Uppers and Downers
Denis Suski gestures at his backyard, at the ample greenery and the picnic table and the two yellow hand-shaped chairs that match his house’s yellow back walls. “This is my concern,” he says, “is losing things like this.”
All around him, things like that are being lost, at least to the sun’s rays. Throughout his neighborhood of Lanier Heights, developers are buying up two-story townhouses and building an extra floor or two, additions that are known as pop-ups. They’re also extending the structures as far back as allowed, to within 15 feet of the property line, obliterating backyards in the process.
A few doors down from Suski in one direction is a house whose elderly owner died several years ago; the family sold it to a developer who converted it to four units, at a healthy profit. (The house sold in 2011 for $755,000; one condo unit in the renovated building sold earlier this year for $760,000.) A few doors down the other way is a deafening construction site, where a single-family home is being turned into eight units, taking full advantage of what was once the backyard.
Suski and like-minded neighbors, of course, aren’t concerned about other people’s backyards so much as their own, which stand to lose sunlight and airiness if they’re boxed in by these metastasizing condo conversions. And so in front of Suski’s house on Lanier Place NW, where he’s lived for seven years, stands a white yard sign bearing this exhortation: “Save our neighborhood. Support zoning reform. Stop pop-ups.”
Perhaps a third of Suski’s neighbors on Lanier Place, and many more around the neighborhood, have joined in the effort he spearheaded, displaying the same white signs. One on Suski’s block supplemented it with a two-page, text-heavy explainer on exactly how these expanding properties are destroying Lanier Heights. These neighbors advocate changing Lanier Heights’ zoning, or “downzoning,” from R-5-B to the more restrictive R-4, which would limit property owners’ ability to chop a house into multiple units or develop as much of a lot’s square footage, and prevent them from building higher than 40 feet, as opposed to the currently allowed 50.
But these aren’t the only signs cropping up in the neighborhood. Other front yards sport signs imploring “Save homeowner rights: Don’t downzone Lanier Heights” and “Lanier Heights needs to grow...up.”
This, of course, isn’t the first case of yard-sign one-upmanship in the District. Every election campaign brings one. The debate over the development of the long-abandoned former McMillan Sand Filtration Site on North Capitol Street bred first a slew of signs urging the city to “Save McMillan Park”—the idea being that too much of the green space would be developed—and then a counter-campaign arguing that the fenced-off site is doing residents no good and the city must “Create McMillan Park” through development.
But the Lanier Heights fight is both unusually bitter and unusually esoteric, eliciting accusations of vandalism and ill intentions and concerning not a mayoral race or a 25-acre development site, but zoning minutiae.
It’s also become a microcosm, and perhaps the central battlefield, of the citywide debate over the update to the District’s 1958 zoning code, with major implications for how the city manages its future growth. The Office of Planning recently pulled back on its zoning proposal that would have promoted density and public transit in a number of ways, instead opting to limit the ability of property owners to add extra units to their houses into multiple units or to create pop-ups. That retreat drew criticism from members of the Zoning Commission, the board that has to approve the zoning update, which highlighted the city’s need to create more housing as its population grows.
The appeal of the argument made by Suski and his neighbors is clear: Historic rowhouses are more attractive than converted apartment buildings, and no one wants a giant shadow cast on his or her backyard. The danger is what happens when this seductive logic is applied across the city.
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Both sides in the Lanier Heights debate have websites, and neither website contains the name of its movement’s leader. But Suski is quite open about his identity, inviting me into his home and showing me around the neighborhood. The driving force behind the campaign to encourage more development and density in Lanier Heights, on the other hand, insists on anonymity, refusing even a phone call in favor of email correspondence.
“We do not want this important debate to devolve into ad hominem attacks,” the person writes. “Based on the downzoner meetings our members have attended in recent months and the speed with which the downzoners rip down our signs and confiscate our literature, this is a real concern.”
The person concludes an email: “I, too, am Spartacus.” And so we’ll have to refer to this person as Spartacus.
The essence of Spartacus’ argument is this: If the city agrees to downzone Lanier Heights, it will deprive property owners of a right they previously had, to expand their house or convert it to multiple units. That, Spartacus calculates based on the difference in allowable square footage, will rob a Lanier Heights rowhouse of a quarter of its potential development value. And if the downzoning trend catches on, Spartacus warns, the economic impact could be dire.
“Lanier Heights is just a small neighborhood in Adams Morgan,” Spartacus writes on the Neighbors Against Downzoning website. “If downzoning spreads throughout the city’s residential neighborhoods, lost property value for home owners could very quickly reach as much as ONE BILLION DOLLARS city wide.”
The downzoners also worry about lost property value, but in a different sense. They fear that some of their most valued assets—the airiness of their yards and the quiet of the streets—are being eroded. “I’m really concerned about my yard and my view and the investment in my house,” Suski says. He also worries about the impact on street parking of new apartment buildings that have fewer off-street spaces than units.
These arguments are all valid and important to residents of the neighborhood, but from a citywide perspective, they’re somewhat beside the point. The essence of the disagreement, for the sake of the city’s wellbeing, is this: One side wants to preserve the character of Lanier Heights for its current residents; the other wants to make the neighborhood available to more people in the future. (Even if, as Suski points out, the new apartments aren’t exactly affordable, they still boost the city’s overall housing supply—and as an Urban Institute report last week showed, much of the housing stock that low-income Washingtonians could afford is occupied by wealthier tenants, demonstrating the need for housing across income levels. Besides, greater density is needed in central neighborhood like Lanier Heights if we’re to avoid taxing our roads and transit system with concentrated growth on the city’s fringes.)
Of course, anonymous name-calling from people like Spartacus isn’t helping the cause of people who subscribe to the latter philosophy, nor are the truly ugly pop-ups that have appeared throughout the city. But with the Office of Planning’s rationale for the zoning update centered largely on accommodating the city’s rapid population growth and ensuring that it occurs in a sustainable manner, it’s an important argument, and one that shouldn’t be lost in the mudslinging. D.C.’s housing stock is among its greatest treasures, and if growth can be achieved with an extra story or two on top of a rowhouse, or an addition that consumes part of the backyard, that’s preferable to tearing down those rowhouses to build glassy new apartment complexes.
In a sense, Lanier Heights’ pop-ups are among the best examples of the right way to boost density. From the street, most range from nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive, at least compared with infamous pop-ups that have raised hackles in nearby neighborhoods, like the V Street NW middle finger or the Belmont Tower in Kalorama. It’s in the back that they’re causing more consternation, with extra mass that hulks over adjacent yards. And yet some lost backyard sunlight might be among the mildest forms of growing pains the city’s experiencing.
Spartacus’ movement is much smaller than the rival one: Nineteen people have signed Spartacus’ petition, and 11 yard signs have gone up. (“The downzoners had a big start on us,” Spartacus says.) But it may have the upper hand. The updated zoning code proposed by the D.C. Office of Planning wouldn’t affect the zoning of Lanier Heights, other than to reclassify R-5-B zones into A-2 ones, with the “A” standing for apartments. The Office of Planning has proposed limiting pop-ups, but only in R-4 zones, which Lanier Heights is not, despite the wishes of the downzoners.
Office of Planning Interim Director Ellen McCarthy says her office isn’t considering changes to the base zoning of specific neighborhoods until after the broader zoning update is complete. But city planning officials, she says, are asking the downzoners for more evidence of a true neighborhood consensus—rather than just the pleas of a particularly vocal group—before considering any such change. That can be tough to prove, particularly when there is an active neighborhood opposition, as well as an apathetic contingent.
“Our two groups combined are dwarfed by the number of Lanier Heights neighbors who just don’t care,” writes Spartacus, citing figures from the realtor Weichert showing that only a quarter of Lanier Heights residents have lived in the neighborhood for more than five years.
Given the animosity over the neighborhood battle, local Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chair Billy Simpson is reluctant to weigh in publicly. “Do I have to go on the record?” he asks, before doing so. He’s heard from several dozen neighbors who support the zoning change, versus only two people who are opposed, but he’d only back downzoning if a range of conditions are met. “The devil would be in the details,” he says. “If it’s truly a narrowly constrained geography, and if it’s a geography that truly encompasses a set of houses that are in fact all of a similar density, and if there is in fact broad support among the residents for the changes, then I’m inclined to support that kind of a thing.” The downzoners were scheduled to make their case to the ANC on Wednesday night as the first step toward pressing the city for a zoning change.
No neighborhood wants to bear the brunt of the changes that will necessarily accompany D.C.’s growth. The city’s zoning code ensures that no neighborhood will bear it unduly. Perhaps there ought to be greater controls over pop-ups to ensure they don’t excessively impair neighbors’ quality of life. But to continue to move backward on the worthy goals of the Office of Planning’s initial proposal—to change the zoning to allow less density than is currently permitted—would be a mistake. The loss of those few extra units in Lanier Heights wouldn’t be a big deal on a citywide scale, but the precedent it sets very well could be.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this post originally misstated the number of people who had signed Spartacus' petition. Nineteen people have signed it, not 11.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery