Planning Proposal Recommends Preservation of Family Rowhouse Neighborhoods

Map of ANC 1A and 1B, showing areas currently zoned R-4.

Map of ANC 1A and 1B, showing areas currently zoned R-4.

Zoning, Pop-ups, and converting single-family houses to multiple-family dwellings is something that is very much in the news these days. On on side are many residents who see pop-ups and house conversions as both undesirable and destructive to both the character and livability of decades old single-family neighborhoods. One the other side are residents who believe that adding height, back of the house additions, and converting rowhouses to apartments and condos is the only real answer to ensuring that housing supply meets demand which helps keep housing affordable in a growing urban environment.

Currently, the Office of Planning (OP) has proposed changing  both the height and the number of allowable living units within the city’s residential rowhouse neighborhoods — Zoned R-4 (see map for areas Zoned R-4) — with the goal of maintaining the residential character of these neighborhoods (Read the full OP Proposal and Recommendation here). According to the Office of Planning, the R-4 Zone was intended to be a family residential area composed primarily of row dwellings when it was created. The type of development that generally cuts up these structures into multiple units tends to be at odds with the original intent of this zoning.

Key elements of OP’s proposal include, but are not limited to:

  • Change the R-4 by-right height for a detached, semi-detached, rowhouse, or flat building from 40 ft to 35 ft with an allowance up to 40 ft by special exception;
  • Include mezzanine in the number of stories;
  • Conversions:
    • Limit to non-residential buildings (i.e. schools, churches, fire stations) by special exception;
    • Allow conversions of residential buildings up to 3 or 4 units by special exception with units beyond 2 subject to affordability requirements.

On August 4th, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions 1A and 1B hosted a joint town hall so that OPs Jennifer Steingasser could present the proposal and answer community questions (See the slide deck from the presentation here).

Some interesting information that came out of the meeting is that areas zoned R-4 only comprises 15.6% of the District’s residential land areas. Areas zoned R-5, on the other hand, which supports apartments with no limits on the number of units, has a total land area of 29.8%. The full chart is below.

Residential Land Percentages

Another argument presented for preserving rowhouse neighborhoods introduced at the meeting was the need to preserve housing large enough to support families. This was described as housing with three or more bedrooms. According to OP, few if any new three+ bedroom units are included in new construction. As existing houses large enough for families are converted to apartments, it decreases the number of family units in the District and has been driving up demand and prices for the remaining family sized houses.

The last item on note that I’d like to draw out from the meeting is that the limit preventing  converting structures to apartments would not apply to church buildings, commercial structures, schools, firehouses, and other non-residential structures.

After the August 4th Town Hall, it was clear that there is a lot of community interest in this proposal, and that there are still many aspects of it which need to be carefully considered. Both ANC 1A and 1B and currently working to schedule a follow up meeting for the community for a Saturday in September.

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3 Comments on “Planning Proposal Recommends Preservation of Family Rowhouse Neighborhoods”

  1. CLIFF Says:

    I THINK IT IS A REALLY GOOD PROPOSAL. IT DOESN’T STOP THE CONVERSIONS BUT DOES PROVIDE A BASIS FOR THE BLENDING IN A LITTLE BETTER, AND IT PREVENTS SOME OF THESE CONVERSIONS THAT HAVE BECOME TOO DENSE FOR A SINGLE FAMILY CONVERSION.

  2. 4C08 Resident Says:

    Please remember that “family housing” does not necessarily mean “large housing.” It is entirely possible to raise a family in a 2BR apartment — people do it all the time. The rhetorical equivalence between “family housing” and 3+ BR units is not defensible.

    Restricting housing supply drives up prices, and drives young families (and young people who might start families) out to MD/VA. It also drives up the price of the existing housing stock, which is why it is popular with voting homeowners.

    I’m often galled by the hideous pop-ups I see, and I wish there were incentives to improve them. I’m also galled at abuses by historical preservation committees and the many hurdles that DCRA, DDOT, RACD, DCHA and so many others place in front of reasonable development.

    The proposed restrictions would not affect the basement-to-rental conversion I am planning, so I don’t have direct skin in the game. But I would like to put up a welcome sign to new neighbors — whether they live three households to a building or two. Moreover the huge improvements we have gained around the Petworth metro are enabled by (1) transit and (2) density. The Georgia Ave corridor plans will improve (1); will we allow (2)?

    • chris Says:

      +100, in 10 years we will really regret these moves. Prices in the District are only going to rise as demand for close in, urban housing rises. The affordability issue will only worse over time.

      The best way of preventing that is to allow the Districts housing supply to expand to meet rising demand.

      We have to face facts, you live in a major world city. DC is the capitol of the most powerful nation on earth. It is not realistic to restrict vast swaths of the city to single family homes. Especially in city with a strict height limit.

      As for the idea that these expansions are too dense. The existing height limit is 40 feet. These limits are already restrictive enough to block the construction of the 5-6 story mid-rise apartments seen all over Dupont and European cities (the horror). Heck, even 5-story row houses common in Boston and NYC would be too tall under the existing zoning. There is no need to go lower.

      If the district is concerned about preserving “family sized units” why not just stipulate that any apartment conversion must include at least 1 3-bd room unit. That preserves the existing family sized unit and still allows for the creation of additional housing. All the other efforts to limit construction will do nothing to preserve “family housing.”

      Finally, the ugly pop up issue can be solved with a streamlined architectural review process. No need to through the baby out with the bathwater.


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