TREE HOUSE UPDATE, SUMMER 2021: Welcome to the Capitol Hill tree house blog, which has attracted almost 80,000 views since its inception in 2016. We,
the tree house-building parents, Ellen Psychas and Bing Yee, created this site with help from supporters during the alley media blitz of the winter of 2015-2016. The blog has gained steam over the years, mainly due to Washington Post coverage
of the tree house saga through news stories and a couple of opinion pieces. Media coverage came as a real surprise.
Our girls' 30 square-foot tree house
has survived despite the fact that the DC Dept. of Transportation (DDOT) worked assiduously to get the fully permitted structure torn down for five years, from 2015 to 2020. Legal appeals of the decision of the January 2018 DC Public Space Committee's
to compel us to "abate" the fort from 20" of public air space dragged on. The District's attempt to push the tree house out of a tiny sliver of public space--read destroy it--ultimately cost City taxpayers dearly in lawyers' time, as the case slowly
wended its way through the court system. The tree house case eventually landed in the US District Court of DC, before settling in court mediation in the fall of 2020.
Channel 9 produced an upbeat 1-minute
clip on the resolution of the saga at Thanksgiving 2020. The crew showed the tree house from a child's prospective, making it our favorite local media story. The clip depicts the castle just as it is, nothing more than a whimsical,
temporary play space for kids, sticking out a few inches over a mulched, wood-enclosed tree box off a residential alley, blocking nothing.
The Washington Post also
reported on the denoument of the story with their fourth and final installment in a series of articles spanning
five years. The newspaper reported that, against long odds, the castle off an historic mews at 516 Archibald Walk SE, built in a big elm tree in 2015, can stay where it is for several more years. The Post
alluded to DDOT's permitting malfeasance, incompetence and intransience in the tree house matter, which ran District taxpayers a hefty six-figure sum in senior litigators' hours.
you're a tourist on Capitol Hill who likes getting off the beaten path, come find the tree house that caused all the fuss. Our play fort's exterior is easily viewed from Archibald Walk, a "U"-shaped public alley looping off F Street Terrace. The
alley network is located a couple blocks south of Eastern Market, extending between 6th and 7th and E and G Streets, a peaceful world unto itself that's worth exploring. Archibald Walk SE, paved in tinted concrete, loops
off F St. Terrace, paved in gray stamped pavers.
A team of DC government attorneys came at our permitted tree house year after year, even though the small group of neighbors who'd pushed for
its destruction in the fall of 2015 had abandoned their campaign by late 2016. The tree house case agreement, reached under the auspices of the US Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, preserves the structure until our young daughters will have outgrown playing
We're pleased that the tree house has survived to see Covid19 restrictions as a wondrous play space for cooped-up kids. Unfortunately, we had to cancel our Mothers Day 2020 open house during the
shelter-in-place period, along with our summers 2020 and 2021 July 4th open houses. But the castle made the Uncommon District photography blog in 2020, featured in "Photographing While Social Distancing, Part 3." During the pandemic, young families with homes nearby have often played socially distanced games around the tree house, e.g. badminton, freeze tag,
soccer and street hockey.
There's a simple reason that the tree house can still be found off a hidden alley enclave, years after DDOT first ordered us to demolish the play castle. The agency
issued us with a public space construction permit under a DCRA construction code (not as a temporary public space rental permit, as City lawyers later
claimed) in fall 2015, and let that authorization close out the same month. With a closed permit in hand, we were in a position to push back against the campaign to destroy the tree house. In court filings, City lawyers argued that the play
fort must go because it "blocks travel," but can see that the plywood structure doesn't overhang a paved surface. Moreover, the alley in question, Archibald Walk SE, has been closed to vehicular traffic for decades.
Over the winter of 2015-2016, after our permit had already closed out, eleven residents of nearby streets signed a petition to get the tree house torn down, addressed to Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B. In mid 2016 we realized
that neither of the zoning commissions that had come at the tree house to appease the objecting neighbors--not the (ANC) 6B Planning & Zoning Committee nor
the Public Space Committee (PSC)--had the authority to overrule permits. At that point--please excuse our
gall--we decided to spread the word that City permitting agencies are known to demand that homeowners demolish structures covered by valid permits. Fail to comply with an unlawful permit revocation attempt and face enormous fines:
DC homeowner beware.
In early 2018, we countersued DDOT in the US District Court of DC, representing ourselves. In fact, we did all of our own legal work. We
sued to challenge DDOT's denial of our right to due process in permitting in order to save the castle for our girls while they are still in elementary school. Our countersuit was such a low-priority matter for the courts that judges were in
no hurry to hear the case. Meanwhile our children, who were tiny tots when the tree house was built in 2015, are now 9 and 11 years old.
On 12/28/18, the popular DCist: News, Food, Art & Events blog ran a feature on Not-in-My-Back-Alley squabbles. Deane Madsen, architectural writer, brought readers up to date on the castle with the first
media report poking fun at DDOT''s incompetent permitting work. The witty Madsen notes that DDOT sent citations to a "non-existent Mr. Lee" (vs. to our Mr. Bing Yee) fining him $8,000 for failing to tear his tree house down.