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Popped: D.C. Restricts Pop-Ups, Condo Conversions In Residential Neighborhoods

A partially completed pop-up in Bloomingdale.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
A partially completed pop-up in Bloomingdale.

They've been called "monstrosities" and compared to extended middle fingers, but now pop-ups — the practice of adding extra stories to single-family homes — will be far less common in certain residential neighborhoods across the District.

The D.C. Zoning Commission on Monday evening voted 3-2 to drop the height limit of homes from 40 to 35 feet, effectively making it more difficult — though not impossible — for developers to add third or fourth stories as has happened in certain neighborhoods in recent years.

The commission also voted to limit conversions of homes into multi-unit condominium buildings, allowing two units by-right but requiring special approvals for any additional units beyond that. That marked a reversal of an initial vote in March, when the commission opted to impose no such limits.

The restrictions on pop-ups and conversions will only affect homes in R-4 zones, which make up 15 percent of all residentially zoned land in the city. But they impact revitalizing neighborhoods like Petworth, Columbia Heights and Bloomingdale, where developers have used additions and conversions to expand the housing stock as the city's population has continued to tick upwards.

Pop-ups have sparked controversy in many of those neighborhoods, where some residents have complained that the sometimes-unsightly additions have increased density in areas meant solely for single-family homes.

"We have essentially multi-unit condos and apartment houses coming up in the middle of single-family home rowhouse neighborhoods, and that's not what the residents thought when they bought the houses, that's not what D.C. envisioned when it wrote its comprehensive plan," said Tracy Hart, who heads the Stop the Pop D.C. coalition.

But many developers and urbanists have countered that pop-ups and condo conversions are necessary tools to increase housing options — and thus, they say, help bring down housing prices — in the city. Harriet Tregoning, the former director of the Office of Planning, submitted written testimony to the commission in January opposing the restrictions.

R-4 areas shown in purple. Click to enlarge map.

"What we do know now is that the demand for housing is outpacing supply and that prices are rising such that affordability is threatened not just for moderate income households but for middle incomes ones as well," she wrote.

That same debate played out in the Zoning Commission in recent months, where members took in hours of testimony from residents and developers on the proposal that was initially presented by the D.C. Office of Planning last year. On Monday, opponents of pop-ups rallied outside the commission's meeting, and later filed in to witness the vote. A group of developers watched quietly from the back row, often muttering about how the changes would affect their projects.

"We’re a growing a city and we need to have the flexibility to enable other households to come into a neighborhood. And we need the flexibility as an owner to expand within our own space," said Marcie Cohen, the vice-chairman of the Zoning Commission. She voted against the restrictions.

But Anthony Hood, the chair of the commission, pushed for the restrictions, saying that he didn't believe that pop-ups and condo conversions helped bring down housing prices.

"This connection to affordable housing? I’m sorry, I haven’t seen it yet. I’m still waiting for it. It’s not a reality," he said.

The commission also debated vesting, or the implementation date for the restrictions. The Office of Planning proposed making them retroactive to July 2014, meaning that certain projects that hadn't been granted a building permit by that point would be subject to the new rules. Commission member Robert Miller tried to move the date to February 2015, but failed to sway enough of his colleagues.

And though the debate on pop-ups in R-4 zones now seems settled, the discussion on condo conversions could continue. As an inducement to support the restrictions on condo conversions, member Peter May convinced fellow commission members to support his request that the Office of Planning study the possibility of implementing an architectural review process for conversions involving more than two units.

Hood also predicted that the debate over pop-ups, conversions and development in residential neighborhoods would continue.

"Is this going to be the fix-all? No. But right now we’ve got to do something," he said.

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