Pop-ups are one of the more divisive issues around, right up there with UGGs (I genuinely believe that anyone who wears them should be thrown into a maximum security federal prison with no trial or appeal) and whether or not you should wash the dishes after eating or before cooking (relationships have literally been destroyed over this issue). Up until recently, I was, like almost everyone, thoroughly in the anti-pop-up crowd, but I’ve recently had a change of heart. And it was over a very fundamental weakness in the anti-pop-up argument.
My change of heart started with Harriet Tregoning’s recent letter to the City Council as they ponder a pop-up ban. Tregoning, if you recall, was the woman who did such a superlative job planning the DC you all know and love that the federal government poached her away, and now she probably sits in an office all day watching Netflix as just outside her window, construction crews turn the bike lanes she fought for into Hummer parking. But such is life. Tregoning’s letter to the council describes their pop-up ban as “downzoning,” a euphemism that’s the urban planner equivalent to when your friends say your new significant other “has a really nice personality.” She then goes on to express “puzzlement” that the Council was essentially putting an artificial cap on the amount of housing in the city at a time when housing costs are skyrocketing. Hmm, why would they do that?! (But more on that later.)
Until Tregoning’s letter, I guess I’d never really realized, really, that the objection to pop-ups rested entirely on aesthetic grounds. I just sort of assumed that they’re also, say, prone to fires, or untimely collapse, or release carcinogens into the environment, or something. But no. People just don’t like how they look. Think about that. The city council is about to pass a law banning pop-ups because people think they’re ugly. That’s like Congress passing a law that forbids Gary Busey from leaving the house. I mean, yes, pop-ups are ugly. (As is Gary Busey.) But one could argue that many if not most of the new buildings going up around the city are just as ugly! Just a couple blocks from the District’s definitive “middle finger” pop-up, they’re building a multiplex of near-Brutalist aesthetics on the old Atlantic Plumbing site. Look at these renderings. Can you really look me in the eye and tell me that this theater isn’t uglier than my ex-girlfriend’s pinky toes? (The first time we went to the beach I thought I was dating Lebron.)
Behind this rather pandering approach (you guys think pop-ups are ugly? why, then, we’re happy to ban them!), the law may actually be more about money than aesthetics. (Which is America in a nutshell, really: money over aesthetics. They should print it on our money.) If over half of residentially-zoned land in the District is already devoted to the sort of homes that would be potentially eligible for pop-ups (54% to be exact – a figure from Tregoning’s letter), and if even a small fraction of those places were popped-up, that would represent a significant increase in housing stock. And, of course, an equal decrease in housing costs. And here we have the crux of the argument. Could the pop-up ban actually be driven by a desire to prop up housing prices? Is the “but they’re ugly” argument just camouflage for a a developer-led shadow campaign to artificially depress housing stock? It may sound conspiratorial, but where this much money is concerned – we’re talking hundreds of millions, on the low end – it’s foolish to think that the relevant interests wouldn’t’ organize and act. Of course, if you concede that point, the very same argument can be made for the Height Act. (Cue sinister music.)
In the end, yes, DC is a very aesthetic city. Not only in the literal sense, but in the cultural sense – much of the city’s recent revitalization has been, at least, encouraged by some prescient big picture decisions – many of them emanating from Tregoning’s office – that favored aesthetic value over more nuts-and-bolts considerations, and attracted like-minded people. (In the end, you’ll attract more young professionals with dog parks and bike lanes than with youth employment statistics.) But aesthetics only goes so far, something that’s extra painful to admit considering I spend hours per week cultivating an incredible pencil-thin mustache. At some point, brute economics needs to be take into consideration. Do we really want to prioritize the loudest complainers over the poorest renters?