Greater Greater Washington

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The pop-up debate in Lanier Heights pits "property rights" against "neighborhood character"

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.

DDOT director Brown stands up to opposition to mini-circles

Permanent traffic circles will go in at two intersections in American University Park despite a last-ditch effort by some residents to block them. Transportation chief Matt Brown personally got involved to keep the project going.


Photo by waltarrrrr on Flickr.

On Friday, November 14th, DDOT Traffic Systems Maintenance Manager James Cheeks asked American University, who had agreed to pay for the circles, to delay the construction until there could be another community meeting. Residents, who had already endured a number of meetings on this topic, were surprised at the sudden shift from DDOT at the eleventh hour.

But in an email Monday night, Director Matt Brown said DDOT had collected enough public input and heard enough discussion to move forward with the circles. Installation should start today.

Simply put, we believe that these mini-circles are an appropriate way to improve safety. That said, we will continue to work with American University, MPD, and you to monitor these locations after installation. DDOT will also reach out to neighbors near the southern mini-circle, where we have heard specific concerns about operations, to discuss how we've addressed those in the final design. We are committed to making these mini-circles valued elements of the community.

For these reasons, I am asking American University to proceed with construction. Once again thank you for contacting me with your comments and concerns. I know that this action will not please everyone, but I am confident that safety will be improved.

Why Cheeks asked American University to hold off or who asked for another hearing in the first place remains vague.

"The reason for the delay and how it came about is unclear," wrote Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E commissioner Sam Serebin, who represents the area. "This project has certainly not suffered from too little process (anyone who suggests as much just hasn't been paying attention) and the ANC still supports the project."


The current, temporary circles.

One possibility, though, is 3E chair Matthew Frumin, who was the target of the opponents' petition. Though he himself supports the circles, Frumin a message to Cheeks, Brown, DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe, and Councilmember Mary Cheh at 3:15 pm on Friday afternoon asking for another community meeting. Cheeks' request for a delay came just three hours later. Meanwhile, Cheh's office reiterated her support for the circles.

In multiple emails to DDOT and councilmember Mary Cheh, other 3E commissioners made it clear that Frumin had taken his action without first discussing the issue with the entire commission.

Director Brown deserves praise for standing up for this project despite efforts to delay it further. There has been enough public input; city agencies need to decide when they've heard all of the substantive arguments about a project and then be willing to move forward. AU Park residents will enjoy safer streets because Brown took action.

Mini-circles calm traffic in AU Park but stir opposition

For a year now, drivers and cyclists on 42nd Street NW encountered a traffic calming device that's new to DC: Small traffic circles made out of plastic pylons. Permanent versions will soon replace them. But not all neighbors are pleased.

42nd Street is a popular route through American University Park. It offers a way to reach homes, schools, and a senior center without using busy Wisconsin Avenue. But drivers speed through the area and it was not safe enough for pedestrians, a 2011 study of the area found.

The solution? Mini-circles, a traffic calming device that's common in places such as Seattle, Portland, and Palo Alto, California. These provide a more pleasurable way to slow traffic than a speed bump. They are more effective than stop signs, since drivers may ignore a sign but must slow down to navigate the circle.


Photo by Seattle Department of Transportation on Flickr.

On 42nd Street, DDOT installed two mini-roundabouts a year ago to slow cars but keep the road working as a through route. Warren Street splits a block to the west and meets 42nd in two separate curved intersections where drivers take the turns too fast and often blindly.

American University agreed to pay for the traffic calming as part of negotiations over its most recent campus plan. That will fund more permanent versions, whose construction is scheduled to start on November 19.

Some neighbors say no

When the circles first appeared, some drivers complained of being confused. Sherry Cohen, a resident, said she thought the circles were dangerous.

The data, at least in Seattle, says otherwise: A 1997 study found that crashes dropped 94 percent in areas that got mini-circles. The city found that, "In addition to reducing [crashes], traffic circles have been effective at reducing vehicle speeds but have not significantly reduced traffic volumes."

Recently, Joan Silver, who lives right at the corner of 42nd and Warren, started circulating a petition opposing the permanent circles. She wants a new study to consider instead using stop signs or speed bumps.

Silver complains that the circles "do not satisfactorily or adequately address the range of traffic-related safety issues at the specified location, and ... have generated a number of dangerous conditions in their own right and negative impacts on properties immediately surrounding them."

Matthew Frumin, who chairs the area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission (3E), canvassed the neighborhood after receiving the complaints. In an email to the other commissioners and some of the petitioners, Frumin said that neighbors around the northern circle strongly favored making it permanent.

"While they do not think the circles are the only possible solution, they believe even the temporary northern circle has improved traffic conditions considerably," he wrote, "and that in the next phase when the circle takes its new shape and the crosswalk is added, conditions will improve further. If there is not a unanimous consensus around that, there is a very strong and decisive one in favor of the circle." Residents around the southern circle had more mixed views.

Comments on the petition say that the circles confuse some drivers (who even may go around the wrong way) or cause backups. Others complain that the pylons are ugly.

The permanent circles should address the aesthetic complaints. They will have landscaping that will create an attractive focal point for the residential neighborhood.

And fewer drivers will be "confused" as they get used to the circles. In other cities, drivers have not found them confusing or have adjusted. Perhaps a sign could help; some circles have them, though signs are also less attractive.

Trying new designs that have worked elsewhere should be the norm for our neighborhood streets. Hopefully DDOT will continue to experiment with ways to slow traffic down and make streets safer and more pleasant for everyone.

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