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.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Good urban opportunities often degenerate: 1511 A Street NE, Washington, DC

Last week, the Washington Post had a story, "Under zoning code, few restrictions on what can be built on NE property," about a tricky development "battle" in Northeast DC, where a developer intends to develop a five-story condominium building in the midst of two-story rowhouses, to take advantage of the higher height allowed within a commercially zoned lot, which happens to be the zoning on this otherwise residential block.  (The issue is also covered at Popville, see "Dear PoPville – Loss of Historic Property Due to Zoning Hold Over")
Current conditions of the 1500 block of A Street NE, with a mix of two and three story rowhouses, with a lot, zoned commercial, in the middle.

The commercial zoning is left over from when the block had been home to a streetcar barn (which has since been redeveloped as condominiums and rezoned as housing) and once the streetcar-bus barn was abandoned, the adjacent zoning was not changed.

But this is not unusual.  For example, the block (pictured below) bounded by the 200 block of K Street,200 block of G Street, and the 900 blocks of 2nd and 3rd Streets NE are almost entirely two-story rowhouses (one portion of the block is a two-story commercial buidling) is zoned C2A, because it abuts the Metropolitan Branch railroad tracks.  Nothing prevents these buildings from being demolished and the block getting rebuilt--other than the cost and time required to assemble the block.
On the 1000 block of 2nd Street looking towards the 200 block of K Street, with the Senate Square apartments in the distance.

I call the development proposal tricky because it's not necessarily outlandish for a five-story residential building to abut two- or three-story rowhouses, at least back when these neighborhoods were originally constructed, when it was not uncommon to mix apartment buildings and single family houses on the same blocks.

- Mixing apartment and single family housing on the same block was typical in locations close to major streets, commercial districts, and transit stations.
- Taller buildings tended to be constructed in those places, and heights dropped with the distance from the center

It is only since that time, after the introduction of modern zoning rules, that residential districts were designed to be constructed predominately of only one type of housing.

What makes this proposal "tricky" is that

1.  the developer is known to be problematic
2.  the design, especially the facade treatment, appears to be cheap and ugly.

Proposed design for a condominium building on the 1500 block of A Street NE by the developer Taiwo Demuren.

I wonder if the developer had proposed a facade treatment of high quality, would the residents would still oppose the project?  There are many examples around the city, dating into the 1940s of both a mix of apartment buildings and rowhouses on the same block, but with decidedly compatible designs.

There isn't a particular rule of thumb about the relationship between the height of the apartment building to the rowhouses.  They can be about the same height (but with the same or a different number of floors), or the apartment building may be one-, two- or three-stories higher than the rowhouses.

My sense is that as long as the facades and mass of the buildings are compatible, height isn't necessarily the issue.  There are so many examples across the city of attractive yet simple designs of apartment buildings cheek by jowl with rowhouses that the developer could have drawn upon to produce something quite nice.

I wonder how much grief in development and zoning matters could be avoided if developers would start off with a decent rather than execrable design?

Four story apartment building next to two story rowhouses on the 100 block of 2nd Street NE

This block is also across from the Supreme Court on the unit block of 2nd Street NE, and mixes a four-story apartment building, two two-story rowhouses, one three-story rowhouse, and a three-story building that had been apartments but now is likely commercial.

Four-story apartment building at the northeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourth Street SE

Panorama shot of the east side of the 1300 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW.  A five-story apartment building is bracketed by tall rowhouses on the rest of the block.

Mixing residential buildings of different heights was not uncommon in DC neighborhoods, but it was dependent on market demand and location.

This five-story apartment building on the 600 block of Massachusetts Avenue NE is bracketed by 2.5 story rowhouses on the west and more recently constructed three-story rowhouses on the east.

Five-story apartment building next to three story rowhouses on the 300 block of North Capitol Street NE

Four-story apartment building next to two story rowhouses on the 500 block of 3rd Street NE

Four-story apartment building at the southeast corner of 7th and K Streets NE (north of H Street has relatively few apartment buildings, especially of this size, which is about 18 units).

800 block of K Street NE

Simple apartment complex on Brentwood Road NE just south of Rhode Island Avenue.  The building design is very simple, and the properties are well maintained. 

This three-story building on the 3700 block of 12th Street NE in the Brookland neighborhood, used to be maintained as an apartment building.  Now it is run as a bed and breakfast, with a restaurant on the first floor.

This is an incredibly simple, value engineered box of an apartment building on the 1200 block of Perry Street NE in Brookland, but its straightforwardness is far more attractive than the building proposed for 1511 A Street NE

3.5 story art deco apartment building on the 1000 block of Perry Street NE, Brookland.

Simple three story buildings on Fort Totten Drive NE.

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At 2:27 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I agree that it can be done, but after a nice Easter on Capitol Hill the nicer streets seem to be ones without apartment/multiunit buildings.

More or less the same issue as the V st popup.

At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

"...the nicer streets seem to be ones without apartment/multiunit buildings."

I would absolutely disagree, but that's neither here nor there. The broader problem is that one person's conception of what is 'nice' isn't a very good standard for urban development. It's not a standard at all, actually - it's a very subjective entanglement.

At 3:21 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

nice = higher property value becuase of lack of lower income people on same street. pretty simple to measure.

That's the problem with markets -- they all depend on perception.

At 3:32 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

Again, I'll challenge your assumption.

Lots of Richard's photos here are from the Hill, and from the most expensive parts of the Hill.

If you think nice means higher property values and that's because of a lack of apartments, I would seriously question the rigor of that hypothesis. If you want to actually try to measure it, I'd be eager to see those measurements. But I would definitely like to see more than just one person's gut assertions about what is 'nice'.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I guess I agree with Alex B. about preferences. Some people may like mixed-mixed--I'm fine with it--and others prefer just houses.

And it's true that there is likely to be an income difference between house owners vs. apt./condo owners and apt./condo renters.

That said, the high demand and relative lack of supply means that apts./condos price upwards and likely the people have similar demographics.

It would be interesting though to see if these "apt. dwellers" participate at levels more comparable to sfh owners.

(It's like with "towers in the park." The issue wasn't the towers per se in terms of urban renewal and crime, but the pathologies of hyper-poor residents. There are plenty of similar buildings, a bit nicer, in NYC or on Chicago's Gold Coast, Detroit's Lafayette Park, etc. that didn't need to be demolished unlike Cabrini-Green or Pruitt-Igoe.)

At 4:20 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the thing about liking vs. ore general criteria... for more resilient and successful neighborhoods, it's better to have a mix of housing types.

It's true that mixing higher and lower income residents will impact property values somewhat, and maybe even quality of life in the neighborhood.

But I think that's what we need to address and how to improve our engagement and participation and civil society practices to better connect with people regardless if they are owners or renters.

At 4:23 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the thing too about the V St. building is that it is about mass-bulk and location within the building fabric.

It's out of scale on the block -- 5 stories -- surrounded by 2 story buildings (except for the new construction at the corner).

But if it were wider and at a corner, abutting the alley, etc., it would fit in a lot better.

(I am also planning a post on "appropriate" vs. "less-appropriate" popup-house resizing issues. Some houses in my neighborhood are getting rebuilt as four squares and such from bungalows. Some are decent enough--not perfect--while others are crap. The point should be to "force-encourage" better and restrict crap but not necessarily to ban.)

At 11:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, neighbors were dealt this developer and his apparent penchant for building cheap and building large. Take a look at 1231 Morse Street, a newly-constructed plastic-sided barn-like structure that features window units for cooling. Demuren holds it out as an example of his development prowess.

And that was only after the melodrama of purposefully collapsed walls and illegal conversions played out. 1511 A is right to receive scrutiny.

At 7:03 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

yes, that's the unfortunate fact that it is mostly what I think of as "bottom feeder" developers who take on such projects.

Bottom feeders only care about the opportunity to make some money, not about the quality of the project and whether or not it fits in. They are driven by "matter of right."

I have written for years about the need for broader design review requirements.

This is what happens without those kinds of protections.

It's not like the city hasn't been "warned" many times of the potential for these problems.

... but I will say when I saw the piece in the Post, it made me think that I should be a developer and do projects like that, but of high quality.

At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 1511 A Streert case you are absolutely right, the developer's permitting agent has repeatedly invoked the "matter of right" nature of the property as justification for the plans.

The developer's agent has also offered to hear concerns and take them under advisement about the scale of the development and materials to be used. In the same breath, however, it was reiterated that the permits were "expected soon" and that there were certain economic concerns that needed to be met to make the project viable.

The community welcomes outside engagement, expertise, and suggestions on this matter. You can reach us at

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my new house is but a few blocks from this proposal. I am in favor of more density. However the neighbors seem to be most concerned with the number of cars this d3evelopment will bring- and someone put up a protest poster pronouncing the parking issue as the main determinant for fighting this concept. I for one automatically will come out against ANYONE who pushes parking over density or appropriate density- which this most certainly IS. I also agree that the design is bullshit and evokes the phony nostalgia for 1950's modernism which is usually a disaster- the lean - to rooflines one sees so much in NW DC where these developers are putting up phony "loft style" buildings. Just put up a good design and stop trying to mimic the backwards "new look" or whatever is trendy. Yes- this poster was imflammatory and mostly concerned with the number of cars that will be "dumped" into the neighborhood. I wonder where these people were when the mom & pop stores on 15th street all got turned into houses? Are they aware that this was not just a car barn area but a thriving commercial district as well not so long ago? yes it is zoned commercial. The developer has every right to build here and I for one want more taxpayers and a larger jury pool for DC. People are short sighted when they protest parking and more people moving here. They are being slefish and want it all to remain a low density city in the wake of a declining population- almost a suburban place - which it is NOT.

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon @ 11:09. Contact us at The partking issue is just one articulated by neighbors in a recent neighborhood meeting with the developer. There are also concerns about the building's design and densitty. Mr. Davis who hosted the meeting with the developer at his home on 15th opened by saying the neighbors do not oppose development, they just oppose the potential extremes of this propsed building which leverages an historical zoning quirk to allow what is currently out of scale construction.

Parking is a "hook" if you will that will bring in neighbors who may not be willing or able to get exercised about the intracies of zoning or may become resigned to the fact that the building "will be built" as the developer's agent asserts it may be.

You are right that a stretch of 15th Street did at one time have commercial businesses - but those businesses, like the Car Barn as a railyard, are gone, Current zoning dates back to 1958 or prior, and much has changed since then. The developer's view is that because it is allowed, he will build. Most neighbors' views are that current use should be taken into account.

As a neighbor we don't want to alienate you on the issue of parking, we want to empower us all to make the best of a bad situation. The Post would not have covered this story if it was just about parking.

At 11:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 12:09 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The developer will do what he will do. The mass isn't necessarily out of character, as I pointed out in the post. But it is butt ugly.

I don't see what you can do as citizens within the law to change anything.

Extra-normally, maybe you can get your councilmember or the Mayor's Office, the Deputy Mayor to "intercede" with the developer and attempt "suasion" to get them to do something better.

But there is no guarantee the developer will listen and there is no guarantee that either the Councilmember or the Mayor's office is willing to intercede.

2. I don't understand why once a developer has done something illegal, that they aren't banned from doing other work in the city.

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

WRT, "The developer's view is that because it is allowed, he will build. Most neighbors' views are that current use should be taken into account."

The law supports the position of the developer not the position of the residents.

So you have two (really three) choices, you can oppose and you won't get anything to change. You can "work with the developer" in an attempt to get a better design.

or (3) you can buy him out. If you offer to pay for the property at a cost that equals his net profit after developing, maybe he'll go for it.

Similarly, maybe DHCD could buy the parcel on similar terms. Still develop it, but with a better design.

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ypu people are not going to attract me by howling about parking. I hear this mantra all of the time and it is ridiculous- how for instance- do you know that the people moving in will even wish to own cars at all? This building is near metro and maybe you people could make a better case by forstering MORE density- I think this could be even taller and have more space for apartments if the parking was TAKEN AWAY and not included. sorry but I consider anyone pushing or fighting this because of density to be barking up the wrong tree. Why don't you just go out to Herndon if you want cheap and easy parking? Why is this so important an issue? And what is so bad abput the density- which is really nothing at all? This city historically had far more people than it has now with much more density. Are you people going to fight it if someone opens new mom & pop stores or if the streetcar goes back on East Capitol street as it once did? Why don't you NIBYs just leave DC?? You will not be happy unless the whole city is one vast surface parking lot for all of your cars..

At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ anon

Parking is just one issue articulated by the neighbors. If the developer wanted to respond to that, he could opt to put the development on the DDOT restricted list, which would deny RPP rights to those who register a car in the District of Columbia with that property address. But to do so would hurt the bottom line - because it would limit the saleability of the units. Maybe potential buyers in this building won't care. Under current DC zoning, most condo developments have to provide 1 parking space for every two units. Soon that amount will be reduced under wholesale zoning changes that are contemplated by the city. Which means that with the creation of larger, more dense buildings, there will be less integrated space for cars - hence driving more into RPP spaces in the street. Maybe at some point an equilibrium gets reached where it is no longer necessary or desirable or afforable to have a POV in the city. But for neighbors on this particular block, it is still an apparent priority.

As for building appearance, you can't legislate taste. Outside of special zoning rules that apply in historical or otherwise protected areas, fit and finish is wide open. One would hope that a developer would choose a design that fits into the surroundings - not one that is just "cheap" or easy. One can go to Restorn or Herndon or Prince William County and see that in excess.

Folks are attracted to the Hill East neighborhood for a variety of reasons. Some like the historic low rise nature. Others like the proximity of the parks. Others like the proximiity of public transit. Most homeowners presumably make choices to buy because the home and the neighborhood represent the lifestyle they wish to live.

At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nobody moves to DC to collect automobiles unless they own a huge garage. "Hill East" once had numerous small stores which have since closed down and have been turned into houses- which SHOULD be allowed to reopen as mixed use buildings. Included are the strip and the nearby buildings to this planned development. The historic streetcar should go back on East Capitol -in fact as far as I am concerned- all bus lines should be replaced with more efficient streetcars. As for the development itself- it should have MORE DENSITY and NO PARKING at all. The new people moving into the city are all young people who maove here because they do not wish to be slaves to the car. You obviously are not one of them.

At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

no doubt you are the same people who would fight against accessory dwelling units- probably because they would attract those who cannot afford million dollar homes and that they would eliminate parking. So sad that regressive thinking goes on here in DC in the 21st century. Pure sefishness born of greed.

At 2:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sure hope that the parking becomes a problem then maybe people will learn that you can actually live decently without 4 cars per household in this city with excellent transit. Some never learn.


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