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Posts in category Smart Growth

Zoning


Get to know DCís new zoning with this map

After years of delays and extensive public input, DC's zoning board approved a new zoning code in January. It will actually take effect in September. This map helps homeowners understand how the new zoning applies to them.

The zoning update includes some key steps forward, like allowing some homeowners to rent out garages or basements where it's illegal today.

Otherwise, unless you live downtown, nothing dramatic will change. The zoning update generally doesn't change the density and form someone can build in your neighborhood. Most specific rules, like how big and what shape a "court" can be, also don't change, and you're not expected to know them all unless you're an architect or land use attorney.

But what does it mean?

The reason so little seems to be changing is because the zoning code basically consists of three parts: an administrative framework, rules for development in general, and land use rules specific to each zone district.

Most of the rewrite was reorganizing existing rules written in 1958 and patched several times over the years. That means updating the language, addressing new uses, and closing loopholes. Sure, there are some big controversial city-wide changes like permitting granny cottages in single family residential areas and reducing parking minimums.

What will likely change is the name of the zone you live in. In the old code, most zones were R (Residential) or C (Commercial); now, residential zones include the old R, RF (for residential flats, like row houses), and RA (for apartments); many commercial zones, which have long allowed residential and commercial together, are called MU (mixed-use), or D for downtown zones, and so on.

This table shows how the existing zone districts fit into the new zones. The interactive map (image at the top of the post) lets you compare old and new zoning side by side.

There are a lot more zone districts now—sort of. Some neighborhoods (like Cleveland Park) have "overlays" that customize their zones. Many changed the underlying zoning dramatically, which wasn't readily understandable without flipping back and forth between sections.

In the new code, instead of overlays, there is just a new basic zone with all the rules from the underlying zone or the overlay. For example, the old R-1-B zone with the Foxhall and Tree and Slope overlay (for areas near the Potomac river on the west side of DC) will be R-9. The R-1-B zone with Naval Observatory overlay will be R-12.

The actual effect of the overlays remains, but you don't have to reconcile two totally different sections of zoning code to figure out what's going on. I think it's a lot simpler to understand, whether you're designing a building or imagining what your neighborhood could look like.

History


Building of the Week: Downtown's Woodward & Lothrop building

Located 11th Street NW between G and F Streets, DC's Woodward and Lothrop building is iconic: it appears in books and as a case study for developers, and we've even featured it ourselves (twice!). But while most of the attention focuses on the famous department store that lived in it, the building itself tells the story of how fast fashion eclipsed department store retail in the United States.


The Woodward & Lothrop building, sometime in the 1910s. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Woodward and Lothrop was founded in Washington in 1880 and settled into its flagship location on the 1000 block of F and G Streets NW in 1886. Architect James G. Hill designed the company's eclectic five-story headquarters, and real estate investor Calderon Carlisle funded the project.

The building was no skyscraper, but it shared the language of taller buildings: arcade windows and expansive showrooms covered in neoclassical ornament. The rich mix of materials included mahogany and French glass.

Thanks to continued success, owners Samuel Woodward and Alvin Lorthrop purchased most of the block by 1897. New acquisitions were renovated or expanded, notably a large addition in 1902 on G Street.


A picture from an advertisement in the 1913 edition of Rand McNally's Pictorial Guide to Washington. Photo from Streets of Washington.

Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb was hired to unify and modernize the building. The result was eight stories and 400,000 square feet of retail space adorned with cast iron and leaded glass.

Cobb's design spoke to his Chicago roots. The building's two commercial levels featured elaborate ornamentation and American-made cast iron piers. The third floor was narrower and hid its steel frame under rustication. The subsequent four stories wear a Beaux-Arts uniform and end in a heavy cornice. This segmentation resembles that of Chicago skyscrapers.

For F Street, Woodward and Lothrop hired Frederick B. Pyle to build a terra cotta segment of the building. While designed to appear as a distinct structure, it was always integrated into the larger building.


Here, you can see the terra cotta part of the building, which runs along 10th Street. Photo from Douglas Development.

By 1927 the building took on its present appearance after the original Carlisle Building had been destroyed. Woodies, as it was affectionately known, operated here until 1994 with only modest changes.


The Woodies building after 1926, viewed from 11th and F Streets, NW. Image from Streets of Washington.

By the end of the 20th century, the entire chain was bankrupt. The Washington location was abandoned, and its building auctioned to the Washington Opera. The Opera's plans to convert the landmarked space into a theater failed, and five years later it was acquired by developer Douglas Jemal.

The company renovated the space in 2002, putting offices on most floors and returning the ground level to retail space. Now a jaunt around the block allows you to shop at Zara, H&M, and Forever 21.


Image from Douglas Development.

Woodies led the way for department stores, both the rise and fall

These new tenants are no modern Woodies—because the department store as a business model is long in decline. In Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, author Elizabeth Cline delves into how department stores were revolutionary when they arrived at the turn of the 20th century, but by the end of the century, that revolution turned against them.


The Woodward & Lothrop floor at Christmas time, sometime in the 1960s. Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

In 1900, textile, patterns, and readymade home and clothing items under one roof gave upper class women a safe, socially acceptable escape from the household. These items' relative affordability meant a person didn't have to make all their own clothing anymore. By the post-war era, American pockets bulged, ready-to-wear was king, and competition was fierce in the industry. Mail order catalogs allowed you to peruse your regional chain's offerings, or you could drive to Montgomery Ward, Belk, or Burdines for mid-market sales.

But like its contemporary the land line, the department store model was due for change. Cline notes that by the 1970s malls and discount retailers mushroomed across America. These were descended upon by price conscious Americans—with an evaporating middle class, who would shop for mid-priced clothing? At the dawn of the 21st century, shopping preferences were clear: Forever 21 or the designer from whom the chain borrowed inspiration.

In the era of fast fashion—piles of stylish clothing go from sketch to store in a matter of weeks, selling for small sums—the moderate department store was too slow and expensive. Department stores tried to meet the new expectations, hastening their own demise with untenable discounts and a dwindling clientele.

Woodies was a casualty of this changing economy. Many of its stores were acquired by Macy's and Bloomingdales, chains that expanded nationally and weathered the shift partly by focusing on higher end customers. Woodies fell victim of its refusal to evolve—or as critics of fast fashion's labor and environmental effects argue, devolve.

Yet the signature building remains intact. The space itself epitomizes the changing retail tides of history. The eclectic buildings first brought together by Woodies have been recycled, reorganized, and parceled out to individual owners again. The structure remains to tell the tale.

Development


DC's 43,766 acres: 25% "roads," 2% high-rises

The District of Columbia spans over 68 square miles. About half its land area goes to buildings, 20% is open space, and over a quarter is "road infrastructure." Among residential land, half is single family detached houses while high-rise apartments occupy less than 2% of DC's total.


Land use in DC, 2006. Graph using data from the Comprehensive Plan.

I created the above chart using data in DC's Comprehensive Plan. That plan divides land into more categories, but for simplicity, I grouped many of them.

It's important to note that "roads" includes a lot of land that's not paved roads. That's because in many neighborhoods, the official public right-of-way includes much or all of people's front yards; the actual property line is at the building or between it and the sidewalk. This "roadway" space covers yards, sidewalks, tree boxes, some grassy areas, and more. Still, it's a big percentage.

The "jobs" category combines any sort of land use relating to where people work (commercial, industrial, public facilities, federal facilities, and institutional land). The "housing" category groups together of all of the housing categories.

The chart below breaks down the housing category:


Breakdown of DC's residential land, 2006.

Out of the almost 30% of DC's land which was used for housing in 2006, nearly half of that was occupied by single family detached homes—about 5,000 acres. The other half was split between rowhouses and low-rise apartments. Only about 4% of land dedicated to housing was occupied by high-rise apartments (so about 1.6% of the total).

This data is from 2006. I would expect some things have changed in ten years, but not everything. The large amount of "permanent open space"—much of it federal parkland—is not going anywhere.

How do these land use patterns affect our growing city? What changes should we expect, or should we advocate for?

History


Not everyone agrees on where DC's Chinatown is

While DC's Chinatown officially spans roughly two square blocks in the city's central downtown area, a number of long-time residents have different ideas of the neighborhood's boundaries. This map shows how "Chinatown" means different things to different people.


The lines on the map represent 17 different definitions of where Chinatown begins and ends, along with DC's official boundaries. Map by Molly Carpenter, Pranita Rahbhise, Katy June-Friesen, and Dr. Willow Lung-Amam.

The map is part of a larger recent project by graduate students at the University of Maryland who wanted to better understand the rapid changes to the neighborhood and what they have meant for those in the Chinese American community with long term connections to it.

The researchers conducted 16 interviews with people who have long-term connections to Chinatown, either because they live there or are involved in the neighborhood through business and cultural organizations. They also interviewed eight people they met on the street or in restaurants or coffee shops. They asked those they spoke with to draw their own map of Chinatown and identify the places that were important to them.

While some identified Chinatown as a narrow strip of shops and restaurants along H Street, others saw the neighborhood as stretching from E Street to M Street. Meanwhile, others saw Chinatown as part of the larger Gallery Place or Penn Quarter neighborhoods.

Those more familiar with the neighborhood tended to see Chinatown as a shrinking span of restaurants along H Street NW, while newcomers or visitors tended to point to the Verizon Center and Gallery Place as the defining features of the neighborhood. And while many interviewed acknowledged that Chinatown has been shrinking, others recognized that the community has also spread out to the suburbs and is not dying.

Katy June-Friesen, one of the researchers, offered her take on why the people she interviewed had such varying definitions of Chinatown:

I think the way people understand the space, the neighborhood, depends on how they use and experience it. So for some elderly residents of Wah Luck House who speak little English, the neighborhood feels like it is shrinking, because there are fewer services and shops for them, such as a Chinese-speaking doctor or Chinese grocery store. Others (of Chinese background) who have long-term connections to Chinatown but don't live there may feel the place is more symbolic of history, culture, and traditions, but the boundaries or size of the neighborhood itself don't matter as much. A restaurant worker might think of Chinatown as just the strip of Chinese restaurants on H Street, while a non-Chinese newcomer to the area might not frequent those restaurants and might think of the neighborhood as "Gallery Place" or something other than "Chinatown."
Chinatown used to be in a different place, and it has seen a lot of change

First established in the 1880s at Pennsylvania Avenue and 5th Street NW, DC's first Chinatown was displaced in the 1930s by the Federal Triangle complex. As a result, Chinese immigrants began to settle in today's location.

In this new location, the community continued to grow through the mid-1960s, establishing schools, clubs, and other community organizations. However, by the mid-1960s, the population of the community began to decline, with many residents moving to the suburbs. Despite this decline, the population of Chinatown was 3,000 in 1970.

In subsequent years, the neighborhood has been the site of a number of revitalization efforts, including the construction of the Gallery Place Metro station and a new convention center (not to be confused with the current convention center), the establishment of a downtown historic zone, which includes Chinatown, as well as the later construction of the Verizon Center.

Recent years have seen changes to the neighborhood accelerate with the continued loss of Chinese residents and businesses. Much of this has been attributed to neighborhood affordability and buyout offers for local residents and business owners as part of a broader trend of redevelopment in the city.

Today, most of Chinatown's approximately 300 Chinese-American residents live in Wah Luck House and Museum Square, two subsidized housing complexes in the neighborhood.

Despite the diverse views of what constitutes Chinatown, all those interviewed expressed concern about keeping alive what the neighborhood means to them, namely Chinese culture and traditions.

Development


DC makes some of its affordable housing serve less wealthy residents (but not the poorest)

DC requires new apartment and condo buildings to include a number of affordable housing units, in a program called Inclusionary Zoning. Wednesday night, DC's Zoning Commission voted to make Inclusionary Zoning serve the group of residents who most need the housing this program can provide.


Photo by Ryan McKnight on Flickr.

What is inclusionary zoning?

Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) is a market-based tool for creating affordable housing that serves people of moderate incomes. Private developers still build housing as they wish, but have to rent or sell a small percentage of units to people making less money. It's had some success, but debate about the program continues.

IZ proposes to diversify our region's housing stock. In a high-demand area like ours, the market will naturally provide more expensive housing for higher-income people rather than cheaper housing. This is not a simple case of developer greed. The owner of a piece of property in a desirable, expensive area will want to sell it to whoever will give them the most money. If one group offers the land owner more money for the land (because they plan to build and sell luxury units), that group probably wins the sale over other groups looking to build moderately priced housing, or who want to use tax credits to build below-market housing.

Right now, in DC, many people who use tax credits to build lower-income housing can't win the bidding for enough land to build on. Where land is cheap, there is enough to go around for people to build units with diverse cost and meet diverse demand, though even then, without tax credits they can't sell units for less than it costs to construct them. But where land is scarce and demand is high, the market, on its own, won't provide housing for even moderate-income people.


Photo by Sharron on Flickr.

IZ tackles affordability and supply

When I walk around town talking about our region's housing shortage, many stop me and say, "What do you mean?! What about all of those luxury apartments and condos going up EVERYWHERE?" Land values explain a piece of that. Yes, we are building more housing than most other periods of DC's history, but there is a lot of pent up demand for housing at different cost levels that currently isn't being met.

Say I want to build a 5-story building with 50 units in it. To buy the land, get financing, and cover construction costs, I have to plan to rent the units at luxury prices. IZ changes two things. First, it forces me to build a number of units for people at lower incomes. That increases costs and could make my building unprofitable to construct, so IZ sweetens the deal: I can build my building higher and denser than normally allowed (about 20% larger, though it varies by zone).

When it's all said and done, my new plan after IZ is a 6-story building, and 5 of those 60 units are going to be rented at more affordable levels.

It's a compromise, yes. But is also unique in that it addresses the issue of housing supply (we just added 10 more units to the region!), as well as housing affordability (we just built 5 otherwise non-existent affordable options).

Other reasons IZ is exciting

The fact that IZ tackles our housing shortage from both a supply and affordability standpoint is one reason why advocates are for this policy tool, but there are other good things about it.

For one, if we are serious about building an inclusive city and region, this tool helps to do just that. People of different incomes can live (and afford to live!) in the same buildings and neighborhoods when IZ is applied well.

Recent studies by Raj Chetty and Eric Chyn show that low-income children who grow up in mixed-income neighborhoods make more money throughout life—16%, in Chyn's study—than those in entirely low-income areas. Keeping poverty concentrated is a recipe for more poverty, while mixed-income living (which IZ pushes) could show a way out.

Another reason to like IZ is that it leverages the resources, knowledge and power of the private sector. There is an immense amount of money and expertise in the development field, and they are very interested in building more housing. IZ attempts to align for-profit development interests (build more) with broader community interests (build affordable), and advocates hope to harness the productive energy and capacity of the development field to meet the needs of a diverse and growing city.


Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

Spoiler alert: Not everyone is a fan of IZ

IZ offers both extra density (more money for property owners) and an expensive housing requirement (forced affordability constraints). Depending on the details of the program and the particular neighborhood or market conditions, the bonus could pay for the added expense, or not.

Further, IZ creates bureaucratic hurdles for the developer to go through. The process, paperwork, and the many legal and other experts required can add costs.

The early years of DC's IZ program saw problems with how the government was implementing it, including federal rules which made it impossible for buyers of IZ condo units to obtain mortgages. (DC changed the rules to deal with that obstacle.)

It's not just the developers

Developers are not alone in their criticisms of IZ. Some other affordable housing and low-income advocates are concerned about the program.

For some, it is simply a question of scale. Even in the hypothetical situation above, you can see this argument play out: we get 55 units of luxury housing, and 5 units of more affordable housing? For some that is simply not good enough, especially if there is a tool that would allow the original 50 units to be all affordable, or some significant percentage affordable.

Over that last few years since its inception in DC, IZ has created over 900 below-market price housing units, which is great. It's also true that in that same amount of time 21,000 total units have been created, and as noted earlier in my street conversations, many, many of those units are at luxury prices.


Map of IZ Production under old rules

Another concern some have about IZ is that it does not create "affordable enough" units. IZ laws mandate that a unit be affordable for people making a certain amount of money based on the Area Median Income (AMI). DC's current rules require some units at 80% of AMI and some at 50% of AMI, but the vast majority were 80%.

For a typical one-bedroom unit, an 80% AMI unit would rent for around $1,600 a month, while 60% would be around $1,100 a month. For many groups working alongside the poorest of our community (for example those making 30% or less of AMI), this does not serve the people in greatest need.

It's unlikely that IZ can create units at 30% of AMI, since those are so expensive to create and maintain compared to 50-80%. So IZ advocates mounted a campaign to create more deeply affordable units than before.

What has changed

This new change now requires all new rental units to be 60% of AMI (while condo units would be 80%). Currently, most new rental units being built were at 80%, but three-fourths of people on waiting lists for IZ units were around 60%.

Members of the Zoning Commission recognized that this was not serving the needs of many lower-income residents. During one hearing, Commissioner Michael Turnbull remarked, "[80% median family income] is basically market rate. People are saying, we can't afford that. The city is being gentrified. The people who grew up in the city are being kicked out." Commissioner Peter May agreed: "The house is on fire, and we are using a garden hose."

Yet there was opposition from the Bowser administration and the DC Building Industry Association to the proposal to lower the income targeting percentage to 60%. They put forth an alternative proposal. Under current rules, not all zones in DC have to incorporate IZ; the alternate option would add IZ to four zones (two of which, C2A and C2B, have some significant development potential, and two, SP1 and W2, that have very little) while keeping other zones as they have been.

Late Wednesday night, the Zoning Commission voted in favor of the 60% requirement. There will then be a 30-day period of public review before a second, final vote. For many of the thousands of residents who apply for the lottery to get access to these units each year, this drop will add greatly to their affordable options.

History


In 1979, was your neighborhood "sound" or "distressed"?

DC looked very different in 1979. A map of neighborhood housing conditions shows just how much. In many DC neighborhoods that are now in high demand, the housing stock was in danger 35 years ago.


Image from the DC Public Library, Special Collections. Click for larger version.

This map is from a report by the Department of Housing and Community Development in June 1979, during Marion Barry's first mayoral term, entitled "Housing Problems, Conditions & Trends in the District of Columbia."

The report sounded the alarm for "Petworth, Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood and most of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River." Those areas already had, or were in danger of developing, "deteriorating building conditions because resident incomes are not keeping pace with increasing costs of home ownership."

Here is the explanatory text and key for the map:

This map clarifies neighborhoods according to the categories shown in the legend. They are based on the following factors which are illustrated in subsequent maps: ownership patterns, yearly income of residents, real estate sales and prices, welfare assistance and the condition of housing.

Sound [Yellow]: Residents in these neighborhoods have high enough incomes to maintain their properties without public assistance. Northwest areas west of Rock Creek Park are classified as sound neighborhoods together with Capitol Hill. The only sound neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are located south of Fort Dupont Park.

Distressed [Blue]: Residents require considerable assistance because of low incomes and poor housing conditions. Many of these areas also contain a concentration of public housing in need of significant improvement. Distressed neighborhoods west of the river include Ivy City and portions of the Southwest. East of the Anacostia River, the poorest housing conditions are found in Deanwood, Burrville, Northeast Boundary, Greenway, Anacostia, Congress Heights, Washington Highlands and Douglass.

Stable / Declining [Green]: Neighborhoods are in stable condition, with households of moderate income and high ownership, requiring little or no public assistance; or, are beginning to show deteriorating building conditions because resident incomes are not keeping pace with increasing costs of home ownership. West of the River, neighborhoods in this category are south Petworth, Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood and most of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

Transitional (early or advanced) [Red]: Neighborhoods in the early stages of transition are characterized by a surge in reinvestment and rehabilitation; whereas, neighborhoods in the most advanced stages are those experiencing extensive displacement of low and moderate income families by higher income households. Change began in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan and spread east into Shaw and north along 14th Street, as well as into LeDroit Park and Eckington. The change which began in Capitol Hill spread further east into Lincoln Park, south to the Southeast, and north to the Stanton Park. No radical changes are occurring east of the River, though real estate activity is becoming significant but at a lower level of intensity.

This map further serves to highlight the different characteristics between areas east and west of the Anacostia River. West of the River and west of Rock Creek Park, neighborhoods are in basically sound and stable condition. The most concentrated real estate activity is found in and around the central city. Displacement is, therefore, the major problem west of the River; whereas the main concern east of the Anacostia River is the declining condition of the housing stock. Also, the majority of distressed and declining neighborhoods are found east of the River.

It's also interesting to look at the neighborhood names. NoMA didn't exist; it was "NE 1," adjacent to "NW 1" across North Capitol Street. What we now call U Street is "Westminster." And "Stanton Park" extended all the way across H Street. East of the River, neighborhood names such as "Good Hope," "Buena Vista," and "Douglass" have fallen out of currency.

The Green and Yellow Metrorail lines had not yet opened, the Red Line didn't go beyond Dupont Circle, and the Blue Line stopped at Stadium-Armory.

What else do you notice? How was your neighborhood categorized in 1979? Would it be categorized differently today?

This post first ran in 2014. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

Development


What's wrong with this map of DC's social services?

This map shows where DC's halfway houses, drug treatment centers, and mental health facilities are. What's wrong with this picture?


Map from DC's Office of Planning.

In 2006, DC's Office of Planning published this map of group homes in the city,grouping them into five types: halfway homes and facilities for community residence, mental health, substance abuse and youth rehab.

The easiest, clearest takeaway: most of these places are east of Rock Creek Park. The map may be 10 years old, but that's just evidence that neighborhoods in that part of the District have historically opted out of helping to solve the city's broader problems.

We actually came across the map while reviewing DC's Comp Plan. Let's hope the re-write of the plan, which which the Office of Planning will start next year, results in maps that show more people doing their part to make this a better region for everyone.

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