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.”