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Friday's your last chance to speak up on DC's zoning code (and you should!)

Opponents of DC's zoning update are continuing to try to delay changes that will add housing and make it less expensive to build. But DC's zoning commission has had enough of delay. They now need to hear support from residents to actually approve the changes.


Photo by Warren R.M. Stuart on Flickr.

The final deadline to comment on the proposal, which has been going on for eight years, is this Friday.

Here are the key provisions and my comments. If you agree, the best thing to do is write a short (1-2 sentences is fine) explanation in your own words of the same general concept (or any other you believe in) and submit it through the online tool, linked next to each item below.

Accessory apartments: This proposal will let homeowners in detached house zones rent out a basement, other room, or existing garage to earn some more money from otherwise-unused space as well as providing someone else a place to live.

Comment here, and select section 253.8. I'm saying, "Please approve the proposal for accessory apartments. Many homeowners have extra space and need money to help cover a mortgage, pay for needs in retirement, or other expenses. Meanwhile, many people need places to live in DC. This proposal is a win-win that addresses both needs."

Parking: The new zoning code will lower minimum parking requirements, most deeply around Metro stations, streetcar lines, and high-frequency bus corridors.

Comment here, and select section 701. I'm saying, "Please approve the proposal to reduce minimum parking requirements. These requirements are often unnecessary and drive up the cost of new housing. Issues with street parking should be solved through street parking rules and not in the zoning code."

If you want to go further, you can advocate for even deeper reductions, or an outright elimination, of the parking minimums. The original proposal got watered down over time.

You can also comment on any of the other changes, all of which you can read about in The Office of Planning's zoning update blog.

The online tool is the easiest way to comment. You can also email a PDF letter to zcsubmissions@dc.gov or use one of the other methods at the bottom of this page.

The zoning board says enough is enough

At least 40 opponents sent letters asking to extend the time even further. They also asked to have the Office of Planning go back to neighborhoods for yet another round of meetings, and to translate the zoning code into more languages.

Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood, who had pushed for more meetings and some delays in the past, has had enough. He said,

We've extended the time and extended the time and extended the time. I understand this is a new undertaking, but ... we extended it 90 days, and on our own, because of concerns of things ending in August, we extended it a few more days ... so it went from 90 to 119 days. To extend it again and keep extending it and keep extending it; I think this city will not have a new zoning code which was forecast years ago. I think we have done due diligence for the residents in this city. It's probably 8 years now. This is an 8-year project.
On the translation issue, OP's Jennifer Steingasser noted that the agency had previously created and circulated a fact sheet, explaining the main changes, in Amharic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Zoning staff said a full translation of the text would cost $100,000 per language and is not required by law.

The commission voted unanimously to deny all of the extension requests, except for one from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4A to submit its testimony about two weeks late. That ANC will get its minor extension; everyone else needs to speak by this Friday, September 23 25.

Go do it!

Development


Opposition to housing in HBO's "Show Me a Hero" sounds eerily familiar

In the second episode of the miniseries Show Me a Hero, which premiered on HBO last Sunday, angry crowds—all white—protest at a Yonkers, NY city council meeting discussing a plan to put a measly 200 low-income households in the more affluent parts of the city. Many people watching surely believe that they wouldn't be throwing diapers at the council if they had been in Yonkers in 1987. I'm not so sure.


Yonkers residents protesting public and affordable housing at a city council meeting. Images from HBO unless otherwise noted.

DC may be close to half white and half black, but many neighborhoods are far from diverse, racially or in income level. West of Rock Creek Park and east of the Anacostia River are worlds apart, as much as Show Me a Hero's depictions of Yonkers east and west of the Saw Mill River Parkway.

DC hasn't taken very serious steps to change this reality in the last decade, but even those to move 1% of the way have been met with more than 1% of the anger and opposition we can see in Show Me a Hero.

In the series (and in real-life history) a federal judge found that Yonkers had violated civil rights laws and the Constitution by concentrating all of the low-income housing into a small area of the city. The judge ordered Yonkers to build 200 units of public housing and 800 of affordable housing in sites elsewhere. The council (all white) fought against the ruling to the bitter end.


Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko is faced with a council where no member wants new public housing in his district.

The first two episodes of the miniseries, by The Wire creator David Simon, show council resistance as the judge progressively threatens officials with contempt charges and fines. They also depict the intensity of public opposition to the idea of anyone who makes less money than they do living in their neighborhoods. "It's not a black and white issue," one says, unpersuasively to much of the series' 2015 audience.

Meanwhile, in DC in the 2010s, what affordable housing gets built mostly goes east of the Anacostia into the District's two poorest wards. Residents there keep pointing out the unfairness of adding even more subsidized housing in areas with high unemployment and relatively few retail or transportation options, but it continues. The Gray Administration even approved a proposal to build on public land in the Mount Vernon Triangle but locate required affordable housing units in Anacostia.


The concentrations of white (left) and black (right) residents in Yonkers in 1980. The darker the green, the higher the percentage. Image from Social Explorer via Uncovering Yonkers.

In DC's richest ward, new housing inevitably means a fight

There hasn't been any push to build affordable housing west of Rock Creek, but there have been a few efforts to build some higher-income housing that wasn't the detached single houses on large lots that predominate. Apartments on the site of the old Wisconsin Avenue Giant, the development now called Cathedral Commons, drew battles and lawsuits for well over a decade.

The DC Zoning Update proposed allowing homeowners with basements or carriage houses to rent them out instead of prohibiting the practice outright, as is the law today. That plan is still slowly grinding its way through the approval process after getting watered down significantly amid endless delays over more than seven years now.

And a 2003-2004 plan to allow denser development along Wisconsin Avenue near the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights Metro stations provoked a massive backlash. At the tail end, opponents attacked Ellen McCarthy, the planning director at the time, and successfully pushed for her ouster.

None of these efforts would have created much if any exclusively low-income housing. Some people, like Councilmember Vincent Orange, therefore argue wrongly that opposing new housing has no impact on low-income residents at all. But if it's so controversial to allow more market-rate housing in an already expensive area, where units might just go to some young singles and couples or retirees, imagine the firestorm if the same housing would have actual poor people. You don't have to imagine it; you can watch Show Me a Hero.

The specter of different people raises alarm

In the show's second episode, Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) hears on the news about the increasing chance of some low-income housing coming to her neighborhood and says, about the people who would live in low-income units, "they don't live the way we do. They don't want what we want."

In the 21st century and outside the crispness of a scripted television show, people don't quite say that, but some messages on the Chevy Chase listserv about the carriage house proposals came close. One person wrote, "I'm especially concerned about [these units], and sympathized with the parent who expressed concern for his young childrens' safety if no controls were instituted on who could occupy such units."

And these would have been units where an existing Chevy Chase homeowner hand-selected the person to rent to, not ones awarded through a housing lottery. What would this writer and the others who expressed similar sentiments done if the plan had actually been to desegregate the Chevy Chase neighborhood?


Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a single mother and public housing resident struggling to afford life in Yonkers.

This year, the US Supreme Court upheld a strong interpretation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act in a Texas case that has a lot of similarities to the Yonkers one, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued stricter rules to push cities to do more against housing segregation.

With the memorable and viral phrase "Liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets," Kriston Capps argued in Citylab that many liberals' professed views won't stand up to the reality of actually getting affordable housing near them. Capps notes how a Republican county executive was elected in Westchester County (which includes Yonkers) after his Democratic predecessor approved new affordable housing across the county.

Lisa Belkin, author of the book on which the miniseries is based, wrote in the New York Times that "[s]upporters of desegregation won the Yonkers battle—but the high cost of victory lost them the war. Few in this country had the will to risk another divisive, ugly municipal bruising any time soon."

Many officials in DC and elsewhere might look at the miniseries, the real-life experiences in Westchester and DC and everywhere else, and conclude that residential segregation is something best ignored. That's certainly what the councilmembers in Show Me a Hero wanted to do. But as David Simon illustrates with cuts between the council hearings and scenes of the real lives of the affected low-income people, the human cost of inaction is very high.

Development


Construction is starting on a mixed-use building at Eastern Market. It took seven years to get this far.

In a ceremony on Friday, a mixed-use development formally broke ground at where the closed Hine Junior High School used to stand, across the street from Eastern Market Metro. This hard-fought project has been in the works since at least 2008, and is a good example of how long many of these projects can take amid community battles.


Image from the development team.

Here's a quick chronology of the Hine project that covers some, but definitely not all, of the steps:

1864: A beautiful building is constructed for the Wallach School along Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 8th.

ca. 1893-1938: Some other school buildings start filling in more of the square, including one for a new public high school and junior high, the latter called Hine.

1950: The Wallach building is torn down.

1966: The Hine school is built, covering most of the entire block from 7th to 8th, Pennsylvania to C. The parking lot on the north side also spans where a closed C Street used to be. Its design relates poorly to the surrounding streets and it forms a dead zone between the Eastern Market and Barracks Row commercial areas.


Left: Wallach School, 1864-1950. Right: Hine Junior High School, 1966-present.

1993: The flea market at Eastern Market starts using the Hine parking lot.

2007: The Hine school closes. Discussions begin about redeveloping the site.

May 2008: Councilmember Tommy Wells hosts a preliminary community meeting about the redevelopment proposals.

June 2009: Four development teams present their proposals. One proposal, from Stanton and Eastbanc, stands out, David Cranor writes. It's also the densest.


The "green blobs" plan, one of four proposals for the site.

September 2009: The DC government selects Stanton/Eastbanc's proposal.


The winning plan.

Early 2011: Stanton/Eastbanc go to various community meetings to present their more-detailed proposal. Some nearby residents focus on fighting the overall size of the project, which has sections ranging from four to seven stories (taller on Pennsylvania Avenue, shorter elsewhere). Others who are more supportive of new housing near Metro focus on architectural issues that wouldn't affect the overall opportunity to add housing.

The Advisory Neighborhood Commission creates a committee to work on Hine, which ultimately supports most of the overall size and advocates for a set of other changes based on community feedback.

April 2011: The project goes to the Historic Preservation Review Board, where many people oppose the height. Preservation staff, however, argue that a building of this size is appropriate for a prominent corner like this one.

2012: The project moves on to the Zoning Commission. The same debates over height continue to rage.

October-November 2012: Hine opponents try to unseat ANC commissioners who supported the committee's recommendations and didn't fight the project's size more fiercely. The incumbents win reelection.

November 2012: The Zoning Commission approves the project. The developers say they are hoping to start construction in summer 2013. Neighbors appeal in court.


Photo by Bill Walsh on Flickr.

August 2014: The DC Court of Appeals rejects the appeal. The opponents petition the court for a rehearing in the case.

November 2014: Some Hine opponents again run for open ANC seats in the two districts nearest the project, but are not elected.

January 2015: The Court of Appeals rejects opponents' petition and clears the way for Stanton/Eastbanc to begin construction.

June 2015: Demolition begins on the old Hine building.

July 17, 2015: The project formally breaks ground.

June 2017: The first building, on the south side along Pennsylvania Avenue, should open if all goes according to plan.

One thing that stands out from this timeline is how long opponents successfully blocked the project with their court challenge. It took about two years from when Stanton/Eastbanc won the bid until they had all of the necessary approvals; that's not quick, but not so unusual in DC, and this was a large and complex project with many small changes along the way. Then, the court case blocked progress for almost two more years.

It's clear that opponents primarily do not want to see mid-sized buildings like these on the site, but one of their arguments was that this site didn't have enough affordable housing. Unfortunately, the long delay ensured that needed housing, both market-rate and affordable, was not available for a long period of time.

Development


Rowhouse "pop-up" restrictions get much stricter at the eleventh hour

Jim, a homeowner in Columbia Heights who wants to add onto his row house, might be in trouble. New rules limiting homeowners' ability to divide a house into more than two units or build a "pop-up" on top just got even stricter as DC's Zoning Commission took its final vote.


Photo by Smithsonian Institution Libraries on Flickr.

Responding to neighborhood outcry about row houses being converted into three, four, and more units by adding onto the back or top, last year the Office of Planning (OP) proposed rules to limit houses in what's called the R-4 zone to only two units, along with some other restrictions.

The DC Zoning Commission held its public hearing and a vote. At that time, the commission voted, 3-2, to accept some of the DC Office of Planning's recommendations to further limit zoning in lower-density rowhouse zones, but not all. It left the right to make three or four units in a house, if the zoning already allowed it (only on larger-than-usual lots).

Rules change at the end of the line

Typically, the Zoning Commission then publishes its vote in the DC Register for a required 30-day comment period and takes "final action" confirming its initial vote. But instead, on Monday night, Peter May, the representative from the National Park Service, changed his vote on a key provision to only allow two units in a row house without a special exception hearing before the zoning board.

Also, the Office of Planning recommended, and the Zoning Commission supported, making the rules retroactive to July 17 of last year, when the commission "set down" the case. Anyone who has filed plans to add onto a rowhouse beyond the new limits between then and now may not be able to move forward. (Some people with plans from before February 1, 2015 can still proceed.)

OP also recommended expanding new rules that limit changes to a house's turret, or changes that might block a neighbor's chimney or solar panel, to all houses in R-4 zones, not just those with owners contemplating a pop-up or rear addition. Coming during the final comment period, this means that it will affect many more homeowners than the proposals did during the actual hearings.

The changes came after sustained lobbying from anti-pop-up activists, who got many homeowners to write into OP and the Zoning Commission during the comment period, resolutions from several Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and a letter from Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau.

Is housing supply an issue, or not?

According to reports, much of the debate centered around whether DC needs more housing to maintain affordability, or at least slow the rapid rise in housing prices.

Member Marcie Cohen argued, as she has in the past, for zoning rules that allow for more housing in the District. She said, "We're a growing city. We need to have the flexibility to enable other households to come into neighborhoods." Anthony Hood, the longtime chairman of the commission and (like Cohen) a mayoral appointee, disagreed.

Hood said,

A lot of the stuff we say up here is shuckin' and jivin'. This connection to affordable housing, I have not seen it yet. It's not a reality. I have young people that work with me now telling me that they need to move to Silver Spring, so let's be real. What are we really doing?
Vincent Orange expressed a similar sentiment, taking exception to my critique when he tried to impose a moratorium that would have gone even farther than this zoning case. He said, as he withdrew his proposal, that he didn't know of any poor people living in pop-ups.

Indeed, pop-ups and much other new construction in "hot" row house areas of DC is indeed luxury housing, because the cost of new construction is very high. The question is whether new housing will relieve pressure on other, older housing elsewhere, but this is an indirect and not vary tangible connection.

Therefore, as with most development debates, the argument here is between residents who feel very passionately that a project is having an impact on their own neighborhood, developers, and people who talk about a much more abstract supply concern.

The Office of Planning, for its part, does not often connect the two. OP planners did not discuss how this proposal would affect the overall housing supply, nor did it with changes to water down the zoning update (which, by the way, is now in its comment period).

DC needs a larger conversation about housing supply. Pop-ups, ultimately, are a very small part of that one way or the other. Piecemeal new zoning restrictions, or piecemeal new developments, won't deal with it. But in recent years there have been controversies over tall buildings downtown, significant changes to commercial corridors, pop-ups, basement and carriage house apartments, big new developments like McMillan, and most every other method for adding housing. It's gotta go somewhere.

Bicycling


Making this street more bike-friendly should be easy. Why isn't it?

A barrier meant to calm traffic doesn't need to also block bicyclists on an upper Northwest street. But even though Councilmember Mary Cheh and the local ANC support a cut-through, there had to be yet another hours-long community meeting and site visit in the pouring rain so nearby residents could express their concerns that accommodating bicyclists would result in mayhem and carnage.


Traffic diverter at 44th and Harrison NW

The proposal is to add bike cut-throughs to an existing traffic diverter at the intersection of 44th Street and Harrison Street NW. The traffic diverter blocks cars from passing through the intersection, which is meant to preclude the use of these residential streets as an alternative route for nearby Wisconsin Avenue and Western Avenue.


Bicyclists currently use these ramps to get around the diverter

Backers of the project believe that adding the cut-throughs would give people on bikes a more direct route from the neighborhood into Friendship Heights without disrupting the neighborhood itself.

Opponents, on the other hand, think changing the diverter will invite drivers to attempt to drive over the diverter and through the neighborhood. Some also believe that more bike traffic through the residential streets would be a bad thing.

Additionally, opponents believe that cyclists already have an adequate alternative by leaving the roadway, riding up the curb ramps and onto the sidewalk, to circumnavigate the diverter. Opponents believe that this practice is safer for everyone than any compromise to the integrity of the traffic diverter.

Following the meeting, representatives from DDOT said they would bring these concerns back to their agency to study possible design adjustments, further delaying a project that would make life easier on bicyclists.

This situation is a snapshot of a bigger story

Ultimately, this isn't a very substantial project and will not affect many residents or bicyclists. But it speaks to a few larger concerns about the process of adding additional bicycle accommodation to parts of the District that currently don't have many.

Anyone who has ever attended a public meeting knows that it can be very difficult to change the status quo. The resistance to make changes, regardless of how small those changes seem, exhibits itself in fierce resistance and the desire for an endless series of meetings, further discussion and design tweaks. While this project had been approved by the local ANC and is supported by Councilmember Mary Cheh, a committed group of opponents has managed to stall the process.

If this is the case for such small projects &emdash;the low-hanging fruit that cuts neither parking nor traffic lanes&emdash;what does this suggest about gaining any ground on larger ones? It's important to work with neighbors, but at a certain point it becomes necessary to reach a decision. If DDOT is expected to assuage every concern from every resident before moving forward with a project, it will never accomplish anything.

This meeting also raised concerns about the results of interrupting the public right of way. When the traffic diverter went in, residents of the nearby streets benefitted disproportionately. But the traffic didn't disappear, it just went somewhere else. And when breaking up a street favors some residents over others, it's no surprise that those who benefit want to preserve their advantage.

Even though this particular project would keep the diverter in place and simply add some small cut-throughs for bicyclists, the residents' attachment to their preferred status is so strong that they are worried about any action that might jeopardize it. DDOT needs to be mindful about the consequences of traffic decisions that have the potential to create this dynamic.

The overwhelming majority of opponents of these changes claimed that they support bicycling. However, they worried that changes to the road to accommodate bicyclists would unintentionally lead to more reckless driving, making everyone less safe.

This is similar to the concern about how installing bike lanes might degrade air quality due to more traffic from slowing moving cars. So long as meeting the needs of bicyclists are sublimated to larger concerns about how this might lead to even more negative externalities from driving, progress is unlikely.

Additionally, meetings like this always raise concerns about the division of public and private space. Both 44th Street and Harrison Street are public streets, open to all. While those who live nearby feel that they will be more affected by any changes to the intersection, DDOT needs to weigh their interests (and how reasonable their concerns are) against the larger goals of public mobility and bicycle accommodation.

You can't build a genuine bicycle network with a patchwork of compromises, where infrastructure appears or disappears based on block-by-block votes. If DC is committed to creating neighborhood bikeways and cross-town bike routes, like those laid out in the MoveDC plan, DDOT will need to find a way to address neighborhood concerns without sacrificing its larger goals.

Development


As Silver Spring urbanizes, neighbors disagree on who "belongs" there

Some members of a Silver Spring civic association recently tried to keep their new neighbors from joining. While residents rejected the measure, the fact that the issue got consideration at all illustrates how people disagree on who "belongs" in urbanizing communities.


The new townhouses rise behind single-family homes in Seven Oaks-Evanswood. All photos by the author.

The Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association (SOECA) sits in the shadow of downtown Silver Spring, just a few blocks from the Metro station. Nearly all of its 220 households live in single-family homes, though the association recently lost a years-long battle to stop Chelsea Heights, a development of 63 townhomes on the site of a former private school on Ellsworth Drive.

Last week, the SOECA board proposed an amendment to the civic association's bylaws that would limit membership to "residents of the R-60 zoned areas," or people living in single-family homes. The amendment would effectively bar the new townhouse residents from joining. The association already keeps out people living in a handful of small apartment buildings within the neighborhood's borders, which are drawn to exclude nearby high-rise apartment buildings.

The proposal unleashed a fiery conversation in the normally sleepy neighborhood, both online and at a community meeting last night that 50 people attended. But after a vote, neighbors voted 32-17 against the change.

Neighbors worried townhouse residents would "out-vote" them

Why propose barring the future residents of Chelsea Heights from the neighborhood association? On the community listserv, some residents worried that the Chelsea Heights residents could join the civic association and "out-vote" existing residents on neighborhood issues, such as whether to restrict cut-through traffic.

"Will their interests as members of a higher-density tract development coincide with, complement or be in conflict with those of a neighborhood association composed of residents in single-family homes?" asked one resident.


A new street in the Chelsea Heights development.

SOECA president Jean Cavanaugh noted that Chelsea Heights will have its own homeowners' association, and says that her organization would be willing to cooperate with it. "There are other civic associations that work side-by-side with large townhouse developments that have their own association," she told me.

She added that this had nothing to do with the fight to stop the development. "We have no issue with the people buying property in Chelsea Heights. Our issue's with the Planning Board, the county, and [Chelsea Heights developer] EYA," she told me. "We can distinguish between who we had our battle with and the innocents who are gonna move in to Chelsea Heights."

Other area neighborhoods welcome all comers

It's not unusual for neighborhood groups anywhere to fight development. But in Silver Spring, a community that's generally progressive and tolerant and where many neighborhoods have a mix of housing types, it's unusual for associations to deliberately exclude people based on what kind of home they live in.


Homes in SOECA are literally next to the high-rises and businesses of downtown Silver Spring.

Next door to SOECA, the Woodside Park Civic Association has a long history of opposing townhouses from being built there, but remains totally open to anyone who wants to join. And the East Silver Spring Civic Association is open not only to townhouse dwellers, but apartment and condominium residents as well.

"The fact that I live in an apartment does not mean I am any less impacted by a nearby development or the loss of a local park, than say a homeowner would be," says ESSCA president Megan Moriarty. "Furthermore, I think we can come up with better solutions if all voices are considered in the debate."

Liz Brent, a real estate agent and Seven Oaks-Evanswood resident for 20 years, says that the disagreement reflects a disconnect between how long-time residents and newer residents see the neighborhood.

"There are people who come [to Silver Spring] for the transportation, come here for the walkability, come here for the diversity," she says. "I'm not saying the people who came here 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago don't want the diversity. But people who are coming here now...that's critical. It's a sea change for people who have been here for 30 and 40 and 50 years."

Keeping people out weakens community

Civic associations have a lot of sway in Montgomery County politics, largely because they're so organized. They provide a voice to thousands of residents, and they have done a lot of good in the county, from organizing community events to fighting highway extensions that would have cut across Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

But civic groups also disenfranchise many people, whether by restricting membership to certain residents or by becoming adversarial towards people who disagree. That's one reason why participation in civic associations across Montgomery County is in decline.

Just 20% of eligible households in Seven Oaks-Evanswood are members of SOECA. I've spoken to SOECA residents who supported Chelsea Heights and say they stopped participating because of the group's eagerness to vilify anyone who supported the development. "I couldn't think of a decision that had been made that I agree with," Brent said as to why she left.

While neighbors who fight new development say they're doing it to "preserve" or "strengthen" their neighborhood, they ultimately weaken community organizations when they push out people who might otherwise want to get involved too. Change is a fact of life, but so is difference and disagreement. Community organizations do themselves a disservice by trying to squelch both.

Besides, I bet that people buying houses in Chelsea Heights, or the renters who are already excluded from participating in SOECA, probably moved there because they like and enjoy the neighborhood. I bet they have a lot more in common with their single-family dwelling neighbors than some would like to admit. And now, we'll get to find out.

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.

Development


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

If you've walked through Lanier Heights in recent years, it's clear that new construction has changed the neighborhood. Some residents want to change zoning laws to limit that trend, while others welcome it. Both groups faced off at a meeting on Tuesday.


Photo by John Leszczynski on Flickr.

Over the past five years or so, multi-unit condos known as pop-ups have replaced a number of single-family row houses in Lanier Heights. Several more of these projects are already under way, making it clear that pop-ups are the trend in the quiet, residential neighborhood.

Some long-time residents are mad as hell about it, saying pop-ups block sunlight and crowd yard space. They contend that buildings block views, damage historic row houses, and make it hard to find parking on the street. The result, they argue, is that it's much harder for families with children to live in the neighborhood.

Those who support pop-ups say that people's rights to build onto their property, which can increase its value, shouldn't be limited. They also point out that expanding houses or converting them into multiple units increases the city's dwindling housing supply.

A change in Lanier Heights' zoning laws would limit pop-ups

To stop future pop-ups, these residents have proposed a change to Lanier Heights' zoning designation. They want to downzone the neighborhood from R-5-B, which allows property owners to build to the back and the front of their lot and up to 50 feet in height, to R-4, which would limit the number of units in a row house to two as well as put a cap on how much of its lot construction can occupy.

Neighbors Against Downzoning has officially rejected the proposed zoning change, and at Tuesday's meeting residents added a number of additional reasons not to downzone.

Some pointed out the technical failings of R-4, citing ways developers could get around the proposed restriction. An architect in the audience voiced his opposition, saying that the difference between R-5 and R-4 is too minor to warrant changing. "We're fighting over 10 feet," he explained. Many lots in Lanier Heights aren't even eligible for R-5 development, making the debate a moot point for much of the neighborhood.

Others voiced broader opposition to restricting development. "I agree, we have a problem," one resident said. "However, I don't agree that downzoning is the solution. I believe in density, I believe in growth, I believe in diversity, and I think this downzoning will have unintended consequences."

"We're in the middle of a housing crisis in this city, and downzoning will only exacerbate that," another resident said.

He was not the only one to point out that many row homes in Lanier Heights neighborhood are valued at over $1 million, making them financially out of reach for many of the young families residents claim to want. Several younger residents explained that owning a home in Lanier Heights simply would not have been possible were it not for the smaller, more affordable condos available in pop-up buildings.

A solution could come in the form of a new type of zoning

While most residents are interested in protecting Lanier Heights' historic row homes, what became clear at the meeting is that R-4 downzoning is a far-from-perfect solution. ANC 1C commissioners brought up conservation districts and historic preservation designations as other possible solutions, but acknowledged that each has its downsides.

There's rumor that the DC Office of Planning's zoning rewrite will put forth a new zoning designation that would essentially fall between R5 and R4, and that might be an ideal compromise. But given how drawn out the zoning update has been, it's anyone's guess when the new code will go into place.

Neighbors should work to establish common goals

ANC Commissioner Marty Davis suggested a next step that's practical for all parties. "The one thing this neighborhood doesn't have," he said, "is a plan saying 'This is what we like. This is what we want Lanier Heights to be.' Help us make that plan by going to http://www.envisionadamsmorgan.org and expressing your opinion."

Davis encouraged everyone in Adams Morgan to join a community-wide meeting about these and other zoning issues on January 24.

As for downzoning, ANC1C will deliberate and vote on the substance of Lanier Heights' zoning proposals on Wednesday, December 3rd at 7:00 PM at Mary's Center. If you live in the neighborhood and have an opinion on the matter, come to that meeting to share your thoughts with the commission.

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