So you want to build a pop-up... (under DC's new zoning regulations)

(updated July 13th with effective dates for the new zoning rules)

The DC Zoning Commission recently voted to change the zoning rules for residential and non-residential structures in the R-4 zone, requiring a special exception to build higher than 35 feet. The focus is on regulating "pop up" development, and previously the R-4 zone allowed builders to go up to 40 feet by right. The update to the zoning regulations also included some other changes related to mezzanines and multi-unit structures. In this post, I'll review the new zoning rules for residential structures and what they mean for Capitol Hill residents.

First, some definitions

Zoning regulations are confusing; let's start with some definitions. Land in DC is divided into zoning districts, such as R-1 (low density residential) and C-M-1 (light industrial). Most Capitol Hill homes sit on R-4 lots (medium density residential), and R-4 is the focus of this zoning update. Zoning districts restrict the height of buildings, among other things, and in the R-4 district building height was previously limited to 40 feet (and three stories). Building up to 40 feet was allowable "by right." By right development describes what a landowner can do more or less automatically (after getting a building permit), without asking for special permission from a zoning board. The new zoning regulations also affect something called a mezzanine, which is essentially a partial floor, one that covers not more than 1/3 the area of the floor immediately below.

The zoning update supports DC's goal of increasing access to affordable housing, under a program called "inclusionary zoning," or IZ. There are different types of IZ requirements, but basically an IZ housing unit is one that is made available only to renters or owners who make less than a certain percentage (of 80%) of area median income (AMI), which is roughly $100,000 per household in DC.

What happened to pop-ups?

The new regulations going into effect reduce the height of by right buildings in the R-4 district to 35 feet. A homeowner can still build up to 40 feet, but to do so they must apply for a "special exception." A special exception is a use allowed under DC zoning rule, but to be approved an applicant needs to meet certain conditions, primarily those regarding the impact on 'air and light' for nearby neighbors. While many homeowners could previous build a pop-up by right, most will now require a more extensive zoning process. This involves applying for a special exception with the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA), and that involves coming before the ANC. In ANC 6B, that starts with the Planning and Zoning Committee.

Now the ANC and BZA will review most pop-ups on a case by case basis. According to the new zoning regulations, and applicant seeking a special exception for building higher than 35 feet will have to meet certain conditions:

  • The overall building height or upper addition "will not have a substantially adverse effect on the use or enjoyment of any abutting or adjacent dwelling or property," including...
  • The light and air shall not be unduly affected,
  • Privacy of use and enjoyment shall not be unduly compromised,
  • The addition cannot block or impede a chimney,
  • The addition cannot interfere with a solar energy system,
  • And the building height, when viewed from the street or alley, shall not "substantially visually intrude upon the character, scale, and pattern of houses" along the street frontage.
  • Also, the additional 5 feet (requested through the special exception), should not have a substantially adverse effect on the "defining architectural features of the building." 
  • Applicants seeking a special exception need to graphically present their case, including the relationship between their building and the adjacent buildings, including views from public ways.

Essentially the special exception process will allow for much more substantial review of home additions above 35 feet in the R-4 zone, which is most of Capitol Hill. Applicants need to be prepared to make the case that their proposed pop-up will not have a substantially adverse effect on their neighbors and the "look" of their street.

Changes to mezzanines

Prior to the new regulations, a homeowner could build a partial 4th floor, called a mezzanine, which would not count as a “story” and thus would not be relevant to the three story maximum regulation in the R-4 zone. The revised zoning regulations now explicitly remove his exemption for R-4 buildings. If you have a home on an R-4 lot and want to build a mezzanine, that partial story will count against your three story maximum. This new restriction applies only to principal structures and not accessory structures, such as a carriage house.

Conversion of a row house to a multi-unit (apartment) building

Under the new zoning regulations, an owner can convert a residential structure that existed prior to May 12, 1958, to an apartment house by right, as long as:

  • The building does not exceed 35 feet
  • There is 900sf of land per dwelling unit
  • There can be no more than 4 units per lot

There are a few additional rules and possible exemptions.

  • No more than one (of the maximum 4) dwelling units can be located in an accessory building.
  • If you build 4 units, the 4th is subject to inclusionary zoning at the 80% AMI level.
  • When converting the building to multi-unit, at most 30% of the existing floor area can be demolished.
  • Any rear addition cannot extent further than 10 feet past the furthest rear wall of any principal structure on the adjacent properties.
  • You cannot build a vertical addition that blocks or adversely affects either chimneys or solar panels on adjacent properties.
  • Finally, there are some relatively minor and technical rules that govern roof top architectural elements and that limit further expansion on any added structures without BZA approval.

In short, homeowners or developers can still convert an existing single-family row house into a multi-unit small apartment or condo building by right, but they will need to adhere to a specific set of restrictions.  There are also a new set of provisions that mirror these but apply to converting a non­-residential structure to a multi-unit residential structure.

Additional exemptions related to multi-unit conversions

In addition to the above rules, the new zoning regulations allow owners to request certain exemptions (zoning relief) related to multi-unit buildings. For example, a building owner can request a special exception to build more than 4 units in an existing R-4 structure, but if BZA grants this exception every other (i.e., 6th, 8th, etc.) unit must be IZ.

Summary of new zoning rules

The new zoning regulations, which will go into effect soon, have important implications for homeowners in Capitol Hill. Here’s a summary:

  • Row house additions can only go to 35 feet by right; building to 40 feet requires a special exception.
  • The special exception process for exceeding 35 feet is extensive and requires meeting multiple, specific conditions.
  • Houses can still only be three stories tall.
  • Mezzanines (partial stories) now count as a story.
  • Homeowners can convert a row house to up to a 4 unit building, as long as there is 900sf of land for each unit; the 4th unit must be IZ (80% AMI).
  • Homeowners can get a special exception from the 900sf requirement for residential use.
  • Homeowners can get a special exception to exceed the 4 unit maximum; ever other unit (after 4) must be IZ.  

When are the new rules effective?

The answer is, unfortunately, a bit complicated. When the Zoning Commission posted its order on these rules, it made the new rules essentially retroactive. The table below is from the ZC order. It describes a set of exceptions to the new rules, and you can see that for most additions, the project needed to have a filed and accepted permit before February 1, 2015 to avoid the new regulations. However, if the project completed or filed a BZA or HPRB process before the effective date of the zoning amendments, then that project is exempted. Here's a helpful FAQ from DCRA.

The Planned Unit Development (PUD) Process

This is the first in a series of posts on the Planned Unit Development process. Our neighborhood has ongoing and planned PUD projects, and my goal is to help the community understand what this process involves and how you can get involved.

What is a Planned Unit Development?

Many residential or mixed use construction projects, whether carried out by a homeowner or a developer, can be done within DC's zoning rules. These are "by right" projects, which do not require zoning "relief." Other projects, those in which a homeowner or developer wants to exceed what's allowed by right, require additional review and approval, typically by DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). A third type of project, where a developer is seeking substantial relief from DC's zoning rules, is called a Planned Unit Development (PUD).

PUDs arise when a developer wants to exceed what's allowed under the zoning rules in a significant way, such as higher density or taller building height. A PUD case can also occur when a developer wants to change the way a piece of land is zoned, such as from an industrial district to a residential or commercial district. The city can grant this relief if it believes the proposed project--with the deviations from matter-of-right zoning--will allow for a project that produces a superior development and public benefits.

What do PUD cases mean for the community?

The community can engage with any zoning case, through the ANC and through the relevant zoning agency, such as the BZA. Because a PUD is typically a larger project with more significant implications for the community in which it is located, PUD cases typically involve a longer and more detailed process of community engagement. Engagement often starts with the ANC, which can facilitate communication between the developer and the community.

Another important feature of PUDs is that the developer is required to provide a benefits and amenities package to the community in exchange for the request zoning relief. This means community participation in the PUD process is critical.

What is a benefits and amenities package?

When a developer proposes a PUD project, they are asking for exceptions to the zoning regulations, and those exceptions, if granted, have value, since they allow the developer to build a larger or different project than would normally be allowed. In exchange for the additional value the developer receives, they are required to provide a suite of benefits and amenities to the community, which should be roughly equal to the value of the zoning relief.

Benefits and amenities packages vary by project, and there are relatively few restrictions or even guidelines on what a package can include. The "benefits" component accrues to the community, while the "amenities" are typically more relevant for the residents of the development. An example of a benefit might be improvements to a local dog park or streetscape upgrades. Amenities could include a transportation "hub" in the development that provides information to residents on local transportation options. Here are some typical categories of benefits and amenities:

  • Architecture and landscaping
  • Efficient and economical land utilization
  • Safe vehicular and pedestrian access; transportation management measures
  • Historic preservation projects
  • Employment and training opportunities
  • Affordable housing
  • Social services or facilities
  • Environmental benefits

In general, District agencies involved in PUD cases prefer public benefits that are physical investments--playground equipment or bicycle racks--rather than "soft" investments, such as monetary contributions to a nonprofit organization. The rationale is that physical investments are relatively guaranteed to provide benefits to the community for the life of the investment, while soft investments may not always provide the intended stream of benefits (for example, if the nonprofit closes).

PUD benefits can be located away from the development site, but they must be within 1/4 mile or within the boundaries of the ANC in which the PUD sits.

Who is involved in reviewing a PUD case?

Unlikely typical zoning cases, PUDs are managed by the Zoning Commission, which is a office within DC's Office of Zoning. The Zoning Commission is in charge of changes to the zoning regulations or zoning map, and it also manages the PUD application and approval process. Other DC government entities can provide recommendations to the Zoning Commission. These include the ANC in which the PUD project resides and the District's Office of Planning.

In future posts I will walk through the PUD application process and timeline, provide examples of benefits and amenities packages from recent PUD projects, and talk about the proposed PUDs in Hill East.

Want to read more? Additional resources on the PUD process

Watkins garden work day this Saturday

Watkins Elementary, at 12th and E St. SE, has a fantastic, award-winning garden, which provides a living (and edible!) laboratory for Watkins students. The Watkins garden master gardener, Barbara Percival, along with students and families, maintain the garden day-to-day. This Saturday, June 13th, the Watkins garden invites the community to come out and help tend the garden during the Watkins garden work day. If you're a fan of the garden, want to learn about the garden, or just like getting your hands dirty, come out to Watkins from 10am to 1pm.

If you'd like to learn more or if you have questions, please contact Barbara Percival (

Update on the Safeway Dumpster

To some of you, that post title won't mean much. To others, you know exactly what I'm talking about. For most of the seven years I've lived on E St next door to the Safeway, I've been frustrated by Safeway's external compacting dumpster, which frequently becomes the trash management equivalent of the corpse flower. Particularly during the summer, trash in the dumpster decays and often leaks foul-smelling liquid out onto the Safeway parking lot. The problem gets worse in the summer, and hot days are the worst. In comparison, I've never had an issue with the trash hauling company that's literally across the street.

14th Street Safeway Dumpster, image from Google Maps

14th Street Safeway Dumpster, image from Google Maps

Some of our neighbors have submitted requests and complaints to DC 311, and if you observe any future issues, please continue to do so. This spring I decided to take a different approach, and I wrote a letter to Safeway, expressing concern about the dumpster and asking that the store develop a plan to mitigate the problem.

This week I spoke with Safeway's store manager, Matthew Schmitt, who took over at the 14th Street Safeway about two months ago. I also received a call from Safeway's regional maintenance office. Mr. Schmitt walked me through the steps he's taking to mitigate the odor and leakage problems:

  • The store has recently started separating compostable waste, which is picked up from the store. This should reduce the flow of decaying matter into the dumpster.
  • They are pursuing options to use deodorizing additives in the dumpster, which should be started in the next week. 
  • Mr. Schmitt has assured me that staff do not put milk in the dumpster.
  • Mr. Schmitt has put in a request to re-level the parking lot, to prevent any liquid from the dumpster from pooling. The maintenance office confirmed that Safeway is planning a larger project to update their parking lot.
  • Mr. Schmitt has put in a request to have the dumpster pulled and cleaned, and he will do this more frequently going forward.

The conversation I had with Matt Schmitt was good, and I appreciate that he and other Safeway managers are taking this issue seriously. He invited me to let him know if I observe further problems with the dumpster, and I encourage you all to let me know if you see (smell) anything. I'm hopeful that we're at an olfactory turning point, but I will continue to push on this issue in the coming months.

The Buchanan School Redevelopment BZA Case

On Tuesday, June 2nd, the ANC 6B Planning and Zoning Committee will hear Insight Property Group's application to the DC Board of Zoning Adjustment, which manages most small- to medium-scale zoning cases in DC. Here's a brief overview of the case and the types of "relief" that Insight is requesting. Recall that "relief" means an exception from what is allowed automatically (or "by right") under DC zoning code. BZA cases are typically standard exceptions, which are built into the zoning code. That doesn't mean they're granted under all cases, but it means there's an accepted process.

First, some site orientation. Insight is planning to redevelop the entire Buchanan School site, but this BZA case only affect the houses on the western half of the property, as shown by the blue outline in the image below. The flats in the original school buildings and the larger row houses along D St. aren't covered here. 

Proposed site plan for the Buchanan School project. The BZA case covers the units outlined in blue.

Proposed site plan for the Buchanan School project. The BZA case covers the units outlined in blue.

Insight group is seeking four areas of relief, which will allow them to build this project on land that will remain zoned R4. The four areas are:

  1. A special exception for lot widths of 16' on 19 townhome lots
  2. A variance for minimum lot area on 9 lots
  3. A variance for lot occupancy (69%) on the northwest-most lot
  4. A variance to allow two townhomes on a single lot (the houses running along 13th St)

Insight is asking for one special exception and three variances. A special exception is a relatively modest type of relief, and the burden of proof is commensurately lower. (See DC's guide here.) A variance is a stronger departure from the zoning code, and the burden of proof is higher. Areas 1-3 are things the ANC see relatively often, especially #3 (which is typically a special exception). These three, if approved, allow Insight to build the homes along D St. as proposed.

The fourth area is less common, and getting approval here would allow Insight to construct the homes along 13th St and the mews (the interior houses on the east side of the new alley) by placing two homes on a single lot. DC code allows this with zoning relief, and we see many homeowners do this to put a live-in carriage house on their property, often using a covered walkway to connect the two structures. Here insight will build two houses on one lot but then sell each house under a separate deed.

Insight held a community meeting to walk through the BZA application on Thursday, May 28th at the Hill Center. At the ANC meeting Tuesday, Insight will need to explain why they believe they should be granted these four types of relief, and the Planning and Zoning Committee will decide what to recommend to the full ANC. After the ANC review, the BZA (board) will review the case and ultimately determine whether to approve the application.

If you'd like to observe or participate in the process, come to the P&Z meeting on June 2nd at 7pm at the St. Coletta School near the Armory on Independence Ave.

Previous posts on the Buchanan School redevelopment:
Introduction to the Buchanan School plans

Come talk with MPD about Crime in Hill East

There has been increased concern in the past couple weeks about crime on Capitol Hill and in particular in Hill East. Although total crimes for the past month (160) are down from the same period last year (170), there have been some high-profile robberies and assaults, and many people are understandably concerned. Many neighbors have asked what the police are doing about the recent incidents, and they also want to know what they can do to help prevent crimes from happening. 

About two weeks ago I wrote up some guidance from MPD, in particular 1st District Commander Brown and PSA 108 Lt. Dykes. Last Friday Councilmember Allen held his monthly office hours and talked with neighbors about what he and the police are doing to promote safety.  Commander Brown attended that meeting.

Tomorrow, June 1st, Commander Brown is holding a community outreach meeting, organized by ANC 6B10 Commissioner Denise Krepp, to meet with neighbors, talk about MPD's response, and provide information on what we can all do to address crime. If you're concerned about crime in Hill East, please come to the meeting tomorrow.

Community Meeting with MPD
Monday, June 1 @ 7pm
St. Coletta's School (1901 Independence Ave SE)

Update on crime and safety in Hill East

At this week's ANC meeting, we were joined by Commander Brown from MPD's 1st District (1D) who provided an update on crime in our area. I wanted to share with the neighborhood some information that might be helpful, since we're all concerned about crime and safety on our streets.

What's happening?
This year as in the past, Spring has brought an uptick in crime. Relative to last month, robberies, burglaries, and assaults with a deadly weapon are all up in our area. In particular, police service area (PSA) 108, our area in Hill East*, is seeing a spike in burglaries. 

     * A handful of residents in SMD 6B06 are in PSA 107

What are the police doing?
Police in 1D are increasing their patrols in our area and trying to make police patrols visible (for instance, along Pennsylvania Ave). The police are also working with the DC housing authority to address crime that may have a connection to DC-owned apartment buildings like Potomac Gardens.

What can you do?
As you've probably heard, taken reasonable precautions. Lock doors and secure windows when you're away or at night. If you see a crime or are a victim of a crime, try to get a good description of the suspect. Focus on distinct characteristics, like purple shoes or a stripe on a jacket.

Want to learn more? Have questions?
Remember, if you witness a crime, suspect a crime, or are just concerned there might be a crime occurring, CALL 911.

You can always reach out to me. You can also contact MPD with questions, issues, and concerns.

1D Commander Jeff Brown (202.299.2037)
PSA 108: Lt. James Dykes (202.904.6484)
MPD 1st District

MPD 1st District Police Service Areas

MPD 1st District Police Service Areas

38th Annual Peter Bug Day this Saturday

Whether you have lived in Hill East for two years or twenty, you're probably familiar with John "Peter Bug" Matthews and the annual Peter Bug Day. Each spring brings this lively, outdoor community celebration at the corner of Peter Bug Way and E St SE, at the end of my block.

Each year Peter Bug Day the festival draws neighbors, visitors, and special guests together for an afternoon of live music and a festive atmosphere. In the past there has often been a parade, with specially decorated automobiles and local marchers and performers. Although there won't be a parade this year, musical guests include the Velons, the Marquees, and the Winstons. One of this year's special guests is Baby Washington, famed soul music vocalist.

Join Peter Bug and members of the community, this Saturday, May 16th from 11am to 7:30pm at the corner of Peter Bug Way (13th) and E St SE, next to the Buchanan School.

Watkins modernization community meeting on May 19th

The Watkins modernization process is moving forward, and DGS and DCPS are holding another meeting to help keep the community updated on progress with the master plan development and near term building upgrades. The current plan is to upgrade the windows this summer, starting sometime in late-June or after.

The meeting will be held in the Watkins Library on May 19th at 6pm. The next community meeting won't be until September, so this is a great time to catch up on the school improvement process.

Ward 6 Business & Consumer Town Hall

On Wednesday, April 29th, Councilmember Charles Allen will join At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, Chair of the Council's Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs Committee along with directors for relevant DC agencies  (e.g., DCRA, ABRA) for a town hall meeting on small business and consumer issues. DC government participants will be on hand to answer questions and discuss concerns raised by community members and small business owners.

The town hall will take place at the Hill Center from 6:30pm to 8pm.