The Lanier Heights neighborhood has a mix of apartment buildings, row houses divided into multiple units, and single-family row houses. A group of residents want to to prohibit all but the last category, and their proposal took a significant step forward in December. But other neighbors have been mobilizing to stop it.
Lanier Heights is either in or just north of Adams Morgan, depending how you define neighborhood boundaries. It’s the area behind the Adams Morgan Safeway, between Columbia Road and Mount Pleasant.
The area’s zoning, R-5-B, makes it legal to put as many units in a building as the property owner would like. It’s the same zoning as the rest of Greater Adams Morgan, most of Dupont Circle, and the blocks of Columbia Heights between 16th and 14th to the east.
But a spate of projects converting row houses into multi-unit buildings, often with additions, has stirred some residents to ask for the neighborhood to instead get the R-4 category, which applies to Mount Pleasant and the parts of Columbia Heights and Logan Circle east of 14th. R-4 only allows one or two units in most buildings.
Residential zoning in Lanier Heights (red oval) and surrounding areas. Blue is R-5-B, purple is R-4. Image by the author from DC zoning base map. Click for full version.
The request has been percolating since 2012, but the DC Zoning Commission recently “set down” the case for hearings. Under the commission’s rules, this also meant that the stricter zoning came into effect immediately, at least temporarily, meaning the down-zoning has already happened on a provisional basis.
What are the arguments for and against the proposal?
Advocates for the change say that when a property owner converts a row house into a building with multiple units, they often add on top or in back of the house, cutting down on light to adjacent homes. The changes increase the demand for parking spaces, noise, and garbage.
Also, some proponents argue that the city needs family-sized housing, that most new larger buildings mainly comrprise studios and one- and two-bedroom units, and that row houses are a resource for larger housing that shouldn’t be lost.
A rear addition to a row house on Lanier Place. Images from the rezoning application.
Other neighbors disagree. Unlike some recent zoning cases, there is an organized group opposing this change, called Neighbors Against Down-Zoning (and with the amusing acronym NADZ). Members of NADZ say they are themselves homeowners who want to protect property rights and want the ability to convert their own buildings one day, gaining financially and making it easier to remain in their houses as their needs for space decrease but financial needs, perhaps, increase.
A stricter zone doesn’t fit all (or perhaps even most) existing buildings
A few things complicate the idea. For one, Lanier Heights is not entirely or predominantly row houses — there are a lot of apartment buildings there too. The neighbors applying for the zoning change have tried to draw the boundaries of the zone to exclude most of those, though this makes the rezoning apply to several small, discontinuous pieces of larger blocks — much smaller than almost all of DC’s current zoning.
Image from the rezoning application.
Even so, the zone also wouldn’t exclude every apartment building, according to the DC Office of Planning (OP)‘s analysis of the zoning application, which doesn’t take a position for or against the rezoning.
The current zone, R-5-B, also is more lenient than R-4 in many ways besides the number of units. Lots in R-5-B can be smaller or narrower than in R-4, while R-4 also requires a larger rear yard and (since a zoning change last year) limits the height of buildings more strictly. The OP report estimates that about 20-25% of the properties affected would exceed the maximum height under the R-4 rules. “Most,” says the report, have sufficient area and width, while the report doesn’t discuss the number with currently legal rear yards that would become illegal.
However, in another filing in the case, Ronald Baker of NADZ disputes that notion. He says that “Primarily due to issues of lot width, rear yard depth and building height, we believe that a majority of row houses do not conform to the standards of the new R-4 zone (even when only counting houses that have not been substantially altered from their original state).”
You can read the OP report, Baker’s opposition, and other documents by going here and entering case number 15-09. The OP report is document #12 and Baker’s rebuttal on this specific point is #13.
What will this do to overall housing supply?
A July 2014 article in the Washington City Paper summarized many of the concerns and arguments on this issue. Aaron Wiener wrote,
The appeal of the argument made by [proponents] is clear: Historic rowhouses are more attractive than converted apartment buildings, and no one wants a giant shadow cast on his or her backyard. The danger is what happens when this seductive logic is applied across the city. …
The essence of the disagreement, for the sake of the city’s wellbeing, is this: One side wants to preserve the character of Lanier Heights for its current residents; the other wants to make the neighborhood available to more people in the future. … Greater density is needed in central neighborhood like Lanier Heights if we’re to avoid taxing our roads and transit system with concentrated growth on the city’s fringes.
The OP report references many provisions of DC’s Comprehensive Plan. Many speak of the need to include more people: “By accommodating a larger number of jobs and residents, we can create the critical mass needed to support new services, sustain public transit, and improve regional environmental quality,” (§217 7), and “Affordable renter- and owner-occupied housing production and preservation is central to the idea of growing more inclusively.” (§ 218 3)
But at the same time, the plan also says things like, “In both residential and commercial settings, infill development must be sensitive to neighborhood context. High quality design standards should be required, the privacy of neighboring structures should be respected, and density and scale should reflect the desired character of the surrounding area.” (§307 3)
Those who don’t want to see much change in Lanier Heights could point to the many other R-4 neighborhoods, where new housing is much more difficult to add (and which OP made even more difficult with changes last year). Many neighborhoods have gotten an “opt-out” from adding new housing; should Lanier Heights too? But this opt-out has concentrated new housing in fewer new neighborhoods, and as more seek stricter protections, it will further constrain where DC can add the housing it needs.
Several people have said they are “not against development,” like former ANC commissioner Elham Deborzorgi, who said “I’m all for higher density and I’m all for growth, but I’m not for growth in the wrong places, and I don’t think row houses are the place for three, four, five units,” according to and article in the Current, or resident Hilda Gore (document 15 in the case), who said “I am not opposed to growth” while supporting this downzoning.
But if not here, density and growth where? While there has been new housing in other parts of greater Adams Morgan, many other projects have also seen strident opposition, like at the Meridian Center on 16th Street. On the other hand, neighborhood commissioners favored new condos and retail in place of a gas station on Adams Mill Road in 2013.
Are there alternatives?
Zoning is a very blunt instrument, as is clear from the debate over how a change from R-5-B to R-4 would render many existing buildings non-conforming. But right now, it’s one of the few tools neighbors can even choose from. Another, a historic district, failed in 2008.
A down-zoning would simultaneously limit the number of people who can be in Lanier Heights, the sizes of buildings, and other types of changes property owners might want to make. But there may be ways to address some neighbor concerns without also slamming the door to new potential residents.
OP could pursue several avenues to identify even better policies than the down-zoning being discussed now or the broader R-4 change from last year. Some places to start might be:
Focus more on quality than density. One Comprehensive Plan provision quoted above calls for “high quality design standards,” but neither R-5-B nor R-4 have anything to do with quality.
In a sense, Lanier Heights’ pop-ups are among the best examples of the right way to boost density. From the street, most range from nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive, at least compared with infamous pop-ups that have raised hackles in nearby neighborhoods, like the V Street NW middle finger or the Belmont Tower in Kalorama.
A change to R-4 would ban the most “nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive” additions as much as the most disruptive. Some of the testimony in the record in support of the change talks about shoddy construction that might not even comply with existing laws. There may be other ways to stop that besides a blanket ban.
Plan for the housing the area needs. The Comprehensive Plan simultaneously talks of adding housing while protecting neighborhood character. One way to square the two is to identify how much housing DC needs, divvy it up among parts of the city, and then lead more proactive efforts to figure out where it can go.
If the Adams Morgan ANC wants to support density in certain spots and limit in others, that’s not outrageous. But the current case-by-case approach to zoning just looks at adding or removing allowable housing in one spot, not the larger need. A broader conversation could better balance neighbor desires with citywide interests.
Perhaps OP will think about these issues when it updates the Comprehensive Plan, a process that’s slated to start this year. Meanwhile, the Zoning Commission will schedule hearings in the coming year on the specific zoning for Lanier Heights.
Correction: The original version of this article identified Elham Dehbozorgi as an ANC Commissioner, but she is no longer on the commission. Also, she asked that the article be adjusted to include more of her original quotation to provide more context; that has been added.