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The DC zoning update has already had triple the public input as the enormous 1958 zoning code. Enough is enough.

Last week, Mayor Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until at least this fall before considering the proposed DC zoning update. This comes after nearly seven years of deliberation and resident input, and will now mean an entire year after a full draft was released for public review.


Photo by Live Life Happy on Flickr.

Public involvement is a critical part of good planning, but on this project, city officials have established what must be a new record for public consultation. Already, there has been enormously more public input than when the original zoning code was passed in 1958.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth is urging residents to tell Mayor Gray that further delay in creating a more walkable and inclusive city is simply not acceptable.

As of earlier this year, there have been:

  • 81 public work group meetings on 20 topic areas in 2008-2009, with a total of 1,000 participants
  • 42 open task force meetings by a representative task force of 25 residents
  • 59 public hearings and meetings by the Zoning Commission on specific topics starting in 2009
  • 8 meetings in each ward in December 2012 and January 2013 to discuss the zoning revision
  • Over 100 ANC, community group, and special interest group meetings with the DC Office of Planning.
Miles away from the 1958 zoning code

Meanwhile, back in 1956-1958, there were no more than 25 public hearings. 20 of those were clustered in two 10-day breaks for public input.

The zoning codes were developed by a private consultant; the public had its input; and then a three-man group called the Zoning Advisory Council made significant alternations.

The Zoning Advisory Council was group of three "experienced" individuals, representing the National Capital Planning Commission, the Zoning Commission, and the District Commissioner. They advised the Zoning Commission when big changes came up. The Zoning Commission had to consider each of their views.

The current zoning update began with public and open working groups on each topic. The previous one began with a contract, in November 1954. At the time, there was no Office of Planning. The National Capital Planning Commission did most of the work. Zoning was the job of the Zoning Commission, which comprised the three District Commissioners, as well as a representative from the Architect of the Capitol and the National Park Service.

Two of the District Commissioners were civilians appointed by Congress. The third, and by far the dominant, was an ex-officio representative of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Engineer Commissioner was effectively the city manager.

Having no planning staff of its own, the Zoning Commission issued a contract in November 1954 for Harold Lewis, a well-respected engineer and urban planner. His father, Nelson Lewis, was a founder of American planning.

Lewis presented his plans over ten summer weeknights, June 18th-29th, 1956. Crowds packed into the stuffy auditoriums of schools and the Wilson building to voice their opinions on Lewis' proposal. Lewis or one of his assistants began each event with a defense of the assumptions that underlay the report.

The public addressed Lewis' plan with a barrage of testy testimony. Unlike the current process, the 1956 commission didn't break up the meeting by topic. This was the first time anyone had seen the proposal.

The zoning change significantly altered the zoning map. Lewis also wanted to force nonconforming structures and uses to close down entirely. And the code dramatically downzoned much of the city.

The 2008-2014 zoning update does not touch this level of controversy. The map does not change, and no areas get upzoned or downzoned. Policy changes, such as the controversial ones around parking, corner stores, and basement and garage apartments, are tiny compared to the changes of 1958.

Lewis took some of the public comments into consideration. He delivered his final report, known as the Lewis Report, on November 9th. A 7-month comment period then began, and ended with 10 days of hearings at the Wilson Building, May 27th-June 6th.

If the summer meetings were hot, this was volcanic. But it ended with the Zoning Advisory Council taking the comments behind closed doors. They issued a report on July 12, 1957. Other than details, the law went into effect on May 12th, 1958. With some alterations, what was set down then is still law.

Little changes shouldn't make it hard to solve big problems

It's not that the 1958 process was better. Far from it; the openness of the current process should be praised. And it's always worth examining how a public process could be more open. However, it's not clear how new rounds of testimony increase participation by underrepresented groups.

More time will just allow vocal residents to rehash the same disputes again. All to defend regulations that, no matter how comfortable they may have become, are based on discredited and outdated theory.

Comprehensively updating our zoning code for the first time since 1958 will help to make housing more affordable, by giving builders more flexible options in construction and easing the rules that allow homeowners to create an accessory apartment.

In a city with housing costs that are rapidly spiraling out of control, we can't afford to waste any more time with unjustified delays. Let the Zoning Commission begin deliberating! Send a message to Mayor Gray that DC residents are ready NOW for a new, modern, and more understandable zoning code.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He writes on architecture and Russia at цarьchitect
Alex Posorske is the Managing Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Before joining CSG, he managed two top tier Congressional races, organized key constituencies in the 2008 presidential primaries, built grassroots operations in numerous regions throughout the country. Alex has a B.A. in Journalism from Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. 

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Ultimately, this whole process has been dominated by a small handful of the 25 appointed Task Force members who vociferously disagreed with some of the incremental adjustments related to parking and accessory apartments. The Office of Planning has altered its proposal based on the protests of these individuals (and those who support their views) and yet the city is held hostage by more delay despite one of the most open and inclusive public processes ever.

by William on Apr 21, 2014 4:03 pm • linkreport

@William

As enabled by your Council Chair, the Honorable Phil Mendleson. Without his endless hearings on this issue to give the disgruntled 25 more time to raise these issues, we would be done. Phil is brought to you by the Sierra Club and the residents of Ward 3, which makes him an enviro-NIMBY. Let's celebrate Earth Day by keeping a car-centric zoning code.

by fongfong on Apr 21, 2014 4:18 pm • linkreport

Here's how DC's original zoning map and ordinance was written in the 1920s, according to American City Planning by Mel Scott (1969):

Property owners [in cities generally] quickly realized, however, that the designation of an apartment house zone or a commercial zone conferred a new speculative value on properties in that zone. They were invariably eager to reap the profits such a designation promised, as Louis Brownlow and Colonel Charles Kutz, the commissioners of the District of Columbia, discovered after they engaged Harland Bartholomew in 1920 to prepare a zoning ordinance for the national capital.

Washington real estate men put pressure on the two officials to permit the construction of apartment houses in the northwest section of the city, which contained most of the good single-family residential areas. But upon advice of their consultant, Brownlow and Kutz decided not to allow multifamily structures between Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues, north and west of Rock Creek Park. By 1926, however, the agitation for a change of zone to authorize apartments was so great that the commissioners were almost persuaded to make some concessions. Bartholomew then suggested that a detailed study of land use in the entire city should be made, as well as a determination of how much land was absorbed each year by the construction of new apartment houses. The extensive land-use survey took more than a year to comlete but enabled Brownlow and Kutz to stand firm against the real estate men. To the surprise of the commissioners and the consternation of those who wanted a zoning change, the survey revealed that less than one per cent of the city was actually used for apartment houses and that there was a considerable amount of vacant land zoned for such structures in other parts of the city.

by Ben Ross on Apr 21, 2014 4:19 pm • linkreport

The code needs to be revised. The draft, as tweaked as of late, strikes the right balance on all the issues. It will never satisfy everyone. Someone just needs to have the political backbone to push the code over the line. The ZC should just do it. They do not have to wait for the DC political scene to unite, which btw is never going to happen. OMG, pass it already.

by enoughalready on Apr 21, 2014 4:46 pm • linkreport

But a new, modern, more understandable code is not what's before the Zoning Commission. Anybody who tells you otherwise hasn't read the draft. OP said they were keeping 90% of the old code, so we're not talking some major paradigm shift here. The new code is two or three hundred pages longer than the old code and there's been so much cutting and pasting over the past few years that the text is a lumbering, disorganized mess. It's actually kind of shocking how bad it is.

by BTDT on Apr 21, 2014 5:44 pm • linkreport

I haven't read that many zoning codes, but the new one seems much more precise, and you don't have to know decades worth of legal interpretation to understand it.

Do you have an example you can point to?

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 21, 2014 5:56 pm • linkreport

You'd think that CSG would understand that under the Home Rule Charter, the Zoning Commission is an independent agency not subject to the rule of the Executive.

The executive agencies advise but do not direct the activities of the Zoning Commission.

You can ask Mayor Gray all you want to get the ZC to change their decision but it has no impact.

ya gotta ask the Zoning Commission.

In short, Mayor Gray doesn't have standing. If this were a legal suit, it would be thrown out of court because it is directed at the wrong agency.

2. re fongfong's point, it's not CM Mendelson's fault. The Zoning Advisory Committee was created in 2007 long before Mr. Mendelson became chair of the Council. And the appointees were by the Mayor AND each of the Councilmembers (including by then CM Mendelson).

And yes, they strongly favored the status quo, making it that much harder to push urbanism forward.

E.g., it turns out that when I described my recc. to OP to use the Nashville Community Character Manual as a framework concept for a new zoning code they actually studied it. But they figured the advisory committee would never go for it and they never presented.

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2012/05/dc-and-zoning-rewrite-and-approach-not.html

I was misinformed earlier when I wrote, incorrectly, that the advisory committee rejected it. They never got the chance. Some people on the committee wrote to me after they came across my piece and said that the NCCM approach seemed sound and they would have considered it.

With that framework, every neighborhood doesn't need its own code overlay.

by Richard Layman on Apr 21, 2014 6:12 pm • linkreport

Again, are housing prices "spinning out of control?"

They are going up, clearly. But the issue is less supply/demand than large chunks of DC doen't have income -- or can't qualify for a mortage. And nothing in the zoning deals with that.

And if you believe in the supply/demand fairy, the 20K+ rental units that are in the pipeline are pretty good evidence that you can build under the current system.

by charlie on Apr 21, 2014 6:16 pm • linkreport

Richard,
You'd think that CSG would understand that under the Home Rule Charter, the Zoning Commission is an independent agency not subject to the rule of the Executive.

The executive agencies advise but do not direct the activities of the Zoning Commission.

You can ask Mayor Gray all you want to get the ZC to change their decision but it has no impact.

ya gotta ask the Zoning Commission.

Before you chastise CSG about the Home Rule Act, you should remember the circumstances of this latest delay: Mayor Gray specifically wrote the ZC asking for an extension of the deadline for comment.

http://wamu.org/news/14/04/16/dc_votes_to_extend_public_comment_period_on_zoning_code_rewrite

The ZC made this decision to keep the record open precisely because of the Mayor's request.

Now, that's all water under the bridge. I'll leave it to others to determine if asking the Mayor is the most effective way to finally finish this process.

But I'm not sure why you'd think that sending feedback to elected officials suggests that an organization doesn't understand how Home Rule in DC works.

by Alex B. on Apr 21, 2014 7:23 pm • linkreport

you or I could have written a similar letter. They may or may have responded the same way.

If the point of the petition is to ask for a rescindment, then it makes no sense.

... well it makes sense if you think that the petition will convince Mayor Gray to send another request to the ZC to reverse the decision that he asked them to make earlier.

I don't know your resume in great detail. My experience working for the executive branch in govt. is very brief, 10 months. Based on my very enlightening experience, my sense of something playing out that way is "pretty unlikely."

It's not a course of action you'd likely recommend to your bosses. They'd likely think about replacing you.

From the standpoint of CSG, and CSG and their rep with funders and with elected officials, it seems pretty bush league to me.

by Richard Layman on Apr 21, 2014 8:44 pm • linkreport

"And the(1954)code dramatically downzoned much of the city. The 2008-2014 zoning update does not touch this level of controversy. The map does not change, and no areas get upzoned or downzoned."

I confess I haven't read the new code, but if the 1954 code significantly downsized much of the city, how is the new code supposed to handle all the growth anticipated without upzoning areas?

by Thayer-D on Apr 22, 2014 8:36 am • linkreport

how is the new code supposed to handle all the growth anticipated without upzoning areas?

This wasn't the goal of the new code. That would be the goal for an update to the comprehensive plan.

The goal for the new code is to re-organize the code so it is easier to use and make some minor policy adjustments on permitted uses, parking requirements, and so on.

Each of those policy adjustments is key to handling additional growth, however. Lower parking requirements can lower the cost of construction and make small-scale infill feasible. Additional allowed uses (like ADUs) also help grow the housing stock without any re-zoning or any substantial change in the character of the neighborhood.

These are important, but modest, changes in policy. But no one is suggesting that these changes alone will provide the room to grow.

BTDT references the fact that the code is now longer than the old one. Part of the reason for this is that the old code had so many overlay zones that were simple to read in text but were confusing to apply. Some base zones might have an overlay with conflicting provisions. The new code puts all of those existing regulations into a single zone.

Imagine a matrix with the zones running along the X axis and the overlays running along the Y axis. The new code saves you the trouble of looking up what regs apply by creating a 'new' designation for the regulations that already exist - they've just been consolidated into a single zone.

by Alex B. on Apr 22, 2014 8:59 am • linkreport

Yes, the ZC held countless community meetings, in an effort at public outreach. But who actually attends such meetings? These were dominated, of course, by individuals and organizations with special interest in zoning, while the general public, unwilling to invest time in evening meetings, stayed home. So now we have a revised zoning code that reflects the opinions of these groups, while the general public is only now discovering what's in the code. Maybe they should have known, and should have attended these meetings, but that's the reality.

The revised code as "smart growth" advocacy written all over it. Right or wrong, the changes prescribed reflect the views of this minority, and have not been explained or sold to the general public. The "smart growth" people, living in their own echo chamber, haven't done the job of selling this product to the public, and have been taken by surprise by popular objection. So it's natural for the advocates who have been involved in the process to want to close the books on it, fending off the popular objections. What does the public know about "smart growth"?

But this is a democracy, and it's time for the self-appointed experts to come down to earth and persuade the public that their prescriptions are, in the long run, good for the city. That has not been done, and must be done, or these zoning changes, good or bad, will not become law.

by Jack on Apr 22, 2014 9:00 am • linkreport

The issue here is not appeasing the same "25 people" you keep mentioning who have been the most ardent opponents (although I am sure they are not displeased by the delay), the reason for the delay is to allow ANC's - chiefly those in Wards 7 and 8, the opportunity to fully review and comprehend the impact of the proposed rewrite.

Zoning, to many people outside of this blog bubble, is not second nature. While some ANC's have been following this all along, many have not. You can criticize them for not paying attention - but frankly I know many of you have not actually read the new code either.

I know everyone is anxious for resolution - but let's be real about what this latest delay is about. If you want to go on record essentially telling the citizens of Wards 7 and 8 that it is a waste of time to give them a few more months to study the changes, I don't think you will win many supporters. Impatience, in this case, could work against you.

by EH on Apr 22, 2014 9:06 am • linkreport

@Jack
Yes, the ZC held countless community meetings, in an effort at public outreach. But who actually attends such meetings?

Sorry, but if people aren't actually willing to engage in the community outreach that happens then they are just complainers and naysayers using "community outreach" as a pointless buzzword. "This is a democracy" - well it's a representative democracy with a government we elect to hire experts to put policy in place. A city of 600,000 is too big to do everything at a town meeting.

What do you want, the director of OP showing up at every house to give people a personal chat about the zoning code?

I think there has been plenty of talk from OP about how the changes in the zoning code allow the city to grow without a radical rezoning. The problem isn't that there hasn't been an attempt to convince people - it's that people won't listen and are more swayed by their personal interests (or at least what they perceive to be their personal interests) and fear of any change.

by MLD on Apr 22, 2014 9:20 am • linkreport

In a distant life, I wrote about zoning issues as a local news reporter. The only people who ever really understood its rules, definitions, exceptions, were the zoning board members, and a collection of attorneys who represented pick-your-developer. Residents, however, did understand the appeal process, only because it was an-in-your-face process that notified you of a neighbor's intent. I suspect that 90% of the property owners in DC have no idea how the zoning changes will impact them. But, in my view, the only people who gain by dragging on a process are those who oppose the changes. Delay here probably favors the opposition, although I suppose if the intent is to extend this past the election, it may keep the opponents from distilling the zoning changes to inflammatory bite size chunks to antagonize and bully.

by kob on Apr 22, 2014 9:23 am • linkreport

I get that we need to push this along, but I also agree with Jack that the haven't done a great job of selling this to the public. Simply peeling off the upzoning debate to a "comprehensive plan" is confusing enough. I'd expect to see pictures that show what smart growth could look like.

In Cleveland Park's mainstreet, for example, where's the illustration that shows what smart growth could look like?
And where are the maps showing how much open space around DC will be spared from sprawl if we allow mainstreets at all metro stops to be up zoned like cities used to grow until WWII, when as they point out, cities where downzoned to be more suburban, when density meant having to live near "those people"?

"This wasn't the goal of the new code. That would be the goal for an update to the comprehensive plan."

Thanks for the clarification, but why was up or down zoning part of the 1954 code when that's what let's people know how big and dense they can build? I'm sure there's some beaurocratic snafu that's preventing my brain from getting it.

"These are important, but modest, changes in policy. But no one is suggesting that these changes alone will provide the room to grow."

Fair enough, but I'm suggesting that if the zoning code was downzoned, why are we not using it to upzone? No offense, but I don't want to look up and down the x and y axis, I'd like to see how smart growth looks in DC and why it's important for us to get behind living smartly on a shrinking globe that can't afford five billion people driving to everything.

by Thayer-D on Apr 22, 2014 9:24 am • linkreport

In Cleveland Park's mainstreet, for example, where's the illustration that shows what smart growth could look like?
And where are the maps showing how much open space around DC will be spared from sprawl if we allow mainstreets at all metro stops to be up zoned like cities used to grow until WWII, when as they point out, cities where downzoned to be more suburban, when density meant having to live near "those people"?

You're talking about Comp Plan kind of stuff.

The zoning rewrite contains relatively minor policy changes and a very broad regulatory process. It is minutia. We're talking about very dry stuff. It's understandable that people are struggling with the big picture, because the very nature of these exacting details in the regulations is that they don't deal with the big picture.

This is also a good reason why public input isn't as useful in this stage as it is in a earlier, more broad-based stage. And there was extensive outreach on the subject.

Thanks for the clarification, but why was up or down zoning part of the 1954 code when that's what let's people know how big and dense they can build? I'm sure there's some beaurocratic snafu that's preventing my brain from getting it.

Because there wasn't much public process to accompany that revision? I'm not sure what you don't get.

Fair enough, but I'm suggesting that if the zoning code was downzoned, why are we not using it to upzone?

Because our process has evolved. To upzone, first you update the plan, then you update the code.

The ZRR isn't really about changing policy, and upzoning is a policy change. The policy changes in the ZRR are minor (corner stores, ADUs, parking, GAR - that's about it). This is how it was pitched to the public and to the ZC.

Which really makes it that much more absurd that a rulemaking process is taking this long.

No offense, but I don't want to look up and down the x and y axis, I'd like to see how smart growth looks in DC and why it's important for us to get behind living smartly on a shrinking globe that can't afford five billion people driving to everything.

Then you should a) want to see the ZRR finished as soon as possible, and b) be eager for the upcoming update to the comprehensive plan.

by Alex B. on Apr 22, 2014 9:33 am • linkreport

Since when is there one answer to "what does Smart Growth look like"?

It could look like Dupont - rowhouses with larger apartment buildings on the corners of the blocks.

It could look like newer development in Logan Circle - clusters of large buildings and leaving residential blocks largely not upzoned.

I think it's been said over and over what the existing examples of more dense growth in DC are.

What does Cleveland Park look like in the future? Whatever people there want it to look like! The zoning code is just the zoning code - it isn't a plan for future growth.

by MLD on Apr 22, 2014 9:37 am • linkreport

Alex, I do want to see this done asap, and MLD, I agree that smart growth can look a hundred different ways. I'm trying to help smart growthers by thinking of ways to communicate with the public beyond technical terms. Nice illustrations traditionally accompanied plans for growth, which I take this zoning re-write to be one.

Just to understand the sequence then, to upzone, first you update the plan, then you update the code. By code, I assume you mean the zoning code? So "he plan" somehow shows DCers where we will accomodate more growth (meaning taller buildings), does then the zoning code get changed to prescribe height and density?

by Thayer-D on Apr 22, 2014 9:47 am • linkreport

Although all this confusion does seem to support what Richard Layman said earlier here:
http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/22277/dcs-40-year-out-of-date-zoning-code-will-get-at-least-6-months-more-stale/#comment-229502

by MLD on Apr 22, 2014 9:49 am • linkreport

What will Cleveland Park look like in the future? Probably exactly like it does today, given underlying zoning and the historic district. I suppose one could consider trying to develop the surface parking lots behind the east side of the main commercial strip, but that would probably face intense opposition.

by William on Apr 22, 2014 9:58 am • linkreport

I'm trying to help smart growthers by thinking of ways to communicate with the public beyond technical terms. Nice illustrations traditionally accompanied plans for growth, which I take this zoning re-write to be one.

Two things:

No, I do not think this zoning re-write is a plan for growth at all. It is a regulation. It is a rulemaking process.

Yes, there are ways to communicate the ideas and concepts better without muddling in the technical details. But this is the paradox: the ZRR is all about the technical details. It is not a visioning process, it is a technical review of the code.

If we want to edit the minutia of the zoning code, how else do you propose we do it? At some point, we need to make these changes.

Just to understand the sequence then, to upzone, first you update the plan, then you update the code. By code, I assume you mean the zoning code? So "he plan" somehow shows DCers where we will accomodate more growth (meaning taller buildings), does then the zoning code get changed to prescribe height and density?

Yes, that is how the process would work. All changes to the zoning code are checked for their consistency with the Comprehensive Plan. (this is why during the Height Act debate, OP was consistent that changing the law would not change allowed heights without also updating the Comp Plan and then altering the zoning.)

And remember the reason we are updating the zoning code: because it was specifically called out in the 2006 Comprehensive Plan. The ZRR started in 2007.

by Alex B. on Apr 22, 2014 10:11 am • linkreport

YAY! Now I have a whole extra year to procrastinate on having a strong opinion on a thing I felt so passionately about I didn't comment on it proactively!

by Bossi on Apr 22, 2014 10:11 am • linkreport

The fact that Cleveland Park's mainstreet is frozen in amber is ridiculous. I've been accused of being a hysterical preservationist, but I don't see how all of Petworth, Brightwood and upper Georgia Avenue aren't historic since they where built at the same time as CLeveland Park's mainstreet. And I'm not advocating laying a finger on the pricless Cleveland Park victorians, but on the main street, it's a lot of 1 story place holders. Even if you wanted to save the nice store fronts, there should be a plan to save them and add at least another 4-5 stories above.

I've got nothing against a lot of future growth being directed north on Georgia, being a Silver Springer, but it just dosen't make the city's case that all residents are created equal under historic preservation laws. I guess it's about the citizens deeming thier neighborhood historic rather than the city preserving all of our heritage.

by Thayer-D on Apr 22, 2014 10:14 am • linkreport

Alex, To my architecty mind, a zoning map tells me about the physical form of a city in terms of massing, which it's all about, but MLD's link sheds some light on the matter.

Unfortunatly, if people like Richard Layman and architect/planners like me have a hard time understanding the process, it dosen't bode well for the public at large, which is a shame. I agree with most things I've heard about it and would welcome more.

by Thayer-D on Apr 22, 2014 10:18 am • linkreport

To my architecty mind, a zoning map tells me about the physical form of a city in terms of massing, which it's all about, but MLD's link sheds some light on the matter.

Well, yes - but it's also about a lot more than massing. It covers premitted uses, parking, etc. Those are the areas where there is minor change.

Unfortunatly, if people like Richard Layman and architect/planners like me have a hard time understanding the process, it dosen't bode well for the public at large, which is a shame. I agree with most things I've heard about it and would welcome more.

I don't disagree that it's a confusing process. However, how else do you change the confusing details of the code? The very nature of any code is that it is detailed, opaque, and hard to understand.

Let me put out a hypothetical. Let's say we have a complex, confusing code. Everyone agrees that we need to update it. Everyone agrees with some basic conceptual changes. So, staff work on changing it to address that broad agreement. They present the results, and people complain because the details of their changes are hard to understand, even though they are in line with the agreed-upon conceptual changes.

Educating every member of the public to be a zoning expert isn't a realistic solution. So how do you convey the broad concepts when the textual changes you must make to the legally-binding regulations are (almost by defintion) detailed and opaque?

by Alex B. on Apr 22, 2014 10:29 am • linkreport

"Well, yes - but it's also about a lot more than massing. It covers premitted uses, parking, etc. Those are the areas where there is minor change."

Agreed, but when walking down the street, I don't necessarily note the changes of use as much as the physical reality around, especially when walking.

"So how do you convey the broad concepts "

My suggestion is with illustrations. And if you conceed that zoning maps are about the physical reality of a street, is seems like showing the new reality would be useful. As for those nimbyers who are trying to gum up the process (however flawed) allowing for more sunshine by showing illustrating proposed physical changes might make them less able to thwart the necessary changes we desperatly need to handle future growth.

I'm on your side, but you need to show more leg if you want to get people looking. Kind of like those minimalist glass boxes. You've got to give people something to look at!

by Thayer-D on Apr 22, 2014 10:40 am • linkreport

I guess what thayer D is talking about is not so much the zoning code vs the Comp plan, but explanatory (but not legally binding) materials to explain the code and the proposed changes, which materials (pictures, maps, text) are not necessarily in the Comp Plan. But could be used to help market the zoning changes.

NYC once had a booklet that listed the principle zoning categories, with a lay persons description (though it included things like FAR's) a photo of somewhere in the city with that zone, and a description of where it was zoned "R-1 is mostly in Staten Island" "R-10 is zoned on avenue facing blocks in Upper Manhattan" that sort of thing. Very intuitive, it was my first real education in zoning. That wouldnt be a bad thing I suppose.

Though for the changes in this go round, Im not sure how you would illustrate them. I mean an 8 story building with no garage, vs one with a 25 space garage, and one with a 59 space garage? A SFH with a one story back yard accessory building used for storage, and the same SFH and the same accessory building but with someone living in it?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 22, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

Agreed, but when walking down the street, I don't necessarily note the changes of use as much as the physical reality around, especially when walking.

Great! Then you should like the ZRR, since it loosens restrictions on use.

But that doesn't change the nature of the procedural problem here. Just because you don't notice the use regs doesn't mean they don't exist. And ignoring them won't magically make them change, either.

I'm on your side, but you need to show more leg if you want to get people looking. Kind of like those minimalist glass boxes. You've got to give people something to look at!

And if I'm playing Devil's Advocate, a ZRR opponent would argue that your illustration glosses over the important text changes.

That's the conundrum: fundamentally, the changes are about changing obscure text in the zoning regulations. It is not easily understood, and likely never will be. Even if you easily convey the big picture changes, people will still be able to nitpick the details.

by Alex B. on Apr 22, 2014 10:51 am • linkreport

I would do both as AWITC elludes to. But if there are no substantive (percievable) changes in height or physical form in this zoning re-write, then I stand corrected. Full speed ahead on the important text changes that won't affect the physical form of streets.

by Thayer-D on Apr 22, 2014 11:00 am • linkreport

wrt kob, Jack's and MLD's points, I will bring up the Nashville Communityu Character Manual again because it gets at the point people are making about what changes and how much.

This is on my mind a lot lately because of the opposition in certain quarters to various elements of a proposed apt. building at the Takoma Metro, which is in my neighborhood.

I haven't counted, but my greater neighborhood, depending on far up towards Georgia Ave. you want to go, is probably 200 blocks. Maybe 12 of those blocks, including the Metro, are commercial at the Takoma commercial district. Another 12 partial blocks, maybe a few more, abut the railroad tracks and are industrially zoned.

Those are the blocks that are targeted for change as far as the Comp. Plan is concerned. That's 24 blocks out of as many as 200.

Otherwise, except possibly for corner stores (which don't make sense economically in my part of the city) and ADUs, there are no changes whatsoever projected for the other 176 blocks. (And to some ADUs are a big change; to others they are not.)

Within the context of the character subzones of T4-T6 in the NCCM there would be something like 21 zones. And you can provide block by block policy prescriptions, so again, in my area most blocks would be categorized as preserve-maintain (unchanged).

So all the f*ing angst about how the zoning rewrite is going to change "my house, my block, my neighborhood, the city as I know it" in every respect is totally misplaced.

It's noise drummed up by the opponents.

OTOH, people in OP and the electeds should have known better on how things were likely to turn out. It's not politic for me to say, but it does not speak well of OP leadership that things have turned out this way. (Although some people put this on former OP official Travis Parker, who ran the process originally.) And electeds have responsibility too because they appointed people mostly to the advisory committee who were not likely to favor the right kinds of changes.

by Richard Layman on Apr 22, 2014 11:01 am • linkreport

RL

Would it have been better to seperate the simplification/stream lining effort from the more substantive changes? So that when the ADU/parking/corner store issues came up, it would be clear almost everything else remained the same?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 22, 2014 11:06 am • linkreport

Hey, Thayer-D, people like you and me understand the process just fine. But there are two elements to the "process":

1. the legal and rulemaking elements (which Alex B. pointed out/defined and which I have responded to in this and other posts);

2. the "campaign" or social change and social movement-community organizing "process" (which few people other than me seem to be thinking about enough).

To get the changes you want, you need both. Another way to think of it as "business process redesign", which is how I approach doing plans.

If you don't simultaneously address both, especially in contentious situations, you're gonna lose.

It is true that generally, the more delay, the more likelihood there is of "failure". OTOH, the people on the Zoning Commission know what's at stake, know the problems within the current code, have a sense of the future of the city, etc. They generally make good decisions, given that they work within the confines of the current code.

by Richard Layman on Apr 22, 2014 11:09 am • linkreport

re thayer-D and "main street" Cleveland Park, that's a tricky issue beyond the zoning code, because historic preservation regulations trump rebuilding.

Obviously, when that district was built, the city was smaller and the nature of retail was much different than it is today. It doesn't make sense economically and won't support a wider array of retail.

Could that justify a "special merit determination" to eradicate and rebuild? Theoretically yes. Will it happen? probably not. Even if it did, it couldn't be rebuilt at the scale needed to make a big difference, because the retail sector keeps reorganizing at larger scales which makes Cleveland Park more irrelevant except as a multiple neighborhood serving eatertainment district.

To have a wide array of retail, it has to function more on the scale of Friendship Hei9ghts...

by Richard Layman on Apr 22, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

AWITC -- I don't know. I keep arguing with a colleague in OP who no longer agrees with me about the NCCM being the bees knees.

I aver that the NCCM is the bees knees though because it makes very clear what changes and why and how in the great scheme of things, most blocks don't change at all.

ADUs are a big deal to some, not to me. Corner stores are a big deal to some, but make little sense economically in DC (the sales per s.f. aren't large enough in most places to make sense to do this--even in Greater Capitol Hill-H St. more corner stores have been closing than opening).

And the parking minimum thing.

Those are the only substantive changes to the residential zones.

So why is the sky falling?

2. another way to respond would have been to do pilot testing of ADUs and corner stores in a couple large swathes of the city. Seattle did something like that when it pioneered changes in ADUs, starting in Southeast Seattle.

I keep meaning to organize an open house weekend of occupied carriage houses around the city to demonstrate that these are for regular people... etc.

by Richard Layman on Apr 22, 2014 11:17 am • linkreport

@Alex: “The ZRR isn't really about changing policy, and upzoning is a policy change. The policy changes in the ZRR are minor (corner stores, ADUs, parking, GAR - that's about it). This is how it was pitched to the public and to the ZC.”

That might be what was pitched to the public and to the ZC, but it isn’t an accurate characterization of how adoption of the nearly 1,000 page document would change our zoning regulations.

The ANC commissioners in Wards 7 and 8 now realize that, and asked for more time to methodically go through the document, figure out what actually would be changing, and how it will impact their neighborhoods.

@Alex: “Well, yes - but it's also about a lot more than massing. It covers premitted [sic] uses, parking, etc. Those are the areas where there is minor change.”

Many people who have compared OP’s draft regulations with the current regulations have found that there are major policy, many of which OP is not explaining in their summaries of the impact of the ZRR. And Alex B at 10:51 even highlights how the ZRR loosens restrictions on use.

@Richard Layman: “Those are the only substantive changes to the residential zones.”

Those might be the only substantive changes to residential zones listed in OP’s summaries and discussed here, but many other substantial changes to residential zones have been documented elsewhere.

by OtherMike on Apr 22, 2014 12:17 pm • linkreport

Those might be the only substantive changes to residential zones listed in OP’s summaries and discussed here, but many other substantial changes to residential zones have been documented elsewhere.

Feel free to elaborate, because "no there are other things not being talked about" without any links or explanation is exactly the kind of criticism that people are sick of.

by MLD on Apr 22, 2014 12:24 pm • linkreport

what substance means, at least when I use it, is the possibility of real change. As far as existing residential blocks are concerned, except for ADUs, there are no substantive changes.

where it is different is where C zoning, where residential housing is matter of right, abuts residential. Now it won't change over the R zone in any real way, but changes to the C rules can have impact on the abutting residentially zoned property.

Interestingly, the stuff I care about the most, the stuff that I think has the most impact on quality of life and neighborhood character, the design and architectural and stylistic compatibility of new and old, isn't addressed by the changes at all.

Matters like the Cafritz apartment building's design are think are far more substantive.

sideyard requirement changes etc. aren't all that substantive.

by Richard Layman on Apr 22, 2014 12:59 pm • linkreport

wrt what "change" means, I happened to come across this book when I was in college _Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution_. It's a very important book and has a lot of influence on my thinking.

It defines change as first order or second order change. First order change is change but doesn't have substantive impact. It's like changing the order of your five drawer dresser from underwear being on top and sweaters on the bottom to underwear on the bottom and sweaters on top.

2nd order change is change of substance. So how are extant housing districts, extant being the key word, which is what should matter the most to the average change averse person, going to change at the second order level?

by Richard Layman on Apr 22, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport

@MLD, As an example of a substantial change in a residential zone not documented in OP’s summaries, a March 21 post on the Historic Washington listserv described how the ZRR would remove the minimum lot size requirement for existing unimproved record lots, meaning that “the owner of an existing substandard lot could build a house on it, as a matter of right, even though it doesn’t meet the development standards for a single family detached or semi-detached home.”

There also have been many listserv posts on the size and location of accessory structures (not necessarily ADUs) that would be allowed as a matter of right in residential zones.

by OtherMike on Apr 22, 2014 1:09 pm • linkreport

"Enough is enough" is code for "please, please rush this through before a new mayor, council and OP bring a whole lot of disinfectant and sunlight to the process."

by Alf on Apr 22, 2014 1:12 pm • linkreport

@Thayer-D: I think the difference is that the Cleveland Park neighborhood, which included former HPRB chair Tersh Boasberg, had the foresight to document and build a case for an historic district. One of its elements was the low-scale ParknShop on Connecticut Avenue. Others in these pages have sometimes derided the development concerns of Chevy Chase DC because they did not support an historic district. I would also note that, despite the generally low scale of Cleveland Park, over time it has been a more successful commercial area than the tall, dense Van Ness district just blocks to the north. The scale of Cleveland Park has also been copied in new developments like Bethesda Ave. in Bethesda Row.

by Jasper2 on Apr 22, 2014 1:22 pm • linkreport

@otherMike

Are you talking about the alley lot thing?
http://zoningdc.org/2012/12/31/mythfact-alley-lots/
https://www.communicationsmgr.com/projects/1355/docs/ZRR%20Fact%20Sheet%20Alley%20Lots%20Oct%202013.pdf
see also ZRR Subtitle D, section 1608, page 70

If so, seems like there is a minimum lot requirement of 450 square feet for residential alley lot uses.

by MLD on Apr 22, 2014 1:43 pm • linkreport

Jasper2, You make a good point about retail that's contradicted by Richard Layman's ponit that the small retail sized establishments are loosing out to the larger spaces. But I think historic neighborhoods should be decided by city wide standards rather than those with the forsight to limit development. Also, I wish there could be a viwe of history that builds on what's already there rather than looking at it with a stark deliniation between the past and the present.

by Thayer-D on Apr 22, 2014 2:00 pm • linkreport

@MLD, Your link is to an OP fact sheet on alley lots. The substantial change discussed in the Historic Washington listserv post related to regular lots.

The ZRR would eliminate the minimum lot area requirement for development of existing unimproved record lots, allowing matter of right construction of a single family house on a small lot with street frontage that does not meet the current minimum area requirement for a single family house.

To actually evaluate the proposed changes in the ZRR, a careful review of the nearly 1,000 page ZRR text (posted in September) and the current regulations is necessary. A perusal of OP’s fact sheets will not suffice

by OtherMike on Apr 22, 2014 2:59 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D, I disagree that Jasper counters my point. Van Ness has different issues from Van Ness that are unrelated to the different sizes of the buildings at its commercial heart. I don't know about its history, but it's not comparative, even though the building stock is "larger".

Cleveland Park is a "center." In its earlier days it had a theater, supermarket, and I think the equivalent of a Kresge, certainly a People's. Van Ness had the skating rink, which didn't compare to the theater in terms of driving repeat business.

Van Ness as a commercial district doesn't function well enough as a center.

That being said, the way that retail districts operate as centers for multiple neighborhoods continues to scale up, so that fewer centers are able to operate as a "regional" attraction (even if "regional" is for the most part all "sub-city")and the likelihood of Cleveland Park being able to scale up and have a broader set of retail offerings in response, is pretty low.

Silver Spring is another example. Its retail offer is small, but as the various sectors shrink, they manage to have one or two key representatives in various categories e.g., DSW in shoes, Ulta in beauty supplies, H&M is a huge add, before they had only discount shops + New York & CO. and the odd boutique, etc.

I can't see how Cleveland Park could attract similar stores even if allowed a bigger footprint, how chains would find it attractive.

by Richard Layman on Apr 22, 2014 3:01 pm • linkreport

The ZRR would eliminate the minimum lot area requirement for development of existing unimproved record lots, allowing matter of right construction of a single family house on a small lot with street frontage that does not meet the current minimum area requirement for a single family house.

Can you cite this more specifically? Which zones are you talking about?

The fact sheet for low density zones specifically states that minimun lot sizes are not changing: https://www.communicationsmgr.com/projects/1355/docs/ZRR%20Fact%20Sheet%20Low%20Density%20Residential%20Oct%202013.pdf

by Alex B. on Apr 22, 2014 3:13 pm • linkreport

As I understand it, the discussion of side yards was to make it so houses on non-conforming lots could add an addition without having to go through BZA. Seems to make sense given that the ANCs and BZA NEVER oppose these proposals, yet the property owners are subject to the BZA backlogs which costs them money.

Same thing with the external ADUs. A property owner cannot build, by matter of right, a second story on their garage, nor can they exceed the 450 square foot envelope by matter of right.

I cannot think of one property in the District where this would be an issue, yet somehow the ZRR opponents have latched on to this as some sort of battle cry.

by William on Apr 22, 2014 3:19 pm • linkreport

Here's what it says on that fact sheet, Alex B:
"existing non-conforming lots that meet all other regulations could be developed"

To which I say, so what? If the lot is existing and you can fit in the setbacks and everything else then why shouldn't they be able to be developed?

by MLD on Apr 22, 2014 3:39 pm • linkreport

It's also kind of hard to tell what the issue is since @OtherMike keeps referencing a discussion that nobody else can see because it is on a private listserv.

by MLD on Apr 22, 2014 3:47 pm • linkreport

@William “A property owner cannot build, by matter of right, a second story on their garage, nor can they exceed the 450 square foot envelope by matter of right.”

Wrong on both counts.

The ZRR text posted in September is clear:

Subtitle D, Section 1301 gives the Development Standards for Accessory Buildings in R zones.

The maximum building area is: “Greater of 30% of required rear setback area or 450 sq. ft.” So 450 sq. ft. is the lowest maximum footprint. If the rear setback area is more than 1,500 sq. ft., the footprint can be larger than 450 sq. ft.

The maximum number of stories for a (matter of right) accessory structure is 2 stories, with a height maximum of 20 feet.

by OtherMike on Apr 22, 2014 4:11 pm • linkreport

@Alf

So nearly a decade is "rushing" and literally hundreds of public meetings isn't "sunshine"? Like someone said, if Harriet Tregoning literally sat down and walked you through all thousand pages it wouldn't be enough for you.

by Frog on Apr 22, 2014 4:11 pm • linkreport

@OtherMike, please cite the 20 foot rule. I thought this had been changed at the behest of Ward 3 residents.

On the other, ok so there are a few mansion type parcels in Palisades or Spring Valley where someone can build an external ADU. I am not really seeing where this is an issue for the majority of DC.

In fact, here is a description of the current versus proposed rules: http://zoningdc.org/2012/11/27/myth-vs-fact-accessory-dwelling-units/

Is this description in error?

by William on Apr 22, 2014 4:35 pm • linkreport

And to be clear, here are the rules as posted from the Office of Planning blog:

- Keep the footprint of the building to 450 square feet or less.

- Keep all balconies or decks within that footprint, and make sure they don’t face the immediately adjoining houses (currently, those balconies and decks are unregulated).

- Keep the total living area to 900 square feet or less (in other words, you could have two full stories).

- Keep the height of the building to no more than 22 feet (remember, you can do 20 feet now for your “domestic employee” apartment; we’re proposing an extra two feet to account for the slope of a roof).

- Stay at least 30 feet away from the main building (we want an adequate distance for light, air, open space, and fire separation).

- Keep any other accessory uses out of an accessory building with an ADU in it, except for a garage (we’re assuming this is independent living space, not an opportunity for the homeowner to expand a home business, but we thought it best to be clear).

by William on Apr 22, 2014 4:43 pm • linkreport

@William, As noted above, the 20 foot height, 2 stories maximum is in the table at Section 1301.1 of Subtitle D of the proposed zoning regulations. It is on page Subtitle D-38 of the September 9, 2013 version.

The OP summary that you linked to is a discussion of accessory dwelling units. This is a discussion of the size of an accessory structure that can be built as a matter of right. They are separate, but related issues.

As I said earlier, in order to understand the changes are being proposed in the ZRR, it is necessary to read the proposed regulations and compare them with the current regulations.

by OtherMike on Apr 22, 2014 5:01 pm • linkreport

@William, The OP blog post that you linked to is dated November 27, 2012, and is based on an earlier draft ZRR, not the version of the ZRR that was submitted to the Zoning Commission in September 2013. The language change that increased the allowable footprint for an accessory building on some lots was not in the earlier draft.

by OtherMike on Apr 22, 2014 5:12 pm • linkreport

1st- I haven't read all 1000 pages of the revision or understand all of it. I'm a little dubious at those, especially in OP, who claim to do so. (I'm not an OP groupie).

From what I've been told by people in the process is that at least in R-5 areas certain types commercial will be able to come in much easier via special exceptions instead of variances.

The net effect of facilitating conversions from residential to commercial is going to be displacement of renters even more than owner-occupied homes. I could see certain R-5 areas like Dupont loosing much of their residential character fairly fast since commercial is so much more valuable.

I don't see how displacing residential is going to do anything but decrease density.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 23, 2014 1:15 am • linkreport

Tom C -- ? Commercial meaning office outside of the CBD isn't worth all that. Even in Dupont Circle--the Universal buildings are outliers and not rented to class a tenants.

by Richard Layman on Apr 23, 2014 9:21 am • linkreport

Richard- Around here I know the commercial rents are at least twice the residential rates, even for offices. And the retail/cafe rents are much higher than residential rents. There's an endless supply of consultants, associations, insurance agents, realty firms, law firms, etc. looking to be on side streets where rent is cheaper than on the commercial strips where rents are driven by bars and cafes. It's those side blocks that could lose residential.

And from a landlord's perspective commercial tenants are easier to deal with than residential ones who have tenant-protection laws and regs.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 23, 2014 10:36 am • linkreport

@ Tom: So maybe one way to increase the supply of moderate priced housing is to reduce some of the burdensome regulations and restrictions that are overly protective of tenants.

by Alf on Apr 23, 2014 3:00 pm • linkreport

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