When the first of the boxy, look-alike houses sprang up along Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE in June, the neighbors started grumbling. Ugly and unsafe, they said.
By the time 31 of them stood on a narrow finger of land uncomfortably close to the busy commercial avenue, city planners had reluctantly agreed.
The houses, built on a strip just 56 feet deep in some places, border an abandoned railroad line in Deanwood. A few tracks remain as testimony to the land's former use.
Called before the Zoning Commission to make a formal report on the houses, a group of humbled city planners admitted that the project was poorly planned and that the houses should not have been built.
In explaining their initial support of the project, the planners said they had been hesitant to rule out any new, affordable housing in Washington. They are faced with the added complication of the city being land poor for new development. Giving in to the pressure to grow, the planners admitted that houses are being planned in the unlikeliest places.
"The District is landlocked," Lloyd Smith, acting director of the city's planning section, said recently. "We have to look at every little piece of land we think we can use . . . (including land on sites) that were previously not considered suitable for housing."
The demand for medium-cost housing is so great that buyers eagerly snap up any and all new developments. But cramming new homes into small, odd-shaped lots is distorting the face of a city known for its beautiful open spaces. Neighborhoods like black, mixed-income Deanwood, where the Burroughs houses are, have had little control over the rapid, undesirable changes they are undergoing.
The houses along the avenue sit too close to the heavily commercial street and are not positioned well on the lots, city planners said. Flaws in the D. C. building review procedures allowed it, they admitted.
Technically the houses meet all minimum zoning, building and site requirements, acting community planning chief Terry Brooks quietly informed the apparently stunned Zoning Commission last week. But visually, he said, they appear to violate these standards.
The houses stretch 43rd Place to the District line on a strip roughly two miles long. They are positioned to comply with minimum side and back yard spacing requirements. The entire site is approximately 7.2 acres.
The report was prompted by zoning commission member Walter B. Lewis after he saw the houses. Lewis asked the planning office to determine whether any zoning standards were violated.
"Quite frankly, I think this is a horrendous development, but there's nothing we can do about it," said Lewis after hearing the report.
Later he told a reporter, "I think the houses are sitting out in the middle of the street and should not be occupied. They're unfit for human habitation."
Alarmed at the appearance of the houses, the city planners told the commission that new building review standards have been proposed to correct "flaws" in the existing procedures.
A newly formed city urban design section will write design standards for future developments, Brooks said. Stricter review procedures will be required. Building applications for developments less than 10 acres will now be reviewed by the planning office before they're approved.
Developments of 10 or more acres already undergo the review, Brooks said.
Nothing, however, can be done about the nearly complete Burroughs tract, officials said.
James Gibson, the D.C. planning director, argued that the positioning, not the quality of the homes, is the issue there. "It could have been done more creatively," he added.
Brooks and John Moore, the city planners who prepared the report, said that although they are legal, the houses closest to the street are "dangerous."
The brick houses built along 43rd Street are especially unacceptable, according to Moore. "I would hate to walk out of my door on a Friday night after having a drink and walk into a Metro bus," he said.
A year ago, the narrow strip of land, which is broken up by streets, was abandoned by a railroad. Neighborhood committees lobbied to have moderately-priced homes built to solve some of the area's housing problems.
The project was supported by city planning officers who were then involved in rezoning hearings on the land.
Members of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANC's) tried to persuade city officials to let them review building applications before they were approved by the city. The request was denied.
Several ANCs throughout the city rallied to Deanwood's support about the breach of the D.C. law that gives the ANCs permission to review the applications.
In the end Deanwood won its battle for moderately priced housing, but lost the fight for review.
Construction began in June. Within two months, 20 of the houses had been built. After the first half-dozen homes were completed, the Deanwood area ANCs complained to the D.C. planning office about how close the houses were to the street. No action was taken by city officials.
Nearly all the houses are sold. Prices range from $65,900 to $69,000. A total of 56 houses are to be constructed. The developer has a waiting list for them.
Raymond Perkins, a special policeman who bought a home abutting the property three years ago, now points to the rambler under construction a few feet from his back door and says disgustedly, "If I'd known this was going to happen I'd never thought of buying here."
City planner Smith conceded that the houses look "kind of odd," but said they are no more unusual than homes being built elsewhere in D.C.
He said vacant land in Northeast and Southeast has become much more attractive to developers because of nearby Metrorail stops. Much of the new construction in those areas during the past 20 years had been public housing.
"We're trying to create an atmosphere that's conducive to private industry," he said. "We're not looking to build total public housing. It's not economically feasible or socially desirable. We want a healthy variety to bring up the quality of life in the area."
The Burroughs development fits into the "low-cost" housing mix city housing officials are encouraging.
Other sites being considered for housing are Camp Simms, a D.C. National Guard motor pool in Southeast bounded by Alabama Avenue, Mississippi Avenue, 15th Street and Stanton Road; the Wilburn tract and annex, an abandoned military housing development and radio station on an odd-shaped lot bounded by Savannah Street, Fourth Street and Martin Luther King Avenue SE, and vacant land on the edge of plots and mausoleums in Glenwood Cemetery, at Michigan Avenue and Franklin Street NE.
What the new housing will bring is anyone's guess. But the experience with the Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue homes will make them more watchful, city planners said.
Even Edgar Weisman, who developed the project, sees its shortcomings.
"I think (the houses) should be back farther (from the street) too," he said. "But I can't do that on that narrow lot. When you try to do a low-cost house like that, people still want everything. We're trying to give the most for the least (amount of money) and I think we've done it."
Deanwood residents argue that a neighborhood's quality of life is as much at issue as the city's housing problems.
Walter Byard, is the Deanwood ANC commissioner whose request to review the developer's plans was denied by the city administrator's office because it would slow down the paper work, said a District spokesman.
"It's sad," Byard said. "If I had reviewed (the proposed plans) it would have been done quietly. What can you do now?"