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Mendelson wades into the zoning update with Sept. hearing

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson hasn't taken a public stance on the zoning update yet, but he will have the chance to soon. He's holding a hearing on the zoning update for Wednesday, September 26, at 10:30 am.

Photo by AlephNull on Flickr.

Will the chairman adopt a reflexively knee-jerk oppositional stance to any reform in the zoning code, as some are pushing him to? Or will he keep an open mind about fixing some of the mistakes in a 54-year-old zoning code originally written when people thought Shaw, Mount Vernon Square/Triangle, Capitol Hill and Southwest DC were "obsolete"?

He needs to hear from residents about the reasons we need to reform the 1958 zoning code and fix its worst mistakes, changes which at a stroke repudiated some of the most historic and treasured neighborhoods of the District and outlaw their urban form for future generations.

Representatives of the Committee of 100, Federation of Citizens Associations and similar groups will surely show up to complain about the zoning update, as they have at each Office of Planning oversight hearing for the last four years. They might be joined by some residents who believed some of the scare tactics and outright falsehoods that anti-update agitators sadly continue to spread.

For example, on a Chevy Chase listserv post, opponent-in-chief Linda Schmitt asked, rhetorically, "Will parking be 'eliminated' a half mile radius of [sic] every metro stop?" This conjures up images of government agents in sunglasses and black helicopters coming to take away your parking.

Nobody will be forced to remove a single parking space as a result of the zoning update. What it will do is stop forcing new buildings to include more parking than their owners think is necessary, rules that forced costly boondoggles like the largely-unused garage at DC USA or make housing more expensive than it needs to be.

The Office of Planning has listened to thousands of residents and attended hundreds of community meetings over the last four years. The zoning update keeps most rules in place and avoids much change to single-family neighborhoods. But it also fixes a few of the worst mistakes of the "social engineering" from the 1940s and 50s, where leaders deliberately tried to drive people out of urban neighborhoods they considered "problem areas" and "obsolete."

Click for a fact sheet on the zoning update (PDF).

The authors of the current zoning code banished neighborhood-serving corner stores under the now-debunked notion that all commerce needs to be far divorced from all residences. It mandated far too much parking under the misguided assumption that everyone would drive all of the time, instead of having some people drive and some use other modes.

It also forbade people from renting out garages and basements in many neighborhoods, not predicting that young people would have children later, seniors would live longer, and families would get smaller, which forced the population in single-family communities to decline over time.

The code has gone though many amendments since, which is why the core set of rules remains intact in the rewrite. However, those amendments have also made the code extremely complex and unwieldy, forcing a homeowner to check 2 or even 3 separate sections, with directly conflicting rules, to understand what restrictions apply to his or her home. The rewrite reorganizes the code to put all of the rules that apply to a specific property owner in the same place as much as possible.

Chairman Mendelson has long represented the whole city, but has focused primarily on issues around crime and the police, his policy area of focus. He also has periodically sent letters opposing one zoning case or another, mostly to please his older and upper Northwest-centric base. As chairman, he has a responsibility to take a broader and more inclusive view of policy areas such as planning.

He needs to hear from residents who like their walkable neighborhoods with basement apartments and corner stores, or who want to be able to afford to live in one. We need to remind the chairman that allowing a thing does not mean forcing something or taking away something from any property owner, and that this zoning update does not do so. The limited reforms in this zoning update will restore what worked in the past and allow DC to effectively grow to the future.

Please come testify at the hearing on September 26 if you can. To sign up to testify, call 202-724-8196 or email Crispus Gordon III, If you can't, send comments to Chairman Mendelson using the take action form below.

Send Mendelson your comments

This petition is now closed. Thank you for participating!

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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Councilman Nimby? Lord of All Status Quos? Open-minded to zoning reform? I thought crazy pills were illegal in DC.

by monkeyrotica on Aug 22, 2012 1:15 pm • linkreport

monkeyrotica: Well, I'm trying to give him room to do the right thing first.

by David Alpert on Aug 22, 2012 1:38 pm • linkreport

I'm hopeful someone with a handle on the Zoning Rewrite process can explain Mendelson's role in this whole thing. Sure, he can hold a hearing on anything he wants, and make some noise, but legally/functionally, isn't the process one that is outside the purview of the Council?

by fongfong on Aug 22, 2012 1:38 pm • linkreport

fongfong: Good question.

Yes, the whole process is outside the council's purview. However, councilmembers can weigh in, and often do. Mendelson has often written or signed onto letters opposing certain projects and has even sometimes gone and testified against them at the ZC. Especially since he is chairman his opinion will carry some significant weight.

The Chevy Chase email from Linda Schmitt also says they are hoping the council will pass a "sense of the council" resolution against the update. I think that's unlikely but we have to be on guard against a move to do something like that. Again that would just be advisory, but would carry even more weight.

Another side issue here is that the Office of Planning is doing the update, not the Office of Zoning; OZ just manages the Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment process, and the ZC will be the one deciding on the update, but it hasn't been formally sent from OP to the ZC yet, so the ball really isn't in OZ's court yet.

That matters because the Committee of the Whole oversees OZ but not OP, and thus it's a little tenuous for Mendelson to have a hearing. Really this should be in the committee overseeing the Office of Planning. But Tommy Wells chairs that committee, and he isn't aligned with the opponents, so they got Kwame Brown to call a hearing; Brown then resigned, but they seem to have gotten Mendelson to go ahead with it.

by David Alpert on Aug 22, 2012 1:49 pm • linkreport

Strongly oppose adding alley dwellings. I saw one on fire not long ago. The fire trucks couldn't get close enough to it.

by Turnip on Aug 22, 2012 8:35 pm • linkreport

Turnip: Almost nothing about alley dwellings is changing in the zoning update. Accessory dwellings does not mean alley dwellings; accessory dwellings means a garage or basement or something, not an alley unit.

To create an alley dwelling, the fire department must sign off on whether they can get fire trucks to the unit in case of fire. If they say no, it can't be built. That is current law and won't change.

There are a few places where the fire trucks can get in but the current rules limit one; an alley must be a certain width for an alley dwelling, but in a few places there is a narrower alley to get to the main alley, and last I heard the zoning update will make it legal to build a unit there IF the fire department, DDOT and other DC agencies say okay. If the fire department or others say it won't work, it still won't be allowed.

by David Alpert on Aug 22, 2012 10:42 pm • linkreport

@fongfong and DAlpert:

That may be the official state of affairs, but in reality, we all know that Councilmembers can and do exert tremendous influence behind the scenes, particularly when it comes to things affecting their ward. That includes leaning on executive agencies like OP, DDOT, etc. I don't know if Mendo would do something like that in this case, but it should be understood that CM's unofficial power often equals or exceeds their official authority.

by Dizzy on Aug 22, 2012 11:00 pm • linkreport

I'm a fan of both Phil Mendelson’s and Carol Mitten's...If you are going to opine on how Phil will weigh in on ZC issues, you have to consider that he will have Carol, the former ZC Chair’s, council on this matter.

by Rob Halligan on Aug 24, 2012 7:34 pm • linkreport

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