When New Development Comes at Neighbors’ Expense

Photos and renderings illustrating the changes that developing the townhouse at 1015 E Street, SE, will have on backyards of 505 and 503 11th Street, SE

Photos and renderings illustrating the changes that developing the townhouse at 1015 E Street, SE, will have on backyards of 505 and 503 11th Street, SE

When New Development Comes at Neighbors’ Expense

by Larry Janezich

The need and desire for more housing on Capitol Hill is the main argument offered in support of the conversion of one or two unit townhouses to multifamily housing.

With increasing frequency, as developers convert townhouses, development comes at the expense of the property’s neighbors.  In some cases, the negative impact is limited to the unsightliness and irregular proportions of pop ups and more competition for street parking.  In more dramatic instances, the damage to the neighbors is substantial, decreasing the value of their homes and quality of life – and the attitude of the city and ANCs seems to be: “we’re sympathetic, but our hands are tied.”

A case in point is the conversion of the townhouse at 1015 E Street, SE, just steps east of Hill Center, in the Capitol Hill Historic District.  The property is a townhouse on a site which is zoned for commercial.  Owner/developer Bruce Athey is converting the building to a five unit apartment house by building a large two story rear addition all the way to the rear property line as a matter of right.  The new construction would result in a 24 foot high wall across the back of two residences on 11th Street which sit at right angles to the new construction.  (see photos and renderings)

The matter came before ANC6B last night as the developer is seeking a zoning adjustment to extend a side-yard the length of the addition to the rear of the property.

ANC6B found no compelling reason to oppose the request to extend the side yard and accommodate the construction of the two story addition.  Caught between sympathy for the neighbors and the fact that the planned expansion is a matter of right, the ANC voted to take no position on the request for the variance. Taking no position leaves the decision on the side yard in the hands of the Board of Zoning Adjustment which is likely to grant the developer’s request.

Commissioner Chander Jayaraman said he opposed the variance and the building itself, voicing support for residents and constituents who are disadvantaged by developers who take advantage of regulations resulting in dramatic changes to neighbors’ quality of life.

Commissioner James Loots summed up the feeling of a majority of commissioners: “I can’t in good conscience oppose the variance on the basis of damage done the neighbors,” noting that he is sympathetic to the neighbors but that the question before the ANC is not directly related to their concerns.

The final vote on the motion to take “no position” on the request for a variance was as follows:

In favor, Commissioners Oldenburg, Loots, Flahaven, Burger, Hagedorn, and Hoskins.  Those opposed: Commissioner Jayaraman, Krepp, and Symolyk.  Abstaining:  Commissioner Chao.

Editor’s Note:

The Capitol Hill Restoration Society voted to oppose the request for a variance to continue the sideyard on the west side of 1015 E Street, citing the 24 foot wall cutting off light to the 11th Street properties.

Gary Petersen, Chair of the CHRS Zoning Committee, said that he thinks that the extension of 1015 could be built as a matter of right without the variance, but “for whatever reason” the developer wants the continue the sideyard – perhaps for windows and light and to provide access to the rear of the property.


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14 responses to “When New Development Comes at Neighbors’ Expense

  1. Craig D'Ooge

    ANC: Duck and cover. What makes it funny is that they have no power, and they still slither away.

  2. Carole

    I have trouble understanding the source of “the need and desire for more housing on Capitol Hill” at a time when so many of our streets are gridlocked much of the day. Is the government in urgent need of more taxable real estate? Are people who already live here demanding enough population growth to attract more restaurants and bars?

    If it is only the profit aspirations of the developer that drives as “matter of right” a lot-filling behemoth that negatively affects its neighbors’ quality of life, does anyone else think we need a mechanism for case by case common sense consideration of trade-offs?

    • Michael

      Additional density in the District is required, lest we become a city like central Paris: beautiful to look at, but unaffordable for all but the ultra wealthy and foreign tourists.

    • P Streeter

      Whose “mechanism” for deciding what to do with other peoples’ property, and property rights? On whose say so – and who says?

      I don’t see such a mechanism being workable, viable, legal or ethical.

  3. kandc

    Typical of these ANC Commissioners: When it comes to supporting a neighbor, they say ” it is not directly relating to their concerns”. They don’t care that it does damage to the neighbors, they only care for their positions.

    When it comes to having an opportunity to do the right thing, not only do they flinch, they cower behind the skirts of the Zoning Board.

    It is time to get rid of the spineless ANCs and make our elected representative start earning his keep and put a stop to the government doing this kind of harm to neighbors.

    I suggest that the neighbor camp out on Charles Allen’s doorstep until he man’s up and does the right thing here to stop this kind of damaging development that satisfies only the itinerant developer who never has to pay the price of the damage they do.

    • Michael

      Property owners own their specified plot of land and not a view as far as the eye can see. If a sunny back patio is a primary concern, there is nothing stopping the property owner from buying the air rights on the neighboring property. Everything is negotiable…

  4. Wendy Blair

    The other way neighbors pay is the subsidies, tax abatements and lowball purchase prices DC government gives, with our tax money, to developers — not to mention the secretive and rigged bidding processes, of course.

    • P Streeter

      That doesn’t apply to all situations or to all developers and certainly not to any of these private property projects listed here, of course.

  5. Kirsten Oldenburg

    There are two errors in the article. One, the planned addition does not extend all the way to the rear of the property line. The resulting footprint of the existing house and addition will cover 60% of the lot. Second, if this addition was a “matter of right” there would not have been a zoning case to vote on.

    On Monday night, there were not 6 votes to support the case nor 6 votes to oppose the case. Thus, we ended up taking “no position” on it. It was a very challenging case, balancing the merits of the zoning relief sought on the west side of the property to keep a side yard open vs. the desire of the neighbors on the east side that their property not change.

    • Neil Rhodes

      I attended the ANC Zoning Committee meeting, where they voted to oppose this variance, and also the regular ANC meeting, where they voted to take no position. In both, it is my strong impression that Kirsten Oldenburg fought as hard as she could to make sure that the developer got exactly what he wanted. Under her chairmanship the developer was never doubted, and virtually every point that was made in opposition was dismissed as unimportant. At one point, Ms. Oldenburg went so far as to offer testimony on DC fire fighting procedures. Where she received such expert knowledge is still beyond me.

      • P Streeter

        She is certainly a steamroller of a commissioner and even moreso as Chair. Developers and commercial entities here on the Hill are the Be All and locals and neighbors be damned.
        However, she is correct on the issues she addressed in her post.

    • kandc

      Oldenburg seems to think that her job is to deal with DC laws and regulations and support developers.

      She has no idea that her job is to represent her neighbors and constituents: They are clearly completely against this development. The right thing to do is to fight this development.

      Here is a clear example of a situation which is almost completely detrimental to the neighbors (and the neighborhood) to have this development. But Oldenburg is oblivious to doing the right thing and representing her constituents.

      She needs to realize that her job is to represent the neighbors, regardless of what the laws and regs are. If it is wrong (like this specific development clearly is), you need to fight that regardless of Zoning or “by Right” or whatever.

      And it is not just Oldenburg, it is the ANC system that allows our City Council members to hide behind the ANC with a free pass on important local issues–and that is why I think we need to get rid of ANCs completely, and force our council members to do their job in cases like this. They hide behind the ANC acting as if it is no concern to them. This needs to change.

  6. Rashid Johnson

    Gotta support those MD/VA developers who come in, alter the neighborhood, profit, leave.

  7. Tanya

    I would think 1600 Penn SE a ripe location for this type of review.