Capitol Hill Developer to Neighbors: Caveat Emptor

The view of the pop up at 242 14th Street from the corner of 14th and C Streets, SE

The view of the pop up at 242 14th Street from the corner of 14th and C Streets, SE – click to enlarge.

From 14th Street, Looking southwest

From 14th Street, Looking southwest

View of the extended fire wall for the new construction as seen from King's Court, looking south

View of the extended fire wall for the new construction as seen from King’s Court, looking south

This Is the rear unit in the vertically divided building, whose entrance will be from  the alley connecting to King's Court

This Is the rear unit in the vertically divided building, whose entrance will be from the alley connecting to King’s Court

Firewall Looking Northwest

Firewall Looking Northwest

A pop up on C Street which Hess Points to as a  a height  comparable to his

A pop up on C Street which Hess Points to as a a height comparable to his

Kings Court.  The Red Dot marks Hess's Project

Kings Court. The red dot to the left marks Hess’s Project. (Image courtesy of Google Maps.


Capitol Hill Developer to Neighbors:  Caveat Emptor

New Pop Up Regulations Offer Little Protection to Neighbors of Development Projects

by Larry Janezich

Capitol Hill Corner (CHC) asked developer Robert Hess how he could justify the huge structure under construction at 242 14th Street, SE, in terms of its effect on neighbors – especially the neighbor on the north side whose back yard will never see the sun again.  Hess said that owner could have checked on what could be built next door before he bought the house.  Hess added, “I’m not in charge of moving the sun.  Caveat emptor.  Buyer beware.”

Developer Bob Hess, who has developed more than 200 homes on Capitol Hill, says that the construction at 242 14th Street, SE is within the lot occupancy and height code.  (The Zoning Commission lowered the height of buildings in R-4 residential zones from 40 to 35 feet in June of 2015.  Hess drew his building permits prior to the change.)  Hess’ building will house two separate apartments with the three floor divided vertically, providing a three story apartment in front and another in back whose entrance will be on the alley – which empties into King’s Court.  The building will technically have a fourth floor to house HVAC and water heaters, the construction of which was authorized by a special exception (permitted by right under the old regulations – a special exception would be required under the new regs.)  The apartments will be sold rather than rented.

An unusual feature is the vertical division of the building, which actually will begin some 15 feet back from the existing historic façade – creating a courtyard – but also extending the building by an equivalent amount to the rear, adding to the appearance of greater mass.

Hess says “The city is made up of houses of different sizes and different designs. Sometimes you have to make room for newer models.”  He said that the height is the same as the buildings across the street and pointed to the roof line on C Street to the south and says, “Is it higher than some of those?”

He cited the difficulty he had encountered in purchasing the building which he had originally remodeled in 1974.  As owner of one of what was then an upper and lower duplex he found himself denied access to his unit in the badly deteriorating building by the owner of the second unit.  Hess says, “I had to file a lawsuit. There was termite damage.  The roof had collapsed.  The courts judged against the other owners and there was a court-ordered sale.”

Creating a unit with a non-traditional entrance on to an alley involves some risk – even when it’s an alley feeding Kings Court.  In the latest wrinkle, Hess has messaged neighbors, asking them to join him in petitioning the city to pave the alley behind his building.

Another neighbor – Jim Myers, who lives on C Street, SE – says, “If this construction is legal, something is deeply wrong with a system that allows a homeowner to wake up to a monstrosity next door.  Even the C street residents are offended by the huge wall.”   To those who support increased density, he asks if they would welcome this in their back yard, adding, “Before we ruin everything worthwhile we should do something to keep neighborhoods with character.  It’s too bad we didn’t go with the historic district.  What gives our houses value?  To whatever extent we look like Capitol Hill – that is the appeal that gives us value.  Caveat Emptor should be a notice propagated city wide – as well as the fact that the city is not doing anything about it.”

CHC consulted with DC’s Department of Regulatory Affairs.  According to a DCRA source, the construction meets the height and lot occupancy requirements.  The fourth floor top structure – which is the only part of the structure that would not have been permitted under the new pop-up regulations – will be used for mechanicals and water heaters for the two units.  The massive walls act as common fire separation walls.  The source offered, “It’s sad to see.  Fifty years from now the neighborhood will be full of big buildings and the old school feel of the street will be lost because of the way it looks.”

Gary Peterson, Chair of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society’s (CHRS) Zoning Committee said, “I’ve looked at it and I think it is hideous.  It’s too bad that the people in this part of the Hill don’t want a historic district.  CHRS has done 90% of the work, but they don’t want the protection.”  He said that the regulations governing a historic district would have prevented the construction of parts of the building visible from public space, in this case,  – 14th Street, and the alley, and King’s Court.

Asked about a possible new historic district in Hill East, Beth Purcell, Chair of the CHRS Historic Preservation Committee said, “The area is very large, over 100 squares.  I am not aware of any interest on that block of 14th Street, but if there is, please ask them to contact me.  If someone approaches CHRS about a possible new historic district, we will meet with them and their [ANC] commissioner.”

Not everyone outside the Capitol Hill Historic District supports its expansion.  Many of these residents want to add on to their houses and say that historic district regulations would make that difficult, if not impossible.  They also do not want to be over-regulated on matters such as window replacement and changes to the building’s exterior.  On a related note, legislation authorizing so called “conservation districts” to rein in developers converting townhouses to multiple unit condos was floated in 2014, but never introduced to the City Council.”


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16 responses to “Capitol Hill Developer to Neighbors: Caveat Emptor

  1. Rick

    This is not a new attitude on the part of developers doing business on Capitol Hill. Even within the historic district, developers have built projects that should have been prevented or modified by those tasked with protecting our historic neighborhood.

  2. The historic district designation is no protection from rear monstrosities, as we’ve found out to our dismay. We were pleased when the horribly deteriorated house beside ours was purchased several months ago — but then appalled to find the developer, John Formant, was building a 20 foot, 2-story extension on the rear, adjacent to our beautiful, much fussed over garden, and inevitably crippling a cherry of great stature and splendid spring flower. He is also digging out the basement, threatening the fragile walls of our 100+ year-old-house. This is all, apparently, a matter of right. So sayeth CHRS and the ANC – both of which looked at us like idiots for even questioning the construction (though one who will remain unnamed said privately to keep a close eye on this developer. Swell). Forget our light and air. Of course, it will also mean a jump in property values and taxes… which means to me, time to get out of Dodge.

  3. Wow! #BadPlanning strikes #DC again! In this case, as with other low rise neighbourhoods around the City, they are under attack by all sorts of developers seeking profit. But the Zoning Regulations Rewrite (ZRR) was supposed to protect us and modernize our zoning code. Conducted by the Office of Planning and DC Zoning Commission, as they claim reviewed DC’s zoning code for 7 years. The Office of Planning was to be guided by the Implementation Element of the Comprehensive Plan during the ZRR. The IM element gives “accountability” to the 20-year planning document. Well this IM Element of the Comp Plan asks the Office of Planning to evaluate, and then downzone ALL historic districts and low rise neighborhoods to bring their zoning in line with their existing low-rise small scale developments. Do you think the Office of Planning used the ZRR to fix old broken zoning designations for any of the historic districts or small scale neighborhoods. Nope! In fact there was no downzoning in the ZRR, only upzoning in some of the districts. So really, all historic districts should seek protections, like Georgetown did, and demand OP downzone their low-rise residential neighborhoods immediately to protect them (whether they are historic or not). And, join us in fighting the ZRR which will only make it easier for developers to do this around the City.

  4. JIm Myers

    People across DC – homeowners or would-be homeowners in particular – should stop by take a serious look at 242 14th St. SE and the Kings Court Alley. Bring the kids and the dog. This could happen next to your house, behind your house.
    The District can’t stop it; they certainly haven’t; it isn’t even clear they want to. It will take some might powerful persuading to convince neighbors on Square 1060 that this isn’t the D.C. government’s grand vision for the future.
    Some are already doing what Stephanie is thinking about — looking for the exit. Owners on both sides of Hess’ monstrosity are abandoning ship. They’re gone. Their backyards now look like the exercise yard at a super max. But who will buy such houses? At what price? It doesn’t seem to matter. As Hess says, it’s buyer beware around here. They should have thought about guys like him before they moved in.
    Meanwhile, word is that Hess is said to be planning to market his condos at $1 M each. Ain’t that wonderful? Please, stop by and take a look. Tell the truth: Is this the kind of city where you really want to live?

  5. Twilight Zoning >>
    See Page 10, specifically,
    The ZRR was supposed to downzone low-scale residential neighborhoods. The OP of planning ignored this direction, and if anything upzoned districts around the city. OP was to use the ZRR to downzone, they didn’t. Poor Planning in the ZRR is continuing to affect all of us!

  6. MCH

    Rick writes, Even within the historic district, developers have built projects that should have been prevented or modified by those tasked with protecting our historic neighborhood.

    That is absolutely the case. Within the past year, the city has okayed a monstrous rear addition to a small townhouse (including a third-floor pop up, not visable from the front) that occupies far more of the lot than allowed — as well a sort of extended stay hotel on a residential block (a six unit furnished apartment building that rents by the month.)

    The ANC has been aware of these developments — and aware of neighbor’s concerns — but has done nothing.

    This kind of townhouse-by-townhouse enchroachment is going to completely destroy the density and feel of our wonderful historic neighborhood. But none of our elected officials seem to care at all.

  7. Cassie

    It looks like it covers more than 60% of the lot. But that could just be the angles of the photos. Even if it is more than 60%, DCRA won’t inspect, and even if they did, they would just assess a fine and not require the building to be torn down.

  8. Carole

    Hill East, Woodridge, and Eckington and many other neighborhoods are sharing in the epic battle of Communitarians vs Libertarians.

    Some homeowners are wiling to trade some for the means to preserve the scale and vibe of their neighborhoods; others want the right to maximize the near-term value of their properties and/or build whatever the hell they want. Developers tip the scale by offering what looks like big money to long-term homeowners, with the result that their modest rowhouses or detached homes morph into mini-Versailles wrapped in vinyl.

    “None of our elected officials seems to care at all” reflects an electorate deeply split and unwilling or unable to get its act together. While we are loudly cursing the darkness — including implacably unresponsive city agencies as well as “rapacious” developers — our streetscapes are morphing as though by demonic possession.

    A pox on all our houses.

    • dc1

      well put. At least the communitarians can split a few beers or a bottle of wine and have plenty to discuss.

      The sad part is that so many urban dwellers are the first to mock suburban excess and mcmansions yet plenty of them are perfectly willing to do the urban equivalent of tacky, out of scale, bloated development which characterizes the burbs

  9. dlg

    Gary Peterson’s quote makes me oppose CHRS expanding into Barney Circle.

    • dc1

      really? Gary makes me want to cut CHRS a sizeable check

      • dlg

        Hey, if you want some unelected overload opining on whether your house is hideous or not, and what type of windows, doors, front porch and retaining wall materials you can use, and have absolutely no power to stop a pop-up or pop-back, that’s your opinion.

      • dc1

        I’m good with that forced restraint. Sadly I can’t trust enough of my neighbors to exercise decent judgment or taste.

  10. Corey H

    I’m late to this but a couple of things:

    1) I can’t find anything on record of a BZA-granted Special Exception for this property. So this is by-right without community input and I’m left wondering what Larry is talking about when he mentions a “special exception”

    2) DCRA has constantly shown they are either incompetent or fraudulent in their granting of building permits. I hope the neighbors or the SMD braved the Kafkaesque (and likely illegal, see ANC 6A’s fight over 518 6th St NE) process to get the building permits and ensure everything was on the up and up. I have a feeling this would easily meet zoning requirements because of the comparatively large lot size (2.1k square feet)

    3) As the Comprehensive Plan amendment cycle starts it’s slow moving process, I hope there’s a renewed push from the community for conservation districts to at least deal with the design of these buildings. That is the solution. Not a CHRS-funded annexation of our neighborhood.

  11. dlg

    I walked by this last night. Directly across the street, taking up a third of the block on the west side of 14th St SE, is a 3+ story condo building with glass peaks (no doubt a poor attempt to emulate the quasi-Victorian peaks on other houses in the neighborhood). It’s hard to complain about the “character” being ruined on this street when you already have the building across the street ruining the character.