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Pop-up architect says D.C.’s new height limits miss the mark

Pop-ups like this one on the 500 block of K Street NE prompted the District to introduce a new height restriction regulation. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

For most of the eight years he’s been in business, Michael Cross, principal and founder of District-based architecture firm Michael Cross Design Group, has been at the center of controversy in the city over the issue of rowhouse pop-ups.

Cross has designed about a dozen pop-ups in residential neighborhoods, both for individual owner-occupants who want one more story and for developers hoping to create a multi-unit condo building on the footprint of a rowhouse.

In June, after a year-long battle between developers gutting and expanding rowhouses and neighbors fighting to “Stop the Pop,” the District’s Zoning Commission approved new regulations that will limit building heights of single-family rowhouses to 35 feet, from a previous limit of 40 feet, in R-4 residential zones.

[D.C. zoning panel approves new regulations for pop-up rowhouses]

Moreover, multi-unit condo buildings going up in R-4 zones will be limited to two condo units by right; if developers wish to build a third or fourth unit, they will need to argue their case with the Board of Zoning Adjustment to receive a special exception.

The Zoning Commission is hoping that the regulations will slow the snowballing “pop-up” effect that is altering the street view throughout the District.

Since creating his first “pop-up” five years ago, Cross said that 80 percent of his current work involves the redevelopment of rowhouses in R-4 zones, and usually involves adding another level. In an interview, Cross shares his thoughts on the public’s discomfort with pop-ups. He discusses design solutions that may help and how he believes the new regulations have missed the mark.

You have publicly stated your opposition to the new zoning regulations that limit the height of pop-ups in R-4 zones to 35 feet, among other things. What’s the problem?

To me, they are missing the actual problem that they are trying to address.

They’ve reduced the height to 35 feet. As a practitioner, I laugh at that, because all of our pop-ups are 35 feet high — in fact, they are 34 feet high by formula. We create a cellar-based unit that is high enough to get light at four feet above grade. When you add three more stories, that takes it up to 34 feet.

Everyone can agree that there are some very egregious designs in the pop-ups. The street fronts of the communities are being modified, and we want to make sure that they become something that’s going to look good for the next 50 years. There are developers out there who are just looking at the bottom line, and the product doesn’t enhance the built environment.

But the whole debate of height is one of the most blatant deviations from the problem, in terms of the discussion.

So pop-up opponents are not going to get what they want from the new regulations?

No, they’re not. In an R-4 zone, it means nothing. The formulaic pop-up isn’t affected.

The other part of the height issue is that the majority of the images used in articles about pop-ups are of buildings outside of the R-4 zone. It’s a zone designation problem, not a code problem.

I see. For example, the famed “middle finger” pop-up at 1013 V St. NW rises up at least three stories higher than its neighbors but is still within what is allowed by code for its zone.

[A notorious piece of Washington real estate struggles to find buyers]

The Historic Preservation Office has stated that they would consider creating “conservation districts” where pop-ups would have to fall under design review. What do you think about that idea?

That’s a very tricky line, but a design review process of some sort, at least some guidelines and standards, is by far a much more effective solution to the problem than what they have done.

That said, that type of review is very subjective. Folks in the design profession and developers are very skeptical of that type of review. I have clients who have an immediate gut reaction of “no, we never want to go that way.” It adds time, it adds expense. But as a design professional, I think it would improve the quality of the built environment.

What is it about pop-ups that bother people, and what are some design solutions?

It’s always about scale, both the scale of the addition, of the building itself and of the elements it’s composed of. Often the building height, with an artificial “forehead,” is too great, and the windows are too small. Between those two things, you get an awkward-looking, cheap box on top.

[Shaping the City | D.C. proposes limits on pop-ups]

I’m by no means a traditional architect, but I do have great respect for classical proportion, because they feel good and are pleasing to the eye. Those rules would say that there’s a certain order to scale as the building progresses up. If you have those things in order, even a poor-quality pop-up will look decent.

What about material usage and working with historic buildings?

You can deviate from traditional materials and still be successful. Even official historic preservation publications speak to the fact that you should not be mimicking the old style — you should have a complementary form.

I look to many European cities that do that to an extreme with a lot of success, where you have a very old historic building met with a very modern, glass addition with little spider clip connectors: super modern. But the result is that you get the gem of the new building and you see the old building for what it was, and it’s not encumbered by the addition.

Shilpi Malinowski is a freelance writer.