The townspeople are under assault. A mythical villain, a giant that seems to grow larger with each passing day, is attacking life as we know it, and the people are defenseless. They have just one place to turn, just one would-be hero who can save them.
The Zoning Commission, naturally.
The assailant is the practice of adding an extra floor or two to a rowhouse, known as a pop-up, or converting it to condos. As the D.C. real-estate market has strengthened in the past few years, these pop-ups and conversions seem to be everywhere in once-uniform rowhouse neighborhoods. And some neighbors, fearing the loss of views, sun, parking, or peace, have sought to put an end to them.
Enter the Office of Planning. Under former director Harriet Tregoning, the office had proposed sweeping changes to the city’s antiquated 1958 zoning code in order to accommodate a growing population. Last June (under Tregoning successor and interim director Ellen McCarthy), it tacked on other changes in order to address the twin scourges that had so many residents up in arms. Where the central update to the zoning code sought to make it easier to add accessory dwellings to certain houses in order to meet demand and address rising housing costs, the June proposal took things in the other direction.
Under the proposal, rowhouse neighbors, zoned R-4, would see the maximum building height allowed as a matter of right reduced from 40 feet to 35 feet. Additionally, it would become much more difficult to convert a rowhouse to more than two units. The Office of Planning claims it’s a way to preserve family housing in a city whose development has focused excessively on studios and one-bedrooms for young professionals. Critics say it’s a loss of property rights and a restriction on the housing supply at a time when more supply is needed to meet demand.
Last night, the Zoning Commission, which has the ultimate power to approve or reject the changes, held a public hearing on the proposal. The result was an outpouring of every shade of residential anxiety and a few hints about the direction the reforms might take.
The Office of Planning’s Jennifer Steingasser presented the proposal to the Commission and sought to rebut charges that it would alter the existing understanding of the rules governing neighborhoods. “The R-4 is not an apartment zone,” she said. “It’s not a zone that’s intended for multifamily dwellings.”
She also emphasized that for most rowhouse owners, the changes would have no effect. First, R-4 zones make up only 15.6 percent of D.C.’s residential land, mostly in wards 1, 4, 5, and 6. (That’s still more than 30,000 houses in the District.) And 94 percent of rowhouses, according to an Office of Planning survey, are below the 35-foot limit that the proposal would impose.
Still, for at least one Zoning Commissioner, the proposal smacked of changing the rules in the middle of the game. “We’re downzoning R-4,” Marcie Cohen, vice chair of the five-member Commission, told Steingasser, “and that makes me very uncomfortable.”
“We’re not downzoning the R-4,” Steingasser replied, noting that the number of units allowed in a rowhouse by right—-that is, without applying for a special exception—-would remain at two. (Getting approved for additional units, though, would become more challenging.)
But Cohen wasn’t satisfied. “This is a downzoning, because we’re reducing height,” she said.
Some members of the public shared this view. Jacqueline Reed, a longtime Logan Circle resident, reminded the Commission that her neighborhood was once plagued by prostitution, and credited developers with bringing it out of an economic slump, partly through multi-unit conversions. “It was only when developers came that real change came to Logan Circle,” she said. The effective downzoning would devalue her home, she complained.
Gregory Morgan, a Dupont Circle resident, agreed. Some pop-ups are ugly, he conceded. “But this amendment goes too far,” he said. “It’s a broad sword instead of using a scalpel. You’re causing economic harm to people who bought real estate.”
Still, most residents testifying before the Commission took the opposite view. Cecilia Waldek of the 16th Street Neighborhood Association said that pop-ups in the neighborhood detracted from her home’s value. Rickey Williams of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4C said pop-ups were “getting out of control.” Denis Suski, who’s fought the proliferation of pop-ups in Lanier Heights, lamented, “The possibility exists that our neighborhood could be nothing but condo conversions in 10 years.”
More than a few residents who testified in support of the proposal did so with an axe to grind, a particular pop-up on their block that they found objectionable. John Stokes, the chief of staff at the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, was among them. “I’m usually on the other side; I’m shocked that I actually have to address this issue,” he told the Commission. But he felt compelled to come out because of a seven-unit condo conversion on his block of Varnum Street NW that he feared would rob him of his view and his privacy.
At the center of the debate is the amorphous concept known as neighborhood character. Everyone wants to preserve it, no matter how it came to be. And the rowhouse is at the center of this cherished value.
“When one thinks about the character of the city,” ANC 1A commissioner Kent Boese testified, “it is the rowhouse that shows up in television shows and movies.”
The debate, essentially, is this: Should that character be preserved at all costs? Or should those neighborhoods be opened to more people at the expense of some small portion of that character?
The Zoning Commission should soon have an answer for us.
Correction: This post initially misspelled Rickey Williams’ name and misstated the ANC he represents.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery