won’t do anything about this, and I can’t wait for the first post here complaining about a by-right popup compliant with the new regs that is still hideous.

    • I think every article I’ve read about this decision has featured a photo of a popup that is not effected by this ruling.

    • Thanks for this comment. Many people with loud voices on this issue are deeply confused about zoning. A lot of people in ward 4 seem very concerned, despite the fact that only a very small portion of the ward is R-4 (roughly speaking south of Webster on the East side of GA and South of Decatur between GA and 16th, along with a few pockets in Brightwood). The V Street monstrosity is also not R-4.
      Frankly the main change I would like to see is rezoning the R-3 section of North Petworth to R-4. The R-3 zoning really depresses prices on the bigger houses since developers can’t easily divide the houses.

  • Could this negatively affect young families with small homes moving out of the city? Seems like limiting pop-ups takes away the option of having a 2-3 child household.

    • Actually, I think this change will be an advantage for young families. Every time a developer pops up a rowhouse and converts it into two condo units, another 3 to 4 bedroom single family dwelling is eliminated.

    • It depends. If you have an unfinished basement or execess lot capacity, you have the option to finish off the basement or extend the house back (BZA-willing) to add space. I can see that for a set of properties (not sure how many) this basically forces multi-child households to move if they want more space.

    • @ Whel, I had the same thought. I was hoping for an exception for homeowners who live in the property. That would seem to get around the danger of developers sitting on a property to meet some ownership time requirement while still allowing folks who are building to add space to their primary residence to proceed. If you’re worried about homeowners popping up just to sell, add a time requirement for homeowners.

      If the argument is parking issues/density/loss of single family homes, fine. But it seems many people are making aesthetics arguments which I think are unfounded. Plenty of folks have homes, yards, additions etc. that I find ugly, but it’s their property. If you want to “legislate ugly” go live in a subdivision with restrictive covenants. Otherwise, let homeowners do what they want with their property and pass legislation restricted to developers.

      • +1
        Ownership time requirements are the worst idea I’ve heard. This will just lead to developers sitting on vacant properties for two years.
        I’d like to think that owner/occupiers should be given special rights, but frankly most of the ugliest renovations I’ve seen were done by homeowners. Just take a walk around Petworth and check out some of the porch enclosures.

        • It would lead to developers sitting on vacant properties for two years? Nope. It would lead to developers focusing on areas that aren’t zoned R-4.

  • What would a 35-ft rowhouse look like? Does that height limit effectively eliminate the possibility of building a third story on an existing two-story structure? I’m curious about how this changes what developers can do on R-4 lots.

    • Nope…typically a three storey is under the limit….which is why this really doesn’t address the issue of architectural heritage or streetscapes at all because you can still add an (ugly) third storey.

  • What about back extensions? On one side my neighbor is about 5 ft deeper, and on other end they are 5th shallow. So would I get to extend 10ft from the neighbor who is 5ft deeper than me?

  • A classic example of the widespread misunderstanding of zoning: An ANC commissioner, whose district contains no territory zoned R-4, just emailed the Petworth listserv saying the restrictions weren’t enough and asking for a moratorium on pop-ups.
    The number of completely wrong things in that email just baffle me.

  • Someone suggested earlier that it willbe easy to get a special exception. I don’t know how exactly this will play out at Dcra, but a special exception for other matters requires notification of the neighbors within a certain radius, approval of the anc, and a public hearing before the BZA. Plus there is an opportunity for neighbors to comment. So those who oppose a pop up in their neighborhood beyond 35 feet will now have a voice in the matter, whereas before they had none.

  • I think pop-ups limited to one story addition in height, if subjected to review to see that the style is contextual with the existing streets cape, would work. Guess all areas of row houses would have to be deemed historical for this to work.

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