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OP proposing neighborhood-based zoning

The DC Office of Planning presented early draft recommendations to the Low & Moderate Density zoning working group last Thursday. Their approach revolves around a basic idea: the current zones (R-1A, R-1B, R-2, etc.) are too inflexible, imposing a one-size-fits-all approach on very diverse neighborhoods.

Photo from Prince of Petworth.

As OP discovered through a building typology study they conducted, each neighborhood has widely varying lot widths, setbacks, heights, lot coverages, and more. Only about half of the lots in DC conform to width requirements; in other words, whole neighborhoods are made up of houses whose lots are illegally narrow. If there is one vacant lot amidst a row of houses, it's currently illegal to build a house just like the rest. That's silly.

At the same time, the zoning in many areas allows more height than the prevailing buildings, leading to ridiculous eyesores like this and this. Each current zoning category weds building size with unit density: the lowest density zones allow only single-family, detached houses and the higher zones allow higher density row houses, but there are no zones to allow, say, multi-family detached houses, four-story row houses that are limited to two units per building, or many other combinations one could devise.

OP's solution is to enable each neighborhood to determine the parameters of their own zoning by setting a number of variables, such as:

  • Maximum height
  • Lot width
  • Building width (for detached and semi-detached buildings)
  • Minimum and maximum front setback from the street (or, when both are equal, a "build-to line" that ensures a row of houses all line up in front)
  • Maximum building depth (to ensure some open space in the rear)
  • Number of units per building
  • Whether corner stores can locate in residential areas, and with what restrictions on hours, noise, garbage, etc.
  • ... and more.
This system will allow for zoning much better tailored to each neighborhood's needs. The zoning map will become more complex, with many different zones instaed of large R-1, R-2, etc. areas; on the other hand, with the proliferation of overlays and text amendments over the last 50 years, it's difficult to know all the zoning rules for a given area since they are split into so many different chapters and addendums. Under this system, a property owner will only need to look up the table of maximums and minimums for his or her specific area.

The biggest question is how each neighborhood will determine its own rules. Will the ANCs decide, or will there be a vote? Will members of the public submit comments to OP or the Zoning Commission? How will we balance the interests of the majority of residents against a possible vocal, self-interested minority? What about investor-owned properties, whose owners have a vested interest in increasing rental income without as much consideration for the quality of life in the neighborhood? On the flip side, how can we ensure newer residents have a voice as well as long-time residents?

The decisions we make about process will significantly influence the outcome. As someone interested in the dynamics of the political process, this should be fascinating; as someone who writes about zoning, this should provide a nearly bottomless source of good material. It should be exciting!

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


Interesting thought. However it occurs to me that this is a bit like letting the 7 year olds cook breakfast (Ice cream and potato chips for breakfast for all!). Zoning does so much for the community that a few neighborhoods with control of their own regulations could wreak havoc on a plan. If you multiply this by all the neighborhoods having control I see a huge issue.

In addition it would seem to place a neighborhood on a trajectory based on the feelings and views of the immediate residents which would be based on most likely transient concerns.

Finally I see the potential for a bit of hanky-panky. How long will it be before some entity writes the rules itself based on its influence? I can see a scenario in which an entity or a few people agree to put a new coat of paint on the rec center (or whatever will sway the decision makers) for material influence. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe it's bad but we need to be aware of the problem.

by Citizen Z on Jun 30, 2008 12:19 pm • linkreport

I don't think modern taller buildings in those footprints are necessarily eyesores. The first one, in my personal opinion, is ugly, but that's a matter of building materials and poor architectural detail, isn't it? The second one seems an interesting--and tasteful--design for expanding a home on a narrow lot.

Not every building on every street in every neighborhood needs to be protected as "historic," nor need it be prohibited from change. Cities evolve over time, and providing landowners reasonable flexibility will allow Washington to continue to evolve as a great city in the future.

My recommendation: eliminate as much use-based zoning as can possibly be done, and instead limit zoning to regulate massing envelopes. The best cities of the world developed before Euclidean use-based zoning. I don't think a four-storey townhome on a street of three-storey townhomes is a sacrilege, notwithstanding Baron Haussmann's prostelyzing.

by Joey on Jun 30, 2008 12:32 pm • linkreport

I'm with Joey on this one.

Single-use zoning, zoning which strictly limits density, zoning which requires strict compliance with someone's particular aesthetic... these are things that destroy the strong market-based responses that a city uses to build itself in a livable manner. People are only able to swallow these restrictions because they have cars, relatively cheap oil, and fully subsidized roads, or they have strongly subsidized mass transit nearby. This is diametrically opposed to what I see as viable new urbanism.

This first example is ugly because they add an extra thirty feet of blank siding above the rest of the neighborhood. Most zoning violations are nowhere near as blighted - and a more flexible zoning would present a street where even it doesn't stand out so much.

Endorsing some cookie-cutter version of The Correct Building is what the 'burbs do best. Preserving an architectural monotone is simply not necessary for us to live our lives.

I can tolerate the mild zoning provisions most of the time, but the degree of micromanagement that's assumed necessary in the PDF from the last zoning meeting (other than one slide where residents questioned complexity) sort of astounds me.

by Squalish on Jun 30, 2008 1:02 pm • linkreport

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