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Is DC's zoning update "too timid"?

Below is my testimony at this morning's oversight hearing on the Office of Planning.

The Office of Planning has worked diligently over 4 years and hundreds of public meetings to develop a new version of DC's zoning code. Yesterday, I posted on Greater Greater Washington about the most significant changes. Reactions online voiced significant concerns about these new rules.

Photo by jacdupree on Flickr.

For example, numerous commenters expressed displeasure at the proposed policy to allow corner store type establishments in residential zones, subject to a great number of restrictions on hours, number of employees, trash, and quantity of other nearby businesses. Matthew Yglesias, a Ward 6 homeowner who writes the Moneybox economics column for Slate Magazine, wrote a blog post criticizing the new rules as well.

You've heard a number of objections to this rule today. But there is a big difference. Yglesias did not think the corner store rule shouldn't go into effect. Instead, he called it "too timid."

The commenters who weren't pleased with the rule were not opposed to the corner stores, but rather felt that limiting their hours to closing by 7 pm is too restrictive. One Twitter response linked to a Far Side cartoon which showed a new type of retail, the "inconvenience store," with all products on shelves too high to reach.

Yet another expressed surprise that corner stores in residential zones were illegal at all in the District; that comment's author hadn't realized that, perhaps because of their prevalence in historic neighborhoods like Georgetown.

Read these comments, and you would get the impression that we need substantially fewer zoning regulations. Read a few of the postings on some neighborhood listservs, and you might conclude that each individual change in the zoning code will bring mass destruction upon the neighborhoods of the District.

A blog's commenters are not fully representative of the residents of DC. Nor is a neighborhood listserv, nor the citizen Task Force advising on the rewrite, and certainly not the witness list at today's hearing. All, however, provide insight into one of many facets of the DC population and their views.

Decisions about the zoning rewrite should factor in input from as many residents as possible, even—or especially—those who can't attend an evening community meeting or a council hearing, and even those who don't read blogs and neighborhood listservs.

This zoning code will move DC forward in many ways. Or, in truth, it will actually move DC backward, but in a good way. The biggest changes in this zoning code actually return DC to policies it had before 1958, when our most treasured neighborhoods, like Capitol Hill, Georgetown, or Petworth grew into the form they have today.

Corner stores, garage apartments, alley dwellings, and buildings not surrounded by large parking lots are all characteristics of DC's most historic neighborhoods, which at a stroke the 1958 code made illegal. This code reverses that, and adds some 21st century touches like the Green Area Ratio.

However, I do think many elements of the current draft proposal are indeed "too timid."

  • The minimum parking requirements for nonresidential uses in residential zones, even low-density ones right near transit, are potentially quite destructive to our urban fabric as they have been for over 50 years. In some areas, we need maximums instead, an approach which OP recently dropped from the draft.
  • The "corner store" rules should apply to more areas, even lower density zones and areas somewhat near commercial zones; should include performing arts uses like small theaters; and should include a path for the BZA to grant exceptions acceptable to neighbors and local leaders.

    I do think many of the restrictions in the draft are appropriate, and disagree with Yglesias on the specific one (cooking of food and grease traps) he was objecting to. OP has tried hard to balance stakeholder interests on a very contentious issue.

  • The right to add an accessory dwelling to one's home, proposed for the lowest density zones and already possible for high density ones, should also apply to the moderate density "R3" row house zones.
I understand that in at least some cases, OP officials have met privately with various opponents of the zoning rewrite, and made specific changes to exempt some zones from some changes in an attempt to appease those opponents.

I have no objection to OP meeting with anyone who wishes to talk with them, but I would prefer to see OP propose a zoning rewrite which they believe is the best policy for the District and in harmony with the Comprehensive Plan, regardless of who may or may not oppose it. After all, we have hardly yet heard the views of most DC residents on these changes.

This hearing, of course, is about the performance of the Office of Planning, not the merits of the zoning code. I believe the staff on this project have handled its great complexity with aplomb, and if I have any complaint about the agency's performance, it only comes if and when they have felt restrained from putting forth the zoning code they believe to be right. Let them do so, and then let the Zoning Commission hear from residents and judge the merit of each proposal.

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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David, I greatly appreciate the time you take to research these issues and present them in venues like city council meetings. But I'd like to offer one bit of unsolicited advice, which is to focus more on the why, not just the what.

In my experience, public officials are more interested in knowing a person's concerns or aspirations rather than just their policy preferences. The arguments for more corner stores, for instance, are very compelling: the potential to create new businesses and new jobs, to ease congestion and pollution as people don't have to travel as far to the store, and to make residents' lives more convenient, all without generating much new traffic or noise. That's why we should liberalize regulations on corner stores – and more important than which aspects of the proposal you and Yglesias agree on or don't.

I certainly don't mean to criticize your testimony – just the opposite, I'm very glad you presented it. And I understand this particular hearing was about OP's performance rather than the zoning code per se. But I just wanted to offer a friendly suggestion – and something for everyone to keep in mind when communicating with policymakers or the media.

by Gavin on Feb 9, 2012 3:14 pm • linkreport

Gavin has a good point.

But otherwise excellent. And take it back to jobs.

by Charlie on Feb 9, 2012 3:42 pm • linkreport

Good comments by Gavin, middle of post hits a good point. The problem in my neighborhood is everybody complains about traffic, but they don't yet have the grasp of mixed-use. They don't think about they traffic they create by having to drive farther afield for daily things. Traffic is always people "outside" the neighborhood, or "other people." Same goes for tiny issues such as stop signs, speeding, etc. Speeders and stop light runners are always perceived as people outside the neighborhood, and people don't see themselves or their neighbors doing it.

by spookiness on Feb 9, 2012 3:52 pm • linkreport

@David, I agree with Gavin. I also appreciate the time and energy you take to report on this matter. And I'm even referring people to your posts to 'get the facts' because I do think you present them (along with your opinions.) One thing though which I really think would be valuable, and I believe you're in a position to make it happen, would be to research the problems which the '58 code was meant to address and then map out how the proposed code is working to mitigate these problems ... or isn't. Like you say, there's no one set of people out there today (and I would include the Office of Planning professionals) who really know what's best ... because barely anyone alive today has faced the problems which the '58 code fixed was intended to remedy.

I'll give you an example outside the sphere of zoning but similar in that it shows how quickly we forget 'why a law was enacted' ... and the consequences of not planning for that which we don't even know exists.

Back when I was an ANC commissioner I had more than a few constituents say 'the 2 hr parking restriction hours make no sense! ... we should change them. During the day when no one is here in the neighborhood we restrict the parking by non-Ward people to 2 hrs. But the problem is at night ... not during the day when we need to reserve our parking ... That's when we're home and need it. And that's when people going to the restaurants are overwhelming it.' Well I asked my councilperson's rep at the time and they explained that what the questioners were missing was that the reason the 2-hr parking limit had been instituted in the first place was that after Metro was established, drivers from the suburbs (and outer wards) started using the residential streets of the core neighborhoods as free Metro parking lots. The problem was so bad that there was no parking available during the day. So yes, maybe a change in conditions would have merited extending the 2 hr restriction later into the evening (which they did ... because it use to be 6:30 everywhere) but flipping the restriction hours would have just resulted in the free Metro parking becoming available again ... (lacking performance parking, of course.)

So, all I'm saying ... rather than re-inventing the wheel and depending on comments from meetings based on fears that might be real or or might be imagined or exagerated, why not research the history to this legislation from '58 and see what problems might still be a threat by 'going back to the future'.

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

For once, I agree with Lance about parking. Weird.

(And, oh god. The churches. I can't drive anywhere on Sunday, because I'll never be able to park when I get back home)

by andrew on Feb 9, 2012 4:52 pm • linkreport

wasn't the primary problem in '58 loss of population and especially loss of middle class population? And the challenge was to make it easier for suburban residents to drive to work in the city? Isn't the main difference now an increase in population and especially middle class population-and the challenge is how to keep those people coming and to retain them?

by Tina on Feb 9, 2012 4:58 pm • linkreport

@Tina "And the challenge was to make it easier for suburban residents to drive to work in the city?"

And how would changing the zoning laws in the District make it easier for suburban residents to drive in?

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 5:14 pm • linkreport

@Lance-And how would changing the zoning laws in the District make it easier for suburban residents to drive in?
Presume you mean the changes made in '58.

all those parking minimums. parking minimums are not for people in the neighborhood within walking distance. They're for people driving through. WRT to commercial places.

by Tina on Feb 9, 2012 5:18 pm • linkreport

I think the decline of cities from 1950-2000 should tell us that the people who wrote urban zoning code in '58 had no f-ing clue what they were talking about.

"Residential uses go over here, and commercial uses go over there (because they're a nuisance!), and it doesn't matter that they're far apart because everyone wants to drive everywhere anyway!"

Accessory dwellings were phased out because as someone pointed out for the most part they were substandard. Living conditions for everyone have improved since then (remember Fox's 99% of "poor" people have a refrigerator!) so NOW we can add those uses back in because people of all classes demand housing with water/sewer, etc.

by MLD on Feb 9, 2012 5:23 pm • linkreport

The 1958 code is more about separation of uses and I'd argue wasn't developed so much out of sense of retaining and extending the city's urban-ness as much as reflecting the prevailing (which still prevailing) trends in zoning and planning, which favor the car and separated uses.

DC's population had not significantly shrunk at that time. However, the demographics changed considerably. (About 200,000 white middle class people moved out from 1954-1956 and about 200,000 African-Americans from the rural South moved in.)

by Richard Layman on Feb 9, 2012 5:47 pm • linkreport

The problem, fwiw, with the concept of corner stores is that by and large the value of residential property is higher than that of commercial property in high-in-demand residential zones, and so new corner stores aren't likely to be created. At least in Greater Capitol Hill, a preponderance of such stores have been converted to housing. And commercial property is expensive too, so retail/restaurant are crowded out maybe at the expense of office (like real estate). And restaurants, judging by the restaurant across from Lincoln Park, often face vociferous (I think outlandish) opposition.

The places that might be affordable lack the closeby population density to make the stores work economically.

It's not unlike with the height limit issue. I think it should be punctured, because downtown property becomes uneconomic for most user classes. But it will take decades (likely I would be dead) by the time changing the height limit would have impact on this. It's already "too late" at least for now.

by Richard Layman on Feb 9, 2012 5:53 pm • linkreport

@MLD "Accessory dwellings were phased out because as someone pointed out for the most part they were substandard.

While that may have the PC line given, from what I've heard it was more a matter trying to clean up the capital. At least from what I read about what happened ... This occured decades before the 'move to the suburbs' started and was inciated by the feds. Remember these were slums and they were located all over the city. As the book I read the matter stated, there were basically 2 neighborhoods in each of the District's neighborhoods ... One that fronted on the streets and one that fronted on the alleys and the two rarely met ... except for when the people in the houses fronting the street needed domestic services or other work done. The book said something about the feds didn't think this was the image of the capital city they wanted shown to the world ... i.e., 'two cities' ... so they cleaned out the alleys and in the end pushed the slums elsewhere in the city where you could argue they were even more visible.

So, the issue wasn't really that this housing was substandard and the solution I hearing on here 'fix it up real nice and make it yuppie or hipster housing' wouldn't have helped an iota with regards to raising the living standards of the people previously living in the alleys ...

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 6:03 pm • linkreport

Yes, what I meant by "substandard" (and I later alluded to the conditions) was that the houses were basically slums. They were phased out of zoning because otherwise people would keep building them. They're no longer a threat and can be included in the zoning code again because nobody in this day and age would live someplace without running water or sewer.

"Substandard" doesn't mean "rough around the edges" it means it doesn't fit with what people see as the basic requirements for housing.

by MLD on Feb 9, 2012 6:15 pm • linkreport


Seems like another misapplication of the zoning code. Housing standards in terms of building quality should be regulated through a building code, not a zoning code.

Same thing with the corner store stuff. Why are hours of operation relevant to zoning? I can't answer this right now, but I wonder how many other zones have hours of operation specified in the code? Why aren't those issues regulated - if they need regulation at all - through business licensing or something along those lines? Liquor licenses regulate the hours of bars, for example - not the zoning code.

by Alex B. on Feb 9, 2012 6:38 pm • linkreport

@Alex B ... probably because without being able to get people to believe they won't be an issue for neighbors, this provision (i.e., 'nesting businesses between houses') doesn't stand much of a chance of passing. But you're right in the sense that 'who will enforce it?' Will anyone (other then the immediately affected neighbors) care once the store is in? And once the 'larger neighborhood' clamors that it's not only a priviledge for them but a right. People are funny in that way ... if it directly affects them they'll raise hell ... forming working groups, drafting letters, whatever to oppose something that will harm their way of life or lower the value of their property. But move the project a block away and it suddenly becomes an indispensible valuable assest 'for the neighborhood' ... And since more people will benefit than those who don't, you end up with the equivalent of mob rule. The heart of democracy is that it protects individual rights, not that it allows mob rule because "more people want it than don't" ... At this point, it's like 'spin the wheel of fortune' as to where these businesses nestled between residences will be located. So, at this point, everyone and anyone can feel threatened ... unless some 'noise and trash mitigation efforts' are thrown out there to calm everyone down. The question is, will these mitigation efforts even be enforceable once the business squeezes in betweeh your home and mine ....

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 7:00 pm • linkreport

I still fail to see what noise issues are presented by whole in the wall grocery store/deli that aren't presented by a home with dogs, or a lawnmower, or whatever.

However I agree, the inclusion of things like time of day, is to make this worthy change more palatable.

by SuburbanitewhoLovesDC on Feb 9, 2012 7:40 pm • linkreport

@SuburbanitewhoLovesDC. When you're in tight quarters you hear everything. Take the dog barking and multiply that by 100 or 200 hundred times a day (versus the sporadic bark) and you have a situation. I know. I have a church near me and last year they decided to sublet their basement to a theater festival ... and for the 3 weeks it lasted life at my house was hell ... like living in the middle of Grand Central. No, it's not that I could hear the performances inside. But instead I could hear the dozens of theater goers coming and going all day ... they and the performers coming out to have a cigarette break. The table with the T-shirt sales ... And all this occuring in a 10 ft wide alley echoing every single noise. Until you've been in that situation, you can't appreciate how incompatible with residential living these uses are ...

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 7:59 pm • linkreport

Oh ... and did I mention the cigarette butts all over the alley AND in my front garden?

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 8:01 pm • linkreport

@ Lance,

Did you, at least once, yell, "get off my lawn?" I'm told it's a great stress reducer, and it helps perpetuate a colorful stereotype. Some might even say you would wear it well. (jk)

by Mike S. on Feb 9, 2012 9:46 pm • linkreport

@Mike, It's not my lawn. The alley is public space and people have a right to be there. The problem is when they use it not to get from point A to point B but instead to congregate. And when it's right outside your windows you not only get the noise but situations such as people sitting watching you have breakfast because they're standing around in a spot not designed for standing around. I fear a lot of the rowhouses in the core city will find themselves similar situations when immendiately neighboring houses start being used for commercial uses and bring with them the heavy demands that just occur naturally with any successful business. Anyone who thinks we'll end up with mostly low usage commercial activities is missing the point that unless this is a true 'home occupation' or hobby, these businesses squeezed in between residential houses/buildings are going to require lots and lots of traffic to be self sustaining.

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 9:57 pm • linkreport


I live in a townhouse (not all us suburbanites are in mcmansions) and I hear my neighbors, their dogs, the community landscapers, the neighbors lawnmowers, and the traffic on the nearby arterial.

Much noisier than the little corner store in SE. What does a church theater festival have to do with a little corner store?

by SuburbanitewhoLovesDC on Feb 9, 2012 9:59 pm • linkreport

@suburbanite ... 1st because that's one of the permitted uses ... and 2nd because as you're making the point, noise is noise ... And I've lived in the burbs in and in townhouse developments ... and if you think the situation is comparable then you're failing to take into mind that there's a reason most posters on here will raz on these suburban townhouses ... they're built to modern code (i.e., like or '58 code) standards ... you have alleys 25+ feet wide (if you have them at all) and streets and sidewalks that are far wider than anything you'll find in our rowhouse neighborhoods. Go walk down 17th some day ... on the east side between P and R Streets ... and imagine that once upon a time those were all private homes. look around, listen, and you'll quickly figure out why they ceesed to be homes the minute commercial uses started to squeeze in between the homes.

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 10:13 pm • linkreport


the streets are wide - the ones INSIDE the development are quiet - however my TH backs toward an arterial where traffic scoots along at I guess, 45 mph. My backyard is not particularly useable as a quiet retreat (despite a fence and trees between it and the arterial). 19thc DC townhouse streets are much quieter.

As for churches being a permitted use, they are NOW, right? That doesn't change with this code revision, does it? Its the corner stores that are added - and the ones I've been in have been quiet. Again cornercopia is in the midst of TH area in SE - including brand new THs that sell for 700k. The presence of the corner store doesn't seem to have stopped that.

by SuburbanitewhoLovesDC on Feb 9, 2012 10:25 pm • linkreport

Gavin: The reason what you suggest was not in the testimony was because the Council does not decide what goes in the zoning code, and we are limited to 5 minutes, so listing changes was a minor side point. I've shared more detailed arguments about making changes with OP and will focus more on why as well as what in testimony to the Zoning Commission, who will actually decide on changed. But thanks for the suggestion, and it's important for me to keep it in mind later on. Plus, you and everyone else needs to express views to OP and come to the ZC hearings too!

by David Alpert on Feb 9, 2012 10:54 pm • linkreport

@SUB ... We're talking theaters not churches ...

by Lance on Feb 9, 2012 11:14 pm • linkreport


once again.

What does a THEATER have to do with a tiny corner store? I could they stage performances between the fancy chocolate and the imported pasta?

by SuburbaniteWholovesDC on Feb 10, 2012 10:18 am • linkreport

It is the same problem we always run into: three or four wealthy homeowners make decisions for an entire urban community. Whether they call it traffic, historic preservation, or zoning, it is all part of the same asymmetric warfare technique to keep the rest of the city beholden to their property values and entitlement to a suburban-style city.

by aaa on Feb 10, 2012 10:22 am • linkreport

@Suburbanite ... have your read David's post ... or the underlying report? 'corner store' may be the title of the post, but the uses being proposed within our residentially zoned areas are far more numerous than just 'store' (they include 'theater' like what I'm experiencing) and chances are that these places WON'T be on a corner ... The cutesy corner store image is receiving far more exposure than the reality of the situation will warrant.

by Lance on Feb 10, 2012 11:41 am • linkreport

@ lance

You mean this?

'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. '

Sounds to me like that rules out a theater. Also the below:

"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. "

seems to further reduce the risk of an entire block going commercial.

If any particular usage is too threatening like a drug store, or furniture making, then perhaps the proposal should be modified. I personally have more recently experienced a tiny quiet corner store, and I think they (along with those yoga studios) would be among the most common uses.

by SuburbanitewholovesDC on Feb 10, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

see above:

•The "corner store" rules should apply to more areas, even lower density zones and areas somewhat near commercial zones; should include performing arts uses like small theaters; and should include a path for the BZA to grant exceptions acceptable to neighbors and local leaders

and yes, I know those are David's shoulds ...

by Lance on Feb 10, 2012 12:01 pm • linkreport


So then you feel the OP proposal is reasonable, but should not be made more far reaching in the way David proposes, at least not his mention of performing arts uses? If thats your position, I find it eminently reasonable.

by SuburbanitewholovesDC on Feb 10, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

Lance: I suggested theater because I live on the same block as the Keegan Theater, and it's a wonderful thing to have on the block. It doesn't detract. Yeah, during intermissions some people congregate on the sidewalk, but so what? Since they have no parking, it doesn't draw any traffic—an example of why perhaps the rules for these corner stores and such should have parking maximums, not minimums.

by David Alpert on Feb 10, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

@Sub "So then you feel the OP proposal is reasonable, but should not be made more far reaching in the way David proposes, at least not his mention of performing arts uses? If thats your position, I find it eminently reasonable.

Like I mentioned earlier, I believe all these restrictions are meant to sugercoat the proposal as none of them will be enforceable once established. For example, what's the difference between "Arts Design and Creation" (arts studio)" and a theater? Abosolutely nothing in practice.

@David, you also don't live within 10 feet of that theater and there IS a wide street in front of that theater for people to congregate in ...

The problem here is the pandora's box that would be opened up. When these grandfathered uses were established, the immediate neighbors had choices ... they could shirk the idea that they had a business opening next door to them and then sell their property at a premium commercial price or they could stay and accept the externalities. Either way they had choices. And it was these choices that led to the development of the dense neighborhoods which are nowadays so appreciated. But what OP is proposing is a whole different beast. It creates a lottery where those that get that permit first will win big by converting a residential property to commercial value ... and do so at the expense of the adjoining neighbors who'll neither be able to 'join in' on the conversion or even be able to sell their property for what it is now worth without those added externalities dragging down their property values. It's the worst of all worlds, you neither have the formation of neighborhoods like Dupont or Petworth occuring, and you're creating a lottery that permits one neighbor to profit off other neighbors. Add to that the fact that once a commercial use has a foothold in a building you can't really control what goes in there (i.e., the lack of will to enforce) and you're creating a no-win situation for anyone except for those lucky few able to get the first permits within the 500 ft designation ...

by Lance on Feb 10, 2012 12:31 pm • linkreport

206.5 Arts Design and Creation
(a) Any use involving the on-site design, rehearsal, or creation of visual, auditory, or performance art. This use may encompass work space for artists, artisans, or craftsmen practicing fine arts or applied arts or crafts, and may include the sale of items created on the site;
(b) Examples include, but are not limited to: artist studio, artisan production including kiln-fired, metal-working, wood-working, furniture making and glass-blowing arts, photographic studio, recording studio, radio, or broadcasting studio, or arts incubator; and
(c) Exceptions: This use category does not include uses which would typically fall within the Entertainment, Assembly and Performing Arts, Educational, or Sexually-based Business Establishment use categories.

I won't even get into the "including kiln-fired, metal-working, wood-working, furniture making and glass-blowing arts," which is far from appropriate in these dense rowhouse neighborhoods ... but please tell me how you think someone is going to be able to differentiate between 'rehearsals' and 'Entertainment, assembly ... ' to enforce the law?

by Lance on Feb 10, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

@Lance enforce the law?

Good question. Which raises a broader question: why is the zoning code the proper mechanism for these complaints you have?

Leave aside whether it's a good idea to regulate these things or not. Why is the zoning code the proper mechanism to regulate kilns? Or cigarette butts?

by Alex B. on Feb 10, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

@Alex, zoning has two purposes ... first and foremost to define and regulate the uses of property specific to a zone AND to define the nature of the development in terms of building height, density etc. So, from what I can see zoning is the proper mechanism to enforce uses. Do you have a better idea?

by Lance on Feb 10, 2012 12:54 pm • linkreport

and note we're not talking about regulating allowing or disallowing them. Yes, there should be a mechanism outside of zoning for the safe regulation and operation of kilns, but that is very divorced from the idea of where we want them to operate. Look at it this way ... a liquor store gets regulated by ABRA and the ABC so that it's operation is 'safe', zoning regulates WHERE it can set up shop because then it's more than matter of 'safe' but rather 'appropriate'. The basic premise of zoning is that quality of life works better when you segregate uses. It's not a matter of regulating for safety only, but for safety (maybe) and OTHER considerations.

by Lance on Feb 10, 2012 1:00 pm • linkreport

Ok, so why aren't liquor licenses and the allowed hours of operations spelled out in the zoning code? That's a use of property, yes?

Why aren't the health code requirements for a commercial kitchen spelled out in the zoning code? That's a use of property, yes?

by Alex B. on Feb 10, 2012 1:00 pm • linkreport

Do you have a better idea?

Yes. Stop trying to nit-pick what counts as a 'use.'

Zoning is a blunt tool. It is useful in regulating use to the extent that use follows form. Office space has different building characteristics than residential space, which is different from retail space, etc.

However, there's a big difference between broadly regulating the allowed use of a space and regulating the kind of activity that might occur with a given use.

Retail is a use - that's fine for the zoning code. Regulating the hours of a corner store is activity - the zoning code is not the appropriate tool to regulate this activity.

I would argue that the definition of use is by nature a broad one. It is not meant to be specific. 'Retail' should encompass everything from a corner store selling knick-knacks to a neighborhood bar to a Target or Best Buy to a grocery store. The activities in each of those businesses is different, but the use is fundamentally the same.

by Alex B. on Feb 10, 2012 1:12 pm • linkreport

@Alex Ok, so why aren't liquor licenses and the allowed hours of operations spelled out in the zoning code? That's a use of property, yes?
Why aren't the health code requirements for a commercial kitchen spelled out in the zoning code? That's a use of property, yes

Okay, I think we are in violent agreement. Zoning isn't the place to set hours and put other kinds of limitations on a use. Zoning is only where that use gets defined. We either say 'this is a residential zone' or we say 'this is a commercial zone'. Period. That IS the way zoning is supposed to work. So, thanks for pointing out why my intuition that we shouldn't be making exceptions to the residential zoning laws under any circumstances is correct. If we want a commercial use in a specific spot, then we need to rezone it commercial.

So, are we in agreement that businesses shouldn't be allowed to set up in a residential zone?

by Lance on Feb 10, 2012 1:18 pm • linkreport

Zoning codes enumerate a list of uses that are allowable in each zone. It doesn't just say, this is a residential zone, period.

They generally have a table that indicates what is allowed by right, what is allowed by special exception (or by condition), and what is not allowed.

I thought you had more experience with zoning than this.

by Matt Johnson on Feb 10, 2012 1:21 pm • linkreport

@Alex "'Retail' should encompass everything from a corner store selling knick-knacks to a neighborhood bar to a Target or Best Buy to a grocery store. The activities in each of those businesses is different, but the use is fundamentally the same."

And I agree. Business decisions are best left to business people. And business models can and do change over time not only for a specific store but for stores in general. Hence trying to codify the 'how' to do the business is a failing proposing which not only shakels the businesses but over time become irrelevant. Hence, we should stick to what zones are supposed to be. You have one zone where people live and you have another one where people work and you even have a mixed use zone where both can occur. You just don't try to say 'it's a business but not a heavy impact business so it's okay of it sits in a residential zone'. Because by doing so, you effective reduce the options down from residential, commercial, and mixed use ... to only commercial and mixed use. You throw the baby out with the bath water...

by Lance on Feb 10, 2012 1:24 pm • linkreport


Completely segregated uses had their time and they don't work with the fabric of the city, nor does this type of zoning serve the city's residents well.

You can't put everything people need on a daily basis far apart and still expect the city to function properly. There simply isn't enough space on our roads and in our transit to facilitate everyone traveling from a residential zone to a commercial zone to accomplish every little thing they need to do.

by MLD on Feb 10, 2012 1:32 pm • linkreport

"but please tell me how you think someone is going to be able to differentiate between 'rehearsals' and 'Entertainment, assembly ... ' to enforce the law?"

Well I would think that if you sell tickets, its not going to count as a rehearsal for these purposes. If you get a group of folks together to participate in a performance art piece, and let some folks come in to watch for free that would be allowed. But you can do that in your home now, right? Except now you can't sell the tape cause that would be commerce. But who enforces that? How many folks are quietly running businesses out of their rowhouses anyway?

as for the plastic arts, I would think jewelry making works better than running a kiln.

@alex - I think the reasons for putting in business regs are clear - the locals dont trust that the reg process will protect them, so they need it in the zoning code before they will support the zoning code

@lance - there are lots of multi use, overlay, etc kinds of zones. There are also, IIUC, regs that limit concentrations of businesses - for example the limits on number of liquor licenses in an area. Again, one could do a limit on number of business in an area through a regulatory process, and that would avoid some of the issues Lance raises, but I dont think that would be more acceptable.

As mr Layman has said, its not likely these establishments would be that lucrative - ergo, the scramble for them that Lance posits, is also unlikely

by suburbanitewholovesDC on Feb 10, 2012 1:32 pm • linkreport

"You have one zone where people live and you have another one where people work and you even have a mixed use zone where both can occur. "

that seems far too limiting.

A tiny corner store belongs in a residential neighborhood - not having to go to the nearest commercial strip for a few things can be handy - but a Target does NOT belong there. I disagree with Alex. Size and impact of business DOES matter and is appropriate to zoning. Yes a residential district should be different from what we think of here as mixed use, but thats only because a few low impact businesses to not make it a mixed use area - its just a different kind of residential area, one more like what we had in american cities before world war 2.

by SuburbaniteWhoLovesDC on Feb 10, 2012 1:39 pm • linkreport

"'Retail' should encompass everything from a corner store selling knick-knacks to a neighborhood bar to a Target or Best Buy to a grocery store"

a corner store selling knicknacks will often complement the pedestrian experience, and is easily used by pedestrians, and all purchases will be taken out on foot, and most deliveries can be made with little impact.

A best buy adds little to the pedestrian experience, many purchased will require use of a cart, and will necessarily be transported by car or cab, and most deliveries will be by truck.

Its much like a basketball arena vs a football stadium - yes they are the same business, but they have different impacts on the urban fabric - differences that are properly treated in zoning codes

by SuburbanitewholovesDC on Feb 10, 2012 1:43 pm • linkreport


Best Buy doesn't have a monopoly on selling large items. Fragers Hardware sells lots of physically large items, too.

Big Boxes should indeed be regulated with regard to their built form. There's not a ton of difference between a 50,000 sf Best Buy and a 50,000 sf grocery store - at least in terms of the kind of space they use. That has nothing to do with the business, really - it's all about the space.

by Alex B. on Feb 10, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

Im sorry if my wording was so vague as to leave the impression I thought zoning should address speficic companies.

I think A. The size of the store and B. what it sells - hardware, vs groceries vs knicknacks, etc CAN be appropriate subjects for zoning. I would agree that a best buy vs a grocery store of the same size are both inappropriate in a residential zone. I think a small grocery vs a small hardware store that sells large items or appliences would be different. Its much less of a burden to need to go to the nearest residential strip on the occasions when one needs, say, a ladder, or a 42inch TV, than on the occasions when one needs a quart of milk. And one is less likely to use to use a vehicle for the quart of milk.

by SuburbanitewholovesDC on Feb 10, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

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