“Last night the DC Zoning Commission handed neighbors a rare victory against untrammeled development”

lanier heights

The infamous battle concludes…?

“Dear PoPville,

Last night the DC Zoning Commission handed neighbors a rare victory against untrammeled development when it voted 5-0 to grant a petition, presented jointly by Lanier Heights neighbors and ANC 1C, to downzone the bulk of Lanier Heights from R5B (which allows multi-unit apartment buildings) to R4 (which allows only row houses with a maximum of 2 units absent an unusually large lot size; normally, this means a home of several bedrooms along with an English basement).

The residents of Lanier Heights had overwhelmingly supported the proposal both out of revulsion at a series of ugly popups, which had overshadowed their row houses and deprived their gardens of light and air, and concern that breaking row houses up into apartment buildings of four or even more units meant that fewer families with children would be able to live in close-in neighborhoods. The neighbors testifying at the hearing elegized the mixed character of Lanier Heights, which has both apartment buildings and family-supporting row houses, while decrying the impact that popups, popbacks and cut-ups posed to the area’s diversity.

The Lanier Heights neighborhood organizing campaign was ably led by resident Denis Suski, who represented the neighborhood at the commission’s March 21 hearing. The campaign’s web site is at http://lanierheights.info/.

In a late development, the Office of Planning recommended approval of the proposal, in part because of overwhelming neighborhood sentiment and in part because a study of prices for units with one bedroom as opposed to units with three bedrooms suggested that the market was not meeting the demand for larger units. (Exhibit 127 in Zoning Case 15-09, which can be accessed by case number at https://app.dcoz.dc.gov/content/search/Search.aspx).

In explaining their votes in favor of the proposal, two commissioners went out of their way to say that, although they are generally skeptical of downzoning because of the critical need for housing in light of the fact that the District’s population is growing by 1000 per month, they found the presentation of ANC 1C, led by its current chair, Alan Gambrell, and its past chair, Billy Simpson, had been particularly persuasive. All the commissioners joined in their praise of the work done by the ANC.

One of the commissioners condemned the developers for their greedy attitude in trying to squeeze every last penny of profit out of their projects, to the derogation of neighborhood concerns, and two commissioners noted the absence of any support from either side for a compromise approach, which each of them had articulated during the March 21 hearing, that would have rejected downzoning in favor of some unspecified design review process. The Zoning Commission’s discussion of the proposal can be accessed here: http://ec4.cc/dfead5ece

Remaining to be decided is a text amendment to address non-conforming uses within the downzoned portion of Lanier Heights, and in particular to address development projects that were in the permit pipeline as of December 2015, when further projects inconsistent with R4 had been put on hold pending the hearing. Exhibit 129. The Commission voted last night to open a new zoning case to address this proposal from the Office of Planning. The ANC has gone on record opposing proposed concessions to the projects in the pipeline. Exhibit 130A.

A neighborhood celebration, possibly with live music from a band based in Lanier Heights, has been tentatively planned for Sunday afternoon.”

92 Comment

  • Hyperbole of this post aside, this is very good news for a very small, specific section of the city.

  • Good job guys. Way to maximize your property value and squeeze affordable housing out of the city!!

    • Good job preserving family housing (for those that afford a $1 million+ rowhouse).

      • And send their kids to private school! Because show me a parent who can afford a $1 million house and will send their kid to HD Cooke, Columbia Heights Education Campus, and Cardozo High!

    • Before the new zoning laws were passed, an R4-zoned house around the corner from me was converted into a four unit condo building complete with popup and popback. Once completed, the units were then sold for $550,000 (two bedrooms) to $800,000 (four bedrooms). During the construction, neighbor’s houses were severely damaged and the amateur developer was forced to stop construction multiple times do to flagrant safety violations.

      Meanwhile, R4-zoned homes can still be built to 40 feet, just as before, and can have three units, just as before. The only difference is you now have to get a variance to do so rather than being able to do so “by right,” meaning your plans actually have to be shown to the city and approved, and neighbors are allowed to have input into the process to make sure their own homes are properly protected during and after construction. Legitimate developers and development will continue apace, and that is fine.

      Rest assured, this has NOTHING to do with affordable housing whatsoever, it’s about protecting people’s homes from shoddy construction practices performed by crappy no-name developers.

      • This is uninformed and demonstrates poor reasoning. Zoning and Permitting are different and you are conflating the two. To oversimplify: zoning says what you may do on your property. DCRA says how you shall do what you are allowed to do. If someone damaged your home while building another home, you have a DCRA issue, not a zoning issue. Downzoning your neighbor won’t protect you from shoddy construction, DCRA will.

        • Plus a billion to this. The number of people think DCRA-related problems will be solved by downzoning is depressingly large.

        • you actually have a civil issue — DCRA has demonstrated time and time again they will not enforce damage to a neighboring property. They have told my neighbors flat out they don’t have the authority to do anything about encroachment, damage to neighbors, etc,

        • DCRA does not exactly have a stellar record as far as holding developers accountable.

          • And downzoning helps improve DCRA’s performance how?

          • The incompetence of a particular agency doesn’t directly alter their jurisdictional purview. Zoning is about land use and planning, not consumer protection.

      • I don’t think you understand supply and demand.

    • Typical ‘Boomers and Gen Xers… pulling that ladder right on up behind them.

      • Yup. As a 20-something hoping to stay and buy in DC someday, it’s looking less and less likely I’ll be able to afford anything remotely close-in to downtown where the jobs are.

        • There’s some lovely housing stock in Hillcrest and other areas EotR that can be had for a song! You’re comfortable being labelled a gentrifier though, right?

          • You would not recognize the city boomers and Gen-Xers bought into! This is hilarious. DC used to be much more dangerous and much less fabulous. These people held down the fort while everyone else fled.

          • Your home’s now worth a fortune. Tell us more about the favor you did us all.

          • Anonymous: I do not own a home. But I have lived here for 26 years.

          • west_egg

            “You would not recognize the city boomers and Gen-Xers bought into! This is hilarious. DC used to be much more dangerous and much less fabulous.”
            .
            This is true for some areas (Logan, Dupont), but keep in mind that certain neighborhoods (Petworth, for example) have seen home values nearly double in only five years. Not exactly ancient history.

    • These guys are doing God’s work. That is, if God were in the business of trying to stay rich. Which he is, so good work.

      • Is it now bad thing to want to stay rich? You think the developers arent concerned with making money? Money makes the world go round. The neighbors won this one. Good for them

    • Seriously. These people are depriving people of homes. There’s nothing noble about this.

    • This is not squeezing “affordable” housing out of the city. It’s squeezing “relatively less unaffordable housing” out of the city. These smaller units are not “affordable” in the conventional sense.

      • Yep — they’re neither “affordable” in the subsidized-housing sense, or “affordable” as the word is used in general parlance.

        • “General parlance” being spending no more than 30% of gross income on housing. Without knowing what % of a buyer’s income is going towards his/her housing bill, you have no basis for making your second claim

          • I’d imagine that condo units costing $700K are not “affordable” to most of the PoPville readership — which itself is more educated and wealthier than D.C. as a whole.

          • Again, you have absolutely no basis for making that claim. It may be what you “image,” but you don’t have any evidence that it’s true.

          • “Affordable housing” =/= “housing someone in the world can afford.” If a billionaire can afford a $100 million mansion in the sense that it’s less than 30% of his gross income, that does not make the mansion “affordable housing.”

    • developers in Lanier Heights are NOT building affordable housing. I have absolutely no stake in this, but that is not what is happening here.

      • They are building units that are smaller than full rowhouses and lower-priced than those rowhouses, which means people who can’t afford rowhouses can live in these smaller units. “Affordable” is relative. In this case, it is clearly meant as: units that more people can afford.

        • Even if these units aren’t affordable, more supply at this particular price point means that there is less demand for perhaps older housing stock that might price in the same range if it were not for the additional supply. This is exactly what has happened with Class B apartments as more Class A apartments have come into the market. Sure, those Class A units are not affordable, but the Class B units might become affordable as more supply comes into the market. I know that’s not a perfect analogy, but it goes to the point that the laws of supply and demand still hold true, even in a market as complex as this one.

  • I learned a new word today.

  • I seriously doubt your gardens were deprived of air.

    • Thanks, I LOLed at that part of this absurd victory of rich people to dictate what their neighbors can do. Who knew pop ups formed vacuums around them…

  • Ashy Oldlady

    Finding an opportunity to use the word “untrammeled” in a sentence is probably also a victory, for some.

  • Probably a good idea in the short term, at least for this neighborhood. Not sure about the ramifications across the city, but generally, popups are not a very good way to create density. Certainly converting a larger house into smaller units at a higher price per square foot also falls short of meeting the criteria for “creating affordable housing”.

    • Well said.

    • I honestly don’t understand what people think “affordable housing” means if not lower-priced units. Small units are always higher priced per square foot than larger units in the same area (read: same land cost), because the kitchen and bathroom are the most expensive part of a house/unit to build and every house/unit needs one. Units won’t be built unless they can command a higher price per square foot than a larger unit in the same location.
      ~~~
      Small units are lower-priced overall than row houses, because they are smaller.

  • “squeeze affordable housing”, really? You mean cut up family homes and replace them with one bedroom condos for a transient population. The DCG loved the condos because it reduces the social services burden on the city (families and elderly) and increases taxable income in the city. All for the price of destroying neighborhood communities. I fully support this motion.

    • I am not a transient resident of DC, but I do not have a family and I’m not elderly. Thanks for thinking of me!

    • Don’t use your suppositions about how much space a family *needs* to justify depriving people of options, and reducing the overall number of homes available in the city.
      .
      Families come in all shapes, sizes, and space needs. Not being able to afford a large building all to themselves does not make them any less deserving of a home in the city if they’re willing to pay a market price for a smaller one.

    • “Transient population”? Or maybe just a population that likes to live smaller than you do. This is a population that is willing to pay a lot per square foot, maybe, but not a lot overall (see: small units) to live near the city center, so they can rely on public transportation and be near amenities. Sure, let’s call this population “transients”. Things this type of person is also called: New Yorker. Parisian. Londoner.

    • Yup, single people are destroying neighborhood communities. And we’re all transient. And more tax revenue for the city and schools your kids go to is bad.
      I hope your kids grow up to be vagabond bachelors. Mostly because I just want to say ‘vagabond bachelors,’ but also because everyone needs a place to live no matter the size of their family, the space they want, the length of time they live somewhere, or any other reason. People in DC are in a pissing match over who’s lived here longer and act like it gives them some sort of legitimacy. Sure, the longer you’re here the more you’ve learned about the place, but you don’t get to deny someone the right to live somewhere based on timing of events in that person’s life.
      I would tell you how long I’ve lived here to lend this post legitimacy, but it really doesn’t f*ing matter.

  • Wow. I walk in Lanier Heights every day, and I see way more signs opposed to downzoning than supporting it. I agree that the city needs more units that are 3+ bedrooms to accommodate families, but doing it at the expense of select homeowners’ property rights seems like an arbitrary and unfair method. I am not expert on the new rules, but my understanding is that now people will be limited in alterations they can make to their homes even if they are not attempting to make multiple units out of it.

    • With respect to “Huh?”, the numbers of signs you see CURRENTLY in Lanier Heights is no a good measure of neighborhood sentiment: we had about sixty signs supporting downzoning adorning front yards all over the neighborhood at the height of the campaign, but even more telling are 1) the huge number of physical signatures on a hard-copy petition, plus online signatures, outstripping opponents by roughly 15 to 1 — see http://lanierheights.info/?page_id=475); 2) the outpouring of support for a zoning change at a neighborhood forum, not to speak of the huge number of people who testified in person at the Zoning Commission hearing and who submitted written comments. In fact, the opponents of our proposal were so desperate to claim that they had support that they submitted a bunch of one-line cookie cutter emails from people working for developers but who did not live in the neighborhood but who claimed that the change would hurt “homeowners like me,” basically trying to mislead the commission about where they lived.

      FWIW, I am the author of the communication to Popville on which you folks are commenting, and I have no qualms about saying who I am

      • Is fighting to restrict property rights hypocritical after a career fighting to protect free speech?

      • I’ll say that I live in the neighborhood and oppose the change. But the attacks on the opponents of this reform, and the occupants of the offending buildings, were so vicious and so personal that I stayed out of it completely. You win! Also, I’m leaving as soon as my kids are school-aged, because the problem in this neighborhood isn’t the size of the housing stock, it’s the schools. But hey, I hope you find those families to fill the streets with the pitter-patter of school-aged feet! (I think the more likely outcome is you’ll see an increase in the number of group homes, which I bet you’ll *love*.)

        • Anonymouse, in addition to the attacks you describe, Paul himself also sent out individual emails to people who had submitted notes to the zoning board that expressed their opposition to the downzoning. I received one that asked me to confirm my identity. A very welcoming fellow indeed. Paul used the same line to me about “cookie-cutter emails from people working for developers” and I live in Lanier Heights.

      • Well, we learned an answer to an age-old question – hyperbole, thy name is Paul Alan Levy.

  • i expect the next post will be about why there’s a lack of good retail in Mt. Pleasant, with no idea about how the two issues are related (hint: businesses like to have lots of nearby customers)

    • Everybody wants specialty retailers, few are willing to pay the margins. Solution? Add density. Or price out everybody but the wealthy. Thankfully for this neighborhood the zoning commission is ready to keep out new residents!

      • Adding density doesn’t seem to have helped Columbia Heights all that much in attracting specialty retail (unless restaurants count as retail).

    • I think that thing called “the internet” has had a much bigger negative impact on neighborhood retailers than the forces of anti-gentrification.

      • E-commerce sales are about 6-7% of all sales, so no, I don’t think that’s taking down tons of retailers.

        • I lived in AdMo for 11 years. It wasn’t a retail (non-restaurant) hub when I got there. It wasn’t when I left. It’s not now. And it’s never been for a lack of potential customers in the surrounding area.

    • The lack of good businesses along Mount Pleasant Street doesn’t stem from a lack of potential customers; there are a ton of people in Mount Pleasant.
      .
      IIRC, the ANC for that area has made it difficult for new restaurants, etc. to open.

      • You recall incorrectly. The ANC does NOT make it difficult for new businesses to open.
        In fact, the opposite is true. New places have opened with the active support of the ANC

        • Wasn’t it true in the past, though?
          .
          If not, what exactly was the cause? I find the “insufficient population density” argument implausible.

          • It wasn’t the ANC it was the Mt Pleasant Neighborhood Association. Long defunct organization that set up agreements with restaurants and bars around noise levels etc. This was in 1990’s and not relevant to today’s Mt Pleasant retail

          • Thanks for clarifying.

      • I think there are plenty of good businesses in Mt Pleasant.

  • Congratulations on the success but good gravy this letter needs a massive style edit.

  • English majors should be banned from writing press releases.

  • It’s a real shock that Billy “I’m not normally against development” Simpson had a hand in this as well, considering his ridiculous opposition to the SunTrust building redevelopment.

  • “Overwhelmingly supported” is an exaggeration. The local residents with all the time in the world to protest development and attend a million meetings overwhelmingly supported this change. Those of us with demanding jobs were unfortunately underrepresented by this bizarre polling mechanism.
    ~~
    Also, does this mean we get to chop the top off all the single-family homes that are over 35 feet in this neighborhood? Because there are a LOT.

  • Glad to hear that the anti-pop-up side prevailed.

  • One of the many interesting subtexts to this discussion is how people can be indignant about zoning that they think limits their ability to afford to live in the city while they turn up their nose at moving into relatively affordable neighborhoods like those along Rhode Island Avenue NE, such as Langdon. In other words, I find it hard to believe we need to address the lack of affordable housing by first making neighborhoods around Adams-Morgan denser while so many other neighborhoods would benefit from greater density. And, no, I don’t live anywhere near Lanier Heights.

    • Good point.

    • not only that, but many of us who are fighting to keep Lanier Heights family-friendly are folks who moved into Lanier Heights when it was where Rhode Island Ave NE is now…..

    • +100

      Agreed. People are clamoring to pay overmarket rates for sub 1000 sq ft shared dwellings when you can own your own dwelling for less and wait on or promote revitalization in said neighborhood.

    • Yes, this is how I always thought about the issue too. I never had an issue with it because the developers can always turn their dollars toward other neighborhoods.
      .
      The developers targeted Lanier Heights because they can get an extremely high price per square foot after they’ve carved up the houses into 500 sq foot 1BRs. Now? They will go invest their money and build up density in other neighborhoods. Capital is fungible but it now has to work a bit harder, as the “low hanging fruit” of Lanier Heights is gone. Developers would have done the same to the SFH stock in Cleveland Park, Woodley Park, etc if they were not banned from doing so by zoning.

    • there’s development going on in both areas. it’s not an either/or proposition.

    • You make a fair point. But all “affordable” neighborhoods are not created equal. I wouldn’t knock someone for not wanting to live in a particular neighborhood where the housing is cheap, especially if they have to be a pioneer.
      Also, when developers turn their attention to these other neighborhoods – and they most certainly will, the cost of living for the existing residents will go up. And before you know it, people will be posting anti-gentrification screeds on the Duke of Lanier Heights ListServ.

  • If you didn’t want there to be any changes to your neighborhood, then perhaps you should have moved to a place that was zoned to your liking. I researched the zoning of a place before I bought because I want to one day put an addition on my house. If anyone tries to change the rules on me, I’m going to lose my mind.

    • “If anyone tries to change the rules on me, I’m going to lose my mind.”
      Zoning changes happen all the time. This is what happens with living cities. The recent history has usually always been up-zoning, so that’s why this one stands out. But yeah, no one in entitled to static zoning if the neighborhood wills it. I’m OK with local control of local issues, so long as you’re not discriminating against a protected class.

    • Pop-ups didn’t really start to appear until 2011

      • That posted prematurely… I meant to add that if something doesn’t yet exist, you probably aren’t researching how to avoid it — because you don’t anticipate it.
        .
        There are many blocks in D.C. where the house exteriors have stayed largely the same (other than doors, windows, and paint) for a hundred years. Until comparatively recently, there was no reason to think that there would be dramatic change.

  • LANIER HEIGHTS DOWNZONING WAS A NECESSITY TO STOP GREEDY DEVELPERS DESTROYING OUR AREA
    It shows that many of those putting posts here do not understand what is going on or what is at stake. I live here, A developer buys a home for say $X dollars, He builds cheaply with cheap materials then starts selling 4 condos for X dollars, with no garden and makes a profit of 2X dollars. Is that affordable accommodation? NO
    We are the homeowners who live here and are sick and tired of others telling us how to live here in homes we bought cheaply many years ago for our families.

    Developers only think of MONEY MONEY MONEY

    We want a good quality of life

    We think about bringing up our kids, our families in peace without all the scavengers parading at our doors everyday with bucketful of money
    Some families have lived in their single family homes for 50 years

    We are not the nouveau rich people at all, many families here have wages between $50,000 USD and $100,000 USD and are middle class and the average mortgage outstanding is about $350,000.

    Besides, anyone who wants a Condo can buy many that have been completed on Columbia road with many more still coming. we just oppose further breakdown of single family homes

    Please those of you who do not live here stop passing comments when you don’t know what we have been through, The majority of residents made the decision and are happy with it

    Greedy developers, shoddy workmanship, destruction and cracks in our walls, water in the basement, leading to thousands of dollars of repairs

    Does any of you know how many times or how many developers we could be currently pursuing legal action against, are you going to help pay for the legal costs.Do you know how many of our neighbors have had to take on the developers
    If you don’t live in our neighborhood stop passing unnecessary comments.
    Enough is Enough
    Lanier Heights is one of the three most populated areas in DC
    Development can be done elsewhere
    Thanks
    The ORB

  • Wow there is a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the grossest misstatements of fact:

    1. This cannot be called a “rare victory” considering the Zoning Commission, on their own initiative, downzoned (via “text amendment”) 35,000 R4 homes last year. This Lanier Heights downzoning (a “map amendment”) adds about 150 more row houses to the city’s inventory of 35,000 R4 homes.

    2. Some Lanier Heights residents expressed a “revulsion” at “ugly pop-ups” when they put up a poster saying “Ugly Pop-ups Destroying Family Housing on Lanier Place” in December 2013 and aimed it at the new owners of the pop-up condos next door. That story was covered on this blog at the time.

    3. Only about 50% of neighborhood home owners could be frightened into supporting the downzoning petition. Scare tactics were not enough to get a real neighborhood consensus in favor of the proposal.

    4. Pop-up row house condo developments have provided diversity in the form of a middle ground between “single family row houses” and big-box apartment buildings, but opponents were not interested in this type of diversity. More than 85% of Lanier Heights residents live in medium to large size apartment buildings, about 1% in “pop-up condos.”

    5. Alan Gambrell is not the current chair of ANC1C.

    6. Opponents to downzoning offered compromise options (at the request of ANC1C Chair Billy Simpson) at a Special Forum on Lanier Heights held in November 2014. The downzoners never responded or offered their own compromise solutions.

    One, two and three bedroom condos and apartments can offer options for family housing at a lower entry price than the classic “single family row house.” The new Lanier Station development at 1767 Lanier Place was singled out for ridicule by downzoners at the March 21 public hearing because the two most expensive units have asking prices of more than $1,000,000. Not mentioned by the downzoners were the two bedroom dwellings selling at $499,000 and $549,000, nor the fact that this development was not a row house conversion: the former dilapidated house was torn down and combined with an empty lot next to the firehouse to create a six-condo matter-of-right development.

    Lanier Heights is a perfect example of an apartment neighborhood with a small number of row houses where keeping a small apartment house development option under R5B zoning makes sense. We can only hope that the zoning commission allows the half-dozen projects currently stalled, vacant and gutted to finish their conversion to four-unit condos.

    • The scare tactics, sanctimoniousness, and general hostility employed by the downzoners were reason enough to hold an anonymous, neighborhood-wide vote. As it is, the victory went to those with the most time to spend on this.

  • Mr Baker & the Nay Sayers
    The actual margin of down zoners to opponents was about 11 to 1
    You lost by a landslide, Just accept defeat, it is called democracy
    Actually there are only about 160 Single family homes being protected in Lanier Heights, Many have already been cut up
    Opponents only had 11 home owners who support them

    The term SINGLE FAMILY HOME was created as homes for Single Families to allow them to have space to grow their families.
    Since DC’s population is growing, it also means single families are also growing, Where do you want them to live, In micro units, Or do you want to run them out of town, so developers can continue unchecked.
    The current DC Housing survey states that the need of micro units, one and two bedroom units are being met by current housing stock. But Single family homes are not because we are losing them to over development.
    Would you like to come back to DC in 100 years time and see what your plan would lead to. All single families would have been driven out of town,
    SHORT TERM PROFIT FOR LONG TEM PAIN
    The middle class is being squeezed out everywhere, Now you want to cleverly squeeze them out of their DC homes through higher property taxes, over inflated property values which came down with a bang during the last recession. When we were in pain from 2008 to 2010, Where were these developers? No where to be found?
    They were back with a vengeance by 2011 as soon as they could smell money.

    For the 11 Nay Sayers out of 160 home owners, it is obvious your prime motive in life is MONEY, I say to you get a life, real friends and a family and start appreciating all the things that money can’t buy.
    Live to fight another day, This battle is long lost

    We are a nation of great thinkers. So many other alternatives to building more condos are already available,
    Why not use them

    THE ORB

    • @John T In the Zoning Commission Hearing, former ANC Chair Billy Simpson said several times that downzoning was supported by more than 100 people–so how many, 101? 199?. In that same hearing of 3/21/16, ANC Alan Gambrell said there are almost 200 homes to be downzoned. Given that testimony, the numbers seem to suggest a support number closer to half of the homes to be downzoned. You say 160 SFTHs but that doesn’t seem to align with what the two ANC chairs have provided in testimony. Why not say 160, or ‘more than 150’ supporters in testimony?

      Do you have exact numbers? Was there a verifiable vote for downzoning at any time? Also, what do you think of more than one inhabitant of a SFTH signing a petition or raising hands in ANC meetings, or about SFTHomeowners that sign a petition then sell their house and move away–are they still counted? And finally, how many SFTHs did not weigh in at all? Does anyone know?

  • This might be helpful to understand the implications of the decision. 1636 Argonne Place NW was converted from a row home into this: http://1636argonneplace.com/

    I have no skin in this fight, but there are two objectives facts about this development.
    1. It looks real nice inside
    2. It is not “affordable”

  • will someone please stop to think about the poor real estate developer? how are they supposed to make as much money as humanly possible if there are rules saying there are limits as to what they are allowed to do? boo limits!

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