If you’ve walked through Lanier Heights in recent years, it’s clear that new construction has changed the neighborhood. Some residents want to change zoning laws to limit that trend, while others welcome it. Both groups faced off at a meeting on Tuesday.

Photo by John Leszczynski on Flickr.

Over the past five years or so, multi-unit condos known as pop-ups have replaced a number of single-family row houses in Lanier Heights. Several more of these projects are already under way, making it clear that pop-ups are the trend in the quiet, residential neighborhood.

Some long-time residents are mad as hell about it, saying pop-ups block sunlight and crowd yard space. They contend that buildings block views, damage historic row houses, and make it hard to find parking on the street. The result, they argue, is that it’s much harder for families with children to live in the neighborhood.

Those who support pop-ups say that people’s rights to build onto their property, which can increase its value, shouldn’t be limited. They also point out that expanding houses or converting them into multiple units increases the city’s dwindling housing supply.

A change in Lanier Heights’ zoning laws would limit pop-ups

To stop future pop-ups, these residents have proposed a change to Lanier Heights’ zoning designation. They want to downzone the neighborhood from R-5-B, which allows property owners to build to the back and the front of their lot and up to 50 feet in height, to R-4, which would limit the number of units in a row house to two as well as put a cap on how much of its lot construction can occupy.

Neighbors Against Downzoning has officially rejected the proposed zoning change, and at Tuesday’s meeting residents added a number of additional reasons not to downzone.

Some pointed out the technical failings of R-4, citing ways developers could get around the proposed restriction. An architect in the audience voiced his opposition, saying that the difference between R-5 and R-4 is too minor to warrant changing. “We’re fighting over 10 feet,” he explained. Many lots in Lanier Heights aren’t even eligible for R-5 development, making the debate a moot point for much of the neighborhood.

Others voiced broader opposition to restricting development. “I agree, we have a problem,” one resident said. “However, I don’t agree that downzoning is the solution. I believe in density, I believe in growth, I believe in diversity, and I think this downzoning will have unintended consequences.”

“We’re in the middle of a housing crisis in this city, and downzoning will only exacerbate that,” another resident said.

He was not the only one to point out that many row homes in Lanier Heights neighborhood are valued at over $1 million, making them financially out of reach for many of the young families residents claim to want. Several younger residents explained that owning a home in Lanier Heights simply would not have been possible were it not for the smaller, more affordable condos available in pop-up buildings.

A solution could come in the form of a new type of zoning

While most residents are interested in protecting Lanier Heights’ historic row homes, what became clear at the meeting is that R-4 downzoning is a far-from-perfect solution. ANC 1C commissioners brought up conservation districts and historic preservation designations as other possible solutions, but acknowledged that each has its downsides.

There’s rumor that the DC Office of Planning’s zoning rewrite will put forth a new zoning designation that would essentially fall between R5 and R4, and that might be an ideal compromise. But given how drawn out the zoning update has been, it’s anyone’s guess when the new code will go into place.

Neighbors should work to establish common goals

ANC Commissioner Marty Davis suggested a next step that’s practical for all parties. “The one thing this neighborhood doesn’t have,” he said, “is a plan saying ‘This is what we like. This is what we want Lanier Heights to be.’ Help us make that plan by going to http://www.envisionadamsmorgan.org and expressing your opinion.”

Davis encouraged everyone in Adams Morgan to join a community-wide meeting about these and other zoning issues on January 24.

As for downzoning, ANC1C will deliberate and vote on the substance of Lanier Heights’ zoning proposals on Wednesday, December 3rd at 7:00 PM at Mary’s Center. If you live in the neighborhood and have an opinion on the matter, come to that meeting to share your thoughts with the commission.

Alex Dodds is an independent communications strategist who works with nonprofits and small businesses to tell their story. She has worked on issues of urbanism, transportation, and city data for nearly a decade, and when not working you can usually find her at a rally or the public library. She lives in Ward 4 with her husband and two small, Metro-enthusiast children.