Housing Complex

War of Addition

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

Comments

  1. #1

    " 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. "

    False statement. There are tons of locations, but property owners like Douglas Development like to sit on them and not develop them. They're aided by the city council who likes to allow them to sit on the properties and not allow them to develop too fast, which would oversupply the market and undercut prices (read profits).

    Another reason this is a false statement is that there are TONS of metro accessible locations, but new comers are afraid of living too far away from the "scene" and want everyone else to lower prices for them, rather than move 2-3 stops farther along, and be categorized as geographically undesirable by friends.

  2. #2

    if they did this to a nice victorian, it would be a shame, but doing it to a generic federal style rowhouse with no unique features is not such a bad thing. As the article said, there a lots of people moving to the district everyday and they have to live somewhere.

  3. #3

    Oh? So previously the structure housed how many, and now how many does it house?

    Tregoning should be more than just not crazy about the V street finger.

  4. #4

    I'm sure the owner will not be living there and I would not want to live next door.

  5. #5

    I've owned and renovated many homes in DC. Some to live in, some to rent.
    This is hideous. It doesn't add value to the neighborhood. It blights it. If I lived or owned property within sight of it I'd be pissed.

  6. #6

    Aaron--sometimes I think you leave some stones unturned, but--good job on the article. Good subject, good background, and good wrap-up!

  7. #7

    Here's the money quote right here:

    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.

    From this, I think we can infer that the communities think that the current preservation regime is too strict. There is huge demand for preservation lite --but the city planners (who obviously know more than the rest of us) don't want to give the community what it wants.

    Am I the only one bothered by this?

  8. #8

    There is an implicit assumption in this article that if a lot of people want to live someplace, they should be accommodated, even if it lowers the quality of life for people already living there. I disagree.

    I can see the benefits of density, but this is a case in which the appeal of a neighborhood is seriously damaged to accommodate two more families. That's just nuts. It would be much easier to take the density advocates seriously if they were willing to take a stand against obvious cases of overreach, such as this one.

  9. #9

    You shouldn't rely on government sources without developing independent knowledge sources of your own, such as on historic preservation practice and theory, or zoning. All of the discussion in your article was framed by the info they gave you and none by your ability to ask questions beyond that framework.

    The problem with popups is twofold. One results from the difference in what zoning allows vs. building practice when neighborhoods were typically constructed pre-1940. By changing zoning rules to require a special exception for popups, making them not matter of right as they are now, would add a level of review not currently available within regulations.

    The other is design and quality. Obviously, you did "unearth" the reason why so many popups are shit. Because to do quality costs more. A special exception process could require like materials.

    2. The other thing is that there is another option beyond "preservation lite" (fwiw, the technical term is "conservation district"). It happens that I agree with the planning office about preservation light. I made the same criticisms back in 2005 or so when then HPO director Lisa Burcham kept pushing the concept.

    It would be to extend the concept of cultural landscape planning to the city as a whole, and provide for some basic level of design review without necessarily having to create historic districts.

    It could be "restricted" to areas built before 1940, in particular residential areas, commercial districts, and major arterials.

    For example, having such a provision would have provided a means to deal with the Cafritz residential glass curtain wall building on Connecticut Ave. It wouldn't have made a difference wrt being able to construct the building, but it could have shaped the design.

    It's true that this doesn't happen in this way anywhere else, although many cities have broader design review provisions than we do in DC, for particular parts of their respective cities or commercial districts.

    But given that it's the 21st century, it's reasonable to expect advances in preservation theory and practice.

  10. #10

    JPH - You are not the only one bothered by Tregoning's argument against "historic district lite." I have been arguing with HPO for years that there should be something akin to an Architectural Conservation Overlay District - used in many other cities and towns across the country. In fact I used to manage one. They are extremely helpful in dealing with neighborhoods that frankly don't rise to the level of full blown historic districts.

    I wish she could point some examples out where ACOD's have prevented historic districts. It seems like an emotional more than a logical argument. And, frankly, we can't get new districts designated anyway due to community opposition. So the result? Nothing. Her either/or proposition is causing the widespread disfigurement of neighborhoods in Columbia Heights and U Street that have significant characteristics but maybe require more latitude.

    As for this particular case - making the argument that density is good at all costs, when you really start to examine the facts, is poor. It sets up an argument that space for development is so scarce in transit friendly zones that there literally is no other alternative. What the underlying argument really is is that the pressure on trendy and more affluent transit oriented neighborhoods is greater than non-trendy ones - therefore there is more profit to be made by increasing the ability to develop. It comes down to choice, not scarcity.

    I suspect in this particular case the reason is it so egregious is that it looks ridiculous. Had the building been twice as wide and maybe one story lower - without the bizarre portal window along the roofline, it might be slightly more acceptable. I think in a case such as this - which clearly has an impact upon the residents on the street, there needs to be some opportunity for moderation instead of simply receiving the middle finger.

  11. #11

    ...and if you've lived in one of those adjoining federals for decades and can't afford to grow a 3 story tumor on your roof to keep up with Leesburg investor with 20 something tennants? Hello PG County!

  12. #12

    One argument against conservation districts is that they don't involve design review usually. Mostly they prevent demolitions and not much else. Most don't involve requirements for quality materials.

    The other is that communities have limited social and organizational capital and the likelihood of communities organizing on HP through a series of steps, first a conservation district, leading to a full fledged historic district, is pretty remote.

    So the argument then is to focus on full fledged historic districts.

    Or to put forth a different paradigm entirely, which I am proposing, using the cultural landscape framework.

  13. #13

    RL... the ACOD District I managed did indeed have design review. In fact most of the ones I am familiar with do. Many have specific design guidelines. So they do not just prevent demolitions. And it was pursued by the community in which it was established.

    The key difference is we were not as picky about certain materials. Only key features were retained. One could argue about "quality materials," but I think this is where we end up losing people anyway.

    Once again, I understand the point that if they adopt an ACOD it will be harder to get them to move to a full fledged historic district unfortunate. Currently opposition is so strong to Historic Districts that I think this is an absurd argument. If we can't designate them now, they get absolutely no protection. At least with an ACOD we get something. Not to mention, as someone else already mentioned, if this is what the community wants - should they not be allowed to have it?

  14. #14

    So who exactly would be engaging the design review under the scenario presented by EH? It wouldn't be the Zoning Commission or the BZA, right? So would it be HPRB? If so, then just create a historic district. If not HPRB, then who? Another appointed body?

  15. #15

    Lots of people would probably like to live in Georgetown and Cleveland Park, but you can't do pop-ups there because they are designated historic districts.

  16. #16

    It may be popular to rail against Doug Jemal, but in truth he has done great things for this City. He invested in areas like NY Ave. when they were practically considered toxic. He's helped sustain the Avalon Theater, kept the old Woodies building architecturally intact, and has in general had good working relationships with the historic preservation community. This City would be a less vibrant place without his contributions.

  17. #17

    In other cities, typically, a historic review committee is created for each historic district, made up of appointees, not unlike the HPRB, representing various constituencies and skill sets.

    DC doesn't do it like that. HPRB oversees everything. And at the district level, both historic preservation organizations and usually ANCs provide a process for weighing in. The recommendations go to the HPRB, which bound by the historic preservation law, acts. Note that many of the ANC complaints that the HPRB ignores their great weight has to do with the frequent occurrence that their comments aren't made within the bounds of the preservation law, whereas the HPRB is only legally authorized to make decisions based on the specifics of the law.

    EH -- note that in earlier discussions about conservation districts in DC, hard core design review as an element was not considered. It's been a long time, my memory could be faulty.

  18. #18

    I can see why this would go both ways. I'm always for expanding in unique ways but this could obviously easily be seen as intrusive to the neighboring area. Personally I think it's inevitable, we're going to be rising up eventually after expanding outward becomes less of an option in hotspots. We'll see how this turns out in the end. I enjoyed the middle finger comment though! Resembled it symbolically so well!

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