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Multi-family conversions, alley and accessory dwellings under attack

Mark your calendars for next Monday, May 5th, 6:30 pm. Smart Growth needs you.

Alley dwelling in Treto Way NW.

May 5th is the next meeting of the Low & Moderate Density zoning meeting. The attitudes of the citizens who attend this group will determine whether DC's zoning code makes it easier or harder for existing buildings to house more people.

Should it stay legal for property owners to add rentable units in their basements? Should we limit the number of condos one can make out of an existing building? Should alley dwellings be legal? Last week's Historic Structures meeting comprised many people who want to restrict most of this.

Under the rubric of historic preservation, they pushed for rules which would essentially prevent new residents from coming into old neighborhoods. And while we should preserve worthy buildings including the townhouses in our historic neighborhoods, increasing unit density without much changing the buildings is an important way to allow people to live in our city at reasonable prices.

There weren't very many people fighting for the don't-let-anything-ever-change position. But there were almost no people fighting for an alternative viewpoint either. These meetings aren't large—about 20 people total at the last one, with maybe five doing most of the talking. But these meetings are far from useless. If most of the people in the group push for a particular change, then the Office of Planning can't ignore the consensus.

For example, right now someone can convert their townhouse in an R-4 district (like Capitol Hill or Mount Pleasant) into a multi-family building as long as they have a 2700-square-foot lot and each unit is at least 900. But the group had been pushing to limit this to bigger buildings and fewer units in historic districts, which would restrict the people that can move into a neighborhood. In their draft recommendations, the Office of Planning folks suggested that the issue be referred to the Low & Moderate Density working group to come up with a city-wide rule instead of one rule for historic areas. Since this rule doesn't have anything to do with changing the building itself, it's hard to see how restricting it would "change the character of the historic district" as some argued, unless having more and often younger people in your neighborhood is an adverse impact to your neighborhood character.

Despite OP's recommendation, almost everyone in the room supported changing the rule to allow only two units per building. I was the only one to speak against it, and without my opposition, OP would have been forced to put the rule in. Instead, it got pushed off to the Low & Moderate Density group.

But the same people are going to be at the Low & Moderate Density group too. When that group considers whether to relax the rules against alley apartments, we need to be there to support them. When the group considers how many condos one can make out of an existing building, we need to keep them from excessively restricting the number. Even five people at that meeting would tip the balance. I hope you will come.

Low and Moderate Density working group
Monday, May 5th
6:30-8:30 pm
441 4th St (One Judiciary Square)
South Lobby, 11th Floor

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Has anyone done an engineering study to see how much density the current infrastructure could support? Historic districts usually have a stressed infrastructure, without a major upgrades, an increase in density could result in a total collapse.

by RJ on Apr 29, 2008 1:00 pm • linkreport

What kind of infrastructure are we talking about? Water and power? Transportation?

Utilities can be improved. Things get replaced and upgraded all the time, and this kind of change would be gradual. Transportation would benefit from greater density (as long as we avoid building too much parking and oversubsidizing driving) since more people would be able to ride the buses and Metro, allowing for more frequency.

The point isn't to suddenly cram piles of people into old neighborhoods. It's to allow the neighborhoods to grow and evolve to accommodate people who want to live in them. Dupont now has many townhouses with 3-4 units (on lots that are too small to convert under today's laws). Should we have stopped those from happening in the first place?

by David Alpert on Apr 29, 2008 1:05 pm • linkreport

This, more than anything, is why historic preservation really turns me off. The term itself is part of the problem - preservation. The idea of preserving an evolving thing (a city) is somewhat troubling to me. We preserve things that are dead (like animals taken to the taxidermist, for example). Cities ought to be alive. Preservation gets caught up in the idea of one sudden snapshot of a city that's suddenly worth preserving - an inaccurate perception, in my mind.

I much prefer the term and concept of adaptive re-use. How can we keep the historic elements intact, maintain that connection to the past, and still adapt the structure and the neighborhood to a modern use?

It's gotten to the point where when I hear 'preservation,' all I can think of is little cities (almost as if they were snow globes) encased in jars of formaldehyde. Yuck.

by Alex B. on Apr 29, 2008 1:13 pm • linkreport

Short answer is yes. And things don’t get replaced all the time. One has to look at the fire last year in Adams Morgan for proof. The main water line has been the same from the early part of 1900’s and wasn’t able to meet capacity demands. It took Alexandria for sewage to stream into people’s homes before they started replacing the sewer lines in Old Town.

I don’t have a problem with increase density and this proposal. The problem I have infrastructure planning is something is critical when discussing increase density and is usually ignored or dismissed. Replacing sewer lines, water mains, and electrical upgrades are very expensive and disruptive to a community. The point here this that planning should be anticipatory not reactionary. Should this stop density, no, but it should put those city leaders on alert of the future needs of the city finically and service wise. Every sort of development has a footprint, it is necessary to understand the size and impact to the community.

by RJ on Apr 29, 2008 2:05 pm • linkreport

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