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Rewritten DC zoning code corrects past mistakes

Accessory apartments, corner stores, alley dwellings, and less parking, all of which were legal when DC's historic neighborhoods grew into their current form, could become more prevalent under a proposed new zoning code. The first third of the code is now out as a public draft, and residents will debate these and other changes in the coming months.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Formal Zoning Commission hearings to approve or reject the zoning code will come later this year, but there is a sort of preseason exhibition hearing tomorrow. The DC Council's annual oversight hearing for the Office of Planning will bring sparks as advocates on various sides push their cases, though the council doesn't actually decide these issues.

The Office of Planning has been working for 4 years to rewrite the District's zoning code. Now, after hundreds of public meetings and many rewrites, OP's draft of the actual new zoning text clocks in at 458 pages, and that's just for the first third of the text, covering general issues as well as low- and moderate-density residential zones.

The vast majority of the work just updates, streamlines, and simplifies the text. Today, under the zoning code approved in 1958, rules and restrictions appear in general chapters that cover zone types or other, neighborhood-specific sets of rules called "overlays." Many rules use terms that aren't defined anywhere, like "building façade line," which seems very simple until you start thinking about buildings with rounded turrets.

There are also a few significant policy changes. In particular:

  • More homeowners will be able to create accessory dwellings, like garage or basement apartments.
  • A limited number of small art studios, corner groceries, shoe repair shops, hardware stores and the like will be able to open in residential areas when there aren't any commercial areas nearby.
  • Fewer buildings will be forced to provide parking, or will not be forced to provide as much.
  • More alley lots will be able to have houses.
  • Green Area Ratio will require landscaping and other stormwater-managing features in projects, though not the low- and moderate-density residential buildings covered in the chapters released so far.
With the exception of the Green Area Ratio, a very 21st-century sustainability idea, the other changes actually harken more back to a past era than to the future. They correct some of the most egregious problems from the 1958 code, where it imposed social engineering ideas in vogue at the time that ended up eliminating local corner stores, pushed people out of urban neighborhoods, and forced new buildings to take a suburban form incompatible with the walkable communities that previously existed.

If Georgetown, Capitol Hill, or Petworth didn't exist today, they couldn't be legally built as they are. Even many single-family neighborhoods of detached houses like AU Park, Brookland, and Hillcrest are mostly illegal as well under current zoning. Where the new zoning code makes changes, it's to legalize the kind of development patterns that formed the neighborhoods residents treasure today, rather than forcing radically different forms which characterize much of the mistakes of the mid-to-late 20th century.

Accessory dwellings

Anacostia. Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.
Back when the 1958 zoning code was written, the average DC household had far more people than today. Families had more kids, senior citizens more often lived with adult children, and more young and/or single people lived in group homes and boarding houses than now.

Therefore, fewer people live in DC's existing houses than they did at the time. Allowing accessory dwellings is a way to let those buildings serve their historic population levels in the modern day. An accessory dwelling is a separate legal unit either in the same building as a larger, main residence or in an accessory building like a garage or carriage house.

Row house neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, and Bloomingdale already allow these units because they are R-4 districts, which allow 2 apartments per building. But in the few R-3 row house neighborhoods, like Georgetown, the northern half of Petworth, Anacostia, and a few small others, these units are illegal except in those unusual buildings which are completely detached, and then only with a "special exception" from the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

Low and moderate residential zones as of 2008.

There are many neighborhoods with semi-detached houses, where houses are connected in pairs (the orange areas in the above graphic), and accessory dwellings are also illegal in these buildings. Fully detached single-family homes (the yellow areas) can have accessory dwellings, but only by special exception (except to create housing for domestic employees in the 2nd story of a garage), and only in a main building, not a standalone garage or carriage house.

This is bad policy. These houses used to hold more people. Today, many owners are empty nesters who used to have kids in the house but no longer do. Retirees on fixed incomes find it harder to afford to keep up their homes. The simple solution is to let people rent out separate units to get some extra income, or even live in those small units and rent out the main house.

OP proposes a policy change to let people create accessory dwellings by right in the detached and semi-detached residential areas. In the R-3 row house areas, owners could create them as well, but would still need special exceptions.

This is a good change, but there's no reason to impose such burdens just on people in these row house districts, especially when only slightly denser row house districts allow far more by right. OP should amend its proposal to permit accessory dwellings by right in R-3 zones (which will be called R-14 in the new code) as well as in lower density ones.

Corner stores in residential areas

Georgetown. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.
A big part of historic development patterns was the local corner stores selling many of the necessities of life. Far more Americans could walk a short distance to do their daily shopping than today. Those days aren't coming back, because malls and online shopping can be quite convenient, but there's still enormous value in having some local options.

The local shops of today might be different than those of the past, like yoga studios rather than general stores, but the principle remains. Under current zoning, however, no commercial use can locate in a residential zone.

OP's proposal would allow some limited retail in residential areas, but with a great number of restrictions:

  • Only "Arts Design and Creation" (arts studio, furtniture making, radio broadcast station), "Food and Alcohol Service" (deli, ice cream parlor), "Retail" (drugstore, grocery, jewelry store, but not auto shop or firearm sales), and "Service" (bank, travel agency, tailor, but not daycare, animal boarding, health clinic, or sexually based business) uses are allowed.
  • They can't be in any building within 500 feet of a commercial or mixed-use zone, so this doesn't let existing retail corridors expand (though, arguably, some of that might be a good idea).
  • There can't be more than 3 other arts, retail or service uses within 500 feet, or more than 1 other food establishment, to prevent too much of a concentration of these non-residential uses in one area.
  • It can't be above the ground floor of any building, except for artist live-work spaces. This prevents a building from becoming entirely commercial.
  • It can't be larger than 2,000 square feet.
  • It can't be open after 7 pm or before 8 am.
  • There can't be more than 4 employees at the business at any time.
  • It can't have more than 1 sign, a lighted side, or a sign sticking out from the building.
  • All of the trash and materials have to be stored inside; there can't be a dumpster, for instance.
  • Any alcohol sold has to be for consuming elsewhere, not at the business, and can't take up more than 15% of the business's floor area. That means a small grocery could offer some beer and wine, but there can't be a wine bar or liquor store.
  • Food sales can't involve cooking food on-site, but reheating pre-cooked food is okay. Grease traps (a part of kitchens that do frying or other cooking with grease) aren't allowed.
  • There can't be dry cleaning chemicals, so a dry cleaner in a residential district has to be the kind that sends its clothes out to be cleaned rather than doing the work in the building.
Despite these regulations, a number of people are nervous about allowing any commercial use in a residential area. They understandably worry about noise, traffic, and other effects of commercial activity. OP seems to have tried to set rules that cut off the problematic impacts, like late night activity.

Maybe there need to be additional restrictions, or maybe some of the proposed uses are just too risky for neighbors to be comfortable. If so, we should amend this section rather than scrap it entirely.

Minimum parking requirements

Dupont Circle. Image from CSG.
Few zoning rules have done more to harm urban neighborhoods than parking requirements. The view in the 1950s was that since everyone would drive everywhere all the time in The Future, all buildings need to have lots of space for cars.

It turned out, however, that many of the parking requirements were far too high, forcing buildings to dedicate precious space to parking lots. That makes construction more expensive and creates gaping holes in the urban fabric. It also pushes architects to design buildings around cars rather than people, making them less pedestrian-friendly and forcing residents to drive more and walk less.

In the low- and moderate-density residential areas covered by the zoning rules OP just released, buildings of 9 or fewer units don't have to build any parking. That's great, but many buildings still do. Nobody can build larger residential buildings in these zones, but existing ones become nonconforming.

All non-residential uses in these districts also have to build parking. That includes churches, schools, daycares, rec centers, chanceries, and retail. These are the very kinds of buildings that shouldn't be car-oriented in residential neighborhoods. A daycare in a residential area ought to be serving the neighbors, not attracting people from far away. If it has no parking, that's more likely.

Many neighborhoods have fought with churches which want to tear down historic row houses just to create parking lots for parishioners who don't live in the city. Minimum parking requirements only exacerbate this problem instead of solving it. Neighbors have fought with embassies about converting grassy yards to parking lots. Why make this mandatory in the zoning code?

The rationale for these requirements is that curbside space is limited, and neighbors don't want the patrons of these other uses to take up curbside parking. But the proper way to solve this problem is by pricing or restricting curbside parking, not to force such buildings to devote a lot of their space to parking which makes traffic even worse. If DCPS builds a new school in a residential neighborhood, building less parking, not more, lets kids have more space to play and encourages as many teachers as possible to take the train or bus.

The higher-density residential, mixed-use, and other areas of the city will distinguish between transit-oriented areas, near Metro, high-frequency bus or streetcar lines, and areas without good transit access. While it's probably unnecessary to require it in zoning, there's some argument that a store in a commercial area far from transit might need some parking.

But these parking minimums for non-residential uses in low- and moderate-density residential areas even will apply right next door to a Metro stop. A potential school just a block or two from Takoma, Potomac Ave, or Deanwood Metro will nonetheless need to build considerable parking. That's wrong.

Alley lots

Blagden Alley. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Residences in alleys are a big part of DC's history. African-Americans came to live in many DC alleys after the Civil War, and a number of alley residences remain. While the ones in the late 19th Century weren't the most sanitary or well-built, there's no reason modern ones can't be perfectly safe and habitable.

Current rules allow alley dwellings as long as the alley lot is 400 square feet or greater, it has adequate plumbing and so on, and the alleys serving it are particularly wide, at least 30 feet. The new code removes the 30-foot alley rule, but any alley unit will still have to get a special exception and satisfy DC agencies on fire safety, traffic, waste and more.

If the fire department doesn't think it can put out a fire in an alley dwelling, it shouldn't go in, but if one satisfies them, DDOT, DPW and the others, an arbitrary alley width shouldn't be the obstacle.

Example Green Area Ratio for a property.
Green Area Ratio

A 21st-century change creates a new "Green Area Ratio" for large buildings. Projects which have a GAR requirement must include a certain as a percentage of the lot area. Grassy space, green roofs, water features, trees, and other sustainability elements each give a certain number of points based on their size, and the sum of all of those must equal a set fraction of the lot's size.

Parking lots, in particular, also have landscaping requirements, mandating a certain number and size of trees and grassy areas to ensure that parking lots have shade, don't form urban heat islands, and can handle some stormwater runoff.

This version is still just a draft. OP will make changes from comments by residents including a citizen task force, hold more public meetings, make more changes, and finally move to formal public hearings before the Zoning Commission. You can send OP your comments here.

Opponents of these changes are organizing groups to attend tomorrow's oversight hearing, which starts at 10 am. If you want to speak, email to sign up, or you can watch the fireworks online.

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. 


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[finish this sentence]?

Glad to see more retail; what you really need is little bars. Great for old peple to hang out during the day too.

by charlie on Feb 8, 2012 10:54 am • linkreport

Oops, fixed.

by David Alpert on Feb 8, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

I wonder why this has taken soooo long? It just gives the opponents more time to undermine this. To me, the passing of this zoning code is subtly the most important thing to happen to DC in decades.

The next, I hope, is the rezoning of areas of the city along major commercial corridors to allow for greater density by-right, particularly where there are existing surface parking lots.

by SG on Feb 8, 2012 11:14 am • linkreport

SG +1
We have to minimize the NIMBY reaction to sensible infill projects by strengthening by-right zoning. Hopefully they've coordinated with the department of transportation so the proposed street car corridors will be allowed to bulk up on density. To offset these rules the preservation rules need some muscle, or demolition by neglect will become ever more pervelant. Lastly, 458 pages is only one third of the document? Didn't we just read that Miami 21 is about 58 pages. Simplify and strengthen.

by Thayer-D on Feb 8, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

Why more parking for churches? My own church forces the able-bodied to park off-site and gives parking vouchers for the nearby lots to parishoners. Only the elderly and infirm get to park on-site.

Though it probably helps that we're located in Chinatown, most of the city has enough off-street parking in the neighborhood to allow such an arrangement.

by OctaviusIII on Feb 8, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

7pm closing for local stores or other commercial enterprise? That seems way too early for me. I understand late at night noise issues, but alot of people arent even home by work by 7pm. That is kind of rediculous.

by Eric on Feb 8, 2012 11:34 am • linkreport

Eric: That's just for these new stores that are in residential zones where they're illegal today. It does limit the kinds of businesses that can be there, but residents would be understandably nervous about a lot of late night noise, and so this seems like a reasonable way to keep any such stores from having too much of an impact on neighbors.

by David Alpert on Feb 8, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

Zoning codes regulate form. They are effective at regulating use, so long as the differences in use are inherent to the form of the building (i.e. a rowhouse built for residential cannot easily be converted into good retail space with level entry at the sidewalk).

So, all of the regulations within the code that seek to micro-manage retail uses (such as closing time, the presence of grease traps, etc) shouldn't be regulated in the zoning code. That's not to say they can't be regulated, but doing so in the zoning code is a misapplication of a tool that's best used as broadly shaping the physical, built environment - not the types of activities that go on within that environment.

My sense is that all of the minimum parking requirements should be scrapped. Again, this is a policy issue that should be addressed through parking management, not the zoning code.

I'll also echo Thayer and SG - more density allowed by-right is a must - whether through small changes like allowing accessory dwelling units (why limit to two per lot, by the way? Why not have a unit above a garage and an english basement apt in rowhouse districts?) via reorganization of the code, or through actual upzoning, is vital to the city's future and ability to accommodate demand without massively pricing people out.

by Alex B. on Feb 8, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

"7pm closing for local stores or other commercial enterprise? That seems way too early for me. I understand late at night noise issues, but alot of people arent even home by work by 7pm. That is kind of rediculous."

While this is ridiculous, if the business has support from the ANC it should be possible to get a variance, right? So if, say, a coffee shop went in and neighbors liked it, they might be able to extend their hours later on. Anyway it's better than the status quo.

by Phil on Feb 8, 2012 11:55 am • linkreport

1) This is mostly good.

2) DC's churches are notoriously bad neighbors. I'm pretty much fine with sticking them with parking requirements, especially if they're operating daycare services 7 days a week.

3) 7PM is a bit nuts, but as long as the provision exists to override it, I guess it's fine for now. (See also: Why I never eat or shop at A. Litteri.)

by andrew on Feb 8, 2012 12:04 pm • linkreport

Oh, and upzoning parking lots is great, but definitely needs to include some sort of open space provision. It's glaringly absent in NoMA, which has otherwise been quite successful.

Also, make it somehow easier to open a laundromat. I was without a washer/dryer for a few months last year, and it was an absolutely maddening experience, given how few of them there are.

(While I'm drifting offtopic, can I ask why there are so many dry cleaners near Lincoln Park? Dryclearners probably account for about 60% of the commercial businesses in the center of Capitol Hill)

by andrew on Feb 8, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

Phil: I don't think that they can get a variance. A variance requires "extraordinary and exceptional conditions" that create "exceptional and undue hardship" that can only be addressed with a change. A store which opened up under the 7 pm rule and wants to go later wouldn't qualify for a variance.

There could be a provision that allows "special exception" relief, which is a lot easier; a special exception just requires the BZA to determine that the change isn't against the public interest. I assume the people already opposed to this change at all would be really freaked out if there could be a special exception process to give even more permissiveness here, but I'll add it to my list of possible amendmendments to the text.

by David Alpert on Feb 8, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

As somebody who cares about good urbanism, but not enough to slog through 400+ pages of zoning code, I hope that somebody creates a petition I can sign or a form letter I can send that expresses my support for what sound like very good changes.

by Gavin on Feb 8, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

Like this. Thanks for the rundown.

by John Muller on Feb 8, 2012 12:36 pm • linkreport

I'm gratified by the lack of comments expressing knee-jerk opposition to even the slightest lowering of parking requirements. Maybe people are finally figuring out that people should take priority over cars in planning for dense urban areas.

by dal20402 on Feb 8, 2012 2:11 pm • linkreport

Corner stores are still normal throughout Baltimore, among other cities, but they're pretty liberal about alcohol sales. I didn't even know DC prohibited corner stores.

by Bort on Feb 8, 2012 3:34 pm • linkreport

Great run down David. Are you certain, though, that an ADU in an R3 right now can be obtained with a special exception? I thought it was only through a variance and OP is now recommending it be through a special exception, but I could be wrong.

by TM on Feb 8, 2012 4:27 pm • linkreport

Oh, and do I read it right that from Capitol Hill up through to Columbia Heights (currently R-4, to be R16-18) no ADUs will be permitted (i.e. a variance is necessary)? If so, that doesn't seem like a good idea.

by TM on Feb 8, 2012 4:34 pm • linkreport

TM: I thought, but might be wrong, that it's possible to get with a special exception in an R3 but only for entirely detached buildings, which are relatively rare in R3.

In current R-4, there are no ADUs because an R4 already allows 2 regular units per building, and more for larger lots.

by David Alpert on Feb 8, 2012 5:26 pm • linkreport

@Phil "if the business has support from the ANC it should be possible to get a variance, right? So if, say, a coffee shop went in and neighbors liked it, they might be able to extend their hours later on.

And if the ANC likes you enough, you can even set up a bar in a residential rowhouse ... and not even have to get the adjoining residential neighbor's agreement on the matter! ... That's what happened at least when Hank's built a bar in the residential rowhouse adjacent to its restaurant ... And that's under the current zoning!

By and far, I think most of the changes proposed in this rewrite ... with the exception of 2 notable ones ... will be beneficial for the already denser parts of the city such as the rowhouse neighborhoods. I don't know though if they're such a good idea in the less denser parts. And I happen to live in a denser area. But if I'd wanted to live in a less denser part I wonder if I'd appreciate that now as a matter of right the neighbors would be incentivized to turn it into a dense neighborhood like my own. I mean I personally like having all kinds of people around, and having neighbors less than a stones throw away from me is a real plus for me. But I know far too many people for whom that is not the case. They live in places like Cleveland Park or even closer in in places like Sheridan-Kalorama specifically because the like having 'room to breath' on their property and not being within hearshot (or view) of the neighbors ... and they've paid a premium for that priviledge. Sheridan-Kalorama is a good example of what I mean ... they get good and easy access to dense parts of the city such as Dupont Circle, but they know they can go home whenever they want and enjoy the solitude that might otherwise take a long commute out to Fairfax or Louden to otherwise enjoy. And they pay for the priviledge. House prices there are far higher than in Kalorama Triangle just across Connecticut where people are stacked on high. Are we going to tell these people now that DC doesn't want them? I.e., that if they want that kind of life, they'll have to buy out in Great Bridge or some other such location where they can get that privacy ... and then spend their dollars in Tysons Galleria instead of our own DC stores?

Yes, this is just an extreme example, but the point being illustrated will apply to just about every other nowadays lower density place from Chevy Chase to Anacostia. This forces the District to be a one dimensional place equipped to house only one kind of person ... they kind like me that likes to live in the middle of crowds. Most one size fits all solutions don't work.

And of course, the 2 exceptions I mentioned above ... i.e., exceptions that are bad changes in my opinion even for the already denser parts of the city, are the commercial uses in residential areas stipulation and the change in parking minimums. As David aptly notes above, the kinds of uses that would have been in corner stores back in the day won't revive in corner stores any time soon given that that's just not how the business of 'daily living' is done. I.e., the necessities that were a requirement to have nearby in the past won't be nearby now (even with this zoning change) because we're in the 21st century ... and even if you think you'd rather walk than drive (or use the Internet) to do your regular shopping (retail or food), the economics of the situation will force you to go to places far larger than the stipulated 2000 square foot max ... unless you're very wealthy and just really really want to spend 3 or 4 times what you'd otherwise be spending for these necessities. No, what you'll get instead are personal services and mom and pop stores filling niche markets that you'd otherwise maybe have to drive out to the burbs to find. So, I guess a service will be filled, but it's not going to be in line with the bible beliefs of so called smart growth where people can find everything they need within an easy walk from home. No, it'll just be additional retail of the type that otherwise wouldn't be able to afford to be in the city ... Kind of like what happens when the embassies from less wealthy countries want a prime NW address but can't afford the commercial rents in the prime areas, so avail themselves of special federal laws in DC that allow them to convert a residence into a non-residential use. As we know way too well with these embassies, the results are usually not too good. Why? Simply 'cause the needs and desires of non-residential uses don't usually mesh well with other residential uses. For example, that coffee shop which Phil advocates above.

by Lance on Feb 8, 2012 5:32 pm • linkreport

@dal20402 "Maybe people are finally figuring out that people should take priority over cars in planning for dense urban areas."

Yep. I just hate it when we let cars drive around the city all by themselves ... and parking where the want ... and getting in the way of humans trying to go somewhere. Those dang machines, why have we let them have priority over us!?!?!

... hint: There are PEOPLE in those cars ....

by Lance on Feb 8, 2012 5:45 pm • linkreport

As a point of clarification in the ease of restrictions on alley dwellings:

1) You mention alley lots, but does the law allow for a dwelling to be built behind a house on the back on a single lot?

2) Does the change do anything about the 15ft height cap on accessory structures, or is that historic district specific and thus not a matter of zoning?


by Mike on Feb 8, 2012 6:04 pm • linkreport

Mike: I can't give an official answer, just what I think from reading the draft, and keep in mind that the only sections of code released are for lower density areas. But the regulations still allow for an accessory building.

See the general regulations for accessory buildings (chapter 19 of subtitle B) and low-density residential specific regulations (chapter 5 of subtitle D). In the lower density residential areas these buildings are limited to 22 feet high and 900 square feet of floor space.

In historic districts, any accessory building is subject to historic review, where there is no set number but rather a general sense of what is "compatible."

by David Alpert on Feb 8, 2012 6:15 pm • linkreport

I also wanted to add that we shouldn't be so sure we're correcting past mistakes. I'm sure the 58 zoning code was written in a vacuum. I think its reasonable to believe that the code was written in response to very real problemss of the day. Yet I read nothing about these problems in the basis for the code nor how we plan to minimize them now that we're about to resurrect the conditions that allowed to exist. Just because the individuals who knew experienced those problems under the old code are long dead, doesnt mean we shouldn't be seeking to understand them before permitting them to recur.

by Lance on Feb 8, 2012 7:53 pm • linkreport

*I'm sure the 58 code was NOT written in a vacuum ...

by Lance on Feb 8, 2012 7:55 pm • linkreport

I would hope (and I intend to give testimony to this point) that the hours restriction on new corner stores and the like would be able to be easily relaxed. 7 pm is when I get home every day from work. It's entirely too early for shops to have to close. If a location wants to stay open until 10, if they're a good neighbor, and the business warrants it, they should be able to stay open later (within reason).

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 8, 2012 9:39 pm • linkreport

The problem with thinking we can address the commercial externalities of a business located in a residential zone is that not all residents keep the same hours. As Geoffrey states, HE's not home until after 7 ... other residents may just be going to sleep at 7 pm to get up for their nightshift job such as working at a news organization or a Hong Kong investment fund. We can't just assume that no one will be bothered by commercial activities in a residential area just because they are restricted to certain hours. And as Geoffrey so well makes the point, those limited hours may be valueless to many residents despite the good intentions. I think we can all easily agree that the folks who put the '58 code in place understood something we're forgetting ... because their code was so good .. i.e., the only way you're going to ensure that all residents get full residential value out of their homes is to ban commericial activity in a residential area at ALL times."

I'm glad Geoffrey and I are seeing eye to eye for once!

by Lance on Feb 8, 2012 10:11 pm • linkreport

Lance: A broken clock is right twice a day. Don't misconstrue my point-of-view as agreeing with you in any way, shape, or form. I do not believe that the people who put the codes together in 1958 were right, or should be given any kind of deference for their actions.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 8, 2012 10:13 pm • linkreport

"We can't just assume that no one will be bothered by commercial activities in a residential area just because they are restricted to certain hours."

Just as we can't assume that all commercial activity is the same a running an abattoir or an auto-body repair shop in a residential neighborhood.

As for bother, my neighbors dogs, and my neighbors, bother more than anything else on my street. I wish they could be zoned out of existence.

by spookiness on Feb 8, 2012 11:05 pm • linkreport

The fact that the new code retains most of the main provisions of the 1958 code -- including minimum parking requirements, strict restrictions on commercial businesses in residential areas and strict restrictions on accessory dwellings -- suggests that those provisions are still popular, even in a very left-leaning city like DC.

by Bertie on Feb 8, 2012 11:30 pm • linkreport

Bertie: I think it instead shows that there is significant institutional inertia and obstacles to change. Some groups have been advocating against changing those elements during the years this rewrite has been going on.

by David Alpert on Feb 8, 2012 11:35 pm • linkreport

The rationale for these requirements is that curbside space is limited, and neighbors don't want the patrons of these other uses to take up curbside parking. But the proper way to solve this problem is by pricing or restricting curbside parking, not to force such buildings to devote a lot of their space to parking which makes traffic even worse.

It's not just curbside parking. Patrons of one business can use the parking areas of neighboring businesses. Every business has an incentive to provide less parking than it needs and let its customers poach space from other businesses. Hence the need for mandatory minimums. Yes, the problem could be solved -- in theory -- by parking restrictions. But enforcing restrictions has costs in time and money. And I think your claim about the effects on traffic is dubious. Yes, mandatory parking minimums might increase traffic by attracting more cars, but they might also reduce traffic by reducing the need for people to cruise around waiting for a space to open up -- and blocking traffic as they parallel park (stopping and backing up into a curbside space). It also creates safety concerns. Pulling into an off-road parking space is probably safer than parallel parking, especially on a busy residential street with lots of bikes, pedestrians, children, etc.

by Bertie on Feb 9, 2012 12:02 am • linkreport

@Geoffrey, glad for once (for whatever reason) we are in agreement!


by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 1:41 am • linkreport

What is the process for legally separating an alley house from the main house property so that it can be owned independently? Is it possible?

by Brian on Feb 9, 2012 8:51 am • linkreport

Brian: If the lot is big enough and the alley wide enough then an alley lot can be created, but on most lots it's not allowed.

by David Alpert on Feb 9, 2012 8:59 am • linkreport

I work in the Navy Yard Area. There's a tiny corner store on 3rd and K se called cornercopia - they sell a variety of necessities and gourmet luxuries, and also hot coffee and sandwiches to go. I have gone there for morning coffee, and occasionaly for lunch. The coffee and food are great - I guess they sell the other stuff to the growing population of new residents - some of whom are car free and may want something in between deliveries, or who have cars and want something in between supermarket trips. Don't know what will happen to them when the Harris Teeter comes in. Meanwhile though it definitely fills a niche, and doesn't seem to create any nuisance for the neighborhood. I wish we had a lovely little place like that in my neighborhood, but our low density militates against it, and the zoning probably makes it impossible. Too bad we can't zone against my neighbor's lawnmowers.

by DClovingsuburbanite on Feb 9, 2012 9:53 am • linkreport

Lance wrote: "And if the ANC likes you enough, you can even set up a bar in a residential rowhouse ... and not even have to get the adjoining residential neighbor's agreement on the matter!"

That is incorrect.

First, the ANC did vote to protest. They simply didn't conclude at a point of full agreement with you and others intensely opposed to the Hank's expansion.

Second, in fact, the objecting resident you reference, stated the building that Hank's expanded into, the one adjoining his residence, is commercial, not residential.

"Is a commercial building yes" was Mr. Poozesh's response, under oath, in an ABC Board hearing, when asked if he was aware the space was zoned commercial. Page 239 of the hearing transcript, here: The building had been commercial for the vast majority of its history, had become mixed residential/commercial, and was then restored to its correct commercial zoning designation. You can contact Commissioner Meehan for the full details, as he did extensive research at the time the property was restored to its correct commercial zoning designation.

What had been, for twenty years, a vacant commercial storefront next to Hank's, is now an enlivened and wonderful enhancement to the neighborhood. It's sad, but perhaps not unexpected, to see you resort to dredging up an incredibly unhelpful and bitter NIMBY crusade against Hank's Oyster Bar, in an unrelated discussion here about zoning updates.

by Joel on Feb 9, 2012 11:41 am • linkreport

@Joel "Is a commercial building yes" was Mr. Poozesh's response, under oath, in an ABC Board hearing, when asked if he was aware the space was zoned commercial."

Please get your facts straight. The parcel had by the time of the hearing you reference been RE-ZONED from residential to commercial thanks to the ANC's willingness to pave the way for expansion into that house. I've been told the neighbor was not consulted by anyone in regards to this rezoning. If you have proof otherwise, please state it.

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 12:18 pm • linkreport

Lance: You always have an interesting manner of throwing down the factgauntlet. "I've been told" suffices for you, followed by demand for documentation to the contrary. As I invited you earlier, please feel free to contact Commissioner Meehan regarding the facts, which are at variance with what you suggested above. Otherwise, I refer you to my previous statement.

by Joel on Feb 9, 2012 12:22 pm • linkreport

"The building had been commercial for the vast majority of its history"

btw, check your facts on this one too. The property was primarily used as a rental property with apartments and rooms prior to the conversion. Yes, the owner had on occasion used some of the rooms there for storage. That doesn't make it commercial. I know you want to believe it was and so did the ANC. But that doesn't make it so.

And actually I agree it is an asset to the neighborhood. But I (like yourself) am not an affected neighbor.

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

btw, check your writing on this one too. You state the usage of the property just prior to conversion, while I was referencing its longer history of commercial usage. Indeed, prior to the Hank's expansion, the facade featured a covered structure that was obviously commercial in nature at ground floor. Yet again, instead of engaging your "I've heard" version of casual anecdotal debate, refer you to the Commissioner who did the most extensive research on the property's commercial usage and qualification for restoration of its commercial zoning.

by Joel on Feb 9, 2012 12:41 pm • linkreport

@Mike--"Alley lot" is a term of art for a lot with no street frontage. Not the same time as a carriage house or garage that faces an alley. A garage is an "accessory building" built on the same lot as a principal structure.

In the current Zoning Code:

"Lot, alley - a lot facing or abutting an alley and at no point facing or abutting a street.

Typically, they are buried in the interior of a block. It's too bad the "jihad" against alley dwellings was largely successful--lots of potential affordable housing for seniors and singles bit the dust. Yes many of them were substandard in the 1950s, but gentrification would have taken care of that.

In the interest of full disclosure, I lived for three years in one of these "gray-market" alley dwellings. A former warehouse and repair shop that was renovated without proper permits, C of O, etc. Needless to say, we got little love from the city in terms of services.

by Phil on Feb 9, 2012 3:30 pm • linkreport

I just have to make a comment on the "corner store" concept here.

You can have a store (of certain types) in a low density neighborhood, but only at least a block from existing commercial, with 4 employees or less, and can only be open from 8AM-7PM.

These may be perfectly reasonable restrictions for a commercial strip, but for a standalone business amongst houses, they've got to be a nonstarter. Most people work all day (8AM-5PM or 9AM-6PM) away from neighborhoods like this, and commute for at least a half hour on either side of that. That leaves maybe 90-120 minutes of potential customer time for the large majority of your customer base (stay-at-home parents, au pairs, and latchkey kids excepted of course) for an entire day. In an area with minimal foot-traffic. Who starts a business under those conditions?

If the OP was serious about getting commercial services into neighborhoods to help people meet their daily needs on foot, they'd open up the hour window, at least to 9PM. If the noise concerns are that high, they could move the opening hours later (or smarter yet limit total hours open a day). This regulation pretty much guarantees all your going to get is high-end, nonessential services (art galleries, real estate brokers, etc.) where the storefront is a form of advertising, not where a customer needs to visit.

by Vinay on Feb 9, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport

@Vinay, you make some very good points. It's sounding like this concept was conceived by committee and like ideas that are detached from reality will end up being stillborn.

I actually have another concern about these businesses nestled in the heart of our residential areas. And that's actual compliance with the restrictions on number of employees, etc. We currently have home occupation exceptions on the books allowing certain professions to be run out of the home including b&b's. The restrictions require that the owners live in the house because it's a 'home occupation'. But check out any of the well known B&B's in my neighborhood, and you won't find the owners living on site. There's actually even a chain of three b&b's owned by the same people which is of course anything BUT a home occupation. And there's little to no enforcement. I'd suspect enforcing the limitations we're seeing being proposed for these 'commercial uses nestled between homes' will be equally hard to effect. Maybe more so.

I know it's quaint to think about a corner store, and I confess that I like corner stores and used to have one near where I lived. But would I like to see a corner store open right next door to me. Probably not. In days pre-58 code, having a corner store open right next door to me wouldn't necessarily have been a bad thing. I would have maybe countered by turning my own house into a competing or complimentary store. I.e., a small coffee shop would open next door to me ... and I'd rent (or sell) my house to a baker and sell croissants to go with that cappucino. But that's not the case with what is being proposed. With what is being proposed it would be the worst of all worlds for me. Not only would I have the noise and traffic and trash of a business next door, but I couldn't do anything but sell or rent my house as a 'less than desireable' location. I.e., The zoning would basically effective do a 'taking' of people's assets in a way that wasn't around when places like Petworth and Dupont developed. I.e. First of all chances are that that corner store won't be on a corner, and secondly we're not recreating that which was before ... we're creating a situation where there will be winners (those who get the permit to convert their home into a commercial property first) and there will be losers (those living just next door to the winners.) Just something to think about before we rush into this ...

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 5:48 pm • linkreport

7pm closing time would make any residential business almost entirely useless. A grocery store that's closing just as people get out of work is a business that serves only the retired or unemployed. This rule sounds like the result of letting too many senior citizens make decisions. No employed adult would even consider a 7pm closing time as rational.

by justin on Feb 10, 2012 4:19 pm • linkreport

I agree with Justin that a 7 pm closing time for a store in the 21st century isn't rational. Some items to note though. I remember when I was a kid the stores on Main Street closed at 5 pm every night except Friday, when they stayed open late ... first to something like 7 pm and then eventually to 8 and then 9 (and, of course closed entirely on Sundays ... Blue Laws, if anyone remembers.) Then the enclosed malls came and they were open 9 to 9 and basically killed most of the Main Street stores with their corporate prices, corporate hours, and corporate quality. Even if it meant driving 20 or 30 minutes more, that was where our parents shopped. And they, the malls, led the effort to do away with the Blue Laws and allow 7 days a week shopping. Then as a young adult I ended up in Ireland where, low and behold, they still had the 5 pm closing time. The only thing open after 5 pm where the pubs and the theaters. I thought I'd never be able to make do with having to finish my shopping by 5 pm. But you know what? I did ... partly because life there wasn't (yet) as commercialized as it was here.

The problem with this quaint notion of bringing back the corner neighborhood store is that people don't live like that anymore. Back when there were corner stores they were indeed only open during the day, and the store keeper free to go home at 5 like the rest of us. They weren't the convenience stores that the remaining ones have morphed into ... they were there for the staples. And in another time either one of the spouses (i.e., the wife) or a relative from the extended family, or the maid would pick up what was needed during the day. And in the evening, these places were closed. But we aren't in that time frame anymore and we now have the likes of Harris Teater open 24 hrs with parking galore ... and those who think they want the quaint old corner store back are instead asking for the high priced convenience store open at all hours ... which didn't exist during this fantasy time that the so-called smart growthers have imagined for themselves.

Btw, why do you think the folks working in the Office of Planning are 'senior citizens'? You do realize that they're the ones who came up with these rules, and that the plan itself has only been made public (to most of us at least) since the end of last month ... ?

by Lance on Feb 10, 2012 11:29 pm • linkreport

The Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase, DC is a "corner store" open past 5 and doing incredibly well. I don't think there are any nearby residents complaining about its hours, or operations either.

It is a fantastic example of a successful "third place" in the District.

by Andrew on Feb 11, 2012 6:48 am • linkreport

@Andrew, I'd suspect the reason the neighbors aren't complaining is that the store was there when they moved in. They knew what they were getting themselves into, and the price for their properties would have been correspondingly lower than those properties further out that are within an easy walk BUT out of earshot and not suffering the externalities of having a commercial use 'right next door'.

What the Office of Planning is proposing is a whole other kettle of fish. To be living in a nice quiet home environment one day and then the next day to wake up to the hustle and bustle and all the other externalities of a business, is different from having known about it going in with your eyes wide open. AND since commercial properties are worth far more than residential properties, what the Office of Planning is proposing is a taking of value from some properties (the adjoining neighbors) and a transferringof that value to the new commercial properted nested between people's homes. If this goes through, I think it was be very very important that there be some oversight to ensure the corruption that the District is known for isn't coming into play here. I.e., How will these permits be handed out, and are the parties pushing this change through OP already in 'the front of the line' for these permits?

by Lance on Feb 11, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

in regard to proposed Chapter2 Use Category Regulations and how they impact the real estate market.
In particular in Chapter 2 USE CATEGORY REGULATIONS; 206.9 COMMERCIAL PARKING: Definition: Any use involving the on-site short or long-term storage of motor vehicles, when such storage is made available to the public for a fee.

by Alex on Feb 14, 2012 2:10 pm • linkreport

"To be living in a nice quiet home environment one day and then the next day to wake up to the hustle and bustle"

I got a cup of coffee at Cornercopia this AM. It was very quiet there. Only real noise is the construction on the sidewalks - and on the new TH's. And the auto traffic passing by on 3rd street. Hustle and bustle are not the words brought to mind.

I also doubt there is any lowering of property values due to its presence. New THs there sell for 700k, old ones I think for over 500k. Im not sure what you think they would command in the absence of the corner store.

But Lance do keep posting. The contrast between your words and my experiences, is a constant source of amusement to me.

by SuburbaniteWhoLovesTheCity on Feb 14, 2012 2:25 pm • linkreport


Reading comprehension:
when such storage is made available to the public for a fee

How exactly would that include a private residence/garage? You're not offering parking to the general public for a price, right?

I don't think that language would even cover a situation where you rent your parking space to one person for a monthly price.

by MLD on Feb 14, 2012 2:36 pm • linkreport

Unfortunately I have some alley lot garages which we rented, in a R1 area and DC decided to change the tax classification to commercial. We appealed the tax assessment, which was almost triple the cost basis and finally after two plus years came to an settlement.( Note we are now appealing tax year 20012). DC was comparing a 200sf garage to a parking garage downtown. DC didn't care if it was your "own"
space, they see it as a commercial endeavor and thus want to tax you on that basis. Be advised that they will change it to commercial if they catch you.

by Alex on Feb 14, 2012 3:12 pm • linkreport

Hi David,

I just came across this article and was very interested, as we are trying to build a small office above a detatched garage in Capitol Hill. We were just informed about the 15ft rule from a contractor (I wish our real estate agent told us!) and are afraid that this means we cannot build.

Could you please provide an update on the outcomes of the oversight hearing? Also, when do you think these zoning code changes might take effect?


by Jessica on Apr 6, 2012 1:42 pm • linkreport


I would advise you to go to the homeowner center at DCRA and talk to them to understand what zoning rules apply to your particular case. The zoning rules can be complex and vary greatly based on where you are.

This provision about alley width may not be relevant to your case since it doesn't sound like it's a separate lot. This change is about allowing people to create alley lots, as opposed to building on top of garages at the back of a lot that has a house on it.

But there are many other zoning rules which may affect your ability to build on top of a garage, including limits on floor-area ratio. Often garages at the back of a lot actually aren't conforming to zoning as it is, and so adding onto them is not possible without a special exception or variance.

Depending on where you are, much of Capitol Hill is a historic district, which means there is an additional level of review. Historic review is very subjective and Capitol Hill is fairly restrictive. I don't know if you are in the historic district or not. Some properties have additional historic easements.

If you need a special exception or variance, you may need to consult a zoning attorney to understand whether you are likely to be able to get permission. They can also help with historic review if that is required.

Good luck!

by David Alpert on Apr 6, 2012 2:07 pm • linkreport

David-I just came across an alley with rows of garages behind some homes in Capitol Hill. Actually each row consists of 4 attached garages. There is an owner selling two of the garages (2/4). Do you think I thought I could build a second level and convert this into a residential dwelling. There are already some homes back there so I don't think fire equipment accessibilty would be an issue. Do you know if zoning allows this? The agent didn't have a clue but his comment was he didn't think we could get water. Is this what the new zoning is about or does it only pertain to an alley lot? Trying to decide if I should purchase. Thanks!

by Dora on Oct 27, 2012 11:18 pm • linkreport

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