A look at what's going on in Trinidad, on H Street, and in the larger area north of Capitol Hill.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Guest Post: Development at the Old Doctor's House (1328 Montello)

Montello Single
The Doctor's House (1328 Montello) in 2005

The following is a guest post. It was written by a concerned & active member of our community who wishes to encourage others to become more involved:

Speak up for Trinidad. Your letter by July 14th could help preserve lower density and parking in our neighborhood’s interior! 

There has recently been a lot of discussion around one zoning variance case in Trinidad but almost no attention paid to another one which has potentially greater impacts on neighborhood character and zoning issues. Many of us knew the former doctor’s office at 1328 Montello Ave NE. This detached colonial style house, built in 1928, sold in September 2013 for $625,000. It has since been razed, removing a familiar and unique landmark from the community. There are both permit issues from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and a variance request in to the Bureau of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) around this property that should be of concern to residents of Trinidad. For those of you here at the time, this project also mirrors aspects of what happened at 1233 Morse St NE when that development was converted from an apartment building to a boarding house to skirt regulations just days before they developers were stopped from illegal activity.

DCRA issued a permit to I.S. Enterprises Inc. in January 2014 to remove and replace the second story at 1328 Montello Ave NE and to build upwards to convert this single family home to a six-unit condominium building. The developer, I.S. Enterprises, Inc. located at 1324 H St NE, exceeded their permits and demolished the structure to ground level. Even though two walls in the far corner remained, they were most likely not slated to be included in the new building, and the developer clearly violated the permits and regulations. A stop work order for exceeding the building permit was issued by DCRA. Commissioner Laskaris helped secure this stop work order by working with DCRA, however, the developer only had to pay a fine that they can build into later sale of the property and they resumed work. They again violated DCRA regulations on the building and were issued another stop work order for construction and electrical work without permits. I had been documenting the demolition from last fall and was able to provide BZA and DCRA evidence of violations to put the second stop work order in place.

While issues with DCRA on building permits continued, there was a case submitted by I.S. Enterprises to request a variance to exceed the R-4 zoning currently in place in Trinidad. They now intend to build an eight-unit apartment building instead of the six-unit condo building noted in the original permits. This variance is requested to permit construction one story above the four allowed as matter of right (the current allowance is 40 feet tall) and to increase the number of units allowed on the site. I heard about this variance request and hearing from a neighbor on Neal St. who raised the issue at a Trinidad Neighborhood Association meeting and noted the upcoming May 20th hearing date. Despite having a hearing on the BZA calendar, the developer continued construction without awaiting the hearing or the outcome of the case. I attended the hearing and six neighbors submitted letters of opposition to the variance request, including one from the ANC Commissioner.

I.S. Enterprises Inc. did not attend the hearing and submitted a letter requesting that the hearing be delayed. The reason they had provided was that they had not contacted the ANC representatives to discuss the case. They have not contacted the Commissioner for the Single Member District to date so no SMD meeting was held to discuss the project or to request feedback from neighbors. Also, the developer has not reached out to the community in any way, unlike developers that wish to build on Florida Avenue and whom have sought community involvement and discussion. Unfortunately the letters of notification of the hearing were not sent to the correct Commissioner. Letters on the BZA website are all addressed to the 5B, not the 5D, Commissioner and were not received the Chair or the SMD Commissioner. Also, the house is on the border of two SMD areas, 5D06 AND 5D07, so this would be of concern to those of us like myself that live in the SMD on the opposite side of the street.

Given the scope of the demolition, the developer may have violated zoning regulations. I recently spoke with Stephen Cochran in the Development Review Division of the Office of Planning to better understand some of the regulations governing converting houses to apartments. This was complicated to follow and while I hope this is an accurate reflection of that discussion any errors are mine. Per DCMR Chapter 3, Section 330.5C in R-4 zoned areas like Trinidad a house constructed prior to 1958 can be converted to an apartment building as a matter of right. The lot at 1328 Montello Ave NE is large enough in square footage that they could have converted the previously existing structure to a six unit building. From looking at the site, the developer has demolished the existing building. They now want to build a new structure that has eight units. Without an existing building to convert they can only build two units on that property unless they seek and obtain variance relief from BZA.

In addition to some of the issues with permits and zoning noted, this development should also be of concern for those parking in the area. The house on Oates that is immediately behind 1328 Montello is being converted into a five-unit condo building (the sign out front notes that they will be two and three-bedroom units). Thus, two single-family homes will be replaced by up to 13 units. These residents would all have access to residential parking permits and can park anywhere in the surrounding blocks.

Since the initial hearing I have worked closely with Stephen Cochran, who is in the Office of Planning and is reviewing the BZA case on this property, and Commissioner Laskaris, in SMD 5D06, to raise the urgency of this case, to try to stop further illegal action by the developer, and to avoid what happened with changing permits at 1233 Morse St NE. This process requires the engagement of more than a handful of residents as it could set impact future development projects. This is where we need your involvement and action.

The BZA hearing has been rescheduled for July 15th but notice of the new date has not been posted on the fence surrounding the property and neighbors have not received letters with notification of the new date. Everyone who is concerned about developers that act without regard to neighbors, DCRA and BZA laws; oversized structures replacing single family homes; setting precedent for exceeding R4 zoning height and other requirements; increased density in the interior of the neighborhood; or issues with a lack of street parking should take notice and act. I encourage you to review documents on the BZA website for Case number 18759, I.S. Enterprises Inc. and to write letters of opposition. If you are able, please also attend the hearing on July 15th at 441 4th St NW, Suite 220 South.

Some sites that will be of help in your research or in preparing letters are:

http://pivs.dcra.dc.gov/PIVS/Search.aspx Where you are search the building permits issued for this address (1328 Montello Ave NE)

http://app.dcoz.dc.gov/content/search/Search.aspx The Interactive Zoning Information System where you can search by case number (18759) for documents posted, notice of hearings, and transcripts from the previous BZA meeting.

Letters of opposition can be emailed to bzasubmissions@dc.gov. They should be submitted prior to July 14th so that they are available to the BZA for review prior to the meeting.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to block I.S. Enterprises from trying to work around the system and change the permits (as was done at that boarding house at 1233 Morse), the following notice has been posted on the Property Information Verification System:

“DO NOT ISSUE ANY BUILDING PERMITS OR CERTIFICATES OF OCCUPANCY without approval from the Zoning Administrator or Deputy Zoning Administrator. Based on the ICA inspection from 5/28/14, the exterior perimeter walls have been removed in violation of the zoning regulations and has exceeded the scope of building permit B1307865. Part of the scope of work is for a conversion to an apartment building; however, the removal of the exterior perimeter walls will now constitute new construction. A new apartment building in the R-4 zone is not allowed without BZA approval.”

Hopefully this developer can be stopped from further illegal activity and from having a negative impact on our neighborhood.

Thank you for speaking up for Trinidad.

Karen Ramsey
Montello Ave NE


Anonymous Neal St said...

While I agree that the developer should have gone the legal route and I support punitive measures levied by DCRA (and even stricter), you lost me when your article started with a plea to preserve parking. It strikes me as just another person fighting development for the sake of fighting and protecting parking. Cities and neighborhoods change and I think increased density has some great (and often discounted) benefits. I'd like to see density increase in Trinidad (and I say that as an owner here), albeit in a controlled manner. Sorry, I won't be sending a letter to object to this project. Bring it on I say.

Jun 17, 2014, 9:24:00 PM

Blogger inked said...

Neal St,
For the record: the writer does not own a car.

Jun 17, 2014, 9:26:00 PM

Blogger inked said...

I think density is a good thing, but on a street like Montello, we also need to look at scale. I'm also sick of certain bad actor developers getting a pass. There are so many good ones out there. We should reward the good ones, & keep an eye on those who attempt to circumvent the law.

Jun 17, 2014, 9:29:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neal St, I hope that at least you are interested enough to read documents to see what the developer is doing. Parking was one way to get people to read this as it was on the long side. It was clear from other development discussions around Florida Ave projects that parking is what most concerns a large number of people. I don't have a car and that is not my issue but apparently it is one many neighbors do care about greatly and on a very personal level. I support the projects on FL Ave; this one I cannot as a result of actions on the part of the developer. Karen

Jun 17, 2014, 9:41:00 PM

Anonymous Skinny said...

The permitting system seems a joke to me. It's a terrific burden for regular homeowners (the fees and hoops act as a disincentive or penalty for working on your property), while developers can laugh and skirt right around the rules. Ben's Chili Bowl illegally razed the building on their H-street site too. I understand they claimed they'd rebuild brick by brick, but, er, the new building is clearly around 50 percent taller?

The city needs some zoning designation option between the current "anything goes" status and a historic district (too restrictive).

Jun 17, 2014, 9:42:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are some of the benefits of greater density? I ask that in all sincerity. I personally love the quiet neighborhood feel and it's what made me want to buy a house here.

If for controlled increased density, then developers need to follow the regulations put in place to control development.. practically right out of the gate, if left unchecked, this guy is going to be rewarded for circumventing the controls and constructing a building larger than originally planned. That doesn't sound like controlled development. It sounds like more of the corrupt status quo. Yes, development is coming, lets make sure it's done well.

Jun 17, 2014, 9:48:00 PM

Anonymous Trinidaddian said...

For the record, I am not concerned about parking - I am concerned about shady developers getting away with shady shit and then the entire community suffering as a result. 1233 Morse should serve as a prime example of how the system can be gamed for their benefit. In contrast, the proposed development at Florida and Trinidad Ave looks awesome and the developer has been(so far) completely transparent with the community. I wish the same can be said for these assclowns and other similar turd bucket outfits such as TAJA. I will be writing a protest for this but not because of parking.

Jun 17, 2014, 11:21:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

By evidence of the SWOs the developer/builder did something wrong. I agree there is a lot to unpack in the write up, but I think the crux is the developer can build a 6 unit building as a matter of right. They are seeking a variance to build an 8 unit building. They are seeking to have the units smaller than the required 900 square feet. There are two SWOs. Citizens should get involved. This isn't about parking. We can hash out the parking debate since time immemorial, but people need to send emails opposing this project. It's a crazy affront to the neighborhood.


Jun 18, 2014, 12:54:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are there any real disincentives for property owners improperly razing properties? Seems it is done far too often, either through neglect (demolition through neglect) or by lying, brazenly taking down a building, and afterwards paying some token fine?

Seems at the minimum these fines should have real teeth?

Jun 18, 2014, 9:24:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding "I'm also sick of certain bad actor developers getting a pass" and "shady developers getting away with shady shit and then the entire community suffering"...

If the developer received a stop work order with a fine (they did), then they didn't "get a pass" or "get away with it." Stop work orders come with something like a $2000 fine as well as possibly a percentage-based fine. On top of the costs of project delays, that's a considerable penalty, and the system seems to have worked. Upon receiving a complaint, the city investigated and promptly issued a stop work order and now requires the property owner to start fresh with new permits. The system worked.

Regardless, as Robby pointed out, the issue is that the owner wants to build 8 units instead of the 6 allowed as a matter of right. Most everything else seems to be little more than emotion-driven statements about a construction violation that's already been adjudicated.

If you object to the owner building two additional units, that's well withing your right, but lay out the argument against that instead of relying on emotional pleas.

Jun 18, 2014, 10:07:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding "1233 Morse should serve as a prime example of how the system can be gamed for their benefit."...

If a property owner builds something on their land and the project is within the scope allowed by law, how is that "gaming the system?" If you want to limit the height, density, etc, then work to change the regulations and zoning, not fault people who are building projects that are allowed.

Jun 18, 2014, 10:11:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding "the developer has been(so far) completely transparent with the community...I will be writing a protest for this but not because of parking"...

The fact is that a property owner has no legal obligation to tell you what he's doing, unless required by law. If a owner has a right to build something (such as converting a single-family home to apartments), he is not (and should not be) required to seek you input as to aesthetics, design, or anything else.

If you are opposing the right of someone to build something on his property because you don't feel catered to, that's troubling.

Jun 18, 2014, 10:14:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

1233 Morse was not built according to right. They did a permit switch under the radar. Do you really think that particular building is a matter of right or are you just dense? Or maybe trolling?

Jun 18, 2014, 10:24:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point about them getting caught and the system "working" according to law. I still think it stinks that the law has no teeth and with fines so cheap they probably just built the fines into cost of doing business. But perhaps the teeth also come in at this point where as part of the process, he's going to need to seek approval for the variance and on top of the fines, the people's answer can be NO.

From what I read though, the developer HAD the right to build 6 units, but because he knocked the whole thing down he can now only build 2.

If I'm reading that right it's almost kind of funny.

Jun 18, 2014, 10:45:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point about them getting caught and the system "working" according to law. I still think it stinks that the law has no teeth and with fines so cheap they probably just built the fines into cost of doing business. But perhaps the teeth also come in at this point where as part of the process, he's going to need to seek approval for the variance and on top of the fines, the people's answer can be NO.

From what I read though, the developer HAD the right to build 6 units, but because he knocked the whole thing down he can now only build 2.

If I'm reading that right it's almost kind of funny.

Jun 18, 2014, 10:45:00 AM

Anonymous MJ said...

My standard for good neighbors isn't "do they do the bare minimum that the law requires?", especially when a) they're seeking variances from the current law, and b) their past projects didn't comply.

Jun 18, 2014, 11:21:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Anon 10:11:

Despite your unfounded ad hominem attack, I'll try to elaborate on why the building is allowed as built.

1233 Morse Street NE has a certificate of occupancy for a boarding house, which is allowed as a matter of right (that is, no special permission or input required) in R-4 zoning.

They initially obtained permits to build an addition to a single-family home in 2005, and obtained subsequent permits through 2011 to build the current structure.

During that same period, DCRA shows a fair number of complaints called in against the property, though DCRA found most to be unfounded/no cause/no violation, save for some plumbing work that was done outside of a permit. They corrected their mistakes and appear to have obtained permits for their work, including submitting for and obtaining approval for the building in its current form.

In addition, DCRA records show a fair number of complaints submitted regarding the zoning of the building. Multiple investigations determined such complaints to be unfounded, as noted in the DCRA records.

So, yes, the building was allowed and approved via the permitting process, and its use is in fact allowed by right.

Yes, the building is ugly. And, yes, I wouldn't want to live next to it. But, numerous investigations as well as the permit process determined the use and building to be consistent with existing codes/laws/zoning. If you don't like the building, work to change the regulations that allow it.

Jun 18, 2014, 11:25:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Work to change the regulation that allow it"

Yes, this is ultimately what needs to happen. Too bad the City Council relies so much on campaign contributions from developers though.

Jun 18, 2014, 11:55:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The true story about 1233: their initial permits were to add on to an existing OFD there prior to May 12, 1958 according to regulations. They dug a huge hole right by that structure, not shoring it up and it fell into the hole and was demolished. This event invalidated their previous permits since the structure they were adding on to no longer existed.
They then required a variance to continue. In the interim the property became a nuisance as a magnet for criminal activity, home for a prostitute and more. There was no support for said variance and when the case went to the BZA they were denied. Shortly thereafter DCRA issued an Order to Raze. The developer appealed the order. Prior to the hearing they asked the ANC to postpone the hearing and they did not, allowing the scheduled hearing to go forward. Three days before the appeal hearing someone inside DCRA provided them with new permits repurposing the structure as a 36 unit boarding house. In actuality, the hearing should have gone forward prior to any further permit action.

Jun 18, 2014, 11:58:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone really think $2,000 is a "considerable penalty" to a commercial project?

Anonymous 10:07 - I agree that delays could get expensive, and I am interested in what the percentage fines are for such violations if you happen to know.

For shady developers, it seems it may be too low. Seen several cases of developers going "oooops" and demoing more than they had permit to do. I've seen recent cases on H-street, K-street, and L-street, and now this one.

Jun 18, 2014, 12:05:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

FWIW, a fine is not the only available remedy for illegal construction- it is an arrestable offense. If you feel this behavior is so egregious, you can push for the Office of Attorney General to investigate and criminally charge the property owner.

Jun 18, 2014, 1:06:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 11:25 - a 33 room boarding house is allowed by right? That certainly is news to me. Maybe you k now something I don't.

Jun 18, 2014, 1:27:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Anon 1:27: The zoning regs provide that owners have the right to convert to a boarding house, but don't limit the number of rooms in the rooming house nor require a specific size (unlike house-to-apartment conversions) in R-4.

To convert a house to an apartment, the apartments must be at least 900 sq ft each per 11-401.3. Boarding houses have no minimum or maximum requirement for the size or number of rooms, other than the total lot occupancy limits.

Jun 18, 2014, 3:20:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is kinda a derail, but does anyone know anything about the properties on Holbrook Terrace on the hill, the large, plywood covered building and the abandoned red and white house? I walk by them all the time and they are just sitting there getting all weedy and full of cats. Why haven't they been turned around and developed into usable housing? Is there a story there, or are they just sitting because the owners don't care/are dead or something?

Jun 18, 2014, 3:44:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been trying to get the city to do something about those eyesores for years. It really is a shame because the house could be beautiful and the building's lot could place something really cool there.


Jun 18, 2014, 7:59:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been trying to get the city to do something about those eyesores for years. It really is a shame because the house could be beautiful and the building's lot could place something really cool there.


Jun 18, 2014, 8:06:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

>Why haven't they been turned around and developed into usable housing?

With neighbors like those above that try to derail new development, it's no wonder why there's so much that no one's touching yet.

Jun 18, 2014, 10:58:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in learning what people thought of the drawings at Exhibit 7.


Jun 18, 2014, 11:44:00 PM

Blogger Alan Page said...

"@Anon 10:11:

Despite your unfounded ad hominem attack, I'll try to elaborate on why the building is allowed as built."

But Anon @10:11 didn't make an ad hominem attack. Did you get your anons mixed up? Folks, please make up a name. A thread full of anonymous handles is terribly hard to follow.

Jun 19, 2014, 10:27:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Even though two walls in the far corner remained,..."

Jun 19, 2014, 11:34:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me give you a little view of the other side of the coin, which helps explain why quality developers are often hard to come by.

Last summer, a developer renovated an abandoned and blighted apartment building up the street from me into nice condos. His originals plans included small rear patios for each unit. I viewed his original plans, which his permit was based on. His permit was approved.

A few weeks before the project was set to come on the market, I noticed a stop work order on the door while walking my dog. I walked up and checked it out, and it cited a violation of maximum lot coverage. What on Earth?

A few *months* later when the project finally came on the market, I went to the open house, and the patios, which had been built, were GONE! (???) Replaced with some ugly stairs that, by the requirements of their construction, took up much more of the small rear yard. Apparently the patios pushed the building over maximum lot coverage, and some nosy neighbor called in to complain about them. Given the time frame of requesting a zoning variance (which the developer *should* have been made aware of at the time his *original* permits were issued, or at some other interim inspection, of which there are many) versus getting the units on the market, the developer tore the nice patios out and replaced them with ugly stairs, which did not count as lot coverage. So now the residents of the building don't have patios, don't have much in the way of yard space, and the neighbor who complained gets to look at ugly metal stairs rather than nice wood patios.

I'd bet that developer won't be much interested in future projects in our neighborhood.

Jun 19, 2014, 4:37:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

4:37 again...just to be clear, here's my blame for that fiasco:

1. permit approval people. They should know the regs and tell people when there's a problem. Not approve now and rescind later.

2. zoning regulations that allow stairs, but don't have some kind of streamlined variance process for extremely small variances. It's an incentive to do the cheap, rather than good, thing.

2. neighbor who not only fretted about nice-looking patios, but took the time to find out they caused a violation of maximum lot coverage by *fewer than 20 square feet* (in total, not individually). This wasn't a case of him building over the whole yard unpermitted, it was a case of the patios being just over a foot too wide for zoning.

4. developer for not taking more careful measurements to make sure he was in compliance.

He gets a little blame, but not on the first order. A minor oversight should not result in months of delay and ugly results for the new owners and neighbors.

Jun 19, 2014, 4:47:00 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

+1 Neal St.

Btw there are similarly sized 8 unit apt buildings all over Capitol Hill and somehow the neighborhood survives. How is it going to be such a big deal in Trinidad?

Jun 20, 2014, 2:30:00 PM

Anonymous poo said...

ummm.... trinidad is still somewhat ghetto. that's why.

lots of theories about why - even broken windows theory.

Jun 20, 2014, 3:40:00 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

The developer is not gonna go through all the trouble of building a large building to put up low end rentals though.

Jun 20, 2014, 3:51:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are there any pictures of the future building on what it will look like ?

Jun 20, 2014, 5:15:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't want to be like Capitol Hill. I can survive anywhere. I enjoy living in Trinidad.

Jun 21, 2014, 1:10:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sad part about the subject of this post, is that people are not fighting the variance on the merits. They, I think only the Office of Planing put forth clear reasons on the merits of why this variance should be denied. Everything else is emotional or simply saying since they did bad and paid their pound of flesh they should not get a variance. I think what's being argued will not impact the foot print or height of the building. The valiance seems to largely be for how small the internal rooms can be.


Jun 21, 2014, 2:18:00 PM

Blogger pat said...

"I walk by them all the time and they are just sitting there getting all weedy and full of cats"

There is nothing wrong with cats.

Jun 22, 2014, 4:04:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh great, the "feral cats actually improve the neighborhood" folks have arrived.

Jun 23, 2014, 5:42:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pop up article from WashPost:http://m.washingtonpost.com/local/2014/06/22/96a2222e-f307-11e3-9ebc-2ee6f81ed217_story.html

Jun 23, 2014, 8:47:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't have a problem with a neighborhood cat, or even a well-managed, properly neutered/spayed feral cat colony. I personally called WHS to come get our neighborhood street cat when he was injured, double-checked that he would be treated, neutered, and released rather than put down, unless it proved medically necessary, and called in a week later to check up on him when I hadn't seen him back on the street. WHS did a great job treating him, returned him to the street and he's just as chill and happy as ever.

But. No one can look at me with a straight face and tell me that most of Trinidad's cat population is managed this way. I have a dog with a nose for cats, and she finds every cat-hangout in the neighborhood (including those properties on the hill) and almost none of them are marked with a clipped ear, which denotes a spayed feral. Without proper management, a lot of kittens are born, suffer, and die, to no purpose.

I would like to do humane trapping and spay/release via WHS, but I'm afraid of catching someone's actual (poorly managed) housecat, or getting into it with people who feed the strays without properly caring for them. This is a neighborhood-wide problem, and I really wish that there was a better way to handle the cats.

Jun 23, 2014, 11:39:00 AM

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