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.”