Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

Addition to D.C. rowhouse on V Street NW is ugly but should that matter?

Yes, it’s ugly. No question about it.

But the three-story pop-up atop an otherwise unremarkable rowhouse on V Street isn’t illegal, despite all the people who hate the upward addition.

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Real estate trends in the Washington area.
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Real estate trends in the Washington area.

DCist declared the new structure at 1013 V St. NW “a big middle finger to taste and scale.”

For months, the Prince of Petworth blog has been documenting a Virginia developer’s progress in turning the small, 1890 single-family rowhouse into three condos. And with each entry, there’s a new round of chatter. There’s talk about density, growth, new money, demographics, gentrification — and where, exactly, are the thousand or so new residents pouring into the District every month going to live?

Population growth aside, just about everyone who lays eyes on the five-story weed springing out of a squat field of two-story homes asks one question: How can this be legal?

In fact, said Helder Gil, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, it’s perfectly legal.

Because the department has gotten so many complaints and inquiries from outraged neighbors, Gil said, “we have been out there numerous times” to check on the integrity of the structure, the height, the permits, the zoning, the code issues.

No other structure — not even the most slapdash, two-different colors, three-different materials, Cajun-cabin-looking ones — has been such a headache for the department. “This one seems to get a lot of attention,” Gil said.

I wanted to reach the developer, who bought the place in 2011 for $386,000, according to Zillow, a Web site that tracks real estate sales. I wanted to know how much he intends to charge for the condos and whether he cares that his project is the subject of so much criticism. But alas, I wasn’t able to track him down.

The fact is, ugly is one thing, legal is another. “The building and safety codes don’t care about aesthetics,” Gil said.

For that, you can go to a historic district such as Georgetown or Capitol Hill. There, a bunch of strangers get to weigh in on every single thing you do to the outside of your home — what kind of window you install, what door you fix, what balcony railing you use.

All of it will be in impeccable taste, I’m sure.

Or how about going to one of those spiffy little cookie-cutter suburban developments? A Glen or a Forest or a Fox Run, where the homeowners association will tell you what color you can paint your house, what kind of dog you can own and which dip you will be assigned to bring to the block party.

Somehow, I thought the folks who want to be able to walk over to Ben’s Chili Bowl for a half-smoke or slip into the Gibson for a cocktail aren’t the ones looking for conformity.

On a Sunday afternoon, I ran into a couple from Chicago who walked a few blocks over to check out the pop-up, which is known in the U Street corridor as “the Monstrosity.”

“It doesn’t really fit in,” said the man, shrugging. “I think it’s really the height that’s the problem.”

Their son lives a few blocks away, and they were staying in his place. And they’ve heard all about the pop-up. They weren’t horribly offended by it, just puzzled.

That’s not the case for Evan Decorte, 29, a venture capitalist who lives in the neighborhood.

“The only place I’ve seen this kind of cinder-block construction is rural Albania. Or Afghanistan,” he said. “Every time I walk down here, I get so upset.”

Decorte said he’s not against pop-ups. “There are some that are really well done,” he said.

And he acknowledges that a city “is a living thing,” ever-changing, evolving. His worry is that the structural integrity is questionable, and, quite frankly, he thinks the aesthetics are hideous.

That’s not the case for Kevin Hart, who is the pastor of a church with a building that dates to 1887.

“At first, we weren’t really sure about it,” said Hart, who has been looking at that house his whole life.

That block of V Street is also named in honor of his father, Bishop William F. Hart Jr., a Korean War veteran and D.C. native who founded the Christian Tabernacle Church of God more than 30 years ago.

“But once they put the finishing touches up, it looked all right,” said Hart, who is more interested in the way the neighborhood is changing. He’s almost giddy about it.

“I remember when we had a dead body over near the children’s playground,” he said. “Now, we have lots of people who are wanting to move here.”

He is imagining that some of the new neighbors in those condos may take an interest in his church, join, maybe even help restore the old stained-glass windows that shattered so many years ago. And he imagines that soon the other two-story houses around it will grow, too. He just hopes they won’t get too crazy.

“What the leaders do in moderation, the followers do in excess,” he said.

Gil agrees. “In five to 10 years’ time, I’d be surprised if that building still looked different from its neighbors,” he said.

In fact, it could be dwarfed by other, grander pop-ups. The Monstrosity is relatively modest: “It’s maybe one foot beneath the height limit,” Gil said.

See, it could’ve been so much worse.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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