The three-story rowhouse near Union Station looks ominous. Windows are boarded up. Orange stop-work orders are tacked on the building. But it’s behind the home near the H Street corridor where neighbors say the real red flag exists: a rear addition slated to expand upward another story, plus a rooftop deck.
The pending construction at 518 Sixth St. NE, a “pop-back,” is sparking the latest housing skirmish in which residents feel helpless against the free-for-all expansions of old rowhouses popping up or back by developers in the hot real estate market.
What makes this battle even more acrimonious is that a member of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC6C, has taken up the residents’ cause. The commissioner, Mark Eckenwiler, a Justice Department attorney, is crusading not just against the developer but also the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Over the past 10 weeks, Eckenwiler has fired off numerous emails to the DCRA, arguing that the agency should have never given a by-right permit to expand the rowhouse’s pop-back. The rowhouse already sits on more than 60 percent of its lot, the maximum amount allowable for such a permit, according to measurements in the developer’s application.
Eckenwiler said that once it was clear the house exceeded the allotted space, the DCRA should have revoked the permit. If the property’s builders want to expand the house, they must appear before the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a hearing and obtain a special exception.
“The reason why this is so important is that if this second story were to be built on the existing pop-back, it’s going to have a substantial adverse effect on the air, light and privacy of the neighbors,” Eckenwiler said. “In short, [developers] make a living by exploiting DCRA’s unwillingness to follow the law and protect District residents. It’s an outrage, and it goes on all over the District, not just in my little corner.”
Because Eckenwiler said he has heard little to no explanation from DCRA officials, he and his fellow commissioners in ANC6C voted in November to file an appeal with the BZA to revoke the developer’s permit allowing the pop-back expansion. A hearing is scheduled for March 8.
“It is unfortunate that matters have reached this point, but the failure of your office to provide any substantive response to my requests — let alone to revoke the permits as required by law — after more than four weeks leaves us no alternative,” Eckenwiler wrote in an email to DCRA officials, including Zoning Administrator Matthew LeGrant, after the vote.
In an interview, LeGrant said he has asked the developers, Redux Properties LLC and Feroz Ashraf, of Northern Virginia, to provide a survey to “further clarify and pin down exactly what the building’s arrangement is on this lot.” (Matt Orlins, a DCRA spokesman, said he expects the survey’s report very shortly.) LeGrant added that Eckenwiler’s anger is understandable but that the issue is not as clear-cut as the ANC official has asserted.
“Sometimes the time frame between his emails and my responses were not up to his satisfaction. I strive to be as responsible as I can and to be as detailed as I can,” LeGrant said. “I cannot make a ruling based on an allegation until I go through all those drawings and request additional information.”
Ashraf, who identified himself as the co-owner of the home with Redux Properties, said if it is proven that the current size of the rowhouse takes up more than 60 percent of the lot, he still has a plan to bypass the BZA and get his by-right permit: He will tear down the existing pop-back and build a replacement whose depth is shorter to ensure that the entire rowhouse takes up a smaller footprint. He said he believes that the rowhouse needs the two-story rear addition, with a deck on top, to capitalize on the city’s attractive real estate market.
“This is not being done to make neighbors’ lives harder and make a quick buck,” Ashraf said. “There’s a huge demand for renovated housing in D.C.”
He added that when it’s done, the new house will increase the value of everyone else’s property on the street. “The neighbors aren’t going to send us a check saying, ‘Thank you.’ Things evolve,” Ashraf said. “If the neighbors lose their sky and light, that’s part of change. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Edwin Rodriguez, 51, a Federal Trade Commission lawyer, and his partner, Thomas Atkins, 59, a recently retired longtime staffer for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), live next to the controversial townhouse. Their fears echo the concerns of many other District residents who live adjacent to pop-backs or popups and worry about the loss of sky views and privacy.
“The new neighbors will be able to look into our bathrooms and all of our rooms,” Rodriguez said.
Atkins is upset that the process has dragged out this long. Like Eckenwiler, he also believes that LeGrant should have quickly revoked the permit once he was told that the building exceeds the maximum threshold for additional construction.
“I worked with Eleanor Holmes Norton, where I provided excellent service in casework as a grants specialist responding to concerns in the District,” he said. “I have been accustomed to a level of excellence regarding what to expect from a public servant, and as a resident of D.C., I am outraged by the response of my own government to me and my neighbors.”
Ashraf suggested another solution to the problem: If Eckenwiler is so worried about the property’s future, he should just buy it himself. “If he wants to buy it,” Ashraf said, “he’s more than welcome to reach out to me and make an offer.”