The V Street pop-up under construction in spring 2013

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Earlier this year, a three-story addition rose up above a two-story rowhouse like “a big middle finger” to its V Street NW neighbors. That was how the website DCist described it at the time. Commenters on the PoPville blog were less charitable. “So freakin’ ugly,” wrote one. “HIDEOUS! How’s this legal?” asked another. “There was probably some loop hole or greased palm that allowed it,” speculated a third. One proposed a “Stop the Pop-Ups” movement, and a slew of other commenters quickly signed on.

Pop-ups—not to be confused with the temporary shops and art installations of the same name—are an additional story or two (or, occasionally, three) erected atop an existing building. They’re typically built on rowhouses and conform to the existing zoning regulations, meaning that as long as they meet building codes, there’s no official mechanism to stop them.

But should we even want to?

Generally, the answer is no. Civically engaged Washingtonians may never stop arguing over density, but with more than 1,000 new residents moving into the District every month, we need to build somewhere, and lots of people have decided they want to live in centrally located, Metro-accessible places like V Street. There aren’t many empty lots left in these areas, so something’s gotta give. Either developers will buy up entire rows of old buildings and raze them to build big, glassy condo buildings, or property owners will expand the existing rowhouses. In the latter category, there are two options: tear down the lovely old stone or brick buildings and replace them with more modern versions, or add pop-ups.

Through this lens, pop-ups, when done right, are a valuable tool. The problem is they’re often not done right, which is why they drive some preservationists—the people who should welcome pop-ups over tear-down and replacement as the means to add density—completely nuts. Some examples of pop-ups, like the V Street home—owned by an LLC with a listed address in Leesburg, Va., and granted a building permit to be chopped into three apartment units—are wildly out of scale. Others add cheap vinyl-sided stories to old stone houses, not even bothering to match the color of the existing structure.

Yes, some pop-ups are tasteless. But with certain exceptions, it’s not the city’s business to regulate taste. And as long as the zoning rules are met, it’s difficult to come up with a way to weed out ugly pop-ups that’s neither unfair to property owners nor an undue burden on the city’s already overtaxed bureaucracy.

So it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath, hope that pop-ups are designed with some degree of aesthetic sensitivity, and learn to love them even when they’re not.

***

On a recent sunny afternoon, I went on a safari through the wilds of Bloomingdale. My guide sported a white cap with a long white neck flap, like the ones worn by French Legionnaires a century ago. We didn’t spot any lions or gazelles or wildebeests; our search was for giraffe-like pop-ups, bountiful in this residential habitat.

The guide in question is Scott Roberts, a jovial longtime Bloomingdale resident who moderates the neighborhood’s email list and runs the Bloomingdale blog, and who trips over his words with excitement when discussing his big pet issue, the good and bad of pop-ups. He shows me an expertly orchestrated pop-up at First Street and Randolph Place NW, its additional story so seamlessly blended into the existing gray brick walls that no one would suspect it wasn’t part of the original structure. He takes me just up First Street, to a house where the owners have lopped off an old cupola and replaced it with incongruous stucco in order to build an extra floor. We stroll down Randolph and look at a cheap vinyl story atop an otherwise pretty white brick rowhouse and compare it to a vinyl pop-up on Seaton Place, which is no beauty but sufficiently set back from the house’s front wall that it’s hardly visible from the street.

So what accounts for the sharp contrast between the artful pop-ups and the eyesores? It’s not a difference in regulation; as Roberts likes to say, “Zoning doesn’t address ugly.” Instead, it’s a question of taste—and money. The attractive pop-ups, Roberts points out, are the ones that cost an arm and a leg. According to one D.C. contractor I spoke with, for a rowhouse with a 1,000-square-foot base, a vinyl-sided pop-up might cost around $200,000, while a brick, stucco, or stone pop-up would run somewhere in the range of $300,000. When people try to add space on the cheap, it shows.

The city can’t mandate that people spend a fortune on their pop-ups. So what can it do to regulate them? One mechanism is zoning: If people want to build above the limits laid out in the zoning code, they need to get a “planned unit development” (PUD) approved by the zoning authorities, who can then judge the merits of the project, though they still probably won’t weigh in on aesthetics.

If a building is located in a historic district, any major alterations require approval from the Historic Preservation Review Board, which has no qualms with delving into questions of aesthetics. This is the most effective tool for neighbors who are worried about changes to their streetscapes. But residents of some neighborhoods like Chevy Chase have overwhelmingly rejected proposals to form historic districts, for fear of losing the ability to make changes to their own homes. Roberts says Bloomingdale is “toying with” the idea of historic designation, but for the time being, if a pop-up stays within the constraints of zoning, there’s no way to stop it. “In this city, you’ve got a historic district or you’ve got nothing,” says Roberts. “There’s nothing in between.”

City planners considered creating some sort of in-between status but decided against it. “We played around with the idea of something like a historic district lite, but we were afraid we’d never get a real historic district again if we did that,” says Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning.

So what other options exist? The ongoing rewrite of the city’s antiquated zoning code will help clarify the rules for building heights and prevent rule-bending by changing how height is measured, but it won’t dramatically alter the way pop-ups are governed. Zoning is simply an awkward way to address matters of taste.

“Zoning is a very heavy tool, and aesthetics is a very delicate surgery,” says Jennifer Steingasser, the Office of Planning’s deputy director for development review and historic preservation. “So it’s a hard fit. It’s hard for zoning as a mapping tool to get at the architectural character of the street.”

In theory, there could be some form of mandatory design review for all pop-ups—Roberts says if he “had a magic wand,” he’d create something along these lines—but it’s hard to imagine how it would be governed. A zoning overlay for all rowhouse neighborhoods that mandated review of pop-ups, for example, would place a tremendous strain on the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which already has large backlogs and is more focused on legal-development questions than architectural ones.

“Doing something that would require PUD lite or discretionary reviews, it would enormously increase the amount of review that projects would have to go through,” says Tregoning. If there’s a way to ensure pop-ups are more attractive, it’s probably not wrapping them in red tape.

***

And what of our friend the V Street bird? It’s an interesting case because that portion of V Street was recently rezoned (or “upzoned” in planning lingo) to a commercial zone “to actually encourage redevelopment of that street,” says Steingasser. The idea was to promote density in the high-demand, pedestrian- and transit-friendly area, and as a result there are fewer restrictions on the kinds of pop-ups people can build. (In some residential zones, the number of units allowed in a rowhouse building is limited by the square footage of the site, making it impossible to put, say, more than two units in such a structure.) The change appears to be working, if not always to everyone’s liking.

Tregoning, who’s not crazy about the V Street pop-up, is nonetheless optimistic that it won’t look out of place for long. After all, just three buildings away is a new, boxy residential building that’s taller than the pop-up. Give the block a few years and a pop-up or two in between, and it’ll be the remaining two-story houses that look odd.

“In the context of the development that’s going on on the corner and the fact that this was upzoned, the idea was that this is an area where we want to see more people, more activity close to U Street,” Tregoning says. “Fast forward 10 years, maybe most of the housing on that block has an additional floor or two, and then it doesn’t look so strange.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery