City Paper Widget

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Joint ANC Town Hall Pushes Back Against Density

Advisory Neighborhood Commissions 1A/Columbia Heights and 1B/U Street hosted a joint town hall last night (August 4) to discuss legislation that will push back against increased density in residential districts. The primary front in the offensive is a proposal by the DC Office of Planning which would, among other things, reduce the height to which a residential-district home can grow "by right" from 40 feet to 35 feet. The second front is the passage into law of a long-brewing idea: the creation of "conservation districts", sort of a "historic district lite".

DC government presenters were Jennifer Steingasser, Deputy Director for Development Review and Historic Preservation at the Office of Planning, and Steve Callcott, senior preservation planner in the Historic Preservation Office (HPO).

DC Office of Planning logo
Office of Planning Proposal 

Steingasser briefed on an Office of Planning proposal (Case Number 14-11, a nine-page .pdf document here) to limit both pop-ups as well as conversions of rowhouses to multi-family units.

The proposed new regulations would apply to houses in R-4 zones. R-4 zones are zones largely of single-family residential houses. Much of the area south of U Street NW between 14th and 7th Streets is an R-4 zone, as is much of the area north of Clifton Street between Georgia and 14th.

The proposed regulations would
  • reduce the height to which houses could be expanded "by right" (i.e., without applying for zoning permission) from 40 feet to 35 feet (measured from the sidewalk)
  • allow height up to 40 feet if the homeowner has obtained a special exception from the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA)
  • place severe restrictions on the circumstances under which a rowhouse could be converted into an apartment house.
Steingasser said this proposal stands apart from the general DC zoning rewrite. The period during which the public will be allowed to comment on this matter will stay open after the comment period for the general rewrite is closed.

During the post-presentation Q-and-A session, Steingasser was asked for a possible timeline for adoption, assuming the proposal were "accepted on a reasonable schedule". Steingasser said it was possible there would be public hearings in late October or early November, after which there would a mandatory 30-day Federal government review period. Final action could potentially take place "by the end of December".

Historic Preservation on Conservation Districts

Steve Caldcott reported that the idea of conservation districts was moving forward. The legislation is still in draft form, Caldcott said, but he expected the legislation to be "wrapped up this month" and ready for presentation to the DC Council this fall.

A conservation district would be similar to a historic district, but the level of protection for buildings would be lower. Once a conservation district had been established, however, any proposed demolition or major alteration of a building would have to come before the HPO. Additions to a building that "fundamentally expand" a building would also be subject to review. Front alterations would also be investigated by HPO, but Caldcott said the office would not get into as much detail as they might in a full-fledged historic district. Finally, all new construction would be subject to review.

A community would have to petition to be considered a conservation district, in much the same way as areas today petition to be historic districts.

After Caldcott and Steingasser presented, people attending were asked for a show of hands, for or against the proposals. The vote passed too quickly to count hands, but my impression was that 75-90% of the audience was in favor.

The emcee for the evening was ANC1B Commissioner Mark Ramslem (district 08). ANC Chairs Kent Boese (ANC1A Commissioner for district 08) and James Turner (ANC1B Commissioner for district 09) also spoke, as did Commissioner E. Gail Anderson Holness (ANC1B district 11). 

"Should this go forward, it would effect the community in a significant manner," Kent Boese said.

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