Last July, D.C. zoning administrator Matt LeGrant approved an application to convert a single-family home in Dupont Circle into a four-unit condominium building, allowing a construction permit to be processed seemingly without incident.
Since then, though, the 1514 Q St. NW project has been beset by a lengthy Dupont Circle Citizens Association appeal of LeGrant’s decision. The group’s appeal to the Board of Zoning Adjustment argued that an area of the home that’s partially below grade should have been included when calculating the building’s floor area ratio, which determines density. Once that space is factored in, the association argued, a permit was issued for a project with 33 percent greater density than allowed under the moderate-density zoning for the site.
After several procedural delays, the Board of Zoning Adjustment voted unanimously last Wednesday to reject the appeal, arguing that the association had submitted it past the deadline for appealing a permit decision. Two of the three board members present also said they would have voted against the appeal if they had formally considered its merits.
At issue is the zoning code’s definition of a cellar: a space partially below grade that extends less than 4 feet above the adjacent finished grade. A separate provision excludes cellars from the list of spaces that count as “habitable rooms.” But the disputed space at 1514 Q will be used for habitation, casting the Zoning Administrator’s cellar classification in doubt.
Opponents of the citizens association’s appeal, including Daniel Warwick of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B (Dupont Circle), argued that the exclusion of cellar from the list of “habitable rooms” doesn’t preclude the possibility that a cellar space can simultaneously be habitable and not count toward floor area ratio.
The zoning board’s decision involves an ongoing area of contention in the regulations that has prompted several such disputes in recent years, prompting ANC 1C (Adams Morgan) last March to request policy changes to clarify discrepancies. A generous interpretation of existing regulations allows for buildings of greater density with lower-level spaces that don’t count, while others worry that such decisions set a troubling precedent for skirting zoning rules to build taller structures.
A spokesperson for the Office of Planning told The Current in December that the agency planned to request text amendments from the Zoning Commission the following month; the spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for additional comment in time for publication this week.
The Dupont group argued in its appeal that the habitability of the lower-level space at 1514 Q indicated that it should be counted in the floor area ratio. But board chair Frederick Hill said that according to his interpretation, lower-level rooms more than 4 feet above grade count toward floor area ratio, and lower-level rooms less than 4 feet above grade, like the 1514 Q space, do not. Hill avoided characterizing allowable space as either cellar or basement.
Following the decision, citizens association member Glenn
Engelmann told The Current that he and his colleagues — including 1514 Q’s next-door neighbor Brian Gelfand, who initially alerted the citizens association to his concerns with the permit — plan to pursue other avenues to address the general issue, either through D.C. Council legislation or the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a broad document that guides zoning decisions and is currently undergoing an amendment process.
“We’re not against development, nor are we against a particular size project,” Engelmann said in an interview last fall. “There needs to be a proper application of the law.”
Warwick has been concerned about the possible impacts of the appeal from the beginning. At a meeting last fall, he objected to efforts to limit what he perceives as allowable density, given the need for more housing citywide.