Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Chevy Chase DC


DC has too few dedicated east-west bike pathways

While DC's bicycling network has grown, there still aren't a lot of crosstown connections. In fact, there are no protected east-west bicycle routes in the whole third of the District north of Florida Avenue. Cyclists need more of these, as well as north-south routes to form a grid of dedicated paths.

Bike lanes around a northern section of DC. Image from Google Maps.

Much of DC's bicycle infrastructure, like trails, dedicated bikeways, and bike lanes concentrates in the downtown core, primarily south of Florida Avenue. DDOT's official bicycle map, last updated in 2011, shows that outside of downtown, most bicycle facilities run north-south.

Unless they are willing to ride on six-lane, shoulder-free roads with fast-moving traffic, cyclists have no way to traverse the northern part of Rock Creek Park, where only a freeway-like portion of Military Road crosses the park.

The same goes for Irving Street and Michigan Avenue, the only direct paths from Columbia Heights to Brookland across the vast acreage of McMillan Reservoir and Sand Filtration Site, the Washington Hospital Center, and the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

"East-west mobility for bicyclists in the northern neighborhoods of DC can be a significant challenge," said Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) Advocacy Coordinator Greg Billing. "Large campuses, parks, hospitals and cemeteries limit the available east-west connections. The MoveDC plan calls for high quality bicycle facilities from neighborhoods to downtown and better connections between the neighborhoods."

That plan recommends some form of dedicated bikeway along Irving Street, as well as for a cycletrack on Military Road.

A route between Columbia Heights and Brookland would connect two vibrant neighborhoods and serve an area that will gain population as the McMillan site and part of the Armed Forces Retirement Home property redevelop.

Google Maps' bicycle directions from the Columbia Heights Metro to the Brookland-CUA Metro. Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive version.

Currently, both the DDOT map and Google Maps advise cyclists to use Irving Street between Brookland and Columbia Heights. However, between Park Place NW and the Catholic University campus, Irving Street is a busy six-lane near-freeway with no shoulder. Cyclists have to navigate among drivers merging on and off at the massive cloverleaf intersection with North Capitol Street.

However, the right-of-way through this section seems wide enough for DDOT to add a protected cycle track or trail. One possibility is a cycle track in a protected median down the middle of Irving Street, which would avoid dangerous crossings of the off-ramps at the Irving and North Capitol cloverleaf. Another is to have a trail parallel the existing sidewalk on the south side of Irving Street.

Google Maps street view of Irving Street between First and North Capitol Streets NW.

Worsening traffic congestion is a major concern at the McMillan site. The area has infrequent bus service and is far from a Metro station, but improving bicycle access could provide an important alternative to driving, reducing the traffic impact of new development.

Military Road NW across Rock Creek Park is a similar case. Tilden Street and Park Road to the south, and Wise Road, Beach Drive, and Kalmia Road to the north, are more bike-friendly ways to cross the park. But they're far out of the way for neighborhoods on either side.

According to DDOT Bicycle Program Coordinator Mike Goodno, DDOT controls the road itself and a handful of feet on either side. The National Park Service would have to okay any further widening. DDOT has not yet studied whether there is room to add a cycletrack on Military within the right-of-way it controls.

Google Maps Street View of Military Road NW through Rock Creek Park.

The only other connection through Rock Creek Park that is further along in the planning process is the Klingle Trail, which will connect the Rock Creek trail to Woodley Road NW. DDOT completed an Environmental Assessment in 2011.

As activity centers outside the downtown area grow and travel patterns become less centralized, we must enable cyclists and transit users to get across town as easily as drivers. A grid-like, interconnected network of bike routes would make that possible.

Public Spaces

Playgrounds show how far DC has come in 20 years

Mayor Vincent Gray recently announced that DC will renovate 8 more playgrounds next year, bringing his "Play DC" project to a total of 40 playgrounds. That's a far cry from the 1990s, when residents who wanted a new playground were basically left to fend for themselves.

Chevy Chase Playground today. Photo by the author.

The District is allocating $1 million for each of those playground makeovers. And every two years, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) will evaluate all play spaces according to a scorecard, looking at factors like the age and condition of equipment and the needs of the surrounding community.

I'm truly happy for today's young children and their caregivers, who are benefiting from the District's largesse. But I can't help feeling just a little jealous. Twenty years ago, when my own neighborhood playground was a deserted, rotting disaster, the District wasn't quite as vigilant, or as generous.

I hadn't intended to become a community playground activist. In fact, I had pretty much stopped noticing the barren, heath-like space near my Chevy Chase DC house that contained a few dangerous, broken-down items of play equipment, including a mysterious wooden structure that suggested a gallows.

But a neighbor of mine who lived just across the Maryland line asked me one day if there wasn't something I could do about that playground. Surely I, as a DC resident, could get the situation taken care of.

Well, of course, I told her. That's when it hit me that I had been driving my kids to other neighborhoods to play when there was a playground, or something that could be turned into a playground, a mere 10-minute walk from my house. This was ridiculous.

Little help from DC

Naively, I thought I would simply call the relevant District officials and they would send someone out to replace the equipment. Ha. I was told that the District couldn't possibly fund such a project, but if I could raise the lion's share of the money, and do all the planning, they would kick in some matching funds.

I'm not sure exactly what happened next, because I hate fundraising, and I'm not wild about meetings. But somehow I found myself at the helm of a grassroots playground committee made up of other parents of young kids. We met in each other's living rooms, knocked on doors, and asked everyone we could think of for money.

We also pored over catalogs of playground equipment, trying to figure out what would both appeal to kids and be safe (two things that don't always go together). None of us had any background in playground design, but we did our best.

We met and knocked on doors for years. One couple started out bringing their infant, and as we kept meeting we watched him learn to roll over, sit up, and eventually walk. But ultimately we managed to raise enough money: $25,000. The District contributed $15,000. (Or at least, those are the figures I and one other former committee member recall.)

Looking back, it's amazing to me that we tolerated this situation. But this was in the Marion Barry/Sharon Pratt Dixon era, when DC residents more or less took it for granted that they couldn't rely on the District to provide certain basic services.

You needed to get a pothole fixed? Good luck. If it snowed, you didn't expect to see a plow coming down your street. After the blizzard of '96, our street was cleared only because one of my neighbors had tickets to a basketball game he was determined not to miss. He took up a collection and used the money to commandeer a snowplow that was clearing a nearby church parking lot.

The Wild West

It was our version of the Wild West: you want something done, you form a posse. And there are certain satisfactions to be gained from such self-help campaigns. I met many neighbors as a result of the playground effort and made some lasting friendships. By the time the playground was finished my own kids were too old to take much interest in it, but I got a warm feeling every time I passed by and saw it brimming with boisterous toddlers.

Now, two renovations later, the Chevy Chase Playground is almost unrecognizable: larger, more elaborate, with the kind of soft, springy surface that we wanted back then but couldn't afford. The DC Tots blog has named it one of the nicest playgrounds in the city. I like to think I had a small part in setting it on the path to that status.

But frankly, I'm willing to trade all those warm feelings for a local government that actually provides the kinds of services taxpayers have a right to expect. And in a process that began with the election of Anthony Williams as mayor in 1998, DC is finally getting there.

I'm not saying that community groups have no role to play in something like playground maintenance. One of the goals of the Play DC program is to "encourage volunteerism and partnerships at playgrounds," and that's great. The group I helped found, Friends of Chevy Chase Playground is, as far as I know, still in existence. But these volunteer groups no longer have to shoulder the primary burden of raising funds and planning, as we did.

True, the District government still falls short of perfection, and more often than not what we hear are complaints: we still have scandals, the schools still have a long way to go. But I can remember when our mayor was caught smoking crack, and when the kids in my neighborhood had to wear hats and coats inside our local elementary school because the boiler was broken for weeks on end.

No doubt it's human nature to focus on the negative, especially when many current DC residents weren't around to experience what things were like here 20 years ago. But sometimes I have an urge to accost the kids on those renovated playgrounds, and their parents, and tell them just how lucky they are.


Eric Colbert releases new renderings for 5333 Connecticut

Architects Eric Colbert and Associates shared renderings of the latest design for their proposed apartment building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue. Few renderings of the project have been available until now, so it's been difficult to understand how it will look.

Rendering of 5333 Connecticut's front entrance. All images from Eric Colbert and Associates.

The design depicted in the renderings is substantially the same as the one presented at an ANC3G meeting in August, when commissioners voted for the Memorandum of Understanding with developer Cafritz.

Colbert applies planes of glass and white frames to a glass block in manner similar to the neomodernist apartment buildings of Richard Meier. Two of those buildings are regarded as kicking off the trend for glass-enclosed apartment buildings in New York.

5333 Connecticut from Kanawha Street.

The sides of the building that face single family homes have significantly fewer windows, addressing the light pollution concerns the neighbors are reasonably worried about. Having such an dramatic transition from one side to another puts a lot of pressure on the corner, architecturally. Colbert negotiates this shift with a line of windows on the edge of the Kanawha Street wing, shown above. Whether this shift succeeds will depend on how transparent the glass appears at a given time of day.

The change of transparency is driven by the sun, whose heat and light are serious concerns in a glazed building. The renderings show similar treatments on both the north and south elevations of the building. That much glass on the southern exposure will lead to an excess in heat in light, but on the northern side, the glass might also abate the worries about shadows by reflecting light down to the street.

5333 Connecticut from Connecticut and Military.

To me, the building is the most successful at the edges of the projections from the sides of the building. There, the relationship between interior walls and the opaque frame around the edge makes it feel like volumes have slid out from the building. This could have been a simplistic, cheesy move, but Colbert's office wove translucent balcony railings into the white frame. The result is a sensitive corner, a feature often absent in glass-heavy modern architecture.

Unfortunately, this sensitivity is absent where the building touches the ground. Considering that the ground has been so controversial, the design would be better if the walls changed as they met the landscape designed by Trini Rodriguez. Whether becoming more solid, showing the weight of the building, or simply transitioning from vertical to horizontal, this relationship is key to producing a building that feels appropriate for its site.

5333 Connecticut from Connecticut and Kanawha.

Developer Cafritz has stated their desire to have a building that is contemporary and of its time, and meant "glass." However, glass is only "modern" when it calls attention to relationships of inside and outside, ground and sky, and between the people who look through it as neighbors. Like any materials, how a window shapes our environment is more important than the sheer technological thrill of transparency.


Fight over 5333 Connecticut reveals dysfunctional process

After decades of fighting, work began last month on a new residential building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. While neighbors had few good reasons to oppose it, the project embodies the loopholes developers use in DC's patchwork of building regulations and zoning.

The site before construction began. Photo by the author.

The 261-unit building has long been approved as matter-of-right. It will not be a great building, but it is legal, and further appeals from residents to stop construction will only reduce their credibility in the future. Elaborate delay tactics will only reduce developers' willingness to cooperate with them.

On the other hand, the opponents' objections do reveal how Calvin Cafritz Enterprises designed the building to be as large as possible, using a thorough knowledge of DC's regulations. Architects Eric Colbert and Associates employed clever interpretations of what constitutes a "cellar," adding living space beyond the site's allowed density. The building's height was determined using the most favorable location of measurement.

However, the 5333 Connecticut Neighborhood Coalition doesn't simply want these irregularities fixed, they want a smaller building. They want a smaller building because they believe the effects of density will "harm" their community. They claim that added activity, reduced sunlight, and reduced tree canopy will degrade their quality of life.

Instead of looking for creative solutions to minor problems, they have chosen to fight the building itself. Rather than promoting uniform regulation across the city, opponents are using legal objections as easy tools to prevent a permissible project.

Recognizing that they have no legal standing, the majority of the ANC commissioners negotiated a memorandum of understanding that stipulated a number of design improvements for energy use and multimodalism. The four commissioners who voted for it were those closest to the project. The three who worked on the memorandum of understanding represented the areas that were most directly affected. The dissenting commissioners were in the suburban part of ANC3G, east of Broad Branch Road.

Despite the negotiations, opponents went ahead to protest the building at the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Given that there is no evidence that what Cafritz and Colbert have planned is illegal, the BZA should dismiss the complaints out of hand to avoid setting a precedent whereby the affluent and the influential preserve the narrow, short-term interests of their property at the expense of the rest of the city.

Opponents' case looks good at first, but lacks depth

With a little digging, it becomes clear that the 5333 CNC has no case against the building.

The project uses two sides of the building to calculate the height, a standard practice explicitly permitted by the Height of Buildings Act. Height must be measured from the existing elevation of the curb across from the middle of the mass of the front of building and height is determined by the width of the wider of the two streets it abuts.

Kanawha is narrower, but it is also at a higher elevation. Using the longstanding interpretation of the law, the Cafritz organization declared the Kanawha side the "front" and gained a few extra feet of height.

Opponents use a document from the Zoning Update process to show that this approach is unpopular but elide that the zoning update closes this idiosyncrasy in section 502.3, defining the height as originating from the midpoint of the facade that is closest to the lot line.

They further claim that the roof deck is 1.73 feet above the legal height because of how the development team calculates the Kanawha street frontage. The permitting calculations include portions of the facade of the longer, Military Road wing visible from Kanawha Street. The developer's midpoint is about 50' to the east, and 1.73 feet higher in natural elevation, allowing for the building to be that much taller.

A plain reading of the regulation suggests that this is permissible, if kind of tacky. Perhaps the regulation should be rewritten. Either way, the developer conceded this issue in the MOU, and will lower the building.

Site plan showing building mass, disputed frontage and measuring points.

A similarly shrewd, but legal, reading of code adds habitable spaces in a "cellar story" that does not add to the official FAR. Regulations distinguish "cellars" from "basements," where a basement is simply below the entry floor, and a cellar is a space whose ceilings are no more than four feet above the adjacent grade.

The architect designed the finished grade to hide a string of apartments along Military Road, but also excavated an full-height window well in front of them. This "areaway" also appears in the interior courtyard, projecting into berms in the central courtyard.

DC classifies areaways and parking vaults as projections from the building, and every story of a sub-grade projection is considered independently of all others. Therefore, their claim that the berms around the areaways are "planters" is at some level correct, but not according to the regulations.

I agree with the opponents that this common interpretation of the regulation is sneaky. The city should revisit this regulation, not because density is bad, but because it is opaque to the public.

North-South Section showing disputed projections

The final legal challenge in the opponents' BZA testimony is that the Military Road wing of the building extends beyond the plot of land zoned as R-5-D by 40 feet. A 1965 amendment extended the zoning of the plot to a length of 290 feet on Military. The zoning maps in 1966 and 1973 show this number. For some reason, from 1975-2003, the numerical description of the zoning plat appears as 251'. The graphical description of the lot remains the same, following the existing alley.

Changes in the zoning plat 1958-1984

Neither side can find why the number was changed. Cafritz's lawyer claims that it is a misreading of the lettering of the 5/9, which I find unconvincing. Opponents have no better case, claiming without proof that the ZC wanted to prevent inappropriate growth and so changed it. The current, digital zoning map shows the current line ending at the alley, as consistent with all maps since 1966.

The opponents' limited familiarity with development issues extends beyond legal practices and into architecture. In response to the MOU, opponents write that they are for "practical, modest changes that would not require wholesale redesign," including shifting the mass towards Connecticut Avenue and creating a "buffer zone."

However, re-masssing a building is a redesign at a fundamental level. Foundations, floor structure, column placement, parking spaces, circulation routes, apartment layout, pipe routing, curtainwall drawings, and even the landscaping plan would have to be redone. Other than a few design motifs, there isn't much work left to save.

By suggesting that their objections are simple, legitimate, and simply resolved, opponents are disguising their desire to have as little built on the site as possible. It's hard to believe that anyone would put up this much of a fight over less than two feet of height and a cellar.

Fighting a legal building discourages collaboration in growth

The majority of the legal objections are in response to loopholes that will be resolved by the update of the zoning code initiated under Harriet Tregoning. The other dubious interpretations should be resolved uniformly across the city. It is unfair to reject these rules in this case specifically when so many other projects have employed them.

It's not fair to other communities if this building is an exception. Closing loopholes would benefit the city by making the development process more predictable for the public.

Tellingly, the opponents of 5333 Connecticut do not want to resolve these regulatory flukes. At a September 15th meeting, Peter Gosselin, one of the 5333 CNC's leaders specifically said he would not ask for city-wide change to any of their complaints.

More locally, all of the objections could be resolved by removing one floor of the building. They are not asking for that either. The 5333 CNC are asking for the Cafritz team to come back and negotiate for their own property on the neighbors' terms.

The developer was under no legal obligation to engage the community. But that does not mean that they shouldn't have. In an ideal world, developers should go into communities in a transparent and open-ended way.

New projects often alter the dynamics of neighborhoods, and developers should work with communities to make a new building amplify the value new residents bring while minimizing the negatives through walkability and sensitive design. Similarly, neighbors should recognize the need for a city to grow and respect others' property rights.

With that in mind, I can't blame the Cafritz organization for not asking permission. The strife over this project is part of long-term context of opposing development through extremely effective legal means. Whether it is the lawsuits that delayed the Cathedral Commons project for ten years or the defeat of the Upper Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Study through lobbying, the neighborhood has shown that it has the means to oppose legal changes.

If I were a developer, I would choose the least complicated permitting option and hire an architect who can get me the most out of the zoning envelope. In other words, I would build matter-of-right and hire Eric Colbert.

The process for this building has proceeded so poorly because Upper Northwest's anti-development groups have consistently punished developers without providing guidelines that are commensurate with the demographic realities of 21st-century Washington. Even when developers try to work with neighbors, as at the Akridge and Babe's projects, they have faced stiff anti-urbanism groups. Now, a dangerous cross between the cost of collaboration and the desirability of the land ensures that development in Upper Northwest will proceed without community input for the forseeable future.

In the current political climate, only large developers, working with the government can handle the risks of Upper Northwest. That is the reality a handful of vocal opponents have earned multiple neighborhoods.

The only way out is for residents to take a broader perspective towards the issues a growing city faces, and propose a vision for development that integrates new residents and buildings into a diverse city. It is up to citizens to begin that kind of planning.


DC has a Unicorn Lane, complete with unicorn statue

Everyone knows about the dignified statues in places like Logan Circle and Lafayette Square, but do you know about Unicorn Lane? It's in Upper Northwest, along Oregon Avenue, just west of Rock Creek Park (map).
Now if only we had a Hippogriff Street.

Photo by BeyondDC on flickr.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Candidates want affordable housing, balk at more housing

One of the most significant ways to ensure some affordable housing is to provide more housing. It's not the only way and not sufficient on its own, but the clear connection between housing supply and price appears lost on multiple candidates for the April 23 DC Council at-large special election.

Photo by james.thompson on Flickr.

At a Chevy Chase Community Association meeting last week, many candidates affirmed support for affordable housing, according to a report on the Chevy Chase listserv, but then wavered or even outright opposed allowing people to rent out basements, garages, or parts of their homes to create new housing opportunities.

Lorrie Scally wrote:

Patrick Mara said "No" to the rentals because he feared they would result in an overflow of students into already crowded schools.

Meanwhile, according to Scally, "Matthew Frumin expressed his support for ADU rentals in all residential neighborhoods," while Elissa Silverman said she wants to ensure they don't impact neighbors much (similar to what she said on Let's Choose DC).

Yet, Scally said, "The candidates' presentations gave support to DC education issues and affordable housing for residents." Mara has endorsed affordable housing spending in the past; on one of the Let's Choose questions he actually answered, he said, "I'm certain we can find the millions need to fund libraries and affordable housing initiatives." He told the DC realtors, "The cultural diversity of DC is at risk if we do not protect and build affordable housing."

Anita Bonds did not attend the forum.

Adding housing must be a part of the housing strategy

About 1,000 more people move into the District each month than the number who leave. Moreover, the demand to come into DC is even greater than this.

Absent enough new housing, many people who want to come here will rent or buy units in gentrifying neighborhoods where prices are still lower than elsewhere. That raises housing prices in those neighborhoods, hastening the problem of some longtime residents being or feeling priced out, and others deciding to take a windfall and sell their houses at a big profit.

If we want longtime residents to stay, an important element of the equation is to find somewhere else for the people to live who want to come into DC. Basement and garage apartments are one important potential source. We already have large single-family houses with one or two retirees who aren't actually using the whole house. Letting them rent the space is a win-win for everyone except for those who want to keep the neighborhood exclusive and underpopulated relative to its 1950 size.

A lot of people in Ward 3 would rather the population growth go somewhere else. A lot of people vote in Ward 3, and several candidates are clearly seeking their votes. But letting a whole section of the city opt out of growth is not the right policy. It harms poorer neighborhoods by diverting more housing pressure to other areas, hastening gentrification.

How do the candidates stack up?

Four years ago, when I endorsed Patrick Mara, I perhaps assumed too readily that because he lives in a denser neighborhood and bicycles, he also supports a growing city. He might, but he came out strongly against a new matter-of-right building in Chevy Chase, opposes accessory dwellings, and refused to answer either of the two Let's Choose questions on growth. That's disappointing and a little surprising for someone who claims to want less government regulation.

I'm also disappointed Elissa Silverman has not been stronger on smart growth. She has less reason to try to pander for votes in Ward 3, when Ward 6 has become the highest-voting ward. Many of Ward 3's supposedly-liberal residents and newspapers nonetheless seem to go for whomever will lower their own taxes. As a supporter of affordable housing and equity for all neighborhoods, she also shouldn't tolerate some residents west of Rock Creek trying to redline growth and change solely to the east.

Unfortunately, while Matthew Frumin has been willing to stand up for (reasonable) growth more vocally than others, this morning's poll seems to confirm that he is most likely to play a "spoiler" role. Our readers, contributors, and I myself have often wrestled with how to think through the game theory of a race, and decide how much to weigh various policy positions or trade off candidate strengths versus electability.

This post is not an endorsement; our policy is to decide endorsements by a poll of recent, active contributors, which came out clearly for Silverman. On balance, I'm still going to vote for her, too. Besides, zoning isn't the only issue that matters, and she has some definite strengths on workforce development, oversight of city agencies, and more.

But just because we've endorsed should not prevent us from helping inform readers about candidates' positions, whether or not they comport with our endorsement (in this case, it's mostly a neutral effect), or holding candidates responsible for staking out good positions.


Cafritz presents Chevy Chase building to skeptical neighbors

"This neighborhood doesn't need any revitalizing," said one resident who lives near 5333 Connecticut Avenue, NW, throwing back into developer Jane Cafritz's face a newspaper quote where she said the proposed glassy, 9-story, 263-unit residential building would revitalize the neighborhood.

Photos by the author.

Hearing this, the crowd of Chevy Chase DC residents, most over 50, erupted into applause. Over 200 residents packed the Chevy Chase Community Center Wednesday evening to hear about the project firsthand from Jane and Calvin Cafritz and their team.

One side of the parcel abuts Military Road, the major east-west corridor across the top of the District. The other borders Kanawha Street, a very narrow residential street featuring mostly mid-sized bungalows.

At the outset, Mrs. Cafritz promised the skeptical audience that the glassy design that had been circulating widely was, in fact, not the building they planned to construct. She promised a forthcoming website to collect input on design and other concerns, which would give architect Eric Colbert, one of DC's most prolific residential apartment designers, an opportunity to revisit the design.

Not what Cafritz plans to build.

Zoning permits the building as of right

A group of residents has been actively organizing against the project, but their influence is limited because the Cafritz proposal will be completely "as of right," or fitting into the existing zoning without needing any special approvals.

Attorney Whayne Quinn explained the area's zoning and noted the building conforms to all requirements. It will cover only 45% of the lot. Quinn said that the project would be only half the size of the Kenmore building, 2 blocks to the north, with half the floor-area ratio and half the units, although one neighbor commented that the Kenmore itself ought not to be something the Cafritzes would be proud to emulate.

The building will be 90 feet, the height allowed under zoning, Quinn explained. However, one neighbor questioned whether they should measure the height from Connecticut Avenue or Kanawha Street. A representative from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) confirmed that the Cafritzes could measure the building from either, and it looks like the they will choose the method that will provide the greatest height.

Jane Cafritz.
The height issue was one that resonated with the neighbors, many of whom complained about the sun shadow the building will create during the winter. None of the Cafritz team rebutted or discussed this complaint.

In one of the livelier and more bizarre exchanges, the owner of several abutting residential apartment buildings admonished the Cafritzes for building a 9-story building on a block of 8-story buildings, saying to do so is taking advantage of the neighbors.

Another neighbor raised the common complaint about school overcrowding, and argued that those moving into the development would cause additional strain on the system. In a prior meeting, Councilmember Mary Cheh had taken another neighbor to task for a similar statement, letting him know that it was the right of any resident to have the city school their children. Certainly, school overcrowding is a real concern, but Cheh was correct to point out that this is not reason to prevent anyone from living where they want in our city.

Design tries to reduce mass along Connecticut, Kanawha

Colbert said he designed the building to have more mass along Military Road. A break and driveway on Connecticut Avenue will make it appear less massive from the front.

The Cafritzes' landscape architect said they plan to provide mature trees and as much of a green buffer as possible between the building and homes on Kanawha Street, and to the rear of the building. He argued that the smaller lot occupancy would permit more trees. Despite this, some complained that mature trees would need to be cut down, as these trees lie in the proposed building's footprint.

Grainy photo of proposed footprint.

The development team's presentation emphasized that the building would embrace green elements, in construction, use of materials, energy consumption, and rainwater management. However, when pressed on the environmental benefits, the architect admitted the building was not seeking any LEED certification, because the process of doing so was "too expensive."

Almost the entire crowd applauded a neighbor who asked why the building could not be brick instead of glass. She said the glass made it look like a building at 9th and K Streets.

Mrs. Cafritz seemed open to changing the glass, although in continued questioning it did not appear Colbert, the architect, had yet started to think about this change. Also, the Washington Post reported today that Mrs. Cafritz told subsequently Councilmember Mary Cheh they plan to stick with glass

Colbert spent considerable time explaining how a glass building would be energy-efficient and that interior light would not shine on neighboring homes, although he admitted there would be considerable sun reflections from the glass.

Traffic analysis doesn't please opponents

DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe presented a traffic assessment which found the building would not have a significant effect on traffic. Zimbabwe explained to the crowd that they should expect traffic on Military Road and Connecticut Avenue to get worse over the next decade, with or without the building.

DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe presented information about the current traffic levels in the area. Traffic on Military Road and Connecticut Avenue has actually declined slightly between 2006 and 2011 according to DDOT's traffic counts, Zimbabwe reported, which drew derisive laughs from the audience.

The traffic analysis predicts that the new construction would add 97 cars to morning rush hour and 127 cars to evening rush hour, but DDOT does not view this as likely to have a significant effect on traffic.

"any intersection where one has to wait more than one light cycle is a failed intersection"
This drew murmurs from a skeptical audience. One neighbor, describing the traffic backups each rush hour on Military Road as it crosses each intersection from Western Avenue to Rock Creek Park, pointed out the classic traffic engineering rule of thumb that if drivers need to wait more than one light-cycle, the intersections are all "failing."

Zimbabwe argued that this is precisely the type of project that will help cut down on area traffic. Residents will have a shorter commute downtown, and could would walk the ¾ mile to Metro. At this, the crowd erupted into laughter.

Later in the evening, one of those laughing at this statement shouted out, in complete sincerity, "why isn't the building installing geothermal heating?" Perhaps I was the only one who found that ironic.

Can the building avoid straining the alley?

One of the main issues neighbors raised, and one that might be easy to solve, is the project's intent to use the existing residential alley for both a 197-space parking garage and delivery access. Currently, only the 20 or so homes that are on the alley tend to use it, so there would be a marked increase in traffic.

However, DDOT policy does not permit additional curb cuts into to the property. Zimbabwe explained that DDOT wants to minimize the number of separate entrances off a street, each of which create the opportunity for conflicts between turning cars and other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, just as in an intersection.

A solution came up that could satisfy both DDOT and residents: widen the curb cut for the alley, so that the building vehicle entrance is not directly off the alley but immediately next to the alley entrance.

DDOT can't forbid residents from getting parking stickers

If traffic flow issues drew a skeptical response, the increased impact the project would have to on-street parking brought even more consternation. One neighbor handed DDOT his own parking assessment of Kanawha Street, where he said it is already difficult to find parking after 10 pm at night, He estimated he'd need to walk 4 blocks to find a parking spot after the building is completed. This fired up several in the audience, one of whom shouted, "bad parking rules."

Zimbabwe explained that while the block was not zoned for Residential Permit Parking today, DDOT would permit residents to obtain RPP stickers if they petitioned DDOT to do so, as is its policy for other blocks.

The DC Council considered a bill last year that would have let building owners work out a deal with DDOT where their building would never be eligible for RPP, or not for a set period of time. However, a group of councilmembers, led by Chairman Mendelson, voted the bill down.


Calvin Cafritz.
It appeared to me there that the neighbors expressed a few very valid concerns. It should be possible to address each, at least to a certain extent.
  • It would be nice for the Cafritzes to work on ways to minimize the building blocking sunlight for nearby residents. However, I would imagine them reluctant to relent even a bit, because the neighbors might seek a far greater reduction in height than they may be comfortable with.
  • The glass façade seems to be one where the Cafritzes are ready to listen to alternatives. Red brick was the consensus of the audience.
  • A parallel driveway immediately adjacent to the alley entrance would seem to address the concern about alley access.
  • The parking/traffic conundrum seems difficult to solve. Neighbors who want more underground spots would then see more traffic in the neighborhood, and might then complain about more cut-through traffic on other streets.
  • LEED certification ought to be in the cards. Or, at least, the Cafritzes should consider doing what Douglas Jemal did at the Babe's site, which was to design the building to LEED standard but not actually undergo through the expensive certification process.
  • How the property sits on the land will continue to be a bone of contention. The site plan did appear to have as much of a buffer as possible to the rear and along Kanawha Street, although much of the open space it devoted to a rear garden area for building residents.

    It would not appear the Cafritzes are willing to have a smaller footprint and more massive building sited closer to Connecticut Avenue, as such building would not permit him to have the same number of smaller units that he contemplates.

Mrs. Cafritz said a website would open soon for the community to offer comments. Beyond that, it is hard to know how willing they are to have more meetings with interested neighbors, given that the project is as-of-right.

Correction: The original version of this article erroneously reported that Sam Zimbabwe had said that traffic would increase in the future, when in fact he said that it had decreased (slightly) in the past. It also said that DDOT had conducted a traffic study for the building; DDOT instead reported some information about traffic in the area, but does not do its own traffic studies for matter-of-right buildings.


What's in the zoning update: Accessory dwellings

Tomorrow is the first public meeting for the DC zoning update. It might also be the most important, as the tenor of the discussion could shape a lot of press coverage. DC residents, are you going?

Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

The meeting is Saturday, December 8, 10 am to noon at 1100 4th Street, SW, plus another Tuesday in Penn Quarter and Thursday in Anacostia. In any public process, regardless of the merits, decisions get made around the people who show up. If you can make one of these, please let us know here.

Some residents feel that letting someone rent out their basement or garage, allowing a corner store near homes, or not trying to override the market by requiring unnecessary amounts of parking near transit all will completely destroy life as we know it in many neighborhoods. You can bet that many will show up in force at the meetings.

Today, we will look at one of the controversial proposals that really shouldn't be controversial: accessory dwellings.

As Lisa Sturtevant and Agnès Artemel have documented, the Washington region needs a lot more housing to keep up with job growth and replace retirees. In the District, they estimate demand for 122,613 new housing units by 2030. So far, we're not on track to build that, even with all the construction going on.

Building more new buildings or larger ones is one answer, but new and larger buildings do bring impacts; plus, they concentrate the impacts in one small area. There's an obvious, and easy, solution. Let people rent out their basements and garages in single-family neighborhoods and low-density row house zones where it's not already legal to split townhouses into multiple apartments.

These existing houses held more people per building 50 years ago, when families were larger, than they do today. Now, we have more seniors remaining in their houses as they age, but who don't need the space, but who don't have children and grandchildren living with them that they would have in 1950. More young singles and couples are waiting to have kids and could live in a smaller space like a garage or basement.

It seems like a no-brainer, but there's a lot of alarm in some of DC's wealthiest low-density neighborhoods. Some is just fear of change, or worry that parking will become more difficult, and sometimes, it's anxiety that poorer and browner people might start living nearby.

The details

The proposed accessory dwelling text is in Chapter 6 of subtitle D of the draft new regulations. In zones that don't allow 2 or more units per house already, a property owner can create one "accessory dwelling" on their lot, either in the main building or an existing "accessory" building such as a garage, but not both.

Which zones does this apply to? It'll be the single-family zones, plus zones currently called R-3, such as Georgetown, the northern part of Petworth, and parts of Ivy City and Anacostia. Those are in yellow, orange, and red on the big map here. All other row house zones, which make up the vast majority of row house neighborhoods, already allow at least 2 units per house or more; this won't change anything there.

To minimize the impact on neighbors, there are a lot of conditions attached to accessory dwellings:

601.4 Either the principal dwelling unit or accessory dwelling unit shall be occupied by the owner of the lot coterminous with the accessory dwelling.


602.1 In all R zones except [R-4 zones and on alley lots], one accessory dwelling unit shall be permitted by right in the principal dwelling, subject to the following provisions:

(a) The principal building shall have at least two thousand square feet (2,000 sq. ft.) of gross floor area, exclusive of private garage space;

(b) The accessory dwelling unit shall not occupy more than twenty five (25) percent of the gross floor area of the principal dwelling;

(c) No more than one entrance per story shall be located in each building façade that faces a street;

(d) The total number of persons that may occupy the building, including the principal and accessory dwelling units combined, shall not exceed six (6);

(e) An accessory dwelling unit may be added where a use category permitted as an accessory use is already located in the principal building; and

(f) The Board of Zoning Adjustment may grant, through special exception, approval to locate an accessory dwelling unit within a principal dwelling that does not meet up to two of the conditions of this section provided the applicant demonstrates that the application complies with the general special exception criteria of Y Chapter 8, and the general purposes and intent of this chapter.


603.1 In all R zones except [R-3 and R-4 zones and on Alley Lots], one accessory dwelling unit shall be permitted by right in an existing accessory building, subject to the following conditions:

(a) The accessory building shall conform to all applicable setback and lot occupancy regulations;

(b) The accessory building shall be legally existing on [EFFECTIVE DATE], and shall not be expanded.

(c) The floor area devoted to the accessory dwelling unit shall not exceed 900 square feet;

(d) The foot print of the accessory dwelling building may not exceed 450 square feet.

(e) The accessory dwelling unit within an accessory building shall have pedestrian access to a public street via an alley, yard, an easement recorded with the Office of the Surveyor, or any combination of these pathways;

(f) The closest façade of the accessory building shall be separated from the closest façade of the principal building by a distance of thirty (30) feet minimum;

(g) A deck or balcony is permitted as a portion of any story of the accessory building; provided:

    (1) The deck or balcony is located entirely within the permitted footprint of the accessory building; and
    (2) The deck or balcony is oriented so as to not face a principal building on an adjoining property in an R zone; and
(h) An accessory building that houses an accessory dwelling unit may not be used at the same time for any other accessory use, other than as a private vehicle garage for either occupant of the property.

(i) The Board of Zoning Adjustment may grant, through special exception, approval to locate an accessory dwelling unit within an accessory building that does not meet up to two of the conditions of this section provided the applicant shall demonstrate that the proposal complies with the general special exception criteria of Y Chapter 8, and the general purposes and intent of this chapter.

One of the most key provisions here is that the owner has to live in either the main house or accessory unit. In a long letter to the Current, chief opponent Linda Schmitt talked about how when she was growing up, people looked out for the kids in the neighborhood because they knew them, and letting the neighborhood turn into one filled with "renters" (a code word, perhaps?) would destroy this. But it can't, because the owners will still live there, and their tenants could only add even more "eyes on the street" (or backyard).

The condition (b) in 603.1 is new since earlier drafts. Schmitt and other opponents raised alarm that this provision could start a boom of people building new garage-type buildings in their backyards to rent out. That seems a little unlikely, but the Office of Planning nevertheless changed the code to say that only existing, not new, garages and other accessory buildings can have accessory dwellings without a special exception hearing.

That hasn't stopped Schmitt from claiming that OP is "driving a relentless agenda" to, among other things, "allow 22-foot high expansion of garages for apartments or enterprises of varying descriptions. That's higher than second storey windows!" Actually, the existing code lets accessory buildings be 20 feet, and OP says "we're proposing an extra two feet to account for the slope of a roof." 2 feet doesn't seem like much of a "relentless agenda," but okay.

This does mean that even if someone builds a garage 2 years after the new code goes into place, sells the house, and 20 years from now someone wants to rent it out, they won't be able to. I'd suggest changing 603.1(b) to also allow renting out accessory buildings some number of years, like 5 or 10, after the accessory building is built; nobody is going to build one just to wait a decade and then rent it.

Also, why should it be okay to rent out a space above a garage if you're using the garage for car storage, but not if the ground floor is an art studio for the owner? The Board of Zoning Adjustment can give a "special exception" to this provision, but that's a cumbersome process; it still seems to unnecessarily privilege car parking.

Overall, OP has created an excellent proposal that bends over backward to accommodate existing residents' legitimate concerns while avoiding some of the more onerous limitations of Montgomery County's proposal. It's still getting fierce opposition from the vast majority of posters on lists like Chevy Chase's, along with the usual snide comments about people under 40 daring to participate in civic discourse.

Some areas, especially in that part of the city, have many seniors living in big houses. That means these blocks are far emptier of children and other people than they were when those residents were younger. Some want to be able to rent out parts of their homes to get more income, while others simply want to keep out the same kinds of people who used to live there or they themselves used to be. We shouldn't dismiss those views, but neither should public policy cater to this desire.

Please go to tomorrow's meeting, or the ones Tuesday and Thursday, and either support, or ask OP to further loosen, their proposals for accessory dwellings, corner stores and more. Tell us here which of these meetings, or the ones in January, you can make, so we can all be sure that there's a strong contingent of support for a growing and more livable DC at each one.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City