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

Comments

  1. #1

    I mean, I get the visceral reaction to the V Street pop up. I really do. But when you really think about it, the at-grade two-story houses are the houses that really are out of scale for that area.

    And great job, Aaron, on really laying out the issues with his fourth point. As a homeowner whose house isn't built to the maximum allowable by right and meets all the other zoning requirements to go up, I would be livid (and litigious?) if the council passed a bill like that.

  2. #2

    For someone who has been engaged in the community for so many years, Graham displays an incredibly naive and populist tone to an issue that has no unanimity in support.

  3. #3

    This is all stupid. In ten years the rest of those v street houses will be popped up and it will actually be an interesting row. Instead he is going to handicap those owners and others around the city from being able to create the same value in their homes that others before them have. If the street is zoned for that height then why is there any need to intervene at all. The last thing this city needs is more hoops to jump through.

  4. #4

    good to see Graham's focusing on the important problems facing his ward.

  5. #5

    I thought "pop ups" were temporary businesses or those silly parking space wasting "parks" that made the rounds, earlier this year.

  6. #6

    A change in the building heights allowed by the zoning regs would be unlikely to be considered a 'taking' requiring compensation to property owners, if the change were made within the context of the city comprehensive plan and followed the process of public hearings as required for any zoning change. Nationally, height restrictions are a basic tool of zoning and as such are instituted and changed regularly without requiring compensation. However, that also provides a resolution to some of CM Graham's concerns - rather than open up the bottomless can of worms that neighborhood design review would create, just have the Office of Planning start with a comprehensive review of height limits in residential zones. Maybe they are too high in too many places; maybe the sky wouldn't fall in if they were reduced by 20% or so. Or maybe there just needs to be more variation between zones.

    (On a side note - in the photo above, the much-hated V St pop-up doesn't look too bad, as seen near the tall and big new building just a few doors away. Context, and photo angles, are everything.)

  7. #7

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

    NO.

  8. #8

    I can't even really discern what his argument is -- he doesn't like the way they look (some of them, at least), or they are "too big" (compared to what)? The adjectives used are comically over the top ("ghastly" and "monstrous"), which make it difficult for me to take this man seriously.

  9. #9

    Reading between the lines: The Grahamstander would like a process where "volunteers" and the ward Councilmember would get to review and approve matter of right projects.

    I mean, it's not like The Grahamstander has any past history with shady people offering him wads of money to win his support for things. Or that he's ever been associated with any actions that call into question his ethical behavior.

    En-uh-way.

    This is Jim grandstanding to the fears of some of his residents - and wouldn't you know it! - it's coming right during his reelection campaign.

    I'm sure Jim has the bests of intentions here and isn't just blatantly pandering with idiotic knee-jerk reactions.

  10. #10

    What they said.

    These are consistent with the Zoning Code, because the Code reflects a permissive attitude toward more density in this area. Sure, you can build to less--as all the houses on the block are--but that doesn't make the "pop-up" wrong.

    The fix is worse that the problem. If it is, in fact, a problem. I kind of like that house.

  11. #11

    Perhaps we need block committees in popular defense of the revolution, to ensure the final triumph of socialism.

    Apologies for the hyperbole.

    If you don't like what's matter of right, change it through the vote, not the decree.

  12. #12

    The problem is that the north side of V is not in the historic district while the south side is. This should have never been allowed- both sides of a street should be in a historic district unless there's unusual circumstances and there weren't here. The new pop-up gets extra value from looking over a historic value while the homes across the street in the historic district lose value because of looking at a monstrosity.

    And it's all about $- there's no "homeowner expecting to be able to enlarge his home"- this developer is a rich person in Leesburg making millions off this horrible act in a neighborhood he detests.

    More destruction of DC supported by those libertarian creeps at GGW.

  13. #13

    I don't support banning these but I commented on GGW a few months ago that the very marginal increase in density these pop-ups provide is not worth the neighborhood and political opposition these create. This building might add perhaps 3-5 new residents to the neighborhood but turns people off to smart growth and infill development.

    Also, it is interesting to see people on GGW and other sites detest McMansions on small lots but in the very next breath, support these. They both add about the same number of people (I could easily imagine a scenario where a wealthy young family that now has two children says they need the extra room provided by building a McMansion on a small lot otherwise they will move to McLean or Chevy Chase).

  14. #14

    @202

    1. Not all GGW commentors are alike in their view of McMansions
    2. There are legitimate reasons to distinguish McMansions from pop-ups
    3. (And what has me really confused) Its only 3-5 new residents for this house alone. But its likely the whole block (at least that side) will pop-up, and thats a good bit more new residents - and of course CM Graham is addressing the issue more broadly than this one block.

    tnt - who do you think the developer in Leesburg bought the house from? And other than the fact that he doesnt live in DC, and is building something you dislike, how do you know he detests the neighborhood

    Also, lots of GGW commenters are not libertarians. But even if they were, it takes a certain kind of cowardice to use a different forum to call people creeps, when it would be so easy to go comment there.

  15. #15

    How is pointing out that these are allowed by the Zoning Code (and, BTW, consistent with the Master Plan) libertarian?

  16. #16

    tntdc:
    You are correct that it was not unusual circumstances that kept the north side of V St NW out of the historic district. In this case it was a very common circumstance - the houses on the north side had already been altered to such an extent - including formstone facades applied - that their historic fabric was destoyed. The boundary of a district has to reflect the reality of the historic resources, so sometimes it does make sense to run the boundary down the middle of a street, or in an more extreme example: I live in an apartment bulding which itself is excluded from the surrounding historic district because the building had been renovated ('modernized')to such an extent that the historic value of the architecture was gone.

  17. #17

    I really struggle to comprehend the mentality where its okay to ban everyone from doing something by force of law for no reason other than that it offends one's personal aesthetic sensitives.

  18. #18

    The correct way to remedy this problem is to amend the law or HPRB rules so that HPRB has say in buildings facing buildings in the historic district. The feds already have this.

  19. #19

    and formstone or permastone facades are easily removed from brick.

  20. #20

    ^^ "...HPRB has say in buildings facing buildings in the historic district."

    What happens at an cross street...would the buildings one lot back from the facing building not have HPRB oversight? Eh, let's not "creep" the boundaries.

  21. #21

    "The correct way to remedy this problem is to amend the law or HPRB rules so that HPRB has say in buildings facing buildings in the historic district."

    Or we could just, you know, recognize that a city is made up of different people with different goals which is reflected in the mix of building styles and looks. If something merits historic preservation, let's protect it; that might include the view from the historic district, if the view itself is part of the historic nature of the district. However, for a typical historic district, the goal is to preserve the structures; if the view of the world outside the historic district changes, so be it.

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