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Posts about Columbia Heights

Development


What do 80,000 people in a square mile look like? Depends on where you put them.

When we talk about dense housing, many think of New York City skyscrapers, or Soviet blocks. But as images maps of different neighborhoods in DC show, not all density looks the same.


A high-density block in Columbia Heights. All images from Google Maps.

Google Maps recently unveiled its auto-generated 3D imagery for DC. Using this feature, I compiled snapshots of what different levels of density—measured by people per square mile (ppsm)—look like throughout DC and Arlington. The population density numbers come from the 2014 American Community Survey, and I calculated at the census block group level.

5,000 people per square mile

In the Palisades, winding streets are lined with large houses (~5,000 ppsm):

And in Brookland, detached single family homes sit on lots with front setbacks and spacious backyards (~6,000 ppsm):

15,000 people per square mile

Though walkable, most of Georgetown isn't particularly dense, with blocks of tiny rowhouses clocking in at about 15,000 ppsm:

Lamond-Riggs achieves a similar population density with suburban-style duplexes (~13,000 ppsm):

20,000 - 30,000 people per square mile

With a mix of both historic and new-construction rowhouses, this block group in Hill East sits at around 22,000 ppsm:

This section of Fort Dupont is similarly dense, but looks much different. Garden apartments centered around green space and surface parking give this area a density of roughly 27,000 ppsm:

30,000 - 40,000 people per square mile

In Glover Park, rows of attached houses line a network of relatively narrow streets (~31,000 ppsm):

A mix of duplexes and garden apartments puts this part of Shipley Terrace at about 35,000 ppsm:

40,000 - 50,000 people per square mile

These blocks bordering the south end of Adams Morgan are almost entirely filled with large rowhouses, with a few bigger apartment buildings situated on the main thoroughfares (~45,000 ppsm):

In Rosslyn, parking lots and highways surround these 7- to 10-story apartment buildings (~47,000 ppsm):

50,000 - 60,000 people per square mile

These apartment complexes on Massachusetts Avenue near American University don't cover a lot of land area, but their height makes them relatively dense (~53,000 ppsm):

Dupont Circle's streets blend rowhouses with 4- to 8-story prewar apartment buildings (~55,000 ppsm):

80,000+ people per square mile

This section of Columbia Heights is mostly close-together 4-story apartment buildings, giving it both a high density and a human scale (~80,000 ppsm):

At the north end of Mount Pleasant, a large apartment complex pushes this block over 85,000 ppsm:

Just south of Logan Circle, bulky apartment buildings both old and new give rise to densities over 100,000 ppsm:

Architecture


Google Maps gives DC the 3D treatment

For a number of years now, Google Maps has let you check out the buildings and topography of most medium to large cities, and increasingly even smaller towns, in 3D—but not DC. Now, nearly all of the District and parts of Arlington come in three dimensions.


Image from Google Maps.

Initially, Google Maps only showed prominent landmarks in 3D, as models had to be crowded-sourced and created by hand with Google Sketchup, the company's modeling software. Then in 2012, Maps rolled out a way of automating 3D generation through a process known as stereophotogrammetry.

Nearly all of DC is now included in the feature, as well as Rosslyn and National Airport.

Though the automated modeling process isn't perfect, it really makes the city pop when you turn the feature on. To check it out, go to Google Maps, turn on satellite mode, and click the "3D" button in the bottom right. Be sure to rotate the view to get the full experience! Holding the control key will allow you to click-and-drag the camera angle.

Some of my favorite spots to view with the new feature are Woodley Park and the National Cathedral, Columbia Heights, the National Arboretum, and upper Georgia Avenue.


The National Cathedral in 3D.

There has been speculation that the reason DC was excluded from 3D display was for security reasons. The areas that were excluded from rendering seem to confirm that might have been the case: in DC, the areas around the National Mall, the White House, Federal Center SW, and Foggy Bottom are conspicuously absent from the feature.


Image from Google Maps.

While you can now see the Rosslyn skyline from your computer, the rest of Northern Virginia and Maryland haven't been included, though they may be added later.

Let us know what interesting things you find with the 3D feature!

Development


50% of DC residents live on only 20% of the land

Also, a quarter lives on just 7% of it. I made these maps to illustrate that.


Maps produced by the author. Data comes from 2014 ACS five-year estimates.

According to survey data from the Census Bureau, 50% of DC's population lives on just under 19% of its total area (bodies of water are included). In absolute terms, that's almost 315,000 people living on roughly 8,000 acres.

Zooming in even more, we see that 25% of people living in DC inhabit just 7% of its land. These residents are mostly clustered around neighborhoods like Logan Circle and Columbia Heights, where housing is dense and transit is plentiful.

For comparison, 50% of New York City's population lives on only 11% of its land area:

Do you notice anything interesting in these maps?

Development


The Hebrew Home's neighbors want density and affordability

Neighbors of Petworth's Hebrew Home, which will soon be redeveloped, recently spoke up about what they'd like to see happen with the property. They want a dense building, lots of affordable housing, and better, more sustainable uses of the surrounding public space.


The Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

The Hebrew Home building provided senior housing and medical care for over 40 years before the District bought it and turned it into a mental health care facility. The building became vacant in 2009, and multiple efforts to redevelop it have stalled out.

In April, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development renewed the effort, making the Hebrew Home part of Our RFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

More than 100 residents of Petworth and Columbia Heights attended the second Hebrew Home OurRFP meeting earlier this month to review the outcome of the first meeting and provide feedback on design and density, what kind of housing should go on the site, and public space and sustainability. There were presentation boards with a number of options for addressing each category, and meeting attendees ranked their preferences by placing stickers on measures they considered most important.

Here's what they said they want to see happen with the building:

Build as much housing as can fit

96% of the meeting attendees supported maximizing the possible density of the site through a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which allows a building to exceed the density that its area allows in exchange for projects that benefit the neighborhood.

The Hebrew Home site is currently zoned for residential rowhouse structures with a height limit of 35' (or 40' with a special exception). While the zoning does not impact the existing historic structure—which already exceeds zoning limitations—it does restrict the new construction planned for the eastern section of the property. A PUD would permit additional height and massing.


The profile of the building if there are no zoning exceptions. Image from DMPED.


The profile of the building if there are zoning exceptions via a PUD. Image from DMPED.

While there are many amenities a developer can provide to a community as part of a PUD process, one of those amenities can be (and often is) additional affordable housing units. More on this in just a bit.

In addition to wanting more density, 60% of the participants favored incorporating historic elements of the Hebrew Home building into the new construction. This would probably mean using materials similar to the ones used for the current building, or at least designing a more traditional building.

38% of residents would also like the project to exceed the District's green building requirements. District owned or financed residential projects 10,000 square feet or larger must meet or exceed the Green Communities Standard, but residents say they want the building to do even more to use less energy, consume fewer natural resources such as water and forest products, and emit fewer pollutants into the environment.

Make the housing affordable

As many as 200 new housing units could be part of the Hebrew Home's redevelopment. A key discussion point has been how affordable these units will be.

The Hebrew Home is public property, which means 30% of any housing that goes up there has to be set aside as affordable. Yet 94% of the participants in the June OurRFP meeting indicated that 30% was not enough affordable housing, and that they want to see more. Many participants would like to see significantly more, in fact, and they indicated this by writing 100% on their stickers.


Neighbors visiting the three topic boards and placing stickers on their priorities at the latest Hebrew Home meeting. Photo by the author.

While the outcome will likely be a mix of housing affordability across the income spectrum, there is no reason why a significant number of the housing units can't be affordable at some level—and due to available tax credits, affordable units can be easier to build than market rate units.

Less than a mile to the south, the 273 unit building planned as the "build first" site to replace Park Morton has been proposed with 94 public housing units and 108 workforce units for families earning 60% AMI. The remaining units would be offered at market rate.

In additional to support for housing affordability, 36% of the participants support reserving housing for seniors, 32% would like to have family-sized units included, and 20% would like the Hebrew Home development to create opportunities for home ownership.

Revamp the public space around the building

The Hebrew Home project has significant potential to improve the site's public space and sustainability. As the site exists today, 10th Street at the eastern edge of the property is technically part of the site. Unlike the east side of 10th Street which has sidewalks, trees, and grass, the west side of 10th Street has no sidewalks, no trees, and contains a large surface parking lot.


Image from Google Maps.

There is also a large open grass area between the historic building and its neighbor to the west at 1131 Spring Road, which could be a community garden, a playground, or an improved park space.


The grass area just west of the building. Image from DMPED.

There was more diversity of opinion on this aspect of the project than there was with Housing and Density. Still, participants' preference for sustainability was strong with 76% of them indicating that they would like to see the project incorporate sustainable public space improvements. DMPED defined such improvements as including storm water management, sustainable landscaping, and permeable surfaces.

With the exception of incorporating public art, which only received support from 8% of the participants, support for the other priorities was fairly evenly split with 40% wanting upgrades to 10th Street exceeding DDOT standards, 40% for passive uses of green space such as a community garden or public benches, and 36% wanting active uses of the outdoor areas such as a dog park, playground, or educational programming.

What's next?

After getting a strong sense of what the community wants through two community workshops, DMPED plans to formally open the window for developers to submit proposals for the site in late June. Once a developer is selected, there will be additional opportunities for community engagement.

The historic nature of the site and potential PUD will both provide opportunities for Advisory Neighborhood Commissions 4C and 1A to weigh in. In addition to ANC review, residents will be able to engage through public hearings at the Historic Preservation Review Board and Zoning Commission.

Transit


New bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes could connect Columbia Heights and Brookland

People want more ways to get around by foot and on bike in the corridor that runs from from Columbia Heights to Brookland, and they want them to be safer. After receiving that message, DDOT drafted potential plans for making it happen.


The study area. All image from DDOT.

DDOT's Crosstown Multimodal Transportation Study focuses on an area defined by Kenyon and Harvard Streets between 16th and Park Place; Irving Street and Michigan Avenue around the Washington Hospital Center; and Michigan Avenue from the hospital center to South Dakota Avenue. Cars in the area zip along Irving and Michigan, but for people on bikes and foot, there isn't a safe or easy way to get around (a fact compounded by the congestion once drivers get to either side of the hospital).

Also, the area's transit isn't great. Both the H2 and H4 bus routes connect the Columbia Heights Metro Station, the Washington Hospital Center, and the Brookland Metro Station along the Irving/Columbia Road-Michigan Avenue corridor. However, Medstar also provides shuttle service on the same route between the hospitals and the Columbia Heights Metro every 10 minutes during rush hour and 30 minutes during other times. This service largely duplicates WMATA's service and adds additional traffic to already congested streets.

After the first public workshop about the study, nearly 700 people commented on how to address all of these issues. Back in April, DDOT unveiled three concept plans for the corridor. Here's a summary:

A new street grid

Each of DDOT's proposals suggests removing the Michigan Avenue overpass and creating a street grid west of the hospitals. Doing so would go a long way in making the area safer for people on foot and bike, as it'd get rid of unnecessary high-speed ramps and car lanes; it'd also mean chances to add new green space. How many surface streets are in that grid depends largely on where bus and bike lanes need to be.


One of the options for a new street grid.

More options for bike riders

Those who gave DDOT input were clear that they'd like to see more bike connections, and that those connections be made made up of space that's only for bikes. The proposals include a few options for doing that, from protected bikeways that run in both directions to off-street lanes next to pedestrian walkways.

Around the hospitals and toward Columbia Heights, the stronger proposals would create bike lanes in one of the existing travel or parking lanes. With one exception in one proposal, bikes and buses would not share the same lanes, and west of the hospitals, bike lanes and bus lanes would not be on the same streets.


One option is to add a bike lane along Michigan Avenue.

Dedicated bus lanes

The plans aim to improve bus service (shorter trips, specifically) by creating dedicated lanes for buses. While the extent of dedicated lanes varies among the concepts, they all suggest dedicated lanes on either Irving Street, Columbia Road, and/or Harvard Street west of the hospitals. This would be accomplished by using one lane currently used during rush hour and parking during off peak hours.


The dark blue lines are dedicated transit lanes.

No more cloverleaf

None of DDOT's three options would do away with the North Capitol Street overpass. All of them, however, would replace the freeway-style, cloverleaf-shaped ramps that run between North Capitol and Irving with more direct connections. Doing so would make it much easier to keep car speeds down and control traffic flow.


The cloverleaf is on its way out.

DDOT has scheduled its third Crosstown Study workshop for June 9th at Trinity Washington University. You can give input on the potential plans there.

In addition to the third workshop, DDOT will have two Public Engagement Events on Saturday, June 11: one in Brookland, at the Monroe Street Farmers Market (716 Monroe Street NE), and one on the west side of the Columbia Heights Metro station (3030 14th Street NW).

History


Where DC used to bar black people from living

One of many pieces of America's shameful racial past was when racial covenants forbade people in certain areas from selling their houses to an African-American family. DC had these in several neighborhoods, particularly Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Park View, and Bloomingdale.

According to Mapping Segregation in Washington DC, an interactive map created last year by a group called Prologue DC, covenants took two forms throughout the first half of the 20th century: restrictions in the property's deed, often set up by the developer when building a set of row houses, or an agreement that neighborhood activists would circulate as a petition around a neighborhood.


Lots with racial covenants in DC. All maps by Brian Kraft/JMT.

As the interactive map's text explains, covenants like these did more than just bar African-Americans. Covenants in some areas also prohibited Jews—"In DC this was more common west of Rock Creek Park," says the text.

These effectively kept black residents out of many neighborhoods through the early twentieth century, as this map of the area around Columbia Heights shows.


Lots with restrictions (purple) and the percentage of non-white residents (darker = more non-white), 1934.

Many covenants imposed other limits as well, like requiring "that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon." As Ben Ross explains, covenant limits on building size and use is the forerunner of modern zoning.

Covenants fall and segregation takes new forms

Black homeowners and groups like the NAACP challenged these restrictions—often unsuccessfully—in lawsuits from the turn of the century until finally winning the seminal Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, and a corresponding case in DC, Hurd v. Hodge (which used a federal civil rights law instead of the Fourteenth Amendment since DC is not a state).

 
Percentage of black residents by Census tract, 1930 (left) and 1960 (right). Darker colors signify more black residents.

In the years after legal restrictions fell, the percentage of black residents in nearby neighborhoods increased—just what the covenants' creators and defenders, illegally and immorally, feared. Amid this shift, the end of legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and other civil rights advances, many white residents moved to the suburbs.

There, whether intentionally or not, communities wrote zoning rules and school district boundaries in ways that perpetuated de facto segregation.

How covenants from the past still hurt people today

While this legal tactic is long gone, its effects remain. Emily Badger wrote about a study of how young black people are far less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to get help from their parents to afford the down payment on a home. Each generation invests in real estate and gains wealth in doing so, which it then uses to help the next generation—except if, a few generations ago, residents and the government stopped your ancestors from getting some wealth in the first place.

Badger writes, "Historic disparities in the housing market are transmitted over time, from parent to child to grandchild. Earlier generations of blacks were excluded from homeownership by lending practices and government policies, and as a result those generations didn't accumulate the housing wealth that enabled them to pass money onto their children."

Or, as she put it pithily on Twitter:

Correction: The initial version of this post identified some covenants as being in Truxton Circle, but they were actually in Bloomingdale. Also, a sentence has been updated to emphasize that the disadvantages to black residents came from a combination of both the government and private citizens.

Development


The first two efforts to turn Petworth's Hebrew Home into housing failed. Will the third time be different?

Just a few blocks from the Petworth Metro, a District-owned apartment that most call the Hebrew Home has been vacant since 2009, and DC is asking for resident input on its latest effort to redevelop the land (the first two fell through). The end result could be 200 new units of mixed-income housing, along with retail and park space.


The Hebrew Home, looking west on Spring Road. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Located at 1125 Spring Road, the Hebrew Home's name is a reference to the building's original use serving the elderly Jewish population with housing and health care. From 1925 to 1969, the property grew to include an array of social services available to young and old within a community that both understood and supported the specific religious, linguistic, and cultural needs of its clients.

When the Hebrew Home determined it could no longer adequately serve the needs of the local Jewish population by remaining on Spring Road, it sold the property to the District government and moved into a new facility in Montgomery County.


The Hebrew Home and the adjacent Robeson School building, at 10th and Spring NW. Image from DMPED.

This isn't the first effort to redevelop the Hebrew Home

From 1968 until its closure in 2009, the District used the Hebrew Home site as a mental health facility for the homeless. Since it closed that facility, the District has attempted to breathe new life into the building without success.

In the fall of 2010, the DC Department of Human Services proposed using the site to shelter families instead of sending them to DC General. That plan would have cost an estimated $800,000 to renovate the building for 74 families. However, the site was removed from consideration due to then-Councilmember Muriel Bowser's concern that the immediate area had an "inordinate amount of group homes" and two homeless shelters within a two-block radius of the site.

More recently, efforts in 2014 to redevelop the historic structure and the Robeson School (which sits immediately adjacent, to the east) resulted in a plan to create approximately 200-units of housing with 90% designated as affordable, including a senior preference for 25% of the units.


The Robeson School building. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Development stalled again, however, when the District learned that it wouldn't be able to transfer ownership to the DC Housing Authority without a formal Request for Proposals process. Moreover, Bowser expressed reservations about the plan being weighted so heavily toward affordable housing. Due to these factors, the District restarted the process to develop the site in April with what it's calling OurRFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

The Hebrew Home could become much-needed housing for all incomes

The first of two OurRFP workshops to decide how to redevelop the Hebrew Home was earlier this month. There, officials from DC's office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) shared some key data:

  • The lot is 144,400 square feet in size.
  • The site includes three buildings. The development will not include the small building at the western edge of the site.
  • The former Hebrew Home structure is historic, but the Robeson School is not and can be razed.
  • The property has good access to transportation. It's near the Georgia Avenue Metro station, numerous bus lines, and Capital Bikeshare stations.
  • The site has a walk score of 93 and a bike score in the 80s.

A map of the transit options surrounding the Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

Workshop attendees split into 13 working groups to discuss what they would like to see happen with the Hebrew Home.

The site has tremendous potential to provide a significant amount of housing in an area with ready access to public transportation and where housing prices and displacement are of great concern. Within my working group, there was general agreement that the RFP should start from the position of including a strong affordability component, with the financing then driving the configuration of affordable and market rate housing to a balanced level. There was an understanding that the economics of development will have an impact on what can be financed and that, at the end of the day, the development must become a reality for any housing to exist.

With regards to the living units, there's a need for both family-sized units and apartments for seniors. I would like to see every unit (if possible) be ADA compliant; as units become vacant in the future it would be ideal if any resident in need of housing would be able to move into the building and not be prevented due to the unit's configuration.


A map showing existing affordable housing surrounding the Hebrew Home site by location and number of affordable units. Image from DMPED.

As for the type of building that goes up, it is clear that people want the new construction to fit into the neighborhood context. Whether the building was traditional, modern, contemporary, or something else, the materials, massing, and architectural detailing's ability to make it fit the character of what's around it certainly exists.

We also discussed the massing of the new construction on the Robeson site. Some suggested that a by-right approach would be more in keeping with the neighborhood and better fit in. I countered that I would prefer a Planned Unit Developmentwhere a developer provides the community with benefits in exchange for a zoning exception— for three reasons:

  1. A PUD would allow for a slightly larger building. The existing Hebrew Home building is one story taller than allowed by by right, and I think that an additional story on the new construction that matched the height of the historic building would not be out of place, especially as it would be located between the Hebrew Home site and the Raymond School & Recreation Center.
  2. A PUD would also result in more oversight and community opportunities to participate.
  3. As zoned, the building is residential. But the existing Hebrew Home building has a space on the first floor with a separate entrance that could support a small store or possibly another use such as an early childhood development center.
I think the community would benefit from vetting these options to see if they're a good fit rather than not discussing them at all.

One of the last things the group discussed was the public space and sustainability. As part of this discussion, we talked about trees, benches, green roofs, and other possible uses for the existing green spaces. As this is an opportunity to enhance our natural environment, I also mentioned that we should advocate for all trees and landscaping to be native plantings. The green space between the small building at 1131 Spring Road and the Hebrew Home is also large enough for a small park or other type of public space.

There will be another OurRFP workshop in May, and DMPED anticipates releasing the RFP solicitation in June 2016.

A version of this post originally ran on Park View, DC.

Development


Ask GGW: Will DC soon limit the renovations I can make to my row house?

Reader Jim writes, "I live in Columbia Heights. We own a rather tattered 'charming' row house, and are gearing up to do a big project to redo it. And I am totally confused about what's coming down the pike" about DC's so-called "pop-up" limits.


Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

DC's Zoning Commission recently voted to impose new limits on how tall a homeowner can make a row house in an R-4 zone, the moderate density row house district that includes most of Columbia Heights. It also tightened restrictions on how many units such a house can contain.

But what exactly was the final rule? When will it take effect? Jim writes, "I'm wondering if there's any way for me to look at the actual language of the proposed regulations. If I added a third unit in my home, would I have to rent it at a reduced rate? Is there somewhere you might guide me for some clarity? Is it your sense that this is a done deal?"

Here's the scoop, Jim.

What the rules do

Right now, you can make your row house up to 40 feet tall. After the rules go into effect, you will be able to only go to 30 35 feet, or 40 feet with a "special exception." A special exception is easier to get than a variance, but it still requires the homeowner to file for a formal hearing with the Board of Zoning Adjustment, notify neighbors and attend a hearing. Most of the time people need to pay for a zoning attorney to help with this process.

Today in R-4, buildings can only have two units, except if the building is on an unusually large lot, when it can have more. The BZA has also granted variances for some property owners to make three, four, or more units in a building.

Under the proposed new rules, buildings will still be able to have three units if it was legal to make them three units before. The Office of Planning backed off on the idea of outright limiting buildings to three units, which is what it originally suggested.

Instead, now where it would have been possible to have four or more units, the building owner can still make more units, but the fourth unit will have to be an Inclusionary Zoning unit reserved for people making 80% of the Area Median Income, and so would every second unit thereafter (so a six-unit building would need two IZ units, an eight-unit building three, etc.) Also, even on a large lot, the owner can only go up to four units without getting a special exception.

There are a few more new rules as well: An addition can't block a chimney or other vent of a row house next door, and can't cut off light from solar panels on an adjacent house either. It can't remove or raise a turret or other architectural feature on top of the front and can't extend back more than ten feet past the rear walls of the houses on either side.

What does this mean for Jim?

Basically, Jim, this change doesn't affect whether you can create a third unit in his home, but it does limit your ability to make your home bigger. If it was legal before to split your home into three units (which it might have been, or might not have been), you still can.

For most people, the best way to find out about zoning rules is to talk to the Homeowners Center at DCRA. They only help people in homes of one and two units, so you should talk to a zoning attorney before pursuing any plans to make your house three or more units.

If you were planning to make your house bigger physically, you will have to get a special exception if it would be more than 30 35 feet high, more than 10 feet back past the rear of the houses next door, overshadow someone's solar panels, or conflict with certain other rules.

Also, you should make sure to know what zone you are in. Most of Columbia Heights is R-4, but a few parts are R-5 (higher density). Near the commercial corridors, some houses are part of the adjacent commercial zone. You (and everyone else) can find out your zone with the handy interactive DC Zoning Map.


Zoning in a portion of Columbia Heights.

What's next for the rules?

DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say on zoning in DC, voted for these rules on March 30 as what's called "proposed action." Next, those rules get published in the DC Register for a 30-day official comment period; they will get published May 1, according to Sharon Schellin of the Office of Zoning.

That period closes June 1, and Schellin said the Zoning Commission will consider the rules at its June 8 meeting. The commission could choose to make the rules effective immediately as soon as they can be published in the DC Register. Or, it could choose to make them effective with more of a grace period, or ask the Office of Planning for more research and delay action entirely.

At-large DC councilmember Vincent Orange wants the commission to put the rules into effect right away. In fact, he wants a moratorium on any additions to row houses until they can go into effect. Some people have filed for permits on additions that are legal under current rules, and supporters of the new rules have asked to block any more of those.

Orange withdrew his moratorium proposal amid criticism that it was illegal—the Zoning Commission has the authority to make zoning rules, not the DC Council. But like Orange, many supporters of the proposed rules also want further limits.

Orange's bill would have not only blocked R-4 additions but additions in the R-5 zone, where row houses exist side by side with apartment buildings and converting a row house into a small apartment building has long been legal. Orange would have blocked making three units in a building even if it didn't "pop up" at all, or adding onto a building even just for a single family to have more space.

In his initial question, Jim asked, "If I added a third unit in my home, would I have to rent it at a reduced rate?" If Vincent Orange had his way, Jim wouldn't have been able to add a third unit in his home at all.

Correction: The initial version of this post incorrectly listed 30 feet as the new matter-of-right height limit in R4 zones. It will be 35 feet if the proposal goes into effect.

Public Spaces


The sound of children playing bothers some Columbia Heights residents

Some condo residents in Columbia Heights want to dismantle the playground for the preschool in their building because, they say, the children make too much noise.


Image from AppleTree.

The board of the Lofts of Columbia Heights, at 14th and Girard Street NW, made plans to dismantle the playground behind the building that serves the AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School, the Washington Post reported over the weekend.

My 3-year-old son is a student there. The kids visit the playground once or twice a day. They go outside for 30 minutes mid-day to meet the curriculum requirements for "gross motor skills development" and in the afternoon for the after-school care program.

Reporter Michael Allison Chandler interviewed a resident, James Abadian, who believes the playground constitutes common space that the board can control. But school officials disagree. Reached by phone, Jack McCarthy, CEO of the AppleTree Institute, said that the school actually owns the space and that the development agreement for the building included an early childhood center, which includes the playground as well as the school.

The condo board had planned to tear down the playground over the Thanksgiving break without informing the school, and posted an RFP soliciting a company to remove the playground equipment. A letter from the school's attorneys stopped that action.

Playground conflicts are a familiar refrain in DC

AppleTree has seven campuses. Its Lincoln Park facility has also had issues with neighbors and cannot use the backyard of its own building for recreation. Ross Elementary experienced similar conflicts with its Dupont Circle neighbors as more families started staying in DC once their kids entered school.

My son's school only serves the 3- and 4-year-old pre-kindergarten grades. All children then move on to enroll at other public and charter schools around the city for elementary school. AppleTree is determined to overcome the achievement gap, with strict requirements for attendance and classroom behavior. It's known for rigorous academics and lots of testing; children are assessed five times a year to support curriculum development.

Teachers trained by the larger AppleTree Institute go on to many of the highly sought-after charter schools in the city, like Inspired Teaching and Creative Minds. It's been great for my son, who has not only adapted to the concept of "circle time" but is also close to reading and is adept at basic math skills.

Kids need outdoor space

I know of kids in the school whose parents forbid them from playing outside at home, fearful of their neighbors. They are grateful for a safe, affordable place to send their children to learn.

The playground at AppleTree Columbia Heights is small. It's nestled between buildings and there is no green space. Parents consider the limited space a negative when choosing schools in the lottery. But 3- and 4-year-olds need space to run and move.

A larger DC Department of Parks & Recreation playground is just down the street, but taking a whole class of young children down there once or twice a day is demanding on the teachers, the children, and on all the neighbors in between. Also, the DPR playground is not as secured as the AppleTree playground, with litter and public access all day and night.

Chandler wrote in the Post that the condo board would like to instead turning the space into a barbecue lawn or an area for "silent study" for AppleTree students, an absurd concept for normal development of preschool-age children.

The school has already limited playground hours out of deference to resident complaints. Kids also don't go outside when it's colder than 40 degrees, so this issue is moot for at least the next week or two, and much of the winter. AppleTree also has agreed with the condo board not to host evening events, limiting parents' ability to get to know each other and get involved in school activities.

But one source of noise will never stop: the bustle of 14th Street. The building is a couple of blocks south of the Columbia Heights Metro station and amidst dense development, so there is heavy foot and vehicular traffic. I regularly see emergency vehicles. These are normal urban noises, and the sounds of children playing fit right in with that.

On the other hand, across 14th Street at Girard Park I regularly see drugs and stolen bikes exchanged, along with boom boxes, street harassment, and other loud adult activities. The residents may not be able to control that with a lease, but which source of noise is a greater detriment to the community at large?

It's clear that finding appropriate space for charter schools is a growing challenge in the District, particularly in the dense neighborhoods where they are most needed. I hope the condo residents can "play well with others" and help the school and its students succeed. Taking away a playground from preschoolers is not the answer.

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