Posts in category Government
The DC zoning update has already had triple the public input as the enormous 1958 zoning code. Enough is enough.
Last week, Mayor Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until at least this fall before considering the proposed DC zoning update. This comes after nearly seven years of deliberation and resident input, and will now mean an entire year after a full draft was released for public review.
Public involvement is a critical part of good planning, but on this project, city officials have established what must be a new record for public consultation. Already, there has been enormously more public input than when the original zoning code was passed in 1958.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth is urging residents to tell Mayor Gray that further delay in creating a more walkable and inclusive city is simply not acceptable.
As of earlier this year, there have been:
- 81 public work group meetings on 20 topic areas in 2008-2009, with a total of 1,000 participants
- 42 open task force meetings by a representative task force of 25 residents
- 59 public hearings and meetings by the Zoning Commission on specific topics starting in 2009
- 8 meetings in each ward in December 2012 and January 2013 to discuss the zoning revision
- Over 100 ANC, community group, and special interest group meetings with the DC Office of Planning.
Meanwhile, back in 1956-1958, there were no more than 25 public hearings. 20 of those were clustered in two 10-day breaks for public input.
The zoning codes were developed by a private consultant; the public had its input; and then a three-man group called the Zoning Advisory Council made significant alternations.
The Zoning Advisory Council was group of three "experienced" individuals, representing the National Capital Planning Commission, the Zoning Commission, and the District Commissioner. They advised the Zoning Commission when big changes came up. The Zoning Commission had to consider each of their views.
The current zoning update began with public and open working groups on each topic. The previous one began with a contract, in November 1954. At the time, there was no Office of Planning. The National Capital Planning Commission did most of the work. Zoning was the job of the Zoning Commission, which comprised the three District Commissioners, as well as a representative from the Architect of the Capitol and the National Park Service.
Two of the District Commissioners were civilians appointed by Congress. The third, and by far the dominant, was an ex-officio representative of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Engineer Commissioner was effectively the city manager.
Having no planning staff of its own, the Zoning Commission issued a contract in November 1954 for Harold Lewis, a well-respected engineer and urban planner. His father, Nelson Lewis, was a founder of American planning.
Lewis presented his plans over ten summer weeknights, June 18th-29th, 1956. Crowds packed into the stuffy auditoriums of schools and the Wilson building to voice their opinions on Lewis' proposal. Lewis or one of his assistants began each event with a defense of the assumptions that underlay the report.
The public addressed Lewis' plan with a barrage of testy testimony. Unlike the current process, the 1956 commission didn't break up the meeting by topic. This was the first time anyone had seen the proposal.
The zoning change significantly altered the zoning map. Lewis also wanted to force nonconforming structures and uses to close down entirely. And the code dramatically downzoned much of the city.
The 2008-2014 zoning update does not touch this level of controversy. The map does not change, and no areas get upzoned or downzoned. Policy changes, such as the controversial ones around parking, corner stores, and basement and garage apartments, are tiny compared to the changes of 1958.
Lewis took some of the public comments into consideration. He delivered his final report, known as the Lewis Report, on November 9th. A 7-month comment period then began, and ended with 10 days of hearings at the Wilson Building, May 27th-June 6th.
If the summer meetings were hot, this was volcanic. But it ended with the Zoning Advisory Council taking the comments behind closed doors. They issued a report on July 12, 1957. Other than details, the law went into effect on May 12th, 1958. With some alterations, what was set down then is still law.
Little changes shouldn't make it hard to solve big problems
It's not that the 1958 process was better. Far from it; the openness of the current process should be praised. And it's always worth examining how a public process could be more open. However, it's not clear how new rounds of testimony increase participation by underrepresented groups.
More time will just allow vocal residents to rehash the same disputes again. All to defend regulations that, no matter how comfortable they may have become, are based on discredited and outdated theory.
Comprehensively updating our zoning code for the first time since 1958 will help to make housing more affordable, by giving builders more flexible options in construction and easing the rules that allow homeowners to create an accessory apartment.
In a city with housing costs that are rapidly spiraling out of control, we can't afford to waste any more time with unjustified delays. Let the Zoning Commission begin deliberating! Send a message to Mayor Gray that DC residents are ready NOW for a new, modern, and more understandable zoning code.
The latest future population projections forecast that by 2040 the District of Columbia will have a population of 883,600. That would far eclipse the historic high of 802,178, from the 1950 census.
Despite that growth, DC would still rank as only the 4th most populous jurisdiction in the region, behind Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's. But the next 26 years could narrow that gap considerably. Demographers project that only Fairfax will add more people than DC. Prince George's will add fewer than half as many.
The forecasts come from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), which is sort of a United Nations for local governments in the DC region.
COG's forecast report has a treasure trove of fascinating demographic info, not only about population, but also jobs and households. For example, by 2040 COG's demographers expect DC to have over 1 million jobs.
Of course, these are only projections. Nobody can predict the future with 100% accuracy. COG's forecasts often fail to predict the biggest peaks during booms and lowest dips during busts. But all in all they've historically been reasonably accurate.
So get ready for more neighbors.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
A team of professionals looking at DC's zoning concluded that the 1958 code was hopelessly outdated, and found an urgent need for a new code. That report was in 1973. Four decades later, the code will continue getting older, as Mayor Vincent Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until September before deliberating on the proposed zoning update.
After over five years of public hearings and meetings to write a new code, the DC Office of Planning submitted it to the Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say over zoning in DC, last year.
There have been seven months of hearings already, with exhaustive chances for everyone to learn about the code and speak their minds. But Gray now wants changes, including ones that will add housing and help people age in place, to wait even longer.
The commission "set down" the code for public comment and hearings on September 9th, 2013. There were public hearings in November, but when some residents said they hadn't had enough time to read the new code, the commission added another set of hearings in January and February. There are two more hearings, for Wards 7 and 8 on April 21 and citywide on April 24, to give people yet another chance to speak.
But this week, the Gray administration decided to ask for even more delay, and the Zoning Commission extended the deadline to September 15, over a year after they set down the proposals.
The delay was almost another year longer than that. Gray wrote September 15, 2015 in a letter, but the zoning commissioners decided to assume he meant September 15, 2014.
Some commissioners argued that the process had gone on long enough, while others welcomed even more time. Rob Miller, a Gray appointee to the board, said, "Going through this process for seven years, what's another six months?" By that token, what's another seven years? The code has sorely needed revision for over 40 years.
Major problems with the zoning code were evident in 1970
In a July 1970 report, planning consultant Barton-Aschman Associates looked back at the code from the far side of highway protests, racial tension, riots, environmentalism, urban renewal, and the Metro system.
They didn't like what they saw. Despite some patches after Home Rule, the language was outdated and the code had major flaws. The study said,
A considerable number of provisions are archaic or substandard and need to be systematically reviewed and modernized. New techniques should be developed to accommodate changing market demand, technological advances, and new social conditions and programs.Studies for the original code by its principal author, Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed people continued to have large families and drove everywhere, and that no historic neighborhoods would be preserved. The 1970 report criticized these assumptions as already out of date.
The 1958 code also did not plan for a city with Metro, with the lower dependence on driving and greater densities that made possible. The 1970 report argued,
Perhaps the Metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.In 1976, 18 years after the zoning code was written, a panel of citizen representatives agreed that a zoning code which separated residential from commercial uses was harming the city:
The rigid separation of uses contemplated by our existing zoning is no longer desirable in many instances, and indeed, the separation of residential and commercial uses contributes positively to the increasing deadening of Downtown after dark.The Special Citizens Advisory Committee on Urban Renewal included the 1958 code as part of the policies of an unrepresentative government that had decimated the city with slum clearance and highway construction. In the same period, the city made some additions to the planning laws, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and the Planned Unit Development process.
Downtown got new zoning in 1991 and amendments in 2000, and DC has added overlay districts to tweak zoning in many residential neighborhoods, but for most of the city, the zoning remains substantially the same as in the 1968 plan, and many of its problems were never solved.
For decades, people have said the zoning code is out of date. The earliest response to the highway riots questioned the zoning produced at that time. Then, one of the first actions of an independent DC was to question the land use regulation that was tied up with urban renewal. They patched the regulations up, but didn't reconstructed them in a way that improved stability and quality of life over the long term.
Some people say that changes to the zoning code will only worsen existing problems. But many of those problems exist because of the way the zoning is written now. Perhaps the city has become comfortable with the problems it's known about for 40 years. The risk of short-term pain is not a good enough reason to delay a much-needed update any more.
There are more than 300 million people living in the United States today, but America is such a huge country that we still have staggeringly vast areas that are completely devoid of humans. This map illustrates those places. Everything colored green is a census block with zero population.
The eastern US is pretty well populated except for a few spots in mountains and swamps. But the west is a different story. It's covered with enormous stretches of land that are simply empty.
And Alaska's emptiness makes even the western contiguous states look densely populated. Those green areas near the Arctic Circle look bigger than most other states.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Sandy Spring could one day be a small, walkable community at the center of rural life in northeast Montgomery County, if all goes according to plan.
For 15 years, Sandy Spring residents asked for a plan to revitalize their rural village, which has gotten passed over as suburbanization swept the area. Montgomery County planners say a new open space, walkable main street, and some new housing and retail could turn things around.
Residents want new commercial establishments, coffee shops, and retail in the village center. As redevelopment takes place in the small community on Route 108 near New Hampshire Avenue, the changes will allow new mixed-use buildings located closer to the street to activate public space.
The preliminary concepts encourage quality open space for public gatherings and community activities at the intersection of MD 108 and Brooke Road. As the historic center of Sandy Spring, the intersection is home to one of Maryland's oldest post offices. More public gathering space will strengthen civic engagement, create a sense of place, and generate opportunities for special events and festivals.
Changes can also make the area more walkable. Today, the north side of MD 108 has no sidewalk and 90-degree parking in the right-of-way, requiring vehicles to back out into the road. Not only is the design dangerous, it creates traffic when village center activity increases.
Following the "Complete Streets" standard, there will be a wide, pedestrian-focused sidewalk and parallel parking. Bike lanes and improved pedestrian movements at intersections will give all users safe and equal access to the public space. These modifications are timely because Pepco is relocating its utilities underground in the area, further enhancing the corridor.
Over the last 10 years, many newer residents of varied income levels have also settled into the rural village. While these recent changes have increased competing interests and viewpoints, it is still a community founded on togetherness and communication.
Quakers established Sandy Spring in the early 18th century as a rural village based on communal exchange of ideas on social and political concerns, agriculture, and family. Today, many descendants of those Quaker families remain as their trademark brand of gentility still influences the town.
A high percentage of high-income residents own houses in the area. One quarter of households have incomes over $200,000, proving the town's potential for upscale business, specialty retail, and restaurants within the rural village.
Due to the uniqueness of Sandy Spring and the limited size of the planning area, Montgomery planners staff took a different approach to the planning process. In February, they held a four-day planning workshop in Sandy Spring focused on specific land use topics and time devoted to interacting with residents on their vision for the future of their village.
In other words, the heavily lifting of planning work was essentially done in four days. With the collaborative community vision of residents firmly in hand, staff developed illustrations and renderings in advance of recent community outreach meetings. The renderings are currently on display at the Sandy Spring Museum through April 2014.
Planners will develop a draft plan over the coming months with continued community follow-up and intend to have an adopted plan by April 2015.
If the Planning Board and then the Montgomery County Council adopt it, planners will quickly follow up with a sectional zoning amendment to rezone the property within the planning area. This will trigger the development and land use standards to implement the plan's vision.
As new homes, offices, and shops sprout around the region's Metro stations, Forest Glen has remained a holdout due to neighborhood resistance to new construction. But that may change as WMATA seeks someone to build there.
Last month, the agency put out a call for development proposals at Forest Glen, in addition to West Hyattsville and Largo Town Center in Prince George's County and Braddock Road in Alexandria. WMATA owns 8 acres at Forest Glen, most of which is a parking lot, and developers have already expressed interest in building there.
Forest Glen should be a prime development site. While it's on the busy Red Line, it's one of Metro's least-
On one side of the Metro station is a townhouse development that's about 10 years old, while across the street are 7 new single-family homes. The land the parking lot sits on is valuable, and it's likely that WMATA will get proposals to build apartments there because the land is so valuable. But zoning only allows single-family homes there, the result of a 1996 plan from Montgomery County that recommends preserving the area's "single-family character," due to neighbor concerns about traffic.
As a result, whoever tries to build at Forest Glen will have to get a rezoning, which neighbors will certainly fight. It's true that there's a lot of traffic in Forest Glen: the Beltway is one block away, while the adjacent intersection of Georgia Avenue and Forest Glen Road is one of Montgomery County's busiest. While traffic is always likely to be bad in Forest Glen, though by taking advantage of the Metro station, there are ways to bring more people and amenities to the area without putting more cars on the road.
Make it easier to reach Metro without a car
Today, two-thirds of the drivers who park at Forest Glen come from less than two miles away, suggesting that people don't feel safe walking or biking in the area. There's a pedestrian bridge over the Beltway that connects to the Montgomery Hills shopping area, a half-mile away, but residents have also fought for a tunnel under Georgia Avenue so they won't have to cross the 6-lane state highway.
Montgomery County transportation officials have explored building a tunnel beneath Georgia, which is estimated to cost up to $17.9 million. But county planners note that a tunnel may not be worth it because there aren't a lot of people to use it.
And crossing Georgia Avenue is only a small part of the experience of walking in the larger neighborhood. Today, the sidewalks on Forest Glen Road and Georgia Avenue are narrow and right next to the road, which is both unpleasant and unsafe. WMATA has asked developers applying to build at Forest Glen to propose ways to improve pedestrian access as well, and they may want to start with wider sidewalks with a landscaping buffer to make walking much more attractive. Investing in bike lanes would also be a good idea.
Provide things to walk to
Another way to reduce car trips is by providing daily needs within a short walk or bike ride. The Montgomery Hills shopping district, with a grocery store, pharmacy, and other useful shops, is a half-mile away from the Metro. But it may also make sense to put some small-scale retail at the station itself, like a dry cleaner, coffeeshop or convenience store, which will mainly draw people from the Metro station and areas within walking or biking distance. Some people will drive, but not as many as there would be with larger stores.
Putting shops at the Metro might also encourage workers at Holy Cross to take transit instead of driving, since they'll be able to run errands on their way to and from work. Encouraging this crowd to take transit is important, since hospitals are busy all day and all week, meaning they generate a lot of demand for transit, making it practical to run more buses and trains, which is great for everyone else.
Provide less parking
Whatever gets built at the Metro will have to include parking, not only for commuters, but for residents as well. While Montgomery County's new zoning code requires fewer parking spaces, each apartment still has to have at least one parking space. Even small shops will have to have their own parking. The more parking there is, the more likely residents are to bring cars, which of course means more traffic.
Thus, the key is to give future residents and customers incentives to not drive. The new zoning code does allow developers to "unbundle" parking spaces from apartments and sell or rent them separately. Those who choose not to bring cars will then get to pay less for housing. The code also requires carsharing spaces in new apartment buildings, so residents will still have access to a car even if they don't have their own. If Montgomery County ever decides to expand Capital Bikeshare, the developer could pay for a station here.
And the developer could offer some sort of discount or incentive for Holy Cross employees to live there, allowing hospital workers to live a short walk from their jobs.
No matter the approach, there are a lot of ways to build in Forest Glen without creating additional traffic. A creative approach can do wonders for the area's profile and elevate the quality of life for residents there.
Muriel Bowser has won the Democratic nomination for DC mayor. Do you know what she stands for?
Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the DC Council, has won what's typically the District's highest-profile race while generally minimizing the amount of discussion on her vision for the city. Sure, she supports better education, jobs, lower crime, affordable housing and a functional government. But every other candidate in the primary backed those things, too.
Bowser was quite adept at citing facts and figures but also showed a real talent for framing issues in a way that sounded good to everyone. She generally praised many ideas in the abstract but remained noncommittal as they became concrete.
Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.
- Fairfax's answer to neighbors' transit plans: Light rail, streetcars, and BRT
- Today's problems were visible decades ago, but zoning has blocked solutions ever since
- Montgomery County added 100,000 residents since 2002, but driving didn't increase
- The DC zoning update has already had triple the public input as the enormous 1958 zoning code. Enough is enough.
- MARC's chief engineer wants to allow bikes on some weekend trains
- Federal board wants "dignified," dull Southwest Waterfront
- Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza