Frustrations about DC's planning and zoning process in the context of the Zoning Rewrite: Part 2, popups (additions, and teardowns)
I got to the hearing late, so I missed the bulk of Councilmember Graham's testimony asking the Zoning Commission to address the issue of popups--that is discordant third floors being built onto existing rowhouses. The City Paper Housing Complex blog has a piece about it this morning, "Graham Asks Zoning Commission to Put an End to Pop-Ups."
I have written plenty about this over the years. The definitive piece is this, "Changing matter of right zoning regulations for houses to conform to heights typical within neighborhoods, not the allowable maximum."
But it's also discussed in these follow up pieces, "Other arguments for mandatory design review" and "Speaking of the value of city-wide design review."
The basic problem is pretty simple. Zoning allows for bigger and taller residential buildings than was typical during the time when most of the city's neighborhoods were constructed.
As I wrote before:
This is the source of the three primary anti-neighborhood/anti-character building construction and alteration practices (although this list is not exclusive):Over time, some people want to add third floors (or additions) and zoning allows it. But typically they use materials and designs that are discordant so the final results look terrible. In historic districts, this isn't much of an issue, because an extra level of review, including design review, is required.
(1) rear additions that are extremely large
(2) addition of an additional floor--usually adding a third story to a two-story rowhouse, in a manner that is typically out of character
(3) teardowns--demolishing a house that is "small," in order to be able to build a larger house. This tears at the character of neighborhoods in two ways, by eliminating an original house of an architecturally significant style, and by inserting a new, larger house, one that is usually of a significantly different design and style compared to other housing stock in the neighborhood. (Note that teardowns aren't a significant problem in DC, because the cost of housing is so high generally, that it is difficult to do a teardown and make a profit, except in situations where one house is located on two or more lots.)
As part of the zoning rewrite process, protections for neighborhood character should be a mandatory provision within the code, inserted at the outset of the approval of the new code, not something to be added in, neighborhood by neighborhood, after the code is introduced. "Afterwards" is usually too late to stop problems from occurring.
In response to a question about this from Commissioner Peter May, OP Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser said it was a takings issue and "hard" because the agency isn't set up to do design review--they'd have to add architects and other staff-- and data on the prevailing height would have to be collected on a block-by-block basis.
The funny thing is that we talked-argued about this a couple years ago, I said they just needed some interns. She thought it would be much harder. But basically, every face of a block in the city can be coded as having a prevailing height of either two-, three- or four-stories. To approve changes to building ought to require a hearing and a design review meeting.
I don't see why it is so hard to do.
And it is frustrating that some of the most basic problems "in the zoning code" aren't being addressed by the rewrite process.