“Some people hate them. Some people like them. Most people are “meh”.”

l pop

“Dear PoPville,

What’s the Matter with Pop-ups?

Some people hate them.
Some people like them.
Most people are “meh”.

On Monday evening, some of the haters and some of the likers will be nervously shuffling around in the crowded Jerrily R. Kress Memorial Hearing Room at 441 4th Street NW, Suite 220-S (Judiciary Square) waiting their turn to speak (for up to three minutes) before the five members of the Zoning Commission, who will listen, and eventually vote on, an application by residents of Lanier Heights and ANC1C to “rezone” the row house sections of that mostly-apartment-house neighborhood in order to (you guessed it): “Stop Pop-ups”.

If the commissioners decide to grant the rezoning application, owners of residential row houses in Lanier Heights will lose some of their existing property rights. Building height will be capped at 35 feet (rather than the current “matter-of-right” 50 foot limit) and the maximum number of apartments or condos that can be carved out of a single row house will be two. (There is no numerical cap under current zoning, although four units are typical for houses on small to medium size lots).

If this all sounds eerily familiar to you, its probably because you remember that the Zoning Commission recently took the initiative to redefine the rules citywide for the District’s 35,000 row houses located in R4 zones. They requested a study from the Office of Planning in 2014, who came back with suggestions to reduce matter-of-right development in R4 zones. New rules were approved summer 2015, reducing the “M-o-R” for height by five feet, from 40 to 35, and limiting the maximum number of residences per building at two.

What you probably didn’t know (unless you are a devoted reader of this blog) is that the battle over pop-ups in Lanier Heights was well underway at least a year before the zoning commissioners decided to take a look at the city’s R4 zones.

Lanier Heights (population 4400) is a small chunk of Adams Morgan above Columbia Road, just south of Mount Pleasant and snug up against Rock Creek Park and the National Zoo. It is predominately a neighborhood of large to medium sized apartment buildings with some smaller apartment houses and fewer than 200 row houses, a handful of which have been converted to small apartment houses or condos in recent years. It was officially zoned R5B back in the 1950s, which is a moderate density apartment house designation.

Lanier Place is the main drag through the neighborhood, a two-block-long mix of “single-family” row houses, small apartment buildings and a several row house condo conversions where Lanier Place meets Adams Mill Road. But in 2012 a row-house pop-up condo conversion was approved in a block of Lanier Place that had until then been untouched by pop-ups.

When the project was nearing completion, in December 2013, neighbors put up a hand lettered poster declaring “UGLY POP-UPS: DESTROYING FAMILY HOUSING ON LANIER PLACE” and all hell broke loose.

Soon there were flyers posted on lamp posts and community meetings held to stop the spread of pop-ups. By spring of 2014 a neighborhood petition drive was launched. ANC commissioners were enlisted to the cause. Leaders met with staff at the Office of Planning to discuss the best avenues to accomplish their goal. Yard signs sprouted up shouting: SAVE OUR NEIGHBORHOOD. SUPPORT ZONING REFORM. STOP POP-UPS.

Meanwhile, new neighbors quickly filled the four new condos and went about their lives as best they could, living under the signs and banners that essentially declared their new homes a disgrace to all right-thinking people everywhere.

Let’s recap a few facts and figures and reference the time line now, because otherwise things might get complicated. Lanier Heights was zoned R5B since the 1950s, allowing a 50 foot building height. When a pop-up came to Lanier Place, concerned citizens went to the Office of Planning where they were told the best solution was to apply to the zoning commission for a “map amendment” (a.k.a. “rezoning” a.k.a “downzoning”) of the neighborhood to R4, imposing a 40 foot height limit.

So in the spring and summer of 2014 supporters of rezoning passed out literature and went from row house to row house, door-to-door, collecting petition signatures to prove to the zoning commission that the neighborhood supported a change to R4, and just when they had finished collecting all the signatures they were likely to get – the Zoning Commission decided to look at redefining R4 to a height limit of just 35 feet.

Undaunted, the “downzoners” pushed forward, gaining ANC support for their application in December 2014 and filing their paperwork in April 2015. Then the Zoning Commission approved their own redefinition of R4 a couple months later.

Fast forward 5 or 6 months after the April application to allow the Office of Planning to complete their staff study, which basically said “Yeah, whatever, Lanier Heights, this neighborhood could go either way, R5B, its got lots and lots of apartments, but maybe another couple hundred row houses could be preserved? Like the way the ZC just preserved 35,000 row houses in R4 all across the city? Lotta people seem to want it. We’re good.” [Okay that’s my snarky paraphrasing, you can check out the actual OP reports, preliminary and final, at the Zoning website: IZIS, Case 15-09].

At almost 900 words, I’ve barely covered the basics, and until right now haven’t mentioned that all this “Save the Neighborhood” crusading actually created a backlash, in the person of your humble narrator and a band of like-minded property owners who disagree with the entire premise of rezoning Lanier Heights.

We will all be together at the Public Hearing on Monday, March 21, beginning at 6:30 PM. Or you can watch the entire drama unfold, with perhaps a few comic moments, via live streaming video from the Zoning Commission website.”

37 Comment

  • Oh no, you didn’t just call Lanier Heights a part of Adams Morgan!

  • Do the downzoners realize it’s still possible to build a pop-up with a 35 foot height limit?

    • Yeah–this is my thought when people blame developers for popups. Owners have by right to popup their homes in zoned areas. I don’t understand the backlash that developers get in regards to this. . I’d rather seen design aspect be implemented- than the height issue. Heck as soon as I get enough cash- I’m popping up and adding two master suites and a rooftop deck. Can careless what the neighbors think.

    • For the down-zoners, the issue is not a pop-up per se but carving the house into 4 units. Which essentially turns the block into a never-ending construction zone. And it strains the existing utilities, parking, etc etc etc. If you limit the height of the building to 35 feet, most developers will look to other neighborhoods for better return on capital, meanwhile owner-occupier can still pop-up to add another bedroom or a nice deck. Lanier Heights – as it is – is already really dense. I live just outside Lanier Heights in Adams Morgan proper, but I can understand why some residents want this. They really don’t need more residents crammed into the neighborhood.

      • Can you explain what you mean by “strains the existing utilities?” Are there more frequent brownouts? Is basement flooding more common due to backed up sewer pipes? Decreased water pressure? I often hear people use this phrase when arguing against development, but what does that mean in the context of Lanier Heights specifically?
        .
        I think the second part of your comment is the truthful answer – these folks, having moved into a neighborhood, have decided that they don’t want anyone new to be able to move into it.

        • This. Beyond making parking more difficult — which I think it pretty obviously does — I don’t see how building pop-ups strains utilities. The bigger point here is that enacting housing policy for the specific purpose of excluding a particular type of new resident that existing residents don’t like (in this case, young, single and/or childless people) is repugnant.

        • Sure I can explain:
          -Lanier and Kalorama have had multiple issues with brownouts and power failures over the last two years. There are issues with the power system in this area of NW. I don’t work for Pepco, so I can’t say if its due to increased strain on power capacity, old equipment, etc.
          -Increased lot coverage creates major issues with storm drainage
          -Construction debris clogs drains all over the city
          -Parking (obviously this will always be an issue for this ‘hood)
          I do believe that current residents should have a say in the “character” of their neighborhood, so long as they are not discriminating against a protected category of people. Carving up a row house into 6 1BR units starting at $500K each certainly changes the neighborhood dynamics and usually not for best. It changes not only the physical space, but also relationships between neighbors.
          The fact of the matter is that neighborhood is going through the legal process. Such a process exists and that’s OK. Or are we against local control of our neighborhoods? A transparent process exists and I think that’s a good thing.

          • In short: you don’t know the cause of the supposed power issue but blame it on pop-ups anyways; the supposed runoff thing is a city-wide issue and doesn’t really apply to a R5B vs. R4 zoning question; fail to define what a “major storm drain issue” is, and cite “parking” despite the fact that it hasn’t been easy to park in the neighborhood for a while.
            .
            You give away the game when you say “it changes the neighborhood dynamics and not for the best.” Just admit that your opposition to these conversions is based in the fact they allow a type of person that you don’t approve of the opportunity to live in the neighborhood.

          • Meh, I live across Columbia in Adams Morgan so I couldn’t give two craps about what the residents of Lanier Heights decide to do. I’m OK with the legal process and their reasons for wanting to limit development. Neither side in this debate has particularly strong arguments, IMHO. There’s tons of nice, affordable apartment buildings in Lanier Heights for single folks or DINKs. Maintaining SFHs is an OK reason for limiting development in my book. I don’t think the argument of “capitalism and increasing density!!!” is a better or more moral argument. It just isn’t. Everyone is greedy in this debate, IMHO.
            Personally, I’d rather see the DC government incentivizing developers to deploy their capital in the Georgia Ave corridor and Walter Reade to make those areas just as desirable as Lanier Heights. There’s plenty of places in DC for flippers to make good profits.

          • Sure, I’ll respond:
            – Your response about the brownouts indicates you don’t actually know if they are caused by pop-ups. So, I would say that is not great evidence.
            – Pop-ups don’t increase lot coverage. Let me know if you don’t understand why. I will have my 5 year old draw you a sketch.
            – Construction debris clogs drains. Yes, but, um, why are you using this very general truth to limit just one kind of construction?
            – If parking is always going to be a problem, then linking it to pop-ups is illogical and silly.
            – Your opinion that single family dwelling neighborhoods have a better dynamic then multi-unit dwelling neighborhoods is a really awesome opinion, but not one that the City should be passing laws to protect. Probably most of the people who don’t live your neighborhood don’t feel like that, and I’m not any more inclined to advance your opinion through legislation than I am theirs. I promise you that if any of them tries to pass a law requiring existing single-family dwellings to be converted into multi-family dwellings, I will fight against that too.
            – I’m in favor of local control of neighborhoods, but not when the decisions they make put the preferences of a few people ahead of the needs of many, many people. Since you seem to care so much about your neighbors, I would expect you to agree with me on this. But maybe your definition of “neighbor” is narrower than my definition?

          • I’ve lived in Lanier Heights for 16 years and have had one power outage during that time during Hurricane Isabel, which was due to a blown transformer underground. We’ve never had a brownout. So are these supposed power issues real or did you just make them up to further your argument?

          • “There’s tons of nice, affordable apartment buildings in Lanier Heights for single folks or DINKs. Maintaining SFHs is an OK reason for limiting development in my book.”

            You mean affordable for white, affluent singles who most likely have a trust fund to their name? Because I am not sure for who else you could be referring to.

  • With all those words, I’m still unable to determine what the OP wants to happen. More conversion of single family homes to condos of 3+ units?

    • The OP did not take a position either way. They said both R4 and R5B fit the comprehensive plan.

      • But the OP did say that s/he is part of “a band of like-minded property owners who disagree with the entire premise of re-zoning Lanier Heights.” Complete with self-admitted snark.
        .
        So is the backlash against downsizers about getting more units built in the neighborhood?

        • yes – the backlash is against downzoners and for (what they call) property owners’ rights. and yes, I think the OP is part of the backlash!

        • “OP” is short for “Office of Planning” in this instance.

          And Office of Planning is not part of “a band of like-minded property owners who disagree with the entire premise of re-zoning Lanier Heights.”

  • I live in this neighborhood. To my eye, it looks like approximately zero of the single-family homes in the neighborhood (which are all 3-4 stories high) comply with the current R-4 height limit of 35 feet. So we want to change the neighborhood’s zoning to a regime none of the homes comply with? What on earth is going on?

  • The pop up thing seems to be directly aimed at flippers and not at homeowners wanting to pop-up in my mind. Particularly those flippers that want to be able to add on enough new to what was a single family to make a place 4 small units and not 2 larger ones or just keeping it a single family home. I can’t say I blame the residents really though they do look obstructionist for obstructionist sake. This was always a single family home neighborhood and now most of the condo units are not really for families or even more than one person for that matter. They likely feel that people buying those units are going to be more transient – only staying a few years – before moving on. They may be right, they may be wrong.

    I wonder if they would be so up in arms if these projects were just a single story pop up with the whole structure being single family or maybe single family with a rental in the basement.

    • believe me, it is not the size of homes that are keeping families out of the neighborhood. It’s the schools. We would stay with our family if the local schools weren’t gerrymandered to be the lowest-opportunity schools in the vicinity. If you want families, go after the schools not the housing stock. The housing stock will follow demand. I’ll also note that almost all the houses on my block are group houses, not these elusive families everyone seems so keen on. So I don’t know how that solves any of the resource constraints people associate with condos.

      • Almost have to be involved with the school lottery to get into a good school and/or pay for private school in the District.

  • Sure, almost all pop-ups are butt-ulgy. But you lose me when you complain they are destroying “family” housing. People not living with family don’t deserve homes? Unrelated people can’t live in rowhouses, either in one unit together or in separate units? Bull****. You can’t discriminate based on who lives where. If you don’t want pop-ups, you can have historical landmarking legislation that prohibits them completely. But I could see those families who object wanting to pop-up their own homes. And if they can, why can’t they be done making more units of housing? I fail to see the distinction. I mean, less parking spaces on your street is not a reason, as much as you would like it to be. If the issue is ugly pop-ups, then there should be some historical landmarking approving what doesn’t look like crap and prohibiting the rest. There shouldn’t be a distinction based on the number of units created alone. People are entitled to live somewhere.

    • You hit the nail on the head. There are exactly three reasons to oppose pop-ups:

      1. Parking.
      2. You like a nice, unbroken row of identical townhouses for aesthetic reasons (note: this is not the case in this neighborhood).
      3. You don’t want young, unmarried, white millennials moving into the neighborhood, driving up property values and bringing their types of establishments with them.

      • To be fair, if you had a backyard that enjoyed some sun during the day, a large pop-up could significantly alter that (or maybe that’s more for the pop-backs?). So that’s reason #4.

        While much of the rhetoric is ridiculous, and I think the opposition is largely driven by the 3 reasons you list, there are some legitimate reasons for not wanting to have the house next to you explode in size.

        I really blame the zoning codes and the stupid height act.. If it was easier to build density along main thoroughfares it would alleviate some of the pressure on the row home blocks/neighborhoods.

        • Great point about the height act and the zoning code — those are the real problems here. But I chose to live in a City because I firmly believe that a little share sacrifice creates a lot of common good. So I can’t support a fix for one neighborhood that comes at the expense of a lot of other neighborhoods.

    • Actually, most of the pop-ups in Lanier Heights look pretty good, I think – most blend in pretty well, aesthetically, with the houses around them. The one that sticks out the most is a single-family home, not a townhouse that was turned into condos!

      I wonder how many downzoners would turn down $$$ from a developer when it comes time to sell their own townhouses.

  • andy

    I want lots and lots of people to be able to live in DC. People want to live here and the core will grow. The solution is more homes. Don’t insist on non-existence of new homes. My thoughts are to insist on habitability, planning and attractiveness, not an end to popups, popbacks, basement dig-outs, etc.

  • The city is gaining about 1000 residents a month – which is welcome and needs to be accommodated. But the idea that single family row houses need to be converted to multiple units to accommodate density is a red herring. From an urban design perspective, density is best accommodated by building big buildings on big streets, while keeping little buildings on little streets. So replacing a gas station with 35 units and s derelict theater with 75 units it the way to go. And there are an awful lot of one story building on Colombia road, for example than could go the same way. That’s the way to address density, rather than chopping up and popping up row houses.

    The opposition to row house expansions is in part about quality – some are inoffensive and some are downright outrageous. But the real issue is about value. The small developers aren’t content to stay within the existing footprint and want to put in 6 or even 8 units per row house since they can create more value (for themselves.) Fair enough – until they start destroying value for others.

    The objection to the pop ups come from existing neighbors who have seen their property value and amenity value decreased by bad developments – having developers rip 50 year old shade trees out of your backyard (yes, it happened), build a 4 story brick wall the whole length of the property line in your backyard (also happened), and building up two additional stories reducing the light and airflow for your home. All of these interventions reduce the value of other peoples’ property. In other words, these small developers are appropriating value from others without compensation – and ironically claim to be defending property rights for themselves.

    And then there was the case on Ontario Road where some totally irresponsible developer gutted a row house, covered it with a tarp and then had the whole thing cave in during Snowpocalypse taking out the horizontal supports. The result was the fire department coming in and evacuating the houses and the city posting evacuation orders. One of the neighbors still isn’t back in their house, since the parti wall was destabilized.

    The purpose of the zoning laws is to balance development while protecting the values of existing residents. Right now, we are not getting that balance right in Lanier Place.

    Let’s agree to increase density in Lanier Heights with big buildings on big streets, and keep small buildings on small streets, and make sure any future row house conversations respect neighborhood scale and don’t destroy value for neighbors.

    Downzoning to R-4 is a blunt instrument, but it will get us closer to the right balance.

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