“Tree Mansion” Has Archibald Walk Residents Up in Arms


The entrance to Archibald Walk invites passerby to glimpse into a residential alley and part of Washington's past

The entrance to Archibald Walk invites passerby to glimpse into a residential alley and part of Washington’s past

A left turn at the end brings the "tree mansion" into view.

A left turn at the end brings the “tree mansion” into view.

The green line on the ground is where DDOT says the owners' property line ends.

The green line on the ground is where DDOT says the owners’ property line ends.

To put the structure in context, the tree house overhangs the portion of the alley seen here

To put the structure in context, the tree house overhangs the portion of the alley seen here

“Tree Mansion” Has Archibald Walk Residents Up in Arms

by Larry Janezich

Lax enforcement of public space regulations by DDOT appears to be the culprit at the heart of the squabble which has the residents of Archibald Walk up in arms over what one observer called a “tree mansion” which extends over the alley.  Those angry neighbors are unanimous in claiming the structure has a negative impact on their quality of life.

Last Thursday night, ANC6B’s Planning and Zoning Committee considered an application for a public space permit by the owner of the tree house that would retroactively sanction the extension of the tree house into the public space over Archibald Walk.

In brief, the owners of one of the homes on the narrow, U-shaped pedestrian residential alley in the center of the block bounded by G and E Streets and 6th and 7th Streets, SE, undertook the construction of a large tree house for their children.  After being told by the Department of Regulatory Affairs that no permit was necessary, the owners proceeded with construction, until receiving a stop work order issued by DDOT, apparently because of the public space issue.  Despite the demonstrable projection of the tree house some two feet into public space over the alley, and for reasons that are unclear, DDOT subsequently issued a ten day permit for the construction of a “balcony” and the owners completed construction.

Although the structure is within the Capitol Hill Historic District, since no DCRA permit is required, there is no historical preservation review of the structure.  Still nearby Barracks Row Heritage Trail signage speaks to the historical character of the alley: “In 1897 the alley had 22 tiny dwellings sheltering well over 100 people. Today six remain….The six survivors are now prized residences along Archibald Walk, named for long-time Capitol Hill resident Archibald Donohoe.” See here:  http://bit.ly/1Se698w

One of the owners of the tree house told the Committee that neighbors’ objections to the treehouse are retaliatory, based of actions of children in Archibald Walk who damaged their potted plants “illegally placed in public space”  and because “they don’t like kids.”

Neighbors say DDOT ignored DC regulations prohibiting balconies from projecting over alleys, and are asking ANC6B to deny the applicant’s request for retroactive approval of the DDOT permit which residents uncovered through a Freedom of Information Act request.  They note that the extension over the alley into public space which DDOT sanctioned requires a variance which would have brought the matter before the ANC for consideration.  Neighbors also point to the precedent-setting nature of the permit asking, “Do we want tree houses protruding into public spaces all over Capitol Hill?” There are no letters from immediate neighbors which support the treehouse and five strongly-worded letters in opposition.

ANC6B Commissioner James Loots (in whose single member district the project lies) told the applicant, “If the permit for use of public space is not granted [the applicant] will have to remove the treehouse.  I 100% disagree with the characterization of the applicant that the neighbors’ complaints are retaliatory. The question is, is this appropriate use of public space?”

In the end, the Committee voted to recommend to the full ANC that DDOT deny the public space permit that would allow the tree house to extend into public space.  The vote was 7 ayes, 2 nays, and 2 abstentions.  Planning and Zoning Chair Nick Burger and Commissioner Kirsten Oldenburg voted against the recommendation.

In an email to Archibald Walk residents last month, Loots said: “We were successful in getting DDOT’s Public Space Committee to hear this as a formal matter rather than just approve the requested permit administratively, which is why ANC6B will get to formally weigh in on the case when it is heard by DDOT.  Because ordinary procedures do not appear to have been followed in this matter, it was not properly noticed or timely ….”  Loots went on to say that he had been told informally that the permit may be heard at the Public Space Committee Hearing on January 28.

The full ANC6B will consider the recommendation of the Planning and Zoning Committee when it meets next Tuesday, January 12, at 7:00pm in Hill Center.


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33 responses to ““Tree Mansion” Has Archibald Walk Residents Up in Arms

  1. freshaire

    From the pictures, it looks like the tree (trunk, branches and roots) are in the alley. My question is: Does the city owns the tree (regardless of which department)? Who is it that is responsible for the upkeep and health of that tree?

    • Neighbor who cares

      The tree is 90 inch circumference and therefore subject to fines under DC’s Urban Forestry Protection Act if it is damaged. Even if the tree is private, the policy in DC is to protect our urban canopy and anything larger than 55 inches diameter is protected. On private vs public, if a tree is on a property line, ownership defaults to private. It’s an American Elm, a type of tree that’s been wiped out in DC due to a blight called Dutch Elm Disease.

  2. Brian C

    People who oppose tree houses never had, nor ever will have, any quality of life.

  3. Steve

    No worse than those ugly honking electric meter enclosures. There was a time they were not much bigger than the meter.

  4. RD

    It’s a treehouse. Relax people. The owner has young children who are not playing in it at night or early in the morning. The protest of the other homeowners just seems spiteful.

  5. AG

    What a bunch of cranks. Sad to see ANC taking their side.

  6. Mort

    Hmmmmmm. Private structures in areas designated for public use? Hell of a precedent. In all seriousness, I walk through this area often. There is a great history there, and this looks like quite the eyesore. Tough break for the neighbors. Sounds like the bureaucratic process failed, miserably.

    • Eleanor Sevdali

      It’s an adorable tree house. The owners, who lobbied successfully to get the alley paved five years, ago, own the tree. It’s not an alley tree, even if it looks like one. Did you walk through the area often five years ago, when the alley was the eye sore? The bureaucratic failed miserably though, I’ll give you that.

  7. Aw- I remember when this first went up being so impressed. I thought it went nicely with the surroundings, which are artistic and quirky and that it brought the same flavor to the alley. They alley, btw, is incredibly tucked away- you really have to make an effort to find it and then walk all the way to the halfway point of its loop to be able to see the treehouse. My kid goes to preschool at the nearby church, so we just happened to walk there once when we arrived early, but it’s not something most people would ever knew existed.

  8. muskellunge

    This is a tough one. We all want kids to enjoy their childhood, but how do you make them take it down without appearing like a Scrooge?

    I don’t see how this is anything other than a private structure for exclusive use by the property owner’s kids. Bottom line, this is an encroachment on a public right-of-way, and to allow it there should be compensating amenities of some sort. If the property owner had offered something, then they would have a case.

    Property owners are not normally allowed to do this. The parents are playing on the public’s sentiment, and they are wrong to do so.

    • Los

      I really am surprised by the negative responses. I think it looks great and enlivens the alley. As for encroachment, look at the tree box. The overhang of the tree house appears to line up with the tree box. The tree house isn’t blocking anything that wouldn’t already be blocked by the tree box. Feel bad for the family that appears to have tried to follow the rules by going through DCRA and having to deal with this.

      • muskellunge

        They could have gone to the neighbors and asked them, and once permission was obtained, built it under the radar. Probably would have gotten away with it at least until the kids were old old enough, and lost interest in it. However once it went through official channels it became toast.

        Many of us have kids, and we want to provide for them. But we don’t build stuff on others’ property.

    • Giles Radler

      Disagree completely. Encroachment on a public right of way over…mulch. Come on, the overhang is over unusable alley space.

  9. Brickgardener

    The only issue I see is that the builder of the treehouse should be open to all neighborhood kids using it if they so wish (only fair since it’s not actually their property).

    The castle is charming, and is exactly the sort of thing that makes our neighborhood attractive and fun to live in, but at the same time I can see that having to coexist with it out of your window could be very annoying. And it’s not very fair to claim public space as your own, especially if your neighbors aren’t behind you. It should have been built in the yard.

    Of course the sweet irony is that, if alive 170 years ago, these very same people would have opposed the construction of the alley houses they live in, the dairy would have been opposed for dozens of reasons, and all those unlivable little alley houses would have been protested in the name of preserving open space, and the character or history of something. The warehouses that replaced the old houses would have been opposed, and the entire alley would be a giant lot.

    (disclaimer: I was born and raised on the hill so I’ve seen a lot of it)

    • Giles Radler

      Sorry, wrong tree house is on their property, explaining why DDOT gave them a permit. You can easily find a land survey showing this at the Office is of the DC Surveyor.

  10. Dadric

    This is what happens when people have too much time and money to put either one to productive use.

    No doubt the people opposing this are the same people who complain that kids these days never play outside.

  11. PW

    The legal maxim “de mininis non curat lex” (“the law does not concern itself with trifles”) appears to have had no impact whatsoever on the DC government, as seen here and in many other examples. They really do sweat the small stuff.

  12. JimT

    Reasonable conditions for the permit would be that anyone is entitled to use the treehouse, as would be the case for any other playground equipment erected on public land by a private party.

  13. CDCWDC

    Reconfigure the tree house and move it back in line with designated green property line. Pick date and publicize when you are going to have a tree house re-building party. I am sure you will get plenty of volunteers to help. I know I will volunteer.

  14. CapitolHill babe

    Archibald Walk is not a typical alley, only 10 ft wide No cars use it. It’s a funky open space that neighbors share and have done so for decades. I have a friend who lives there. It’s a little community of tiny houses. It is on a number of historic walking tours that regularly go through it and is featured on the Barrack’s Row Heritage Trail. DDOT messed up by issuing a permit after the tree house was built without public input, historic preservation review or planning review. Archibald is a historic district and as such all structures, additions even sculptures in a yard are supposed to be reviewed by the Historic Preservation office. Folks pay big money to live in historic districts and should be afforded the protections they are promised. Oh yeah one more point for all of you. The owners of the tree house live in a completely different neighborhood and come for a couple of hours on the weekend to their investment property on Archibald to play in the tree house. The homeowners have to live with it the rest of the time. Check it out and see if you would want it 10 feet from your bedroom window

    • James Coroner

      Not buying it. You must be a neighbor without kids. You’re definitely a grump. I was at the tree house this afternoon. Channel 9 news was up in it with the owners kids, and some neighborhood kids. Everybody was having a blast.

      • Juniper

        Check out the huge lag screws drilled into the tree. This will kill the tree- no question of this. No one seems to care about this problem at all.

  15. Bob

    At first glance the treehouse is grossly unsafe. It’s over 8′ above concrete and brick paving. A child falling out of it will invariably suffer a serious debilitating injury or death not to mention a person down below on public space being injured by an object tumbling out of it. There is also a fence with spikes down below where a child could be impaled. In my opinion the parents were irresponsible constructing the structure at this location. They are not only endangering their own children but the public also.

    • Harper

      This is beyond absurd. Remember when kids used to play and adults weren’t freaked out about it? It’s a tree house – not a nuclear reactor!

  16. Sophia

    This has nothing to do with whether people have kids or not or don’t like tree houses. The rules were not followed by the owners and the city. Neighbors were not respected or allowed to be a part of the process. It shouldn’t have come to this. This tree house belongs in a back yard where there is plenty of room and it’s not looming over peoples heads as they try to walk by. And, this tree is probably going to die because of that structure. Doesn’t anyone care about that?

    • DLN

      Sophia – The family did everything possible to conform with the law (reaching out to DCRA for permits) and letting the neighbors know their intent. They say they consulted a arborist to have as minimal impact as possible on the tree. At the end of the day, people are unnecessarily causing neighborhood strife. Instead of going to the ANC, why didn’t anyone who objected talk to the family about alternatives that did not involve tearing the house down.

  17. Tekla

    I see that the photos were taken after the other residents were told to remove their plants, planters, benches, etc. There are other photos taken when homes were listed for sale or rent with plenty of stuff impeding the residents ability to walk without weaving an obstacle course.

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  20. Christine Davis

    The neighborhood controversy would not have surprised me had the tree house sprouted up in a Montgomery County neighborhood, but I guess D.C. is changing. It makes me sad.

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