New (to me) Style of Pop Back – “accessory structures”


“Dear PoPville,

I live in Park View, and have noticed a new trend – pop ups that go not just out, but into backyards with “accessory structures” containing additional condos. This one is one the 500 block of Kenyon St. This block has large backyards, and now a concrete structure looming over them… I assume this is legal with R-4 zoning, but I can only imagine this will be the end of backyards once developers get a hold of them…. have you seen this elsewhere?”


73 Comment

  • I went to a party a few years ago maybe a half-block off Logan Circle and they lived in something like this. Except it was an old building, so maybe this has been covertly going on for decades!

    • Was it on N St between 12th and 13th? I was just thinking that I looked at a condo there a few years ago (Savannah Row) with a setup like this. The “accessory structure” part is pretty new, maybe circa 2012, but the original building looks like it’s c. 1900.

    • A lot of older neighborhoods in D.C. have buildings similar to this that were built as carriage houses — that was probably the case in the one you were in off Logan Circle.

      • Yeah, it was definitely an old building. Probably a carriage house, but it was quite large; they were on the second floor, and it was a decent-sized 1 bedroom apartment. Very cool walking in though–you went through this old stone passageway. Not sure how the charm would translate to a new build surrounded by other people’s backyards, of course.

        • Checked the map: must’ve been Kingman Place, because it was a single-block street. Looks like there’s some back buildings on some of the houses too.

    • Emmaleigh504

      I’ve seen “accessory structures” all over the US. Garages and carriage houses turned into apartments, or a little house for the mother/father in law. Heck, even my primary school had them for extra classes, but we called them “portables”. this one isn’t pretty, but it’s not exactly ugly.

    • A great example of this is the Woodley-Wardman condominium building. The developer bought a bunch of rowhomes, combined them and then added a condo building in the back.

    • clevelanddave

      Or 1109 M St, converted by Kass Riegler about three years ago. Extended all the way out the back, like 11 units with two parking spaces, and windows that, if the lot next door is ever developed will have to be concreted over. How in the world the got the city to waive the % lot build and parking space minimums and approved the design with the windows is beyond me.

  • The ongoing project at 1431 11th St, NW is this same set up, with the historic facade containing two units and a separate building in the rear containing 4. I believe the two building are to be attached by a breezeway, and the rear residents will have to enter through the front structure and pass through the courtyard.

    • That sounds like a weird/inconvenient layout.

    • I live next door to this construction and agree with ET – this is going to be a weird and inconvenient layout for the people living in the rear structure. Also, the “breezeway” is going to be pretty much useless dead space that won’t get all that much light. I would not like living in this kind of setup.

  • What? So it’s two separate structures on one piece of land? Seems really weird. Park View has a ton of houses with huge backyards so I wonder if we’ll see more of this.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised. Finding homes that are good flip projects seems to be harder than it was and now developers are looking at any piece of land to plop something and make a few books. The low hanging fut empty lots are getting more scarce.

      I live not too far from the Safeway on the Hill and there was some private land in the middle of the block between the Safeway and the old Buchannan School and behind a multi-unit townhouse and two townhouses were built. One is 3 stories and quite narrow and looks a bit loft/urban. The other is bigger and a bit more traditional but with a slightly odd exterior. I am curious as to how that is going to play with the planned redevelopment of the school that was just announced.

      • I think the point here is that they are not plopping something down on some land, but adding to something already plopped onto the land. My guess is they are popping up a garage/carriage house or something of some kind, but I would think logically that the accessory structure would have to be permitted for occupancy before you could expand it vertically and do anything to allow it to be occupied. I mean, most detached garages are probably not permitted for occupancy so does this mean developers can just convert the garage into a solid structure and raise it vertically and then sell it as condos? That’s absurd.

  • Hmm… I thought I’d heard that D.C. zoning generally didn’t allow “accessory dwelling units,” but maybe this builder has gotten around things somehow. It’s also possible that this backyard building is not actually legal — you might try calling DCRA to ask about it.
    On a related note, I don’t really understand what the point is of having (for example) a “no more than 60% lot coverage” requirement if people with deep pockets can just buy their way around it by paying for a variance.

    • Wouldn’t surprise me if it’s not legal considering the monstrosity on the 700 block of Morton is illegal, but has sat there for years at this point and currently features another stop work order!

      • Ahh, good point — I’d forgotten about the Morton monstrosity.
        IIRC, at least one and maybe both of the in-progress pop-ups on the 700 block of Princeton had permits only for interior demolition — no permits for taking off the roof and building pop-ups. But as that WAMU article points out, the fines are so minimal that developers keep breaking the rules.

        • Really? There is a building across the alley on Quebec being renovated and I noticed that the entire back and roof has been taken off. I assume that’s going to be a pop up. I wonder if it has the same issues.

          • Yeah, that one is going to be a pop-up too. As far as I know, though, the developers for that one have been abiding by the rules. One of the Princeton ones not only lacked a permit to take off the roof, it also started construction on a Sunday without a special permit for Sunday construction.

      • That building (I believe 725-ish) on Morton has been sitting there with stop work orders periodically plastered for almost a decade it seems! I heard it was originally built without any permits.

        Does DCRA have any authority, because I’d figure something like this should be razed not knowing what is behind those walls?

    • Looking at Google Street view there are a couple houses in that alley that have large existing structures in the alley (not clear if they have utilities or are used as living space). I wonder if this property either had an extant variance for some structure or the structure was grandfathered in to the current zoning structure. If either of those were the case, the developer may have used the rights conferred by an existing structure to build a new much larger structure legally.

    • the 60% isn’t a hard limit. If you read BZA reports (thrilling, I know) it’s clear that the board doesn’t usually see a problem with granting variances for up to 70% of lot coverage and do so quite regularly, for both developers and homeowners.
      Kent Boese of Park View, no fan of popups, wrote about this one on his blog and indicated that the permitting is in order, BTW.

      • This is going to sound pedantic but it’s important. 60% is by right in an R-4 zone. 70% requires a special exception. Anything more than that requires a variance.

        The hurdle for a special exception is much lower than a variance. For a special exception your project needs to be “in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the Zoning Regulations and Zoning Maps and will not tend to affect adversely the use of the neighboring property”‘

    • Would you or anyone else in popland know how much it could cost to get a variance? A “friend” of mine wanted to build a deck behind their house and just got rejected by DCRA because they’re an R2 zone which is “no more than 40% lot coverage”.

    • This is technically one building, because there’s a breezeway that connects the two. In zoning parlance, there’s a “meaningful connection” between the two spaces. In the current 1958 zoning code, a simple roof over the walkway counts as a meaningful connection. Accessory Dwelling Units for the most part aren’t allowed.

      If the ZRR is ever finished, this “loophole” will be closed but ADUs will be allowed in more parts of the city.

    • It’s a zoning rule open to interpretation. You can’t have two main structures on a single lot; house + garage is OK; house + another house is not OK. The zoning rule says that if there’s a “substantial connection” then it’s not really two structures, it’s one. What constitutes a “substantial” connection is what’s open to interpretation. Current Zoning Administrator considers a one story wood trellis a substantial connection. Previous ZA’s did not consider trellises as substantial.

      Regardless how or if they’re connected. The size and height of these second structures is limited by how big and deep the lot is. They’re really only commercially viable on very deep lots, and not every neighborhood has lots that size.

  • The real question is whether we can get a Subway or a 7-11 in the first floor.
    We have similarly long backyards on our block and I’d be seriously annoyed if someone built something like that. Although the only visible neighbors here seem to have paved over their entire yard anyways.
    Also FYI Vicent Orange, Boswer, et al: This is what affordable housing looks like.

  • I can’t wait until GGW tells us how THIS is going to solve DC’s housing crisis and if you don’t like it, you hate poor people.

    • Hahaha! Well put.

    • This is obviously an insane example but, yes, ADUs serve a major role in creating/preserving a diverse mix of housing stock.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone offer pop ups or pop backs as a solution for the affordable housing problem. No one is building these things in low income areas. They are being built in gentrifying or gentrified areas and being offered at market prices.

      • It’s an argument of filtering and increasing supply. Filtering in that building high-end units in desirable areas keeps those buyers from purchasing and renovating lower-end units in less-desirable area. And supply increase in a basic economics sense.

        The question GGW and the ilk are asking is not whether pop ups will solve the housing “crisis.” It’s whether the situation would be worse without pop ups.

        • But wouldn’t buying & renovating units in less desirable areas ultimately help/increase the affordable hosing supply – at least for 10 years or so? I bought at 14th & Columbia in 1987 because, while still ragged, it was adjacent to rapidly developing neighborhoods and had the promise of a meto station.

          Pop up/backs in desirable infill NW neighborhoods are not going to provide affordable housing, but certainly could do a lot in the eastern fringe.

          • I guess the argument is that no one – or more specifically, no private actor is going to invest in this kind of building in a fringe neighborhood because of the likelihood of not getting a good return on the investment. How do you build something like this while keeping it “affordable”?
            Whereas a private investor will do something like this in a neighborhood that has already arrived because the investment is likely to pay off.

          • Accountering

            Negative. Everytime a house gets flipped, that is one less house that is affordable. Unrenovated houses in Brightwood park (the kind flippers love) would only rent for $1500 or so pre-renovation. Once they are renovated, that goes out the window.
            The arguement is that by building more in popular areas, there will be slightly less demand in the less popular areas and as such, less displacement.

  • binpetworth

    This reminds me of 1317 Shepherd St NW, which was a single family home/school until a developer chopped it into condos and then popped it back with townhouses in the back yard. But since the townhouses don’t pop up over the original structure, the street view looks pretty much the same as before (except for the developer getting rid of the beautiful leaded windows originally in the front).

  • Not sure how this satisfies the R-4 zoning requirements for either lot occupancy (unless there’s a lot more lot (ha!) we can’t see here) or for accessory buildings. Is this actually two separate lots?

    I can’t even build a small garage but they can build THIS? Can’t be right…

    • +1 to “I can’t even build a small garage but they can build THIS? Can’t be right…” (though I’m not actually seeking to build a garage myself).

  • I have an R-4 zoned house and so far as I know this is NOT legal, unless they have somehow found a loophole that connects the accessory building to the main buidling and makes them functionally “one”. Accessory structures in R-4 can only be one story, max 15 feet high.

  • Agree with the OP that this is concerning if legal. The cinder block construction is awful and its disconnection from the rest of the house makes it stand out much more than a pop back. Aside from the visuals, it looks like it was thrown up cheaply and perhaps shoddily. I’m all for density (truly) but the pop ups, pop backs, and now pop accessories all combined with the WAMU flipped off exposé makes it clear to me that this city needs some common sense zoning and permitting reform (that does not inhibit increased density where appropriate). Too bad it’s probably not on the agenda and won’t be unless folks complain to the mayor and council.

    • “it looks like it was thrown up cheaply and perhaps shoddily”
      Can you elaborate? I don’t know how you can tell this from the photos above. Or do you just mean that in your mind “ugly” = “cheap and shoddy”?

    • It is interesting – my best friend lives in Europe in a fairly new house in a fairly nice neighborhood. Cinder block construction, which is the norm where she lives. It is built like a tank. Even when it gets really hot or cold she doesn’t need to turn on her heat (she doesn’t even have A/c) because the thickness of the walls keeps the house at a fairly constant temp. And the sound doesn’t travel either between floors or between the outside/inside. From what I’ve seen, I’d take her cinder block house over a tinder-constructed house in the states any day. Granted, our cinder houses may not be as well made, but my point is it isn’t necessarily the cinder blocks that is the problem.

    • You can slap some mortar on those walls and paint them, or add shingles to match the front property. I doubt that building will have a visible cinder block wall when it is done.

  • All-

    I am a developer. I am NOT the developer of this project but I happened to meet with him and see this development first hand (for matters completely unrelated to this project.)

    In short, I was fascinated. I asked him a BUNCH of questions.

    First of all, it is legal.
    Second of all, it is not an accessory structure.

    You are allowed two units in R4. If you can meet all the set back requirements you can do this scenario where there is a separate unit behind the first…and that’s what he has done. The project complies with the 20′ rear setback and provides the required. There is also a tunnel under the first home to the second home and a tunnel under the second home to the parking. The homes face each other…the rear of the first to the front of the second.

    He’s got a full set of permits…and the spaces look and feel good on the inside.

    I asked him about what the neighbors think. He said in general the response on the street is positive because he didn’t just extend the first house back to make a really deep house. He was able with this configuration to have a break that allows light and air to the homes next door. He said they preferred this solution to a big, giant long wall.

    Needless to say, this only works with very deep lots. I believe his was ~125′ if memory serves.

    Personally, I liked it. It’s not for everyone…but it’s a pretty darn cool solution to a really long lot. Kudos to him and his architect for making this happen.


    • Not sure how much I like this. I would have to see it in person. But it’s definitely better than having a big, long wall covering the entire lot.

    • Anonomnom

      I mean, its a cool loophole but “kudos to the architect” on this tetris-cube-block is stretching it a bit far. Are angles just a no-no?

      • Not sure what/where you’re referring to by angles.

        However, if you mean could they have done something other than a big blank brick wall? Then my answer is “I wish!”. Zoning requires you to build lot line to lot line for R4 rowhomes. Moreover, for fire reasons you can’t have windows on the property lines.

        Many times the things you see with rowhomes are severely constrained by zoning and fire codes and the design you end up with seems harsh, but there is no other or extremely limited options.

    • This is actually pretty amazing. Thanks for the details. I agree that this is preferable to the one monolithic wall that we all know and hate.

  • mid city guy

    My company Arcadia Design Services, designed this project for the owner. Please allow me to clarify some misconceptions.

    1. The project is only 2 units. The existing front structure is a single unit, and the new addition is a single unit. They are connected by a roofed structure which spans an open air courtyard. This is all permitable under the existing zoning code.

    2. This project is 100% matter-of-right per the zoning code. There were NO gray areas or exceptions. The project is built out at the allowable zoning for lot coverage, height, etc. I personally presented this to the zoning administrator, we have a zoning determination letter, and all permits were obtained through the standard regulatory process at DCRA. The rear structure is simply “classified” as an addition to the existing building.

    3. The neighbors on both sides signed off on the project. There is absolutely no opposition to this and my client enjoys a very good relationship with all the immediate neighbors.

    4. The owner actually purchased this property from another developer who had obtained permits and commenced construction on a large and more typical rear addition that would have projected directly off the rear of the existing structure at a similar height. That addition would have had 30 foot party walls towering directly over the rear facades of the adjacent houses. The owner with my direction proposed the alternative you see under construction. While one may have an opinion about the character of the neighborhood (a debate I am not here to argue) I suggest that this project is an improvement over what the original developer proposed, and makes an effort to allow the owner to develop the property while offering a solution respects the context of the block.

  • mid city guy

    re: ParkViewRes May 7, 2015 at 4:12 pm
    What? So it’s two separate structures on one piece of land? Seems really weird. Park View has a ton of houses with huge backyards so I wonder if we’ll see more of this.

    This is a single structure. It was reviewed and approved by DCRA, all permits are in in order.

    textdoc May 7, 2015 at 4:13 pm
    Hmm… I thought I’d heard that D.C. zoning generally didn’t allow “accessory dwelling units,” but maybe this builder has gotten around things somehow. It’s also possible that this backyard building is not actually legal — you might try calling DCRA to ask about it.
    On a related note, I don’t really understand what the point is of having (for example) a “no more than 60% lot coverage” requirement if people with deep pockets can just buy their way around it by paying for a variance.

    This is not an “accessory dwelling unit”. Please be careful of how you suggest my client “somehow got around things” when you do not have accurate information. This project was permitted legally. There was no variance here, deep pocketed or otherwise.

    • Interesting. That’s nice that you got the neighbors to sign off on it! I’ll keep an eye on this one to see how it turns out.

    • saf

      How can you get these permits when I can’t get a permit for a backyard arbor? I don’t understand.

    • I’d love to see how many neighbors really signed off on it. I’m willing to bet you the neighbors to either side did NOT

      • mid city guy

        The neighbors on each side did in fact review and approve the plans. As I stated above.

  • Understand and agree with everything Mid city guy stated. I built an accessory structure (a garage) in R- 4, and 15′ is the heigh requirement for accessory structure in R-4. I also had to adhere to the setbacks, fire codes for walls within a certain distance of the property line, getting the neighbor’s approval, etc. I’ve seen other places in the US where people were splitting a lot to put another unit on it. I remember seeing something about that in zoning regs also. (I learned way too much about zoning regs and other DCRA requirements building my garage). I don’t know if I would like the aesthetics of having a second unit behind my house (personal taste), but it’s definitely an interesting piece of engineering work. I’m sure someone will like it and have no problem living there.

  • I think the idea of a complete separate house off the main drag of Kenyon street is charming, this has been done to create a very intimate space. This is a creative solution to density. I noticed that there were even more such structures being built in the alley spaces behind this property, it’s going to become a micro-neighborhood within Parkview.

  • The condo complex my aunt and uncle live in in Oak Park, IL is sort of like this. The front building is a giant Victorian house with a wrap around porch. That’s split into two town homes. (My aunt and uncle have the back of the house.) And then between the alley and their tech are other units. It’s a nice way to add density without changing the streetscape. And with Oak Park’s zoning laws, and historic character, the ideal of a single family home set back on a large lot is maintained.

  • I am currently in process of getting a special exception(rear and side setback relief) to build a separate apartment on top of an existing two car garage in the back of my property, which is zoned R-4.. In short – ADUs are legal if the main structure and the accessory structure are connected via a trellis or a walkway, thus becoming essentially one unit. Exceptions are not hard to get and you don’t need deep pockets to get it. I have neighbor support and my lot is big enough that the coverage limit isn’t exceeded by a ton. So far, the process is relatively painless, if lengthy.

  • So, aesthetics aside I think this is screaming out for a future GDON post on the “back house.” Does it go for much more than a standard two-level condo unit would?

  • Seen them in Cathedral Heights/Glover Park. Its a modern take on the old carriage house.
    If done well its a good thing.

    • Also, the caption should be “Condo, you look good, Back that House Up!”

      And now Juvenile will be running through my head all day, thanks self.

  • My block of Park View (700 block of Park Road) is covered with these, and I find them somewhat intriguing. As others have mentioned, this actually kind of works on deep lots, though I wonder about the purchaser who really wants to buy a house that basically faces an alley. Even if you have a main street access point on the front side of the house, I imagine that you’d still spend a lot of time looking at/walking down/maybe driving through the alley, so you’d better like it. I don’t know that I would consider my alley a particularly aesthetically pleasing experience.

    On my block, it appears that these multi-structure buildings all have small common courtyards, which seem to be a really nice amenity (I’ve never been inside one, so I can’t report first-hand). Not every condo building is going to win architectural awards, but I have to say from a practical standpoint, I like them over a popup with a roof deck as a common space (or as a space only for the top unit). If nothing else, it increases the passing chance that one might walk down the alley and actually see your neighbors, which I consider a bonus.

    • From my experience 90% of people strolling through alleys are there to drink, shoot drugs, or pee…or a combo of those.

      • That is exactly why some neighbors may be okay with this and other ADUs. With people living back there illegal activity will generate a lot more complaints. Most people would prefer cleaner alleys.

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