Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

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."

This is on Delafield Place NW, on the 1300 or 1400 block.

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):

(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.
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.

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.

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At 9:53 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I suspect that it isn't the invetory that is the hard part -- it is then recoding every block.

However, going back to your idea of the "next over" I do think you could prioritize on certain areas.

Forcing the pop ups to having parking is another way to slow it down -- or proving finaical viability. The V st pop up is still not finished.

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the V St. popup is categorically different. Basically the regular popup is just an addition on a house, not intended necessarily for more residents, just making the house bigger. (Although it could be used to make the building a two unit flat.)

The V St. popup is creating a 5 unit building. And it's a function of that block being zoned commercial.

YOu know the line "good cases make bad law." V St. is a tricky case to base changes on the zoning code.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... oops. So if the popup is to make the house a two unit flat, definitely your parking point is relevant although in historic districts, parking provision isn't required.

wrt where it matters most, it's not just the one over neighborhoods, it's most of the neighborhoods in the core, where the disconnect in the zoning code between allowable height and prevailing height is so stark.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have seen more than a few pop ups allowed in the CH historic district- it seems that if the right people are taken care of and a builder/client has deep enough pockets or a loud enough political voice , historic restrictions are moot. It seems they only apply to the " little people" any way. At least this is the opinion of many long time residents I have heard of.These popups might not be as crazy ugly as others but they are certainly not great, either.

At 4:47 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

No no no. Last thing we need is another layer of bureaucracy and to give the antis more ammo.


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