Inside a room of about 100 disgruntled Adams Morgan residents, Alex Dodds bravely stood up and made a confession this month to her Northwest Washington neighbors:
“I live in a pop-up,” the 30-year-old declared. “Keep your pitchforks at bay.”
Everyone at the public hearing chuckled. No one actually hoisted pitchforks at Dodds, but the majority came to vent about what they view as a fast-growing scourge in Washington neighborhoods: “pop-ups,” renovated rowhouses with additional stories that tower over adjacent homes like mini-skyscrapers.
Across the city, pop-ups appear to be increasingly generating conflicts. In one recent case, a 16th Street Heights resident said she might have to add a 23-foot smokestack on her rowhouse in order to use her fireplace, because a developer popped-up the adjacent home so that it towers over her three-foot chimney.
In Adams Morgan, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission will vote Dec. 3 on whether to endorse a petition asking the city to change the property designation in parts of Lanier Heights so that the maximum by-right height of homes would be 40 feet instead of 50 feet, the current cap.
Meanwhile, advisory neighborhood commissions in Columbia Heights, Mt. Pleasant and Park View — areas where the maximum rowhouse height stands at 40 feet — have filed resolutions supporting the District planning office’s proposal to curb pop-ups. The measure would reduce maximum by-right height in their neighborhoods to 35 feet. And it would bar homes from being converted into dwellings with three or more units, an option that encourages developers to add stories.
The city’s five-member Zoning Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing Jan. 15 on the proposal. But it could take several months before the measure is voted on and becomes enforceable. At a sparsely attended public meeting earlier this year, two commissioners criticized the proposal, while two others supported it.
Commissioner Robert Miller said the plan wasn’t “ready for prime time” and might limit the number of people moving into the city’s hottest neighborhoods, according to the videotaped session.
“We are very fortunate to have an existing housing stock that can partially accommodate this change in growth in our city,” he said. “Cities are dynamic, and we need to manage the change and make sure it doesn’t change the residential character of a neighborhood, but I think we should do more to manage the change rather than just throw up additional roadblocks.”
Fellow Commissioner Marcie Cohen questioned the need to change the by-right height from 40 to 35 feet and suggested that stories in The Washington Post have exaggerated the public’s antagonism toward pop-ups.
“Forty feet is not that tall, although it has stuck out,” Cohen said. “Everybody brings to our attention the unique and unfortunate examples. The Post will sensationalize that. Whereas . . . it doesn’t seem to be a major issue.”
But another commissioner, Michael G. Turnbull, said he liked the proposed maximum height of 35 feet because, he noted, 94 percent of homes surveyed in the affected neighborhoods were that high or shorter.
“I don’t think this is downsizing; this is right-sizing,” Turnbull said. “I think [the planning office has] hit the high points that we’ve talked about with pop-ups and preserving the character of rowhouse areas.”
Commission Chairman Anthony J. Hood also voiced support: “The comments we heard were resounding: ‘Do something.’ ”
Although the D.C. Council won’t vote on the planning office’s proposal, Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser (D) has expressed skepticism about pop-ups. A few months ago, she wrote a letter to Rabbiah Sabbakhan, interim director of the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, asking him to freeze building permit requests for pop-ups until the issue is “settled” by the zoning panel.
Bowser told Sabbakhan that pop-ups could have “adverse, long-term effects” on neighboring properties. And in a meeting with voters before the election, Bowser called pop-ups “ugly.”
Matt Orlins, a DCRA spokesman, said the agency is creating a “bulletin” on pop-up projects for property owners and neighbors that “should help to ensure that the overall intent of the [zoning] codes is met — and that concerns from stakeholders are addressed.”
In 16th Street Heights, Sandra LeSesne, 67, a retired federal employee, was shocked when a developer razed the rowhouse next door and built a three-story pop-up. Her chief problem is that the pop-up’s wall almost grazes her small chimney and rises above it. LeSesne said the developer is willing to pay about $4,700 for a 23-foot chimney that would pop up over the pop-up. But she’s checking with lawyers on liability issues.
“I don’t want to be legally responsible if it falls down or the new neighbors in the pop-up have an issue with it,” she said.
But many residents in Lanier Heights, where pop-ups are permitted to reach 50 feet, wish their neighborhood had the 40-foot cap that exists in LeSesne’s part of town.
During the hearing, they tried to be polite about their hatred for pop-ups.
“What’s being built — those are not proper houses. And this is a proper neighborhood,” said Richard Ehrenberg, 58, a television technical director who lives four houses from a pop-up.
But there were a few Lanier Heights residents who said they love them, so much so that they live in them.
Christopher Montwill, 33, an art director at a Web design firm, said he didn’t feel welcome when he moved into his Lanier Heights pop-up. “While you may say, ‘We’re okay with pop-up people,’ it doesn’t feel like that,” he told his neighbors.
Montwill added that prices in the city’s condo buildings — with hefty maintenance fees — are too expensive. He said he was able to move into Adams Morgan because he could buy part of a popped-up townhouse — a two-bedroom unit.
“It’s not cheap, but it’s not a million,” he said.
Dodds, the pop-up resident who worried about pitchforks, told the audience that she thinks critics stereotype pop-up dwellers.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about people who live in pop-ups, ‘They don’t have children. They’re terrible,’ ” said Dodd, communications director for Smart Growth America, a nonprofit group. “And I wanted to say, I am one of those people. And I am a proud mother of a six-month-old.”