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Mendelson grills accessory dwelling opponents

After being postponed a day because of the threat of snow, the marathon 7-hour oversight of the Office of Planning almost entirely revolved around the same controversial subject as the last 4-5 years: the zoning update.

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson at the hearing.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked tough questions of people on both sides of the issue. At first, he wondered how some people could say the Office of Planning did plenty of public outreach while others complained it was lacking, but later in the hearing, he began to realize that no amount of communication would satisfy opponents.

Councilmember Muriel Bowser (ward 4), meanwhile, breezed in at the end to voice opposition to a number of elements of the zoning update, but misunderstood some key provisions around accessory dwellings.

"What am I missing here?"

Many people testified, including representatives from Ward 3 Vision and other supporters of the zoning update, but there were many opponents as well.

After hearing many complaints about proposals to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and how threatening they would be to the character of neighborhoods, Chairman Mendelson tried to figure out what is so bad about having one in your neighborhood.

He calculated how many could fit in a block, then noted that not every property owner would want one. He asked Justine Kingham, "What am I missing here?"

When Kingham said that the issue is letting neighbors have a say in whether someone rents out a room in their house, Mendelson wondered aloud why it is anyone's business but the resident's own. "But should my neighbors decide whether I want somebody, one person coming in and out of the basement of my house or should I? Because that can be subjective."

Kingham then suggested that the Office of Planning limit the number of people who can live in an ADU, raising the specter of 5 "students" sharing a garage. In fact, there are limits: a main house plus an ADU can have only a maximum of 6 people combined.

Bowser: Enlarging ADUs is the problem

After all of the members of the public testified, Councilmember Bowser spoke about the good work that OP did in her ward but also raised concerns about some aspects of the zoning update, including effects of removing parking minimums and allowing corner stores by right.

Bowser opposes allowing accessory dwellings in existing detached garages. She said the reason is because people who live in them will want to enlarge them. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning pointed out, however, that under the proposed rules enlarging an exterior ADU will indeed require a special exception.

Bowser responded that she still thinks the Board of Zoning Adjustment will bias its decisions toward allowing people to expand ADUs once created, and therefore she still wants to have a longer process with hearings to create an external ADU in the first place.

Of course, no discussion of the zoning update would be complete without Linda Schmitt. In her vehement testimony, she said that the Office of Planning is trying to "remake every ward and every neighborhood," that her organization is not racist, and that a public input process that involves 700 people plus using Twitter isn't enough.

You can watch the entire hearing here.

Abigail Zenner, is a former lobbyist turned communications specialist. She specializes in taking technical urban planning jargon and turning it into readable blog posts. When she's not nerding out about urban planning, transportation, and American History, you may find her teaching a fitness class. Her blog posts represent her personal views only. 


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Wasn't Muriel Bowser a planner before she was a Councilmember? And she doesn't understand the basic rules underpinning ADU's?

She is planning on being mayor? Really?

by William on Mar 18, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

When Kingham said that the issue is letting neighbors have a say in whether someone rents out a room in their house, Mendelson wondered aloud why it is anyone's business but the resident's own. "But should my neighbors decide whether I want somebody, 1 person coming in and out of the basement of my house or should I? Because that can be subjective."

Amazing that this is seriously debated in the halls of government.

[Linda Schmitt] said that the Office of Planning is trying to "remake every ward and every neighborhood," allowing more and diverse opportunities for people to live in those neighbhorhoods if they wish. The horror.

by drumz on Mar 18, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

There are lots of young couples on my block. They are breeding and it's increasing density. Why are we not having hearings about this? Surely I should have some say before my neighbors add people to their homes. These little people riding in strollers now but eventually they are going to have their own cars. Then where am I going to park? This is outrageous!

by TakomaNick on Mar 18, 2013 12:55 pm • linkreport

These little people riding in strollers now but eventually they are going to have their own cars. Then where am I going to park? This is outrageous!

This is the best.

Honestly the fact that a lot of the assertions made by witnesses and councilmembers go uncorrected shows how ridiculous it is that we treat the OP staff and any wackadoodle witness the same in these hearings. OP staff are hired/appointed by our elected leaders to implement a plan (not THE PLAN). One would think they should have more input and be asked more questions at these hearings.

by MLD on Mar 18, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

If the max is 6 people then the population of a block currently consisting mostly of couples could more than double. I would think that could substantially alter the character of a neighborhood.

by Chris S. on Mar 18, 2013 1:13 pm • linkreport

1. Where is it going to happen that everyone on a block decides to build an ADU and then fill their plot of land with the max 6 people?

2. If this happens, then it seems like all the neighbors are in accord so who cares?

by MLD on Mar 18, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

I suppose it could, in theory. However, the city used to have a population over 800,000 with a built environment not too different than what exists in today's 632,000 world.

Keep in mind, some people will want gardens, others car storage. It isn't like very property owner is going to run out next year and build external ADUs. Even if they do, they will still require a special exception, except for the rare case where one already exists.

by William on Mar 18, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

If a single block forms the entirety of a neighborhood then yes it will be very susceptible to changes. I don't think any blocks in DC qualify though.

by drumz on Mar 18, 2013 1:27 pm • linkreport

WRT Chris S's comment, blocks are pretty resilient. As it is most residents on our block have minimal impact on each other. Even my neighbors on either side have no impact now. The same goes for the houses across the alley (except that someone was using my trash and recyle bins, which bugged me some.)

My block has 32 houses on it. Each house has about two adults maximum. At least 7 of the households have children. So far the max is 2 kids in a household. My block is about 3.5 acres. The likelihood of there being 3 or 4 more adults per lot because of ADUs is extremely unlikely. I suppose this could occur, theoretically near college campuses. However, the max s.f. of an ADU is supposed to be 450 s.f. I am not clear if you can do a two story, so that would be 900 s.f.

I recognize that my block is nothing like an R4 block. Even so, R4 blocks are pretty resilient too.
Our block could accommodate upwards of 30 ADUs, depending on how "cramped" someone would want their lot to be. (Some of the houses at corners don't have alley access, but may have curb cuts to the street.)

The biggest cost problem with ADUs would be hooking them up to water, sewer, and electrical. This likely would be as expensive as building a unit.

by Richard Layman on Mar 18, 2013 1:33 pm • linkreport

As for Muriel, it is no coincidence that folks like Linda Schmitt are part of her Ward 4 voting base. She won't need those votes in her mayoral bid if it turns out she is running against only Tommy Wells. But if Mayor Gray and/or Robert Bob jump into the race, she certainly will need to turn out all the NIMBYs on the west side of the park.

The only other member to show up at Phil's last two hearings and was against the zoning rewrite was former Councilmember Brown, whose also needed all the votes he could get. That didn't work so well for him.

by fongfong on Mar 18, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport



Re: Richard Layman

The cost factor for ADUs is certainly a factor and leads me to my overall thought on the matter: How many people are seriously going to consider doing this? Probably not many. Most people have absolutely zero interest in becoming landlords. Talk about making a mountain out of mole hill.

by Adam L on Mar 18, 2013 1:38 pm • linkreport

Adam L -- I've come up with a system for doing this at scale, but that being said, I think you're right.

by Richard Layman on Mar 18, 2013 1:53 pm • linkreport

I think parking minimums should be retained. If a developer wishes to lower the number of required parking let him go to the BZA and show where cars can park in that neighorhood and why that develoeper thinks his or her project needs less parking than the minimum. To grant a lower number before the project is proposed is not meeting the needs of the city or the neighborhood. Many neighborhoods have older buildings with no parking as they were built before any zoning laws existed. Auto free DC is not going to work, parking cannot be added once a building in already built, and there are only so many onstreet parking spaces to share.

by SallyS. on Mar 18, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

Chris S., what exactly is your concern about say an additional couple in a basement? I live in Mt Pleasant and it's full of single family homes, group houses and condos. It's still a pretty quiet sleep area past Mt. Pleasant street. Is the worry auto traffic/ student parties/ poor people with base morality? It would be easier to engage in dialogue if there was actually something more concrete to the objection than doubling your odds of bumping into a neighbor on the sidewalk.

by Alan B. on Mar 18, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

A purely anecdotal experience, but a relevant one to this discussion, I think. My direct next door neighbors (we live on a R4 block) got transferred overseas by the government. They are now renting out their house to five twenty-somethings. Apart from losing neighbors we enjoyed socializing with, the impact on my quality of life and on my day-to-day life of having five young adults versus a couple living next door has been zero. Of course, I could care less about parking, but based on my observations, they have one car between the five of them, so there has been no increase in cars on our block as a result. Even if I did care about parking, my reaction would still be "meh."

If ADUs end up being allowed, people 20 years from now learning about this debate will wonder what all the fuss was about.

by rg on Mar 18, 2013 2:07 pm • linkreport

Sally S. -- I don't think ADUs would trigger more parking requirements.

In any case, the point of an ADU is not to put it in a transit inaccessible location, but in a transit rich location, thereby encouraging transit usage rather than automobile usage.

I think that the ADU process should be "smart coded" for those areas proximate to frequent transit, in particular transit stations. E.g., I live 0.80 miles from the Takoma Metro. That's about the max. distance I would see for prioritization, it's about a 15-20 walk (5 minute bike ride) to the station, and a bus line that goes downtown during rush hour and between the Green and Red Line at other times is 2.5 blocks away.

by Richard Layman on Mar 18, 2013 2:09 pm • linkreport

Auto free DC is not going to work,

It already is for a large number of residents.

Anyway, this doesn't really have anything to do a multi-unit developer. This will likely all be done by individual homeowners.

by drumz on Mar 18, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

I wouldn't have any issues with any extra couple living in a basement. But if I chose a house thinking I was going to raise kids in a quiet, close-knit family driven environment, I think I might be a bit put off if later the block attracted dozens of students and other short-term residents.

Just anecdotal, but a friend lives in a small house with about 5-6 housemates. There are normally about 4 cars parked on the street out front (maybe more if there are visitors), which of course spill out in front of the neighboring houses as well. If multiple houses in the neighborhood took this approach, I would think the streets would get pretty crowded. Granted that is in a suburb, not Mt. Pleasant.

by Chris S. on Mar 18, 2013 2:30 pm • linkreport

The issue shouldn't be tied to parking. In fact, none of the zoning rewrite should be tied to parking. Reform for managing curb space is different albeit related and should be treated as such.

by William on Mar 18, 2013 2:37 pm • linkreport


Has OP been specific yet about what it will take to qualify as being close to transit?

Streetcars could open up huge swaths of the city. The GA Ave line will be within about 0.8 miles of everything from 4th St NW to 16th St NW.

by TakomaNick on Mar 18, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

I wouldn't have any issues with any extra couple living in a basement. But if I chose a house thinking I was going to raise kids in a quiet, close-knit family driven environment, I think I might be a bit put off if later the block attracted dozens of students and other short-term residents.

Fair concern I guess, but what right do you have to ensure who lives on the block? You could go up against an apartment building or something but this proposal doesn't even change the built environment.

by drumz on Mar 18, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

1) If parking is an issue, don't make RPPs available to ADU livers. Better yet, work on parking policy so that each property gets a limited number of RPPs or pays a lot for one above 2.

2) ADUs aren't group houses - that's a different issue. Living near a college campus, I'd rather 1 student living in the basement of each of 6 houses than 6 students living in one group house.

by ah on Mar 18, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

I think I might be a bit put off if later the block attracted dozens of students and other short-term residents.

Are the students co-eds? Because I'm all for that.

by David C on Mar 18, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

Well, I mean obviously co-eds are always a welcome addition to a neighborhood, but the hypothetical involves being married with kids.

by Chris S. on Mar 18, 2013 3:08 pm • linkreport

Just because students (or a group of young hill staffers) moves into a house doesn't mean it won't be a "quiet, close-knit family driven environment" (what the hell is that supposed to mean, anyways?). I much prefer the house of 4 just-out-of-college people on my right than the couple on the other side of me who is constantly fighting at all hours of the night and when they aren't fighting, blaring their music for all to hear. Jerks come in all ages and all sorts of household configurations.

by Birdie on Mar 18, 2013 3:09 pm • linkreport

I believe Linda Schmitt can tell you what a "quiet, close-knit family driven environment" means.

by fongfong on Mar 18, 2013 3:12 pm • linkreport

Linda Schmitt sounds like she's a few grams of caffeine from going postal.

by Chris S. on Mar 18, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

When I was a young 20-something who had the occasional party in my "quiet, closed-knit family driven environment" that lasted into the wee hours of the night. I always talked to my neighbors about them beforehand. One couple in their 50's would drop in at 1 in the morning and drink us under the table. The other couple, in their 60's, said "it is nice to have youthful energy spread around the neighborhood." I aspire to be that good of a neighbor when I'm their age.

by David C on Mar 18, 2013 3:24 pm • linkreport

There's nothing wrong with young neighbors - I was saying that having a lot of easy come easy go short-term neighbors could be a bit of drag.

Because, you know:

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

by Chris S. on Mar 18, 2013 3:37 pm • linkreport

"Co-eds"? In 2013?

by Miriam on Mar 18, 2013 3:52 pm • linkreport

I think DC is a different beast than most suburbs. I lived in a group house (it was huge) with three other people up top and two in the basement. There were 2 cars between the 6 of us. I'm sure adding ADUs will add some cars, but I find it unlikely they will add many especially if they live nearish a metro station or frequent bus lines which is most of Wards 3/4 east of Mass Ave. And in the really low density areas, I don't think finding street parking is really a problem.

Oh and in terms of changing the "character of the neighborhood" my friends and I would host a couple of chill afternoon barbecues in the summer and never had any parties otherwise. We did participate with the other neighbors on the Halloween events even though none of us have kids.

by Alan B. on Mar 18, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport

"But if I chose a house thinking I was going to raise kids in a quiet, close-knit family driven environment, I think I might be a bit put off if later the block attracted dozens of students and other short-term residents."

I hear this sort of slam on students and 'short-term residents' a lot, as if they're somehow inhuman. Renters are riff-raff who degrade the neighborhood and should be kept out. Because you know, they immediately bring in crack houses and crime and a bajllion cars with which to defile and seduce the virgin parking spots of the neighborhood.

But seriously, that thinking's deeply embedded, and ignores the changing reality of finances in this age. Thanks to student loans and an iffy job market, a lot of us in our twenties and thirties can't buy, even if we we were so inclined. We haven't had a chance to accumulate the capital to do so.

by Distantantennas on Mar 18, 2013 4:12 pm • linkreport

neighbors & partys: there's a tradition in Vienna, Austria; on the day of your party drop off a bottle of wine on the doorstep of your neighbors who you think might be disturbed by your party. This serves to warn them beforehand and to thank them for their tolerance in advance.

by Tina on Mar 18, 2013 5:03 pm • linkreport

I often see the argument that increased density won't have much impact because DC used to have approx. 800,000 residents and now has 632,000. True, but density is driven not so much by population as by number of separate family and dwelling units, which in turn drives impact. Case in point: During WW II the house down the street used to be owned by a family who raised 6 children in what, for the era, was a generous 4 bedroom house. An older relative also lived iwth them. They had one car. (I know this from one of the grown children who lived in the house until recently.) Now the home is owned by a 40ish couple with no plans to have children. They are putting a large addition on the house. They own three cars, which they regularly drive, despite the fact that the home is within walking distance of Metro and several bus lines. The point is, family units and lifestyles have changed significantly since DC had 800K residents. There are more singles and childless couples who have their own households. More senior citizens live alone. Many residemts expect bigger homes than those where large families once lived. And despite the presence of transit, many own and drive (and park) several vehicles. This is fine, but how the city used to be at 800K residents provides no template whatsoever for the impact of adding another 200K residents today.

by Alf on Mar 18, 2013 5:47 pm • linkreport

TakomaNick -- I haven't kept as close attention to the rewrite as I should have been, but my understanding is that high frequency transit includes the high frequency bus lines (30s, S, 50s, 70s, 90s, X) not just subway.

Personally, I would grade them at different levels: subway the highest, high frequency bus secondary. I suppose streetcars would be in the middle, maybe.

There is a big difference between living in an area that is what I call bus dependent without convenient subway access, vs. living within striking distance of the subway.

Of course, a bike changes the picture considerably.

But if I weren't willing (and happily at that) to grocery shop by bike, it'd be a lot less convenient to live "car light". Schlepping multiple bags of groceries or one of those godawful carts on a bus/subway car is a pain.

So I'd probably rate areas with access to full line grocery store within .75 mile and high frequency bus higher than high frequency bus without convenient access to a grocery store.

by Richard Layman on Mar 18, 2013 6:13 pm • linkreport

TakomaNick --

Regarding being close to transit, OP ha published a draft map of the "transit zones" that would qualify.

The original document with the draft map is available here, and also available on the Coalition for Smarter Growth's zoning update page. Hope that's helpful!

by Aimee Custis on Mar 18, 2013 8:51 pm • linkreport

Re: the map of OP's "transit zones," I would note the following:

1. Harriet Tregoning and her minions have been somewhat disingenuous in public meetings by soothingly stating that eliminating off-street parking zones would only apply to marked blocks in designated transit zones along commercial corridors. This ignores the fact that the street parking impact of eliminating off-street parking won't occur on the corridors themselves (where parking during rush hours is banned), but rather in the side streets 4 to 5 blocks off the main corridors. Although these areas are not within the demarcated "transit oriented" zone, that is where the impact of the change will be felt.

2. Calling certain bus routes "enhanced" transit corridors is also disingenuous. There is no clearer proof than the Glover Park ANC's recent vote to oppose smaller residential parking zones on the ground that this neighborhood has no Metro stop and the Wisconsin Avenue 30s bus line service is inadequate. (The ANC found therefore that Glover Parkers need the right to park for free in neighborhoods with Metro stops.) Yet the inadequate 30s line is what OP cites as "enhanced" transit service that justifies eliminating minimum off-street parking along the entire length of Wisconsin Avenue.

by Alf on Mar 18, 2013 9:41 pm • linkreport


Forgive me for being shocked, shocked that the Glover Park ANC found that Glover Park residents need the right to park for free anywhere in the ward near a Metro stop. Next thing you know, residents of Georgetown will find that they have a need for uninhibited driving through Glover Park on Wisconsin. Or that residents of upper NW want unlimited parking for themselves and no parking for anyone else. Or that there are residents of Silver Spring who think that they are the last ones who should have been allowed to move into that area. Or ...

by EMD on Mar 18, 2013 9:59 pm • linkreport

The "to park for free in neighborhoods with Metro stops"? You have got to be kidding me. There's not right to free parking. none. Nada. Zippo. Nice attempt, but try again. No one held a gun to Glover Park residents and forced them to move there.

My patience with the ant-change pro-free parking (but only for me, not for "those" people!) crowd grows less every day.

by Birdie on Mar 18, 2013 10:56 pm • linkreport

just read this. very useful perspective.

by Lee Watkins on Mar 19, 2013 6:34 am • linkreport

One needs to remember that the RPP system was created so that residents could park somewhere near their homes without being crowded out by out of state commuters.

What has evolved is an entitlement program that subsidizes virtually free parking for a much broader audience than was intended. To wit, the people who live in Palisades and Spring Valley who flock to Woodley Park and Cleveland Park on a daily basis to park near metro. Yes, there is greater demand than supply, but the RPP system as currently configured both inflates that demand and does nothing to rationally distribute supply.

However, none of this has anything to do with ADUs or the rest of the zoning code.

Simply solution: make the RPP zones smaller and charge a market rate for anyone else who wants to use the curb space.

by William on Mar 19, 2013 7:00 am • linkreport

Alf -- there are other ways of dealing with getting to and from Wisconsin Avenue than driving. Sometime later this week I will write the third piece in my "tactical improvements in DC bus service" series, and it will focus on W3 and what I call the tertiary level of service, which is intraneighborhood, using the Tempe Orbit bus system as a model.

(This concept is part of my writings about the idealized transit network.)

The basic idea is that it would get people to and from home and neighborhood commercial districts and transit stations without having to drive.

The other way to think about it is how do you develop a RideOn like service for W3, which is pretty big, and has large sections of the Ward outside of the 3/4 to 1 mile catchment area around transit stations.

To be honest, this kind of thinking about transit improvement (and for Wards 7 and 8, which have similar conditions) + dealing with RPP ought to be integrated into the discussion about parking requirements within zoning.

Dealing with the latter without addressing the other components is going to lead to unintended and negative consequences probably.

2. wrt another comment about Muriel Bowser..., while she did work as the Silver Spring coordinator for MoCo, her academic training is in public policy, not urban planning.

by Richard Layman on Mar 19, 2013 7:15 am • linkreport

@ Lee Watkins

Waddaya mean? I'm sure you are not headed in a direction of invoking the past as prologue for these ADUs. Or do you mean something more insidious? I sure hope not.

@ Richard Layman.

Of course the zoning and RPP issue are connected. But it would be a huge mistake to hold up the zoning rewrite until the parking issue is solved. Because if you tie them together, neither will get done properly and you give the NIMBYs a reason to oppose the zoning rewrite. And imagine the s---storm the parking redo is going to be. Please, do not marry these two!

As a political matter, be careful when you hear the at-large candidates evoke what Richard is saying because that is code to the NIMBYs that candidate supports more and more delay in the zoning rewrite. In a logical world where things happen the right way, this "theory" of tying the two together makes sense. In DC politics, and with most any zoning/planning matter, to delay is divine, so having a parking redo as a prerequisite to a zoning rewrite will be the mantra you hear as these candidates troll for the NIMBY vote.

Don't be fooled.

by fongfong on Mar 19, 2013 8:34 am • linkreport

Alf, I think you're behind the times re: social trends. Many of my friends such as myself dont have cars and even the couples I know only have one if any cars. Do you really think the people who can afford 3 cars are going to want to live in a basement?

by Alan B. on Mar 19, 2013 8:58 am • linkreport

all it requires is simultaneous processes. If you think that the outer ward people won't be vociferous on this issue (Wards 3, 4, and 5), you're wrong.

However, the thing is just timing. Even if tomorrow the parking minimums elimination went through, it will take 3 years for the most part to begin to see any changes. So there is time to do it, in a phased way.

But doing one without acknowledging the need to deal both with mobility-transit augmentation and integrating real world economics into RPP will just foster different aspects of the problem.

by Richard Layman on Mar 19, 2013 9:08 am • linkreport

The author of this article told me recently that she was glad Glover Park's ANC passed a Resolution against dividing Zones by neighborhoods as she frequently drives (!) from Glover Park to my Woodley Park neighborhood to use the metro. If her organization is in favor of public transportation and neighborhood bus lines are inadequate, then work to improve them and honor the intent of RPPs.

by GBole on Mar 19, 2013 11:06 am • linkreport

Hi Gwen,

First, I would like to clarify that our conversation was a personal one and I was not acting as a representative of CSG at the time. I do often (less so these days) drive to Woodley Park and park on the street. I have noticed that there is usually ample parking there on weekday mornings. If there was not, then I probably would not drive over, since there would be no place to find a spot.

Parking management is an issue in D.C. and I fully expect to have to change my driving behavior in the future. I am supportive of raising the cost and changing the nature of RPP. However, zoning is a not a parking management tool and should not be.

Thank you for the conversation. As I also stated in our conversation, I welcome you to park in front of my building whenever you would like to visit.

by Abigail Zenner on Mar 19, 2013 11:42 am • linkreport

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