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What's in the zoning update: Fewer parking minimums

Tonight is the second public meeting for the DC Zoning Update, at 421 7th St. NW in the Penn Quarter. Let us know if you can come to this one, or one of the others in December and January.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Steven Yates attended the first meeting, Saturday in Southwest. He reported:

Parking seemed like the most contentious issue. There were some people concerned with the elimination of some parking minimums (particularly in the transit zones). They were particularly concerned with spillover into the neighborhoods, which sounded [solvable] with resident-only parking.

There was also a sizable group (I'd guess roughly equal in size to those concerned with parking) that were vocally supportive of what OP [the Office of Planning] is trying to do in regards to parking. The biggest (really only) applause for comments were those who were OK with less parking. Many people there seemed genuinely curious about what the update meant and had some fairly wonky and specific questions.

Let's talk about what's in there about parking.


The 1958 zoning code mandated parking for new buildings on the assumption that everyone would be driving in the future. Like adequate public facilities ordinances in the suburbs, this subordinates development to automotive infrastructure. If there isn't enough room for cars, build nothing until there is.

Predictions that there would be only one mode of transportation, driving, in the future turned out to be wrong. We have Metro, buses, biking, walking, and more. Rather than accommodating demand, requirements to build parking instead create strong incentives for people to drive who wouldn't have otherwise, pushing the mode share in one unsustainable direction and making traffic worse for existing drivers.

Early working groups for the zoning update considered eliminating almost all or even all parking minimums, but facing pressure from some neighborhood groups, OP backed off and only now propose eliminating minimums for a few categories:

  • Small residential buildings of up to 9 units
  • Higher-density areas (today's R-5) and mixed-use/commercial zones near Metro or high-frequency bus lines ("transit zones")
  • Production, Distribution and Repair (industrial) land
  • Downtown
The final set of "transit zones" isn't set, but OP created this preliminary map showing where they probably will be:

Image from the Office of Planning. Click to enlarge (PDF).

Note that any low-density land, even right next to a Metro station, doesn't count, even most row house neighborhoods (designated R-4 today). An individual townhouse will be exempt under the small residential building requirement, but any non-residential building like a school, even next to a Metro station, will have to have as much parking as if it were nowhere near the Metro.

Property owners won't have to consult a transit timetable to decide if they are in a transit zone. Instead, the actual zoning category will differ. An apartment building area near transit would be an AT zone, while one far from transit would be an A. Likewise, commercial and mixed-use corridors are M zones without transit and MT zones in areas near transit.


The Zoning Commission approved a general proposal to have some as-yet-undetermined parking maximums as well, but the Office of Planning has dropped this from the update.

One proposal had been to allow buildings to build a lot of parking if they want, but require that parking beyond a certain limit use a design that makes it possible to convert the space to other uses, like below-grade retail, offices, or even storage. However, developers said that this would add considerably to the cost of that below-grade space with no immediate benefit, and OP dropped this requirement.

One maximum remains in the draft code: surface parking lots can't exceed 100,000 square feet, or about 2.3 acres, as of right. By comparison, the surface parking lot for the Home Depot and other stores near Rhode Island Avenue Metro is about 350,000 square feet, or 8 acres.

However, anyone can ask for a special exception to exceed this limit if they create a Transportation Demand Management plan which DDOT approves. The BZA also has the ability to require screening and landscaping, or put requirements on where the curb cuts to enter and exit are.

While it's better for the zoning code to err on the side of less regulation rather than more, a requirement to have a TDM plan for very large parking facilities, and to go through some review process for the design, makes sense. The special exception process does not present an extremely high bar to getting things approved, but it does force people to go through a legal process.

For the individual homeowner wanting to rent out a garage, a special exception is a large burden, but for anyone building a 2.3-acre or larger parking lot, it's not likely to be. In fact, this would argue for a lower threshold above which the special exception and TDM process kicks in.


A number of rules guide how a parking lot or structure can be designed. Parking lots over a certain size will have to have trees to create shade and reduce the urban heat island effect. Drive-through queueing lanes have to be a certain length. And so on.

You can read all about that stuff in Subtitle C, chapters 2106-2112.

One of the rules in the zoning update, which prohibits parking between buildings and the street in most areas, already became law in 2011, after the Office of Planning brought that particular chapter forward ahead of time as a text amendment.

It's great that many supporters of reducing burdensome parking minimums made it on Saturday, but we'll need to keep that up at the other meetings, especially Ward 3 on January 8 but also many other wards. Please let us know which meeting you can make!

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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Great writeup, David. I asked Jennifer Steingasser at a seminar hosted by the D.C. Bar if bicycle infrastructure (such as BikeShare and bike lanes) would be considered in creating the transit zones, and she unfortunately said no. I think OP's plan is a large step in the right direction but I wish areas in which residents commute by bicycle would have gotten more consideration in the elimination of parking minimums. Although, in fairness to OP, there is probably a lot of overlap with areas that feature metro riders/bicyclists.

by Mike Forster on Dec 11, 2012 1:22 pm • linkreport

Relaxing or eliminating parking minimums is a good idea, but only if you either (1) make sure residents of new buildings without parking minimums will never be able to get residential parking permits or (2) raise the price of RPPs by a lot (enough to make it easy to find parking in residential neighborhoods). If you don't do either of those things, then you make an already bad parking shortage even worse.

I haven't seen any credible plan for (1). I've seen proposals, but it's not at all clear that they'd work (or that they'd persist for the life of the building). And (2) seems politically very difficult.

by Rob on Dec 11, 2012 1:27 pm • linkreport

I was there are well and parking kept coming up. People who were horrified that OP would "take away" parking (and cars!), and people who applauded OP for recognizing that not everyone wants a car and every parking spot that is built is a cost passed on to us. There was certainly an undercurrent of "When these car-free kids grow up and have three children, they're going to want mutliple cars and ample parking!" from some people. Or maybe I just had the misfortune of sitting close to that particular group and heard their grumbling all morning.

I wish there could have been more discussion on shared parking. There are a not insignificant numebr of lots and garages that are only used during the work day, or primarily in the evenings. It was brought up, but not too in-depth. Although to get a good, deep discussion on challenges, solutions, and creative uses of shared parking would probably require a meeting unto itself.

It was a VERY wonky meeting. It was also apparent that some people in attendance are quite well known to the OP folks. A fair bit of grandstanding went on during the "town hall" portion of things.

by Birdie on Dec 11, 2012 1:32 pm • linkreport

@ Birdie. No surprise on the folks "well-known" to OP. There is a cadre of folks, many of whom unfortunately live near me in Ward 3, whose main goal is to show up at these meetings and to grandstand about the "war on cars," or everyone will get old and need a car, etc., mostly because they know the car thing is the only thing that will energize the base to get out and oppose these proposals.

If their logic is sometimes incoherent, that matters little because all they believe they need to do is to get the idea out there that OP wants to limit your ability to use your car.

The endgame here is to keep the current regulations in the hope that developers will find that buildings with parking causes them to be less than economically viable. And if that is the case, that means less development in the areas they live and where they want to drive. Simply stated, "no new development in Ward 3, ever."

Even if they succeed in derailing these changes, something each of us can help combat, development is coming because the economic upside for developers today far outweighs the cost of building parking. So just as they want to use a 50+ year old zoning code in perpetuity, they also believe the same economic model that has protected them from development all these years is still in place.

They are wrong about this last point.

by fongfong on Dec 11, 2012 1:45 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised they don't just eliminate by-right drive-throughs.

by Steve S. on Dec 11, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport


It's only logical that folks get concerned about traffic and parking impacts of large projects near where they live. Now, one way to address that is to require lots of offstreet parking so that the parking impact on surrounding streets is minimal. Alternatively, parking minimums can be reduced, but only if the parking impact of large projects is not then put onto already overcrowed streets. Plus, this is a sure-fire way to ensure that residents of such new projects really do use transit -- walk the way, as well as talk the talk. The way to do this is by restricting such projcts out of RPP. Reducing offstreet parking requirements while shifting more parking demand onto the surrounding streets is guaranteed to energize a large segment of the surrounding communiity.

by Alf on Dec 11, 2012 2:40 pm • linkreport

I still think that if newer developments are built with no or limited parking, which is fine, the District government must then step up efforts to ensure increased funding for other types of travel; bikesharing and, even more so, increased/expanded Metrobus and/or DC Circulator service.

Bypassed by two buses in a row just last night (another 20 mins of lost time; I'll drive next time), I still maintain that buses do not arrive often enough for spontaneous trips, serve a series of sometimes confusing routes comprising a single bus line, or are already so full waiting passengers have to be bypassed.

by Transport. on Dec 11, 2012 2:54 pm • linkreport

@ Alf. We agree completely on the need to revamp the RPP process. I wish our new Council Chairman had embraced doing that, but he voted against limiting RPPs based on the vague idea to "let the market decide." Not sure what he meant there. He still has to prove to me he is in the camp of Smart Growth.

Yet, most of those who are against the parking minimums do not live near these areas. They complain about what the impact will be to those who do, but have no dog in the hunt except to keep those streets free for when they want to park. I would wager that most of the grumbler you were hanging with this past Saturday were in this camp.

by fongfong on Dec 11, 2012 2:55 pm • linkreport

First, I wish the folks from Ward 3 who oppose this would save their comments for the Ward 3 OP meeting, rather than flooding other neighborhoods meetings and monopolizing our time with this process.

Second, almost all of the complaints around the zoning rewrite center around parking:

-parking minimums
-transit zones and parking
-ADUs and renters parking

If DDOT could address the parking issue, the rest of us could move on with the rewrite without it being so focused on cars and parking.

by William on Dec 11, 2012 3:18 pm • linkreport

The problem is that there is no way to "address" the parking issue that satisfies the people who complain about how hard parking is and doesn't go against the district's transportation goals

- You could keep the status quo; parking is low-cost but in some places you will pay with your time b/c there won't be spaces

- You could make RPP cost more, but then those same people will complain that you are charging too much for a resource that already exists/costs little to provide in its current state

- You could mandate that buildings build lots of parking, but that is contrary to the District's goal of less driving (since it encourages people to own cars) and won't solve the problem with respect to renters since those spaces will likely cost extra to rent (more than RPP)

- You can mandate that new buildings w/o parking be ineligible for RPP, I think this is fine but you have to also then mandate that this is made clear in rental/ownership talks, otherwise you end up with another class of people who will be pissed about parking. Also this is under OP's purview, not DDOT.

by MLD on Dec 11, 2012 3:29 pm • linkreport

Typical OP dysfunction.

Parking-less buildings are not going to happen until new buildings in commercial zones are kept out of RPP. But nothing is being done to solve that problem.

It'd take a little brains and a little work.

by Tom Coumaris on Dec 11, 2012 6:14 pm • linkreport

Larry Littlefield suggested a policy approach that might be relevant here, basically offer RPPs to existing residents at a discounted price, with the understanding that no new RPPs would be offered to new residents until the previous holders die or give up their cars. RPPs for new residents could be issued at market auction, and/or for a limited time. Unjust though it may be, this might silence the current cadre of opposition enough to allow other reforms to go forward.

by Ian Turner on Dec 12, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

"OP created this preliminary map showing where they probably will be"

At Saturday's meeting, staff clarified that the map shows the maximum extent of Transit Zones.* The zoning rewrite is text only; the "remapping" of zones will be determined in a subsequent process, with further consultation from ANCs and the public. Of course, the city could also do what Chicago did and pass new text without ever bothering to remap it.

The OP staffer who said that also reiterated that no one's going to be taking away parking.**

@Rob: several new-ish buildings, particularly ones around Navy Yard, are ineligible for RPPs, and unfortunately residents there are agitating to undo that agreement. Perhaps RPPs there should also be managed as part of the area's Performance Parking scheme.

@Birdie: yeah, I was surprised at the level of detail that everyone was getting into. I wrote a comment on one of the boards -- not sure which one, since there seemed to explicitly not be one devoted to parking -- that city government should explore what it can do to encourage sharing agreements, since that's arguably beyond zoning's scope.

@Tom Coumaris: the goal is not parking-less buildings, but rather parking-light buildings.

* This was during the Q&A after the meeting had officially ended at noon, in response to someone who was angry about there not being enough parking (and not being given a chance before noon to make everyone listen while she grandstanded about it). The guy who got applause followed her.
** This got a huffy, snarky response from the angry person.

by Payton on Dec 12, 2012 7:05 pm • linkreport

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