Housing Complex

Graham Asks Zoning Commission to Put an End to Pop-Ups

This pop-up on V Street NW sparked much ridicule and opposition.

This pop-up on V Street NW sparked much ridicule and opposition.

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

  • http://leftforledroit.com Left for LeDroit

    "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,"

    That's not due to a conspiracy, but to the fact that Georgetown is a historic district. Likewise, LeDroit Park in Ward 1 is a historic district and you will find no pop-ups in the neighborhood. There have been a few rooftop additions, but they are set back far enough that they are not visible from the street.

  • Moo

    yeah well i'd rather more living space in ward 1 so the rents can stabilize than some weirdo nativism about the skyline.

  • Richy not rich

    Once again leave it to jim graham to get involved in real estate he knows nothing about. He wants affordable housing, but doesn't want it added inexpensively to existing structures in the neighborhoods where it's needed. He wants developers to start including it in big buildings that have to attain returns to make it worthwhile, but doesn't want the little guy to find a way to add to what he's got but sell out. Unfortunately the wind in DC rarely blows that hard, because he blows in the wind with whatever last night's voters wanted. Beliefs none, vision none, hubris a lot

  • Logan Queen

    Would someone please arrest this corrupt old man. What Graham is ready saying in that residents have pointed him towards a skim he is not yet taking.
    Have no fear he'll figure a way to get some

  • Hillman

    Popups are equally tired of Jim Graham.

    As are the rest of us.

  • anon

    he should propose to cut the top floor of all row houses to improve the skyline.

  • Crickey7

    This is the major zoning problem? Then we're doing better than I thought.

    Frankly, we need less zoning, not more.

  • Pop Tart


    You give Graham too little credit. He must see an angle for self enrichment in this somehow or he wouldn't be bothering. His primary purpose is adding to his stash in foreign banks so that he has it to rely on when he inevitably flees the USA. He has no future but he sure has a stash.

  • Oh Boy

    Limited pop-ups can look nice but this seldom happens and the developers ignore the neighbors and pop-up willy-nilly, often with complete disregard for the homeowners of the area. I think Mr. Graham is being a little drastic with wanting to ban all pop-ups. I think a good idea would be to limit pop-ups to one floor and state that they must be of the same material as the rest of the home. The city does so little to protect homeowners' rights I would be amazed if they actually did something like this in a commonsense way.

  • SEis4ME

    I'm don't have a truly informed opinion about pop-ups but if they must look like the one in the pic here, the should be banned and I imagine that the "addition" offers no affordable housing at all.

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  • Logic!

    If we want more affordable housing in the city, we must limit density and keep things the way they are? I just can't follow this.

    Also, @SEis4ME, nobody is claiming the popup will add affordable housing, but the one above adds three households to the city. Which is how truly affordable middle class housing is created. Not through government policy or tax credits, but through increases in supply.


    I don't get this city sometimes. People want to keep the height limit saying in gives the city a European feel. Fair enough.

    Then people oppose European-style 5-7 story apartment buildings along main streets: West End Library, Hines in Eastern Market, Anacostia, pretty much everything in Upper NW.

    Now turning 2-story houses into 3-story houses is deemed too dense.

    I wish people would just be honest when they oppose development. They don't want DC to be a world city like Paris or Berlin.

    They want DC to be bigger Richmond. A sprawling suburb with a “niche” mid-dense urban core. Which I guess is fine..but just admit that is your goal.

    Don’t use the DC = Paris rhetoric.

  • Crickey7

    One man's monstrosity is another's self-confident expression of vertical aspiration.

    Ad astra per domum.

  • Height Limits

    Beware unintended consequences. If you simply ban pop-ups, or limit them to one floor, on an individual property, you may find several home owners trying to maximize their profits by banding together to sell to a developer who would tear the houses down and then build a single new multi-unit reaching up to the allowed height.

    Rather than banning something, why not use the existing tools - the zoning and the height limits, to achieve the less bluntly?

    However, it would amuse me to see the reaction to all these people who seem to think a pop-up is the worst thing possible; if they were to use an historic district to limit what their neighbors can do with their property eventually they would discover just how little leeway they have left themselves to change their own property.

  • DC Dude

    Holy Frank Lloyd Wright Batman,

    5 years ago, The Penguin...err...Jim Graham opposed the Lanier Heights historic district because "home owners should be allowed to do what they want with their property" and now he supports the #1 issue of those that wanted the historic district, stop the pop-ups. Profiles in courage!!!!

    Jim Graham, He is on every-side of every-issue!

  • keithdcil

    Height Limits,
    You have hit on the real reason Jim G wants to ban pop-ups... He can get more $$ from big corporate developers that have multiple entities than individual homeowners and small pop-up builders.

  • SEis4ME

    @Logic, I thought the whole idea of creating more supply to meet the demand was that it would help to create more affordable housing options in a city in dire need of it. I have no issue being wrong about that.

    Either way, I fail see how this particular pop-ups ceiling of 800k meets affordable demand.

  • Logic!

    Creating additional supply of $800k homes lets people in that market buy them instead of bidding up the price of 700k homes. Then those in the 700k market can buy there instead of pushing up the price of the 600k homes. Then those in the 600k market can buy there instead of pushing up the prices of 500k and all the way down. Creating additional "luxury" housing definitely keeps prices down on already-existing lower priced homes.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    You seemed to have missed the point about why the problem exists. The zoning code unreasonably allows for higher heights than were typical when neighborhoods were constructed.

    Even so, the real problem with popups is that they are discordant usually, in terms of both design and materials.

    Make approval a special exception. Require design review.


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  • Kevin

    Richard Layman,

    How do you develop more areas like Dupont Circle where 2 and 3 story rowhouses on residential streets are right next to 5 to 10 story apartments? Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm guessing most of the rowhouses came before the taller apartment buildings.

  • Crickey7

    As a recovering city planner, the last thing I'd wish on anyone is design review. Aesthetics are by their nature subjective. How do you in good conscience regulate taste?

  • Sonia Conly

    Jim Graham and others appear to be trying to create the effect of an historic district without the due process of an historic district. Eliminating pop ups goes against the aim of keeping elderly in their homes, having extended families living together and supporting each other whatever their ages and creating more housing.

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