The District’s enviable real estate market–and residential demand in particular–has resulted in change to nearly every corner of the city. However, the renewed vitality this has brought to long-neglected neighborhoods has not come without problems. The term gentrification encompasses the restoration of existing residential structures and is typically accompanied by demographic change altering a neighborhood’s racial and economic profile. The demand for close-in housing has been so strong that even early gentrifiers now feel the pressure of neighborhood upheaval. And in something of a role-reversal, some very long-term residents have come to see historic district designation not as a tool of white gentrification, but as an essential mechanism to retain neighborhood character.
Two expressions of the demand for additional housing are the proliferation of “pop-ups” and the development of large-scale projects adjacent to rowhouse neighborhoods. In recent weeks, the Zoning Commission moved to restrict the first. The Swampoodle neighborhood near Union Station went even farther and determined to become part of the Capitol Hill Historic District.
DC residents are understandably befuddled when it comes to zoning and historic district regulations. The jargon is obscure, and the regulatory language is rife with cross references to various additional provisions. In addition, since many older structures are non-conforming, determining the necessary conditions for variances and special exceptions can lead to endless confusion. While the new revisions to the R-4 Zone are welcomed by many, they will not eliminate the potential for unfortunate projects. Similarly, historic district designation does not prohibit either rearward or upward expansion of existing structures. That type of project is routinely approved by the HPRB, and often with the endorsement of groups like the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) or the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC).
On June 8, 2015 the Zoning Commission voted to reduce the matter of right height in R-4 zones (the zoning classification of most of DC’s rowhouse neighborhoods) from 40 feet to 35 feet in addition to other measures. Public outcry over “pop-ups” that add a third or even a fourth or fifth floor to an existing structure were characterized as out of scale and inconsistent with the fabric of family-oriented neighborhoods. This type of addition has frequently been employed by “house flippers” as well as individual property owners to create additional living space, or to convert rowhouses into additional dwelling units.
Why Become Part of An Historic District?
If the Zoning Commission was taking steps to address the scourge of pop-ups, why would a neighborhood petition to become part of an historic district? Yet one DC neighborhood resolved to do just that, and on May 28, 2015 the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) unanimously approved the northward expansion of the Capitol Hill Historic District to include the Swampoodle neighborhood near Union Station. This relatively small addition to the historic district is where development pressures around Union Station, H Street, and NOMA converge. Large-scale development had already resulted in the loss of several rowhouse structures in the 700 block of 2nd St., NE. Rather than see their neighborhood overtaken by even more of this type of development, the area sought protection as an historic district.
No doubt, additional investment will continue within R-4 neighborhoods even under the moderating effect of the recent zoning decision both inside and outside of historic districts. While building height is often the most obvious change, another threat to neighborhood fabric is the creation of larger parcels. Unlike most jurisdictions, DC does not attempt to regulate the footprint - and thereby the scale - of structures. In the District of Columbia, the process of subdivision to combine lots is an administrative procedure. In most cases, land assembly proceeds without oversight and often results in lots large enough to qualify as a Planned Unit Development (PUD). Further, the PUD planning process may be accompanied by re-zoning as well as other increases in building size above what would otherwise be permitted as a matter of right. Consider the large scale developments underway and recently completed along H Street, NE and Pennsylvania Ave., SE. These projects are often 90 feet or more in height and take in an entire block of street frontage. Many of these projects are well designed and bring much needed housing and retail activity, but for residents living in the shadow of a nine or 10 story building, the feel of the neighborhood is inarguably altered.
In an historic district however, the creation of larger lots is subject to HPRB review and approval. This can be a critically important additional protection. Within Capitol Hill for example, the Hine School PUD project was the subject of many neighborhood meetings regarding the scale, mass, and design of the project. Or consider Heritage Foundation’s large underground parking garage and six new rowhouses under construction in the 400 block of Third St, NE. Absent historic district oversight, the design of these large projects would almost certainly have been very, very different.
When residents complain about the so-called “burden” of being in an historic district, they often do not realize the full importance of that designation. For decades the DC’s rowhouse neighborhoods slept soundly in the belief that their neighborhood would be immune from un-wanted development. It is only after a large scale project or ugly pop-up is underway that people ask “how could they let that happen?”
Residents of the newly-minted Swampoodle historic neighborhood within Capitol Hill can rest a bit more comfortably. The possibility of marring one of Swampoodle’s block-long rows of symmetrical Victorian rowhouses is now remote because any addition will be thoroughly vetted and reviewed. A “pop-up” type addition will have to meet not only the new zoning requirements in R-4, but also meet at least minimal design requirements and not be visible from the street. And lest someone think they can avoid compliance, the Historic Preservation staff, and a team of building inspectors dedicated exclusively to historic districts perform their tasks efficiently. Stop-work orders on illegal construction within an historic district is a breeze compared to securing enforcement outside of those districts. Finally the possibility of out-of-scale projects is practically nonexistent because site assembly would be subject to public review.
Residents of DC’s many rowhouse neighborhoods should rightfully be thankful for the recently-adopted zoning measures to curb the worst abuses. But they might also look to Swampoodle and ask themselves whether they too would not also prefer the additional protections afforded by historic district designation.
Drury Tallant, PhD is an Architect and Urban Planner. He serves on the CHRS Board, the CHRS Historic District Committee, and the ANC6C Planning and Zoning Committee.