By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer
As part of a long-running update to D.C. land-use rules, the Office of Planning last week released draft sections of a rewritten zoning code that officials say incorporates new planning principles and corrects known issues with the existing regulations.
The new sections, which encompass general policies and those specific to residential zones, include only a few changes to existing rules. Much of the Planning Office’s task was to rearrange many of the code’s sections and change how material is presented in an effort to improve the text’s clarity.
New proposals include:
• decreasing the minimum side-yard requirement for buildings in R-1 and R-2 zones from 8 feet to 5 feet, or 10 percent of the total lot width, to better match existing conditions.
• allowing small commercial establishments to operate in residential row houses, limited to three within 500 feet (the approximate length of a city block), to provide more businesses within walking distance of residents.
• allowing homeowners in R-1 and R-2 zones to rent out a room or detached building that is smaller than 25 percent of the total main building.
Some of those uses are already common in the city, but property owners now must seek a variance or special exception from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, a lengthy and often-costly process that gives neighbors the opportunity to resist the plans. If the Zoning Commission adopts the latest proposal, these uses would be allowed as a matter of right; a physical change would require a building permit but no public input.
In the case of side yards, many residents’ properties predate the zoning restriction and never met that requirement, and that noncompliance complicates other changes residents hope to make to the properties.
The existing requirement of 8 feet between the building and the property line “wasn’t something that represented the vast majority of the building stock,” the Planning Office’s Arlova Jackson said in an interview. “We want to not discourage people from improving their homes.”
Some residents have argued, however, that it’s important to them to get the chance to weigh in on such changes to adjacent buildings. Chevy Chase resident Harlan Cohen, who said he learned about the zoning rewrite process from the neighborhood’s listserv, said allowing a house to expand to within five feet of the property line threatens its neighbors’ light, air and views.
“It’s not that I’m against all change, but we buy our houses with an expectation that the current zoning will protect us from changes that are not allowed under the current zoning,” Cohen said in an interview.
Alma Gates, a Palisades resident who serves on the advisory Zoning Regulation Review Task Force, feared that revisions to the side-yard rules could combine with a series of other slight changes to encourage more developers to replace smaller homes. “This kind of infill has a tendency to destabilize neighborhoods and neighborhood character,” said Gates.
Jackson said she doesn’t expect the proposed zoning changes to have such a dramatic effect. “We’re not changing the lot-occupancy requirements — there’s still a limit to how much people can do,” she said.
Before the latest proposals are enacted, the Office of Planning will receive input from the Zoning Regulation Review Task Force and host community meetings across the city. The Zoning Commission, which sets the zoning code, will also hold public hearings.
The Planning Office will also publish additional proposals, for different types of zones, throughout this spring. Planners also haven’t yet decided whether to implement a parking maximum or whether to change requirements of universities’ campus plans. “There’s certainly plenty of opportunities left for the public to weigh in at this point,” said Jackson.
Changes already endorsed by the Zoning Commission include eliminating off-street parking requirements for residential buildings with fewer than 10 dwelling units and for larger apartment buildings in denser zones or near transit. Another newly approved requirement calls for construction outside low-density residential areas to meet a “green area ratio” requirement — a calculation of its environmentally sustainable features.
By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer
The long-delayed expansion and renovation of the Palisades firehouse now faces another hurdle: The Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation must approve plans to widen and heighten the vehicle doors before building permits can be issued.
The red-brick station at 4811 MacArthur Blvd. is the latest in a string of historic — and sometimes outmoded — fire stations caught in a clash between the fire department’s modern needs and the city’s strict preservation law. Renovation of the Cleveland Park station is faced with the same conflict, which could also affect renovation of fire stations in Foggy Bottom, Georgetown and elsewhere.
Plans to renovate the 1925 Palisades station and put a new ambulance bay on its east side are already about seven years behind schedule. Fire officials initially delayed the already-funded project as a separate preservation dispute stalled renovation of the Tenley firehouse — they didn’t want two nearby stations closed at the same time.
The Palisades project got moving again two years ago. Bids were taken to erect a prefabricated steel structure on the grounds of the Dalecarlia Reservoir as a temporary home for Engine Co. 29 so that service wouldn’t be interrupted during construction. The prefab building is now ready for use, fire officials say.
But in 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finished phasing in tighter standards for diesel emissions, requiring filters and other equipment that add to the size of emergency vehicles. That makes new fire engines, pumpers and some ambulances big enough that they can barely squeeze through the narrow doors of some of the city’s older fire stations. Officials realized it made no sense to go ahead with building renovations if they didn’t resolve the door problem.
Now the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is trying to ensure that all renovated vehicle bays are 12 feet wide and 12 feet tall to accommodate the bigger equipment. But that requires a redesign of some historic facades, and a trip back — fire officials belatedly realized — to the preservation board.
And if the board says no, as city preservation law seems to require, the fire department must appeal to the mayor’s agent, who could approve the changes if he finds that “the operational needs of a public safety facility constitute a public interest” with higher priority than historic preservation.
The fire department is already going through that drill with the Cleveland Park station, which is to be renovated under the same construction contract as the Palisades station. Bids have already been taken, but the mayor’s agent must rule before either project can move forward.
The preservation board’s hearing on the Palisades station last Thursday focused on the distinct architecture of that facility, and how to enlarge the doors with the least damage to its facade. The Colonial Revival station is just one story tall, with semicircular windows over each of the two vehicle bays.
“As much as we love to see you every month, it would be nice if we could review two or more at the same time,” said board chair Catherine Buell, facing fire officials, their architects and the new Department of General Services, now in charge of most municipal construction.
City architectural historian Tim Dennée explored the options, noting that design of the original facade, was “carefully worked out by the original architect.” Rash changes, he said “can give it a cartoony appearance.”
The doors could be widened by taking out a center brick pier, but fire officials fear that would mean a loss of vital vertical support. The doors could be widened on both sides, but that would disturb symmetry of the fanlights, Dennée said. Board member Maria Casarella suggested putting wider doors on the addition, but officials explained that it’s designed to house an ambulance and wouldn’t be long enough for a fire truck.
Dennée asked if the openings could be slightly shorter than planned. “The fire department has told us they cannot live without 12 feet,” said architect Anwar Iqbal. “The vehicle height is 10 feet, 4 inches, but sometimes the ladders are not perfectly folded, or personnel may be standing in the cab.” Although the latest fire engines are only 8 feet wide, they have mirrors sticking out on each side, project manager Ralph Cyrus explained.
Ultimately, the board voted against the proposed door changes, punting a decision to the mayor’s agent. “Our hands are tied,” said Casarella. “As a preservation board, it is frustrating. As a citizen of the District, I want the fastest truck to get to my house.”
“You just don’t blow out the doors,” said board member Joseph Taylor. “But we have to have safety, because of the nature of the business you’re in.”
The mayor’s agent hearing on the Cleveland Park station is set for Feb. 24. Because of notice requirements, it’s too late to schedule the Palisades case the same day. That will mean a separate hearing, probably in March.
Fire officials hope that schedule doesn’t throw off the construction timetable too much. Battalion Chief David Foust, who oversees construction, said bids on the combined Cleveland Park/Palisades renovations were opened in November, but the contract has not yet been awarded. He’s hoping the contract can accommodate any changes required by the mayor’s agent, and said the two projects could be separated if necessary.
Other historic D.C. fire stations in line for renovation include those at 2119 G St. in Foggy Bottom, 3412 Dent Place in Georgetown and 4930 Connecticut Ave. in Forest Hills, as well as a half-dozen others.
Each has distinctive architecture, so the proposed door widening presents distinct design issues. “In some cases, a planning solution might offer an alternative location that relieves an obsolescent but beautifully designed building from unfortunate alteration,” Dennée wrote in his report to the preservation board.
The board has already approved door-widening projects on two historic firehouses where the changes proved less problematic.
This article appears in the Feb. 1 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.
By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer
New owners of Georgetown’s Evermay estate are working with neighbors to ensure that planned events there won’t disrupt them, according to the owners’ attorney and advisory neighborhood commissioner Charles Eason.
Sachiko Kuno and Ryuji Ueno bought the property at 1623 28th St. for $22 million over the summer, and they hope to use it both as a residence and to host special events for their nonprofit S&R Foundation. Through regular communication with neighbors — including one meeting that took place Monday and another planned for Thursday — neighbors are being assured that events will be few and will be carefully managed, attorney Alice Haase said.
“Most of the concerns that we have heard have been about parking,” said Haase, “and it seems … that when people really understand the application a little better and understand that all the parking is to be on-site, and there’s a limitation on the guests, it seems to allay the concerns about parking.”
The foundation needs approval from the Board of Zoning Adjustment to hold events at the 3.5-acre residential property; a hearing is scheduled for Feb. 28. Unlike a previous owner, who sold the property amid a zoning dispute with his neighbors, Haase said the foundation will not be renting out Evermay for outside events, and just one event per year will draw more than 150 attendees.
In an email, Eason agreed that parking was neighbors’ biggest concern, but he argued that even though Evermay has the capacity to park all attendees’ cars on its grounds, “our experience has been that many guests would opt to find parking in the neighborhood rather than to have to fuss with valet parking.”
He and neighbors are also negotiating for restrictions on outdoor amplified sound, Eason added, and he wants a trial period of one year rather than the requested 10. “In all likelihood, it’s not going to be 10 years,” Haase said yesterday, but she added that the discussions are “still a work in progress.”
Eason is hosting Thursday’s meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library, 3260 R St. At the meeting, Evermay representatives will present the most recent revisions to their proposal and field additional questions and comments from neighbors. “I believe this is one of those unique situations where everybody wants to make it work,” Eason wrote.
This article appears in the Jan. 25 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.