Sustained population growth in the District of Columbia in recent years has spurred a rapid wave of construction throughout the city as upscale condominium projects appear to spring up almost overnight to meet growing demand for housing. But while residential development has been a welcome sign of revitalization in areas from U Street to NoMa, a particular type of residential project, the “pop-up,” has been the subject of intense debate in some of Washington, D.C.’s established row house neighborhoods. In mid-July, D.C.’s Office of Planning seemed to take the side of the anti-pop-up camp when it proposed a zoning text amendment that would limit the development of pop-ups in the city. However, alternative ideas discussed at the Zoning Commission’s initial hearing on the proposal may lead to a middle-ground approach that would slow down, but not ban the rise of pop-ups in D.C.

What is a Pop-Up?

Many might think of a trendy restaurant or temporary boutique retail use when they hear the term “pop-up,” but in the context of real estate development, a pop-up is a very permanent and sometimes dramatic change to an existing building. In D.C., pop-ups often take the form of a century-old row house that is purchased by a developer and then gutted and converted into multiple units. In order to capitalize on the ever-increasing value of real estate in D.C., developers will create a pop-up by extending the height of the building to create additional units. The result is a conspicuously tall and narrow building that sticks out alongside the adjacent and surrounding shorter row houses on the same street. These pop-ups inevitably stoke debate among nearby residents as to the merits of the aesthetic changes to the neighborhood and the changes in property values that such development may cause. Neighborhood wars over pop-ups in Lanier Heights have the feel of a political campaign, with residents placing signs in their yards and handing out flyers on weekends advocating their position for or against pop-ups.

The Office of Planning’s Pop-Up Text Amendment

The Office of Planning presented a proposed text amendment (Case 14-11) to address the pop-up controversy on July 17, 2014 to the Zoning Commission. The zoning text amendment proposes the following changes: (1) change the by-right height for a row house or flat building in the R-4 district from 40 feet to 35 feet, but allow up to 40 feet by special exception; (2) change the definition of mezzanine so that it is included in the number of stories; (3) limit roof structures in the R-1 through R-4 zone to ten feet for single family and flat residential buildings; (4) eliminate the conversion of row houses to multi-family dwellings in the R-4 zone, but allow conversion of larger non-residential buildings by special exception.

The restriction on conversions in the R-4 zone is specifically designed to prohibit pop-ups, where row houses are bought by developers and turned into tall condominium or apartment-type structures with multiple units. The Office of Planning has expressed a desire to maintain the existing character of row house neighborhoods, particularly in the R-4 zone. An alternative proposal discussed at the Zoning Commission hearing is to continue to allow conversions of row houses to multi-unit apartment-type structures, but to apply D.C.’s inclusionary zoning rules to the new units to ensure that affordable housing remains available in row house neighborhoods. This alternative, which would allow pop-ups with restrictions, had some support at the initial Zoning Commission hearing and will likely continue to be considered going forward.

What’s Next?

The Zoning Commission voted 5-0 in favor of setting down the Office of Planning’s proposed text amendment as a rulemaking case. The public hearing on the proposed rulemaking for Case 14-11 is expected to occur in the late fall. At this time, pop-up development is free to continue in D.C., at least through early 2015, which is when the text amendment, if approved, may go into effect. In the meantime, both sides of the debate are sure to inundate the Office of Planning and Zoning Commission with pleas and information as the future of pop-ups in D.C. is considered.