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Muriel Bowser unsure on parking minimums, corner stores

Wednesday is the final ward-based community information session for the zoning update, in Ward 4. This is a particularly important one as Councilmember Muriel Bowser seems undecided on, or leaning against, proposals to reduce parking minimums near transit or to permit corner stores in Petworth, and confused about the specifics of the proposal to let homeowners rent out a basement or garage.

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

The meeting starts at 6:30 (doors open at 6) at Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd NW. As with the others, the Office of Planning will present, then there will be time for people to ask OP staff questions individually, followed by a "town hall" where people can speak at a microphone.

Bowser has already asked the Office of Planning to delay forward motion on the zoning update last year. In a December email to the Chevy Chase listserv, she expressed "concern" over many of the very important, fairly timid, yet fiercely opposed provisions of the zoning update:


I'm happy to answer any specific questions you have. My office has convened at least two meetings on the Zoning Update. I'll post to my website the major issues for which we've advocated. Briefly, the chief concerns raised in our meetings: parking requirements near transit zones, by right corner stores and accessory dwelling units, height requirements, non-residential uses in neighborhoods, and community input.

I remain concerned about parking requirements near transit zones and by right, non-residential uses in residential neighborhoods. I believe the issue with by right Accessory Dwelling Units (detached) has been removed from the recommendations.

Again, I'll alert you when a full summary of the issues is posted on my website. I've been invited to present to Citizens Association in January and will plan to spend some time discussing there as well.

Muriel Bowser
Ward 4 Councilmember

Explanations of accessory dwellings are confusing

Bowser appears to be, or to have been, confused about the accessory dwelling proposal. It's not surprising, since OP has been explaining it in a very opaque way.

At the Ward 3 meeting last week, OP's Jennifer Steingasser explained that the current, old regulations require a variance for an accessory dwelling inside a main house, but allow a unit by-right for a "domestic employee" above a garage. Steingasser said that OP's goal was to "flip" the two, allowing accessory units as of right inside main buildings but requiring a special exception for a new carriage house.

However, this wording confused many people, including some of our commenters who were at the meeting, as well as a vocal opponent who spent about 10 minutes arguing with Steingasser. I didn't agree with that opponent's views on the issue, but sympathized with her confusion as she received one complex answer after another that didn't elucidate the issue very well.

Accessory dwellings are an important policy. They are the easiest way to add housing choices without changing the built form of neighborhoods, help house people at stages of life where they want an English basement or small garage, and give homeowners a way to earn more income and help pay the mortgage or supplement a fixed retirement income.

The Office of Planning need not "spin" the issue as not really much of a change. Instead, they should proudly explain why this is the right policy and stand up for it.

Map shows more about corner store proposal

They are standing up for, and more clearly explaining, the corner store proposals. OP made this map of corner stores in Ward 4, and says they are working on comparable maps for other wards. (At the Ward 3 meeting, a few residents asked for Ward 3 specific maps; it wasn't clear to me why they couldn't just focus on the upper-left portion of a citywide map, but whatever.)

Image from the Office of Planning. Click for full version (PDF).

In the map above, the dark purple is the mixed-use or commercially zoned areas, and the light purple the "buffer zone" in which it will be illegal to create a corner store. The red dots are examples of the type of store that the new zoning will allow (though most of them are in the buffers).

Yellow is the area where corner stores will be legal under the zoning update; in Ward 4, it's pretty much just Petworth and a few other very small areas. With corner stores limited to actual corners or buildings originally built as commercial, there will be very few eligible sites, since most of the buildings already have residents in them.

Can you attend?

Thanks in part to Greater Greater Washington readers, people supporting the zoning code or asking for it to go further equaled the number of people opposing the changes at last week's Ward 3 meeting. One person asked OP to restore their proposal for parking maximums (which require just a transportation analysis to exceed), and another spoke up for lighter restrictions on corner stores.

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Councilmember Mary Cheh, Zoning Commissioner Rob Miller, reporters Tom Sherwood and Mike DeBonis, and many others heard a wide range of views from residents, ranging from wanting more change to none at all. It's important to have a similar diversity of views at tomorrow's Ward 4 meeting, the last one of this series.

Please stop by Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd NW, at 6:30 (doors open at 6) and try to stay until about 8, when they'll let people speak in the town hall. The balance of views during that open mic session will likely have a lot of sway over whether Councilmember Bowser stands in the way of the zoning update or not.

Update: The original version of this post suggested that Bowser was leaning against or "unsure" on the accessory dwelling proposal. However, the email shows she is leaning against the other proposals. She does not appear to be undecided on, but apparently is confused about, the accessory dwelling proposal. The post has been corrected.

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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The 'click for full version of the PDF' link is not working.

by Alex B. on Jan 15, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

Fixed, thanks.

by David Alpert on Jan 15, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

At least I now understand the ADU debate. The opposition doesn't make much sense to me and I still contend that there will not be spurred interest in basement/ADU rentals...on both the homeowner and rental side. Especially when you consider the cost in retrofitting a homes existent basement into a separate unit.

Haven't followed the corner store debate but I am more sensitive to that than the hoopla over ADU's.

by HogWash on Jan 15, 2013 1:13 pm • linkreport

Those corner store rules seem really dumb.

1. Restrictions on hours that don't exist for basically any other business (except places that sell alcohol).
2. Restrictions on location that amount to the city basically pre-choosing where your business can be.
3. On top of that you can't be too close to an already existing commercial zone. Some of these zones are literally about a block long. As if people who live close to these blocks are especially burdened and have no refuge anywhere else in the city to get away from the presence of a new convenience store.

by drumz on Jan 15, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

A friend rented a basement unit in Ward 4 years ago. Not sure if it was legal or not. The DC rental market is tight though and an extra $12000+ a year might sound pretty good to some homeowners these days. It would depend a bit on the house style, but my friends basement was more or less in a colonial (with a side entrance) so I'm not sure it's as unlikely as you might think.

What exactly is the legal definition of corner store anyway? I can't imagine why anyone would be concerned if it's basic foodstuffs. I suppose they could create a zoning category that prohibits alcohol if that's of concern. Personally, it sounds terribly convenient to me, as a person that stops by one of my corner stores on the way home to pick up a half gallon of milk or a bottle of wine.

by Alan B. on Jan 15, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

I don't actually think the rules for the corner stores are dumb. I find them pretty well formulated. I like living in an area is walking distance to places I want to go, but quietish. The hours of operation restrictions make a lot of sense to me especially. The logic of the buffer makes sense as those people already have significant access to commercial areas. I could see even other protections for neighbors such as allowing additional fencing or other physical barriers to separate the space if requested as a condition of approval. The end result is likely not to be a large number of them, but where they do occur it will be where business owners see a significant demand which means its good for everyone. We are putting these into places where longtime residents already live after all.

by Alan B. on Jan 15, 2013 2:22 pm • linkreport

Illegally constructed accessory dwellings have been a problem in Ward 4. probably not popular.

Corner stores sound like a nice idea, but existing actual stores seem be getting turned into restaurants, and not necessarily cheap ones.

by Rich on Jan 15, 2013 4:38 pm • linkreport

It's only a problem because it's illegal and there is no way to legally construct them.

by Alan B. on Jan 15, 2013 4:45 pm • linkreport

I previously lived within 3 blocks of *3* corner stores (plus Schneider's). I miss them so much. They were the best thing ever when I tried my hand (and failed) at making gravy and didn't want to leave my guests without (being someone who does not like gravy, I contend that my turkey is so good it's unnecessary, but people really love their gravy), or blanked on some necessary ingredient, or, like Alan mentioned, for just picking up something quick on my way home. There was rarely more than a half-dozen people in the store at any time I stopped in, and they were almost exclusively my neighbors (occasionally their guests as well). While there was a very small amount of foot traffic generated, it was mostly neighborhood folks and people otherwise passing by just quietly walking to the store. Every once in a while I'd see someone park and run in for a minute, but almost all of their patrons arrived by foot, so car traffic/parking was never much of an issue.

In the sense that people could be bothered by late-night foot traffic, I don't mind the hours restrictions too much. Even with less restrictive rules, the ones on the Hill closed by 10 anyway (while that was because it was the end of alcohol sales for non-grocers, the one closest to my house actually closed at 9:30, so the hours decision was mostly demand/convenience for the family - they were almost exclusively family-run). 9 is a little early, but I think it's late enough that most people can get their "last run" in before they have to decide if what they need/want is worth the trip to a real grocery store. I always saw these as a huge asset to a neighborhood when done well, and, I guess, I'd be very happy to have one and think others should have the chance to have a more convenient shopping opportunity nearby.

Limiting alcohol to beer & wine and prohibiting single sales for these stores in neighborhoods where problems may arise (or not allowing a liquor license at all, though that often sinks a business such as this) seems, to me, the route to limit problems while providing a convenient service for the neighborhood. The beauty of rules and decisions like that is that they are handled OUTSIDE of the zoning code, so they are easier to change and can be tailored to a neighborhood's needs. Some neighborhoods will attract and be very happy with stores that would want to sell singles of high-quality beers, while others would want to prevent a sea of 40's from becoming strewn all over the lawns. Over time, the neighborhoods in those categories are likely to change, and, by not baking a behavior-regulating rule into a long-term building and use code, everyone can be best served while still being protected.

by Ms. D on Jan 15, 2013 5:17 pm • linkreport

"We are a simple people living in a small country town, and we do not need all this fancy-pants commercial activity in our community spearheaded by hoity-hoity rich outsiders here to make money off us." - The summary of every argument against corner stores in DC.

by JustMe on Jan 16, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

Vincent Orange is doing his part.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 16, 2013 5:58 pm • linkreport

It is harsh and incorrect to say that Councilmember Bowser was 'confused about the specifics' since she has clearly articulated her position at numerous ANC meetings.

by Vann-Di Galloway on Jan 17, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

The only confusion is the backtracking on her part when she realizes most DC residents favor these changes and she is eyeing a citywide office.

by William on Jan 17, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

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