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DC's 40-year out of date zoning code will get at least 6 months more stale

A team of professionals looking at DC's zoning concluded that the 1958 code was hopelessly outdated, and found an urgent need for a new code. That report was in 1973. Four decades later, the code will continue getting older, as Mayor Vincent Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until September before deliberating on the proposed zoning update.

Photo by Neal Sanche on Flickr.

After over five years of public hearings and meetings to write a new code, the DC Office of Planning submitted it to the Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say over zoning in DC, last year.

There have been seven months of hearings already, with exhaustive chances for everyone to learn about the code and speak their minds. But Gray now wants changes, including ones that will add housing and help people age in place, to wait even longer.

The commission "set down" the code for public comment and hearings on September 9th, 2013. There were public hearings in November, but when some residents said they hadn't had enough time to read the new code, the commission added another set of hearings in January and February. There are two more hearings, for Wards 7 and 8 on April 21 and citywide on April 24, to give people yet another chance to speak.

But this week, the Gray administration decided to ask for even more delay, and the Zoning Commission extended the deadline to September 15, over a year after they set down the proposals.

The delay was almost another year longer than that. Gray wrote September 15, 2015 in a letter, but the zoning commissioners decided to assume he meant September 15, 2014.

Some commissioners argued that the process had gone on long enough, while others welcomed even more time. Rob Miller, a Gray appointee to the board, said, "Going through this process for seven years, what's another six months?" By that token, what's another seven years? The code has sorely needed revision for over 40 years.

Major problems with the zoning code were evident in 1970

In a July 1970 report, planning consultant Barton-Aschman Associates looked back at the code from the far side of highway protests, racial tension, riots, environmentalism, urban renewal, and the Metro system.

They didn't like what they saw. Despite some patches after Home Rule, the language was outdated and the code had major flaws. The study said,

A considerable number of provisions are archaic or substandard and need to be systematically reviewed and modernized. New techniques should be developed to accommodate changing market demand, technological advances, and new social conditions and programs.
Studies for the original code by its principal author, Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed people continued to have large families and drove everywhere, and that no historic neighborhoods would be preserved. The 1970 report criticized these assumptions as already out of date.

The 1958 code also did not plan for a city with Metro, with the lower dependence on driving and greater densities that made possible. The 1970 report argued,

Perhaps the Metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.
In 1976, 18 years after the zoning code was written, a panel of citizen representatives agreed that a zoning code which separated residential from commercial uses was harming the city:
The rigid separation of uses contemplated by our existing zoning is no longer desirable in many instances, and indeed, the separation of residential and commercial uses contributes positively to the increasing deadening of Downtown after dark.
The Special Citizens Advisory Committee on Urban Renewal included the 1958 code as part of the policies of an unrepresentative government that had decimated the city with slum clearance and highway construction. In the same period, the city made some additions to the planning laws, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and the Planned Unit Development process.

Downtown got new zoning in 1991 and amendments in 2000, and DC has added overlay districts to tweak zoning in many residential neighborhoods, but for most of the city, the zoning remains substantially the same as in the 1968 plan, and many of its problems were never solved.

For decades, people have said the zoning code is out of date. The earliest response to the highway riots questioned the zoning produced at that time. Then, one of the first actions of an independent DC was to question the land use regulation that was tied up with urban renewal. They patched the regulations up, but didn't reconstructed them in a way that improved stability and quality of life over the long term.

Some people say that changes to the zoning code will only worsen existing problems. But many of those problems exist because of the way the zoning is written now. Perhaps the city has become comfortable with the problems it's known about for 40 years. The risk of short-term pain is not a good enough reason to delay a much-needed update any more.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.  
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 summary focuses on the late fifties origin of the current zoning regulations, yet omits the fact that the Comprehensive Plan (approved by the DC Council with the force of law) has been updated many times. The problem with the draft zoning regs is, rather than being updated for consistency with the Comprehensive Plan, that they are inconsistent with the Comp Plan. Hopefully the next few months will be spent making the draft harmonize better with the Comp Plan.

by Alf on Apr 17, 2014 10:40 am • linkreport

@ Alf

The comp plan is like the bible. Some people read it to worship snakes in their rituals, and others decide it means to be nice to thy neighbor. As with the bible, this means the questions in the Code can be decided on their merits - there is scant evidence to reinforce through selective reading whether the existing draft violates the comp plan.

I'm sure Alf would say that the Babe's site needs to have parking, for example. Yet, the same zoning commission that is delaying the zoning rewrite said that building was completely consistent with the comp plan. So, by extension, this would mean eliminating all parking minimums in a transit zone would be consistent with the comp plan. Oops, sorry for injecting those facts.

As for the ZC itself, what a bunch of spineless folks these are. Hood's quest to find the one person who articulates the silent majority is an absurd quest. When the schools are being redistricted, it's not to easy to get people riled up to care much about zoning codes. For this delay alone, Hood should be fired.

Which gets me wondering, is someone due to be replaced on the ZC before it gets voted on?

by fongfong on Apr 17, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

Hood extended the comment period at the Mayor's request. That said, the Zoning Commission is an independent agency -- the Commissioners can't be fired. (Although presumably the feds can change whom they designate to represent NPS and the Architect of the Capitol).

If Babe's proves anything in this context it's that the current code isn't preventing garage-free residential development. Nor does it prevent internal ADUs (which, presumably, is the aspect of the zoning code that helps people age in place). Clearly the existing code isn't preventing us from adding housing or residents. The only thing in the zoning rewrite that seemed time-sensitive was the green area ratio and it moved ahead separately and has already taken effect.

re how much time should it take to weigh in on a 980 page draft zoning code. The ANC Commissioners who asked for the extension are volunteers who are dealing with a host of other issues and deadlines. It's not just a matter of reading nearly a thousand pages of regulations, but of comparing them to the existing code and of thinking through how they'll affect development in a specific community (which depends on economics, the built environment, and zoning classifications). Once the Commissioners have wrapped their heads around that, those who take their representative function seriously will want to brief their communities and hear their constituents' concerns and preferences. It's a lot of work and it's high stakes. Their request doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

This is a problem largely of OP's making. They didn't engage the ANCs and neighborhoods early on and when they finally did do outreach it was misleading and the bottom line seemed to be "nothing much to see here." OP's proposals will be much improved (and more timely) if they listen to and learn from residents in a variety of different communities and craft regulations that address their concerns.

by BTDT on Apr 17, 2014 1:31 pm • linkreport

Whatever BTDT.

We have an affordable housing crisis, and nobody seems to understand basic economics. The supply must increase, and soon, so that the value of existing homes does not make it prohibitively expensive for existing homeowners.

Most of the folks who don't like the zoning rewrite tend to be wealthier, so no skin off their nose.

by fongfong on Apr 17, 2014 3:23 pm • linkreport

The ANC Commissioners requesting the extension were predominantly from Wards 7 and 8. So is your claim that they don't understand basic economics, that they're wealthy and callous, or both?

by BTDT on Apr 17, 2014 3:42 pm • linkreport

"so that the value of existing homes does not make it prohibitively expensive for existing homeowners."

Huh? What? How? Would a sense of guilt somehow keep existing homeowners from enjoying the windfall? Surely tax breaks, rebates, exemptions and Bondian outright payoffs in the property tax code would never cause these existing homeowners to contribute more than a tiny percentage of that passively-gotten wealth to the operation of the city?

Anyway, I'm a middle-class wage slave, but I want to live in a nice house on a quiet leafy street in Georgetown.

by Sydney on Apr 17, 2014 5:11 pm • linkreport


To get more affordable housing, DC needs to start enforcing its existing regulations rather than looking the other way as PUD applicants have successfully watered down their application to specific projects.

As for your suggestion that easing restrictions on new development will create more affordable housing, the NYT had a very illuminating piece the other day that reported that, as long as developers have the flexibility to build, they will build expensive housing rather than middle class or affordable housing, And in Washington, they're finding that even as supply of high end units has led to a slight decrease in rents in that submarket, such increased supply has had no trickle down effect on the general market.

From the NYT: "But demand has shown no signs of slackening. And as long as there are plenty of upper-income renters looking for apartments, there is little incentive to build anything other than expensive units. As a result, there are in effect two separate rental markets that are so far apart in price that they have little impact on each other. In one extreme case, a glut of new luxury apartments in Washington has pushed high-end rents down, even while midrange rents continue to rise."

by Alf on Apr 17, 2014 5:21 pm • linkreport


And so a solution to that is to not let anyone build anything? What "existing regulations" need to be enforced to ensure more middle-class housing is available?

by MLD on Apr 17, 2014 5:28 pm • linkreport

the NYT article assumes a fixed number of developers doing a fixed number of projects, so that they would build new buildings for the middle class if there was less demand from the affluent. AFAICT that has generally not been the case in central parts of large cities.

Anyway, the answer to the demand is to build enough to impact the next market down. The data we saw recently, IIRC, was that class B rents were declining, but in Arlington not DC. The submarkets, though linked, still have slightly different drivers. The biggest problem in DC is that there simply arent that many moderately older apts - there was little built during the barry years, and most of that West of the Park, which still commands a premium based on location (because of schools and crime, I beleive) NoVa and MoCo have more units built from 1975 to 1995.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 17, 2014 5:42 pm • linkreport

As usual, AWITC makes great points. There are many different things going on wrt DC's residential property real estate market and the "affordable housing crisis."

1. Limited variety of housing types within residential zones--which increases demand for SFH some of which could have been captured by multiunit, if the option existed.
2. Most of DC's historic housing when built was small, compared to cities like NYC, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
3. Increasing demand across many submarkets
4. Increasing demand for urban living vis-a-vis the suburbs.
5. Not enough housing stock to meet demand for owner-occupied housing.
6. Restrictive zoning and/or residential opposition which makes it difficult to add housing in pre-existing areas.
7. The height limit, which reduces production and the ability to construct new "affordable" housing at scale.
8. Limited supply which means that as properties are converted from rental to owner-occupied (and upgraded/up priced), supply is reduced further.

The problem with relying on inclusionary zoning to produce "affordable" units is that even if it does all that it is supposed to do, it produces a limited amount of new units, and has limited impact on the existing housing stock and supply and pricing.

by Richard Layman on Apr 17, 2014 6:02 pm • linkreport

OP's lying turns people off. It's not an "update", it's a revision. An update is when you reconcile zoning rules to what is in fact already there. If they at least had said a revision to reflect new policy goals was being proposed people would have had more respect even if they disagreed.

I don't know of any change to the proposed revision that came from input from citizens during the process. Engagement is not presenting dog and pony shows to groups (and lying). Unfortunately the type people who think lying is just another tool of influence usually don't think anyone else has anything worthwhile to contribute.

When I asked OP employees early on what was being done when I saw them surveying my neighborhood I was told it was nothing; OP was just updating the code to recognize what was already built. Nothing to see here.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 17, 2014 6:33 pm • linkreport

OP's watering down corner store and ADU proposals in response to citizen agitation was definitely a response. I think there have been many other changes. I am not a hyper detailed zoning person, so I haven't been keeping track.

I am not sure what you mean by statement. I know you understand the process, but your statement infers that you do not.

OP proposes (although anyone can submit text amendments). Zoning Commission holds hearings and then makes requests etc. for changes from OP or could change the text, reject, etc. independently.

The process is not in the phase where it would be evident what might change as a result of the various ZC hearings.

as far as definitions, I think you're being overly precise. The Comp Plan was revised in 2006. It said the city should be urban. The zoning code leans suburban. So from the standpoint of changing the zoning code it should be pretty clear.

I was I think the fourth person to testify at the first ZC hearing in 2007 about the need for an overhaul. In fact I specifically contradicted George Clark, who basically said (to my recollection, although he disagrees) that the zoning code was fine. My response was that every overlay and every request for significant deviations from the code are indicators that it isn't very robust and lacks congruence with urbanity and that it needs to be changed and modernized.

What I think the big mistake was by OP was (1) not doing a two year road show on the Comp. Plan after it was approved in 2006, to build consensus on what it means and (2) immediately going into the rewrite process, when most involved citizens had planning fatigue from the Comp. Plan process for one and all the other ones.

Of course lots of people who didn't participate in either process argue it's a put up job.

Not to mention the suburban vs. urban city residents issues.

I think it was a massive failure of understanding by the OP on how to do a campaign, etc. OTOH, govt. officials may argue and usually do that it isn't there job to advocate, they present, and it's up to citizens and elected officials to decide.

But that's a bit facile. I argue for building the best most robust process as a way to increase the likelihood of success.

Knowing how things work here, I don't feel that enough energy was put into recognizing and responding to that reality.

by Richard Layman on Apr 17, 2014 10:24 pm • linkreport

In the Mayor's budget, I believe OP did request funding to start a Comp Plan rewrite in FY15.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 17, 2014 10:32 pm • linkreport

The problem isn't the salesmanship but the product. The redrafted code is a trainwreck and even OP's signature issues (ADUs, corner stores, and reduction of parking minimums) aren't (and never were) well-crafted policies.

Pushback has had some impact, but OP's response has typically been to muddy the water rather than to fix what's broken.

by BTDT on Apr 18, 2014 8:41 am • linkreport

fix what's broken.

Such as? Just throwing out things like "they won't fix the problems" isn't a criticism of anything specific. They can't respond to "fix what's broken," they can only respond to complaints about specific parts with recommendations about what people want as an alternative.

by MLD on Apr 18, 2014 8:49 am • linkreport

My point was that OP has received complaints about specific parts of the draft code, along with recommended alternatives, and that OP's response has typically not been to adopt the alternative (or to find a better alternative that would address the concerns being raised or to explain why the code's approach is superior). It has been either to do nothing or to do something half-baked whose function is not to solve the problem but to muddy the waters.

Case in point -- external ADUs. The change that public outcry effected was the inclusion of a provision that requires special exceptions for expanded or newly-built ADUs but that still allows matter-of right conversion of existing garages as well as the matter-of-right construction of habitable new two-story accessory buildings. Doesn't satisfy critics. Doesn't make sense. Isn't really enforceable. But enables OP to say that external ADUs now require special exceptions (i.e. to muddy the water).

by BTDT on Apr 18, 2014 9:39 am • linkreport

Doesn't satisfy critics.

But that assumes the critics can be satisfied while still meeting OP's goals for ADUs, and I'm not convinced that's the case.

Part of the problem is that the critics are criticizing the details, but it's not the details they take issue with - it's the big picture. And the big picture elements of the code rewrite have already been (generally) agreed upon - the ZC has given guidance to OP in crafting these regulations based on earlier hearings.

by Alex B. on Apr 18, 2014 9:54 am • linkreport

Ahh, so it's confusion about what "community input" means. It doesn't mean "community veto power."

Just FYI, the guidance on ADUs came from the Zoning Commission. It's not like OP is pulling these ideas out of its collective you-know-what.

Some people complained that the proposed ADU structure was too loose, and others have complained that the proposed regs were still too restrictive on ADUs. A compromise was found. To characterize the backlash as a solid majority opposed to any ADU is wrong.

by MLD on Apr 18, 2014 9:59 am • linkreport

There's no confusion on my part -- just misrepresentation on yours.

I offered three kinds of responses that would make sense (say yes, say here's a better way to meet your concerns, say no and here's why). And OP chose a fourth -- do something that makes no sense from any POV. You can call that a compromise but, despite government rhetoric to the contrary, not everything that leaves no one satisfied is a compromise -- sometimes it's just a stupid idea.

Can anyone provide a cite showing where the Zoning Commission told OP to handle external ADUs in the manner I described in my previous post? I'm fairly certain that's not what happened, but if I'm wrong, I'd like to know. And if it did happen, you should be able to find it on IZIS.

At any rate, that goes to the issue of who's to blame (not an especially interesting question) rather than whether the policies in the draft code are well-crafted. They aren't. That's been pointed out. Thus far, I haven't seen any real signs of improvement.

by BTDT on Apr 18, 2014 10:53 am • linkreport

They 1. changed the size regulations so that a new accessory building (i.e. garage) could only be half the size originally propsed and 2. changed the proposed rules so that only existing carriage houses can have ADU's by-right. How does that "make no sense from any POV"? I think they explained how they think this meets the concerns (which primarily seemed to be that anyone could build a big second house willy-nilly on their property with no input.)

Here is the video:

Sorry I don't have time to review it but I hope we'll at least give OP the benefit of the doubt that a QUOTE in one of their docs is not a blatant lie.

by MLD on Apr 18, 2014 11:25 am • linkreport

At any rate, that goes to the issue of who's to blame (not an especially interesting question) rather than whether the policies in the draft code are well-crafted. They aren't. That's been pointed out.

I'm not willing to stipulate that point, however. Please explain why the proposed policy is a problem?

If there isn't actual agreement about the problem, then it's hard to see how the critics (those alleging a problem) could ever be satisfied.

by Alex B. on Apr 18, 2014 11:43 am • linkreport

#2 is wrong -- existing garages and other outbuildings can be converted to ADUs as a matter-of-right.
#1's another muddy water example -- OP first cut the maximum footprint in half (900 SF to 450 SF) and then subsequently (without any publicity) added a provision that made the 450 SF function more like a minimum (can build 450 SF or 30% of required rear yard, whichever is greater) rather than a maximum.

What doesn't make sense from any POV is allowing a larger accessory structure (2 story outbuilding, up to 30% of required rear yard) to be built as a matter-of-right but not to be used as an ADU without a special exception. Once someone's built the structure, the most basic things that the neighbors would want to weigh in on in the special exception process (location, orientation, size, appearance) are already faits accompli.

by BTDT on Apr 18, 2014 11:56 am • linkreport

Thanks for the links, MLD. I appreciate the effort and it was an interesting read.

Actually, OP's quoting itself rather than the ZC and the process by which OP elicited this "guidance" from the ZC is almost comical. Transcript is here and the discussion starts at p. 15:

Since the hearing in question was held in 2009, it doesn't explain changes in the draft text that were made in 2012 and 2013, which is the timeframe for the ADU changes we've been discussing.

by BTDT on Apr 18, 2014 12:35 pm • linkreport

They quote themselves but if you read the transcript OP outlines the two options and then the commission decides that Option 1 (what they quoted) is the preferred option.

And the changes made later were based on public feedback; isn't that what people want?

by MLD on Apr 18, 2014 12:53 pm • linkreport

BTDT wrote, "What doesn't make sense from any POV is allowing a larger accessory structure (2 story outbuilding, up to 30% of required rear yard) to be built as a matter-of-right but not to be used as an ADU without a special exception. Once someone's built the structure, the most basic things that the neighbors would want to weigh in on in the special exception process (location, orientation, size, appearance) are already faits accompli.'

Methinks the fait accompli strategy is exactly what OP intends.

by Jack on Apr 19, 2014 10:30 am • linkreport

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