Housing Complex

Jim Graham Lays Out His Battle Plan to Annihilate 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.

Jim Graham's war on pop-ups is only just beginning. Facing obstacles to his plan to get the Zoning Commission to ban the sometimes unsightly additions to the tops of rowhouses, the Ward 1 councilmember is exploring other options to eliminate pop-ups once and for all.

Graham just sent a lengthy email to a U Street–area listserv laying out his game plan to take on pop-ups (or, as he refers to them, POP-UPs), which he defines as "the often monstrous add ons to row houses." He points to the notorious V Street NW POP-UP (pictured above) as the one that's sparked the most indignation but says there are many others. "For example, on Ontario Place in Adams Morgan," he writes, "there is an expansion so large that it looks like another Wall-Mart!" Graham warns that "the future holds more of this, unless we as a community and government restrain it."

Here are the various avenues through which he hopes to accomplish his mission:

1. Through the Board of Zoning Adjustment. The five-member board can grant variances or special exceptions that allow property owners to operate outside the strict constraints of D.C.'s zoning code (for example, by building fewer parking spaces or smaller setbacks from the street than required). However, Graham writes that "the Board of Zoning Adjustment does not appear to provide much hope" because it "serve as a large developers’ loophole," granting 95 percent of variance requests in recent years.

2. Through the Historic Preservation Review Board. This panel approves or rejects modifications to historic properties or to properties in historic districts. Graham says he recently testified before the HPRB and "made it clear that if the intention behind having a more liberal reading and application of design review guidelines is to make it easier for big developers to build ghastly structures onto historic buildings and greatly profit off of residents, I will always strongly disagree."

3. Through the Zoning Commission, which could theoretically change the zoning for entire neighborhoods to ban any construction above, say, two or three stories. This would be a drastic move, but it'd prevent some POP-UPs.

4. "If necessary," Graham writes, "I may also consider appropriate legislative action." In other words, he could try to pass a law banning POP-UPs.

Here's the problem: The first two avenues, which he spends most of his email discussing, wouldn't apply to many POP-UPs, including the V Street one. The 1000 block of V Street NW is zoned to allow five-story buildings, so no action from the BZA was needed to allow it, and the BZA had no power to prevent it. Likewise, that block is not in a historic neighborhood, nor is the rowhouse a historic structure, so there's no role for the HPRB, either.

Yes, the Zoning Commission could down-zone the block to prevent any buildings taller than two stories. But that would both violate the city's rationale for raising the allowable density in the first place—to provide more supply in a high-demand area—and would be grossly unfair to the POP-UP's neighbors. Now that the POP-UP (and the five-story building three doors down) are there, how can you tell neighbors (who may have considered the possibility of adding a story or two when they bought their homes) that they're no longer allowed to add space?

Legislation raises the same issue: If you suddenly deny people a right they thought they had, you may need to compensate them, or risk a lawsuit. Which would mean compensating every single property owner in the city who hasn't built up to the maximum allowable height. I can't see the majority of the Council going for that.

Graham's full letter is below:

Dear Friends,

I want to report on the progress that I have been making on the ongoing problem with POP-UPs, the often monstrous add ons to row houses. Indeed, a recent government report pictured the POP UP on V and 11th, as illustrating the challenge!

But there are more, many more built and on the way.

And why not? The V Street property put $800,000 condos on the market on a block that, just  a few years ago, had nothing even approaching that.  (The Prince of Petworth blog contributed mightily to the public being aware of that POP UP.)

So the future holds more of this, unless we as a community and government restrain it.

I have heard also from constituents who argue against such restraints as a restriction on their future income.  Others argue that some reasonable expansion should be permitted as families and other need for space grows. I appreciate these points. I believe that some reasonable limits should be placed on the huge expansions that we are witnessing these days. For example, on Ontario Place in Adams Morgan, there is an expansion so large that it looks like another Wall-Mart!

There are at several avenues to deal with this. In some ways, It is a clash between zoning and preservation priorities. And there are three agencies involved—Board of Zoning Adjustment, HPRB and the Zoning Commission.

The Board of Zoning Adjustment does not appear to provide much hope. In a Washington Post article published in September pointed out  that, in practice, the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) — the body that grants variances to the code — serve as a large developers’ loophole, undermining the District’s longstanding preference for maintaining the look and feel of its communities. The authors requested data from the Office of Planning on all the variances allowed by the zoning panel. The figures show that applications for residential variances have increased steadily over the past several years, doubling between 2006 and 2013. And, astonishingly, the BZA has approved 95 percent of those requests, sometimes over the objection of the Office of Planning and the local ANC. These data demonstrate that the BZA is making the approval of variance requests the rule, not the exception, to the detriment of our communities. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-09-13/opinions/42033738_1_zoning-code-zoning-variance-variance-requests

The Historic Preservation Review Board has a role here as well.  Now this applies only to properties within a historic district, and V and 11th lies just outside the U Street historic district.  All the same,  POP UPs have been approved within historic districts by HPRB. For example, they appear to be on the way to approving 2012-2014 Kalorama Road Projectwithin a  historic district. I testified before the HPRB on January 24 against the project.

The HPRB could strengthen its design review criteria, which currently are very liberal regarding “alley impact”.

Last Friday, during the confirmation hearing for three re-nominees to the Historic Review Preservation Board, I raised the issue of POP UPs and the visual blight they create in our neighborhoods.  I remain committed to taking action against the spread of these unsightly structures.   I asked each nominee for their commitment to reviewing the design guidelines criteria through a stricter lens.  I also made it clear that if the intention behind having a more liberal reading and application of design review guidelines is to make it easier for big developers to build ghastly structures onto historic buildings and greatly profit off of residents, I will always strongly disagree.  Each of the nominees said they were willing to consider changes along that line.

Reviewing the historic preservation review process is only one avenue in deterring the building of future pop ups.

I testified before the Zoning Commission on this issue.  The Commission is now engaged in a comprehensive review of the zoning regulations, provided by the Office of Planning. I asked various questions in my testimony, including—

What is the Zoning Commissions intent in addressing the issue of “Pop Ups”?

Is there any authority vested with the Zoning Commission that addresses this issue, aside from remapping and down zoning areas with existing structures?

Are there other means or thinking within the DC government to address these circumstances?

Is there a need for design review for Matter of Right Projects?

Would this help or hurt a majority of projects?

Could a volunteer/ professional group be organized to perform peer design review in selected areas?

Would this be done with in individual Council Members’ offices?

Can there be an incentive for a builder to engage in a peer design review?

Perhaps in order to fully address this issue we should look at the areas that have changed well beyond what was is the current ‘context’ and see how celebrated and successful they are-  Perhaps there are many more of those.  Is the Zoning Commission aware of such a study?  Could it request one?  I am critically concerned that any discussion of design review in this City quickly becomes the vehicle of those that are committed to be against everything, thus becoming a stifling process not an incentive process.

I am now awaiting the response

If necessary, I may also consider appropriate legislative action.

Bests,
Councilmember Jim Graham

Photo by Aaron Wiener

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