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Fed Up: Federal Commission Stumbles Into D.C. Debate Over Pop-Ups

1444 Taylor Street is the last rowhouse on the block, a two-story brick home bordering on Rock Creek Park.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
1444 Taylor Street is the last rowhouse on the block, a two-story brick home bordering on Rock Creek Park.

There's not much about 1444 Taylor Street NW that would make a passerby think it's of federal interest.

The blocky two-story brick rowhouse stands at the bottom of the sloping street where Taylor intersects with Piney Branch Parkway and Arkansas Avenue NW. It's plainly residential, and compared to the older rowhouses around it, residentially plain.

But its location at the three-way intersection indeed makes it of federal interest, because it falls within the boundaries of the Shipstead Luce Act, a 1930 federal law granting the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts the chance to weigh in on private construction projects in or adjacent to areas of national significance.

Those include the obvious suspects: the White House, U.S. Capitol and National Mall. But they also extend to Rock Creek Park and all its tributaries — Piney Branch being one. And since the Taylor Street home stands on the fringes of the park, most exterior changes require CFA review.

The rowhouse's location — and a developer's plan to double it in size — has put the commission's seven presidentially appointed members at the center of a brewing citywide debate over residential pop-ups and pop-backs: Just how far up and back should the city's traditional rowhouses be allowed to grow?

It has also put them in a somewhat awkward situation — since a proposed expansion of the home meets local zoning regulations, CFA has become the regulatory body of last resort for neighbors who oppose the plans for the house. But can the commission stop it?

Pop-Ups

The plans for a proposed pop-up at 1444 Taylor Street NW. (Click to enlarge)

The single-family home on Taylor Street was sold in August 2013 for $525,000 to Mubashir Khan, a developer hoping to expand it upwards and outwards with the intention of turning the rowhouse into a four-unit condo building. It would gain a third story, and with a new rear addition be twice the size it is now.

It isn't Khan's first project in the area: A rowhouse at 1424 Buchanan Street NW, a few blocks north of Taylor Street, is being popped up and back into a three-unit condo building.

The trend of expanding rowhouses and converting them into multi-unit buildings has picked up pace in recent years, as residents have poured into D.C. and housing options have only gotten more expensive. Proponents of pop-ups and pop-backs say they will help added needed supply to the city's constrained housing stock, which will in turn help drive down prices for all. Critics disagree, saying that the expanded homes force density and unsightly additions on quiet neighborhoods meant for families.

Khan is likely aware of the simmering debate: His redevelopment of the Buchanan Street rowhouse has been loudly protested by its neighbors, and residents of nearby Shepherd Street have also complained about a pair of pop-ups. (Khan said he had no comment on either of his projects.)

But for all the opposition some of the pop-ups may face, they have all fit within the the zoning regulations for the residential areas in which they sit. As such, most work is by-right: Owners like Khan need not seek approval or review from their local Advisory Neighborhood Commission or Board of Zoning Adjustment before starting construction.

For the Taylor Street house, the plans for expansion would have created a 35-foot-tall house, under the 40-foot limit set in the zoning code. And with the rear expansion, the house would occupy 58 percent of the lot, under the 60-percent threshold.

The expansion plans quietly moved from design to construction, unbeknownst to neighbors on the street. That changed when the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs — which Khan went to for a summary review of his plans and construction permits — notified CFA staff of the house's location. The commission's staff forwarded the plans to the ANC representing the area, and set a date for a review hearing.

That gave ANC commissioner Rickey Williams, who represents the area, and skeptical neighbors a forum to air their grievances and a hope that the project could be altered, if not stopped. But could CFA help?

Neighbors take their case to CFA

Neighbors opposed to the proposed pop-up on Taylor St. have posted signs in their front yards. (WAMU/Martin Austermuhle)

Patricia Petty-Morse, who is 58, purchased a rowhouse at 1442 Taylor Street 30 years ago, and though she currently rents it out, she imagines eventually retiring there. To her, the pop-up that could emerge next door to her property threatens the character of the neighborhood.

"It’s completely changing the character of what that neighborhood is supposed to be, it’s supposed to be a block of single-family homes," she says.

She also worries that the expanded house would block her view — and that of her neighbors — of the park, create drainage issues since water will pull alongside the new wall that will run along her property line, and damage the roots of the large ash tree that she has in her backyard.

"It’s basically going to completely block the view of the park from my property as well as the neighbors on the eastern side of me. There’s a big ash tree in the backyard, it’s going to damage the roots, it'll probably kill the tree. It’s going to change the character," she laments.

Many of her neighbors have expressed similar reservations, writing in emails and testimony to both DCRA and CFA that the building will simply be too big for the property — and street — it is on.

"This is a huge building for such a small piece of land, and for the end of a dead-end alley. I am shocked that zoning permits that large of a building on such a small piece of land," wrote Alison Lapointe, who lives a few houses up from the proposed pop-up.

But for all their concerns, CFA is limited in the scope of its review. While the materials being used for the additions are within their purview, the size of the addition itself is not.

"CFA can provide a public forum for comment on the physical characteristics of the design, but it does not address D.C.’s zoning laws regarding pop-up additions in residential neighborhoods," explains Thomas Luebke, the commission's secretary.

Still, Petty-Morse and other neighbors were given a chance to speak at a CFA review hearing in September, where they criticized the proposed pop-up as being too large for the area and out of character for the neighborhood. Members of the commission carefully tip-toed around the issue, noting that while some of the neighbors' concerns were within CFA's jurisdiction, many others were not.

The commission gave neighbors something of a reprieve: In a letter, Luebke asked Khan to reconsider some of the pop-ups design elements, including using higher quality materials on the additions, undertaking a hydrological study and re-designing the rear addition to make it more aesthetically pleasing when seen from the park and nearby houses.

Khan returned to CFA in mid-November, presenting a new design — but not backing away from his original plans of turning the single-family home into a four-unit condo building. Speaking on behalf of the opposed neighbors, Williams urged the commission to reject Khan's plans.

“There is absolutely no structure at this intersection that will look like this… that’s why it’s critical the commission take its time and it approve something that fits into the neighborhood. This, at it stands right now, will not fit in the neighborhood," he said.

Commission members seemed to disagree, saying that the design had improved. Alex Krieger, appointed to commission in 2012, said that the design would likely be approvable from an aesthetic standpoint, but agreed that the ongoing disagreement between Khan and the neighbors merited more time to be settled.

“Given such a tremendous impasse between neighbors… it’s probably worthwhile to take a little more time," he said.

The commission delayed any further consideration of the house until its January meeting.

Change and compromise?

The debate over 1444 Taylor Street isn't all that different to similar flare-ups occurring across the city. In most of the cases, residents who oppose proposed pop-ups aren't against them writ large, but rather decry the fact that they feel like they are not being consulted — or warned of — the changes to come.

Petty-Morse says that while she's not a fan of the proposed pop-up, she thinks there is middle ground to be had.

"I suspect that if they converted it to a two-unit building, we probably could get an agreement with that. But it would have to be such that it’s not so gargantuan. Right now it’s going to be the biggest thing on the block," she says.

To that end, earlier this year Williams authored a resolution advocating for a change to D.C. law to give ANCs more say over proposed pop-ups and conversions. He says that much like his neighbors, he isn't deadset against all pop-ups, but thinks that advance notice to neighbors could help ease tensions over some of the changes.

The D.C. Office of Planning has also taken up the cause, proposing that height limits and conversions be further limited in some residential areas — including the area where the Taylor Street house stands. A hearing on that proposal is scheduled for January.

Like Petty-Morse, Lapointe says that the fight on Taylor Street isn't about stopping all pop-ups, but rather finding a means to make sure they fit in with the character of the neighborhood they'll occupy.

"I don't think any of us are interested in stopping him altogether," she says, referring to Khan. "The neighbors aren't against development, but rather over-development."

Williams says that he is brokering a meeting between Khan and the neighbors.

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