A particularly egregious pop-up in Lanier Heights that has drawn objections from some neighbors
A particularly egregious pop-up in Lanier Heights that has drawn objections from some neighbors

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Score one for the “Stop the Pop” crowd. The Zoning Commission voted last night to approve a zoning change that would limit property owners’ ability to extend rowhouses upward into so-called pop-ups.

For a small piece of the zoning code, the change had aroused passionate interest among both supporters and opponents. It was proposed last June by the Office of Planning, which feared the loss of family-size housing as rowhouses are expanded and chopped up into condos. Backers have argued that it’s crucial to maintaining the look and feel of D.C.’s rowhouse neighborhoods, like Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and Shaw, and have put up yard signs urging the Zoning Commission to “Stop the Pop.” Critics have countered that with housing prices rising, the city shouldn’t limit development that could increase the supply of housing and control prices.

Here’s what the change actually does: In areas zoned R-4, the maximum height to which developers could build as a matter of right would drop from 40 feet to 35 feet. If they want to build above 35 feet, they need to apply for special permission.

Just over 15 percent of D.C.’s residential land is zoned R-4, encompassing many of the classic rowhouse blocks, mostly in wards 1, 4, 5, and 6. That’s more than 30,000 houses, if still just a small chunk of the city’s overall housing stock. According to the Office of Planning, 94 percent of rowhouses are below the 35-foot limit.

Some members of the Zoning Commission have argued that the change amounts to “downzoning”—-changing a neighborhood from an existing zone type to a more restrictive one. That’s problematic, they say, because it deprives property owners of rights. If someone bought a house thinking he or she could expand it by a floor, and then that ability is taken away, the property could become worth less.

But the Commission overcame that concern and voted by a 3-2 margin to approve the change. At the same time, the commissioners declined to endorse a companion measure that would have prevented developers from turning a rowhouse into more than two condos. The measure they did approve allows rowhouses to become up to four condos, although one must be reserved for a household making less than 80 percent of area median income.

Still, under the changes it would be considerably more difficult for developers to create four condos out of a rowhouse, since they can’t build above 35 feet or extend a rowhouse far back without special approval.

Last night’s vote was the Zoning Commission’s first vote on the matter. According to the Washington Post, a second and final vote is expected later this spring.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery