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Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham is tired of the “monstrosities” growing from the tops of rowhouses, and he wants the Zoning Commission to do something about it.
“Councilmember Graham Asks Zoning Commission to End ‘Pop Ups’ in the District,” reads a press release issued by Graham’s office this afternoon. The pop-ups in question are additions of one or more stories to existing rowhouses, allowed under D.C.’s laws and zoning code as long as they stay below zoning height limits for the street.
Graham is testifying tonight before the Zoning Commission as it considers the comprehensive zoning update proposed by the Office of Planning. “Is there any authority vested with the Zoning Commission that addresses this issue, aside from remapping and down zoning areas with existing structures?” he plans to ask, according to his prepared testimony.
“I have neighborhood after neighborhood very, very upset about what’s happening to the streetscape with these little monstrosities, and some not so little,” he tells me. “If you look on Ontario Place, it’s like a warehouse that’s been built on top of a rowhouse.”
The problem is that there’s very little the Zoning Commission can do about pop-ups. Zoning is a broad, blunt instrument that sets limits on building heights and density and mandates certain setbacks from the street. But if a pop-up stays within those limits—-as they generally do—-it’s unclear how zoning would solve the problem.
Instead, there are two ways pop-ups can be restricted. The first is by creating a historic district: Within these, major changes to buildings like pop-ups must undergo a design review by the Historic Preservation Review Board. But some neighborhoods have resisted becoming historic districts because it makes it much harder to, say, renovate your house.
The second is legislation. Theoretically, the D.C. Council could ban pop-ups—-it does, after all, write the law. Graham says he’s open to this option if the Zoning Commission can’t solve the problem.
“I’m presenting what I think is the major zoning problem in the neighborhoods,” Graham says. “I’m going to rely on the experts to tell me what needs to be done. It might be legislative.” If the Zoning Commission is unable to prevent pop-ups, he says, “At that point I’m willing to consider legislation as well.”
For now, Graham says, he’s just trying to figure out who has the authority to put an end to pop-ups. “That of course is the $64 question,” he says.
Graham feels his ward is seeing its skyline disproportionately affected by pop-ups. “I don’t like it when people say, ‘If we lived in Georgetown, this wouldn’t be happening,’ but in Georgetown there aren’t any pop-ups,” he says.
Photo by Aaron Wiener