Sky is not the limit on height of D.C. rowhouse renovations

The pop-up might get a smack down.

The District’s planning office last week released proposals that, if approved, could curb the city’s rising number of “pop-ups” — renovated rowhouses that get extended upward by one story or more and often stick out on their streets like castle towers in small villages.

Under the proposals, developers would be able to increase the height of family rowhouses in one of the city’s predominant residential areas — the R-4 zone — only to a maximum of 35 feet and would need special permission from the Board of Zoning Adjustment to reach today’s by-right cap of 40 feet.

The planning office also wants to bar developers from converting family rowhouses in the R-4 zone into buildings with three or more units.

These pop-ups — often derided by neighbors as “monsters” and “middle fingers” — are being built to even higher heights in the city’s other zones. One well-known pop-up, the Ava at 1013 V St. NW, is in a commercial zone that allows for buildings to be 65 feet high, even though many neighboring homes are much shorter.

Read the proposal

The proposal

D.C. officials are proposing new regulations that would limit developers' ability to build "pop-ups" in some residential areas of D.C. Read the proposal.

For now, the city’s planning office is tackling pop-ups in the R-4 zone, home to about 35 percent of the city’s low-density residential lots.

Developers can now buy a residential rowhouse in that zone and build as many units as they want as long as the property has 900 square feet of land per unit. But planning officials want that provision removed so they can limit those row-houses to two units, making them less enticing to developers.

Planning officials believe that the proposals will help appease neighbors who say the pop-ups block views and sunlight and disrupt the area’s unified, historic feel.

But the proposals are not just about maintaining the city’s rowhouse aesthetics. By aiming to reduce the number of pop-ups — whose units often have one or two bedrooms — city officials also want to preserve a decent volume of affordable three- and four-bedroom rowhouses for families.

In three years, the prices of the city’s three-bedroom homes have risen almost three times as fast as one-bedroom units, planning officials said. As a result, families often lose out to developers, who can pay more for a rowhouse by expanding it skyward, carving it into one- or two-bedroom condos and selling the whole thing for more than $1 million.


A developer purchased a two-story row house at 1013 V St. NW and added 3 stories. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“It’s important for people to understand that there’s a need for affordable housing for families who need larger units and it’s hard to build new ones that are affordable,” said Ellen McCarthy, the planning office’s director.

Jennifer Steingasser, the office’s deputy director, said the city has many other zones where developers can convert residences into three-plus unit condo buildings. But it’s in the R-4 zone, where “we’re hearing about inappropriate expansion,” she said. “There are many zones that do accommodate small apartment zones. That’s where we want that development.”

As a concession, the new proposals would allow developers in the R-4 zone to convert nonresidences, such as schools and churches, into condo buildings with three or more units, but only after obtaining a special exception from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, a time-consuming process that can force builders into hefty legal fees.

Pop-up fans say the buildings add vibrancy to aging neighborhoods and enable residents to live in condos without having to pay the sizable fees at the bigger condo complexes.

Developers are not entirely enthusiastic about the proposals.

Brian Brown, a managing member of NextGen Development and an occasional pop-up builder, said he understands why the city wants to crack down. Some pop-ups, he said, are poorly designed and don’t fit in their communities. But he doesn’t like the idea of having to get special permission from the Board of Zoning Adjustment to construct a 40-foot tall condo building in the R-4 zone.

“That’ll add $5,000 or $10,000 in legal costs, or it could be as high as $30,000,” Brown said.

Micheal Watson, owner of Taja Investments and a frequent pop-up builder, believes that the city is targeting people who took a chance on renovating homes in impoverished neighborhoods several years ago.

“We developers are building these neighbors up,” Watson said. “But these neighborhoods are not cul-de-sacs.”

Watson, who has recently built pop-ups in the 500 and 900 blocks of K Street NE, worries that if the proposals are approved soon, he could lose money on buildings he has already purchased that he plans to pop up. But the city’s planning office said that developers with pop-up ambitions can get their designs “grandfathered” in if they obtain building permits before new regulations are approved.

Steingasser, the planning office’s deputy director, said that on July 17, the Zoning Commission plans to consider whether to have a public hearing on the proposals. If approved by the Zoning Commission, the proposals could take effect no sooner than late 2014 or early 2015, she said.

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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