Scores of District residents battled Thursday night in a lengthy public hearing before the city’s Zoning Commission over the future of pop-ups — rowhouses filled with multiple condo units and enlarged with extra stories that soar over adjacent houses.
In impassioned remarks, community leaders, real estate agents, developers and developers’ lawyers tried to sway the minds of the five zoning commissioners who later this year could decide whether to limit the number of pop-ups in neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Capitol Hill.
The stretched-up homes are creating big profits for small developers and investors who are capitalizing on Washington’s real estate boom by building in practically the only space they can — in the sky. But many long-standing homeowners cringe when their next-door neighbor’s building shoots up, blocking views and sunlight.
The Zoning Commission is deciding whether to support a D.C. Planning Office proposal that would reduce the by-right height of family rowhouses in one of the city’s predominant residential areas — the R-4 zone — to 35 feet, down from 40. The proposal could also bar developers from building three or more condo units in one house in the R-4 zone, removing an enticement for developers to add extra stories onto rowhouses.
The Zoning Commission heard from residents who complained that pop-ups are unsightly and are built with poor construction practices. Many opponents complained that pop-ups block their homes’ solar panels or that the pop-ups’ condo units are overpriced and don’t have enough space for families with children.
Denis Suski, a longtime Adams Morgan resident who is an opponent of pop-ups, told commissioners that he supports the proposal to reduce the maximum allowable height of rowhouses to 35 feet in the R-4 zone. In his Adams Morgan community of Lanier Heights, where pop-ups can be built as high as 50 feet, residents are pursuing R-4 zone status because they feel their neighborhood of rowhouses is losing its charm.
“We are being harassed by developers’ phone calls and mailings and are starting to see a domino effect where, as one conversion happens, several other neighboring homes are as well,” Suski said. “What will future generations think as they walk through what were once our neighborhoods and see the hodgepodge of condos haphazardly mixed in with row homes?”
The commission also heard from real estate agents and developers, many of whom complained that news coverage of some of the most notorious pop-ups give the impression that all pop-ups are ugly or are poorly built.
Phil Di Ruggiero, owner of GreenLine Real Estate, said pop-ups near Metro stops are just as attractive to families as single-family rowhouses, even if the pop-ups’ condo units are smaller.
“These days, unless you can afford $750,000, you can pretty much forget buying a single-family, updated home in neighborhoods like Park View, Petworth and [the] H Street corridor,” Di Ruggiero told the commission. “Maybe two condominiums priced at $500,000 and $625,000 doesn’t sound like a significant reduction in price versus the single-family alternative, but it amounts to $600 to $1,200 less per month in monthly payments. That means the world to families and households. . . . These aren’t kings and queens here, and families go first where they can afford.”
Kinley Bray, an attorney whose firm represents homeowners and developers, said reducing the maximum height to 35 feet would harm families who need extra space and don’t want to move out of the city.
“Often, homeowners are pressed for space as they welcome the addition of children to their families, and the best way to accommodate increased needs for bedrooms, playrooms and family dining are by building above the existing dwelling,” she said. “Limiting the ability for families to adapt in their own District homes increases the likelihood of these families departing for the suburbs.”
Anthony J. Hood, chairman of the Zoning Commission, asked pop-up supporters to submit proposals for dealing with the issue.
The commission will meet Feb. 9 to discuss the public hearing and what research members will need before taking a vote. The commission is looking at more lenient proposals on pop-ups, and it could take months before a decision is made.