The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


For the umpteenth time, DC's zoning update gets watered down some more

In the six-year-and-counting saga of DC's zoning update, the Office of Planning (OP) has watered down proposed zoning changes yet again. Planners have removed residents' right to put an accessory apartment in a carriage house or other external building and reinstated most of the existing parking minimum requirements around high-frequency bus lines.

Photo by martin on Flickr.

While the zoning update is still a meaningful step forward, it has become, over the years, a smaller and smaller step forward as opponents have successfully pushed for more and more delay, and as staff turnover has replaced people who'd already compromised with new people who look for a compromise.

OP did make a few positive changes, at the request of members of the Zoning Commission. Planners dropped a rule that only allowed accessory apartments on lots of a certain size. Commissioners felt this was unnecessary.

The fire department had pushed to require any accessory apartments be on an alley at least 24 feet wide, and reachable through other alleys that are also as wide. Many in blocks in historic neighborhoods like Capitol Hill do not have alleys that big. The Zoning Commission pushed back, and the new rules would only require at least 8 feet (though the Board of Zoning Adjustment would now be reviewing all of these).

However, there are two significant retreats.

Homeowners can still add an apartment their basements or elsewhere inside the house in a single-family residential areas where this is illegal today. However, they will have to file for a "special exception" with the Board of Zoning Adjustment to place such an apartment in a carriage house or other existing external building. While the BZA is often willing to grant special exceptions, it is a lengthy process requiring many months of time, hiring zoning attorneys, and more.

Parking minimums will still be cut in half around Metro stations and streetcar lines, but not around major bus corridors. That means along Wisconsin Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue, Benning Road, and others, and in parts of Logan Circle, Adams Morgan, and many other neighborhoods, new buildings will still have to build parking at a rate which developers have said is often larger than the actual market demand.

By specifying that parking minimums get cut in half around streetcar lines (and Metro stations) but not high-frequency bus lines, OP is perpetuating the unfortunate assumption in DC government that buses don't count as meaningful transit.

The proposal does still set new and lower basic parking requirements for many types of buildings in many zones.

How many times has this happened already?

These retreats have become par for the course in the zoning update. The people on the original zoning update team, none of whom are still working on the project, crafted a set of changes to encourage new housing, walkability, and building near transit, and reduced the number of extra zoning hearings necessary for things that are in the public interest, like adding accessory apartments.

Over the six years since, successive staffers and leaders at OP whittled the plans down step by step. Here is a rough chronology for these two policy areas:

Parking minimums:

  • 2008 original consultant recommendation: Eliminate all minimums and institute maximums.
  • 2009: Retain minimums far from transit in commercial corridors and residential buildings over 10 units. Only establish maximums downtown and for very large lots.
  • 2010-11: Drop downtown maximums. Exclude moderate-density row house areas from lower minimums.
  • 2013: Keep minimums for all areas but instead cut minimums in half near Metro, streetcar, and bus lines.
  • 2014: Exclude areas around major bus lines.
Accessory dwellings:
  • 2009: Allow accessory dwellings in main house or external building subject to many conditions.
  • 2010: Exempt Georgetown so that a special exception is required there.
  • 2011: Also require a special exception for new or recently-renovated external buildings everywhere.
  • 2014: Require a special exception for all external buildings.
Was this necessary?

These changes didn't appear to come at the behest of the Zoning Commission. OP has created a spreadsheet of all commissioner comments, and they don't show the commissioners asking for these changes. Another spreadsheet of public comments shows many comments in support of OP's proposal. Yet OP's rationale for changing parking minimums and accessory dwelling rules is that "residents" asked for the change.

When Harriet Tregoning decided to cut back the parking proposal the last time, to halve rather than eliminate parking minimums, I wrote,

Maybe Tregoning has the pulse of the Zoning Commission. ... Maybe by making this particular change, as opposed to all of the other changes they've made to appease opposition over the last 5 years, maybe zoning commissioners will say, ah, it's clear OP has listened to public input, and we will therefore pass their proposal.

I hope so, but I think it's much more likely that opponents will use this concession to try to get another concession, and zoning commissioners will still cut something back even more. Everyone wants to strike a compromise. But when one zoning update head compromises, then he leaves, his boss takes over, and she compromises, then the agency director compromises, and finally zoning commissioners compromise, we're left with is a weak set of changes that do little to truly position the city for the future.

Looks about right.

There are many more smaller changes

The revision makes numerous other changes, some of which make sense. Corner store rules allow groceries in residential areas as of right; the new rules require these groceries to have a certain amount of fresh food.

Corner stores also have to get a special exception to sell any alcohol, which ought to alleviate concerns that the stores in poorer areas will just end up being liquor stores. Finally, corner stores are prohibited in the Foxhall neighborhood, which already has some small retail spaces.

Bicycle parking standards got tweaked to better match current practice. Some bicycle parking requirements will decrease. Larger garages no longer have to include car sharing spaces, but they get credit for multiple parking spaces if they do. The West End keeps parking requirements even though it will be part of the new downtown zone.

Some activists, who had started paying attention to the process fairly late, asked for a special exception for large retailers, and the Office of Planning added such a rule for retailers larger than 50,000 square feet.

In one recommendation to loosen a rule which OP did accept, I pointed out overly-restrictive limits on theaters in residential zones. They must get a variance, a very difficult burden, to operate even in buildings such as churches. The Spooky Action Theater discovered this when it tried to put on shows at 16th and S. So did the Keegan on Church Street when it bought its building and discovered its Certificate of Occupancy allowed for a theater arts school but not theater performance despite the building having been used for shows for decades.

Zoning Commissioners agreed, and OP wrote a rule allowing this by special exception, as I had suggested. It's an easier burden and one that still gives neighbors a chance to weigh in. However, OP's rule only applies to buildings with "existing theater or performance space" in an institutional building like a church or school (maybe reasonable), and only when the building owner is renting that space to an unrelated group. That latter rule basically makes this cover the Spooky Action situation and not the Keegan situation, making it at best a half solution.

You can see a complete list of changes in the tables on this post, or in great detail in the actual amendment text.

It's a very small measure now, but still worth passing

The zoning update still takes some steps to allow more housing across much of DC, though it will probably add a very small amount with all of the restrictions. A few buildings near Metro will more easily be able to match parking to actual demand, though many won't.

The zoning update is worth passing, but doesn't really solve the city's bigger problems of not having enough housing, especially in the places where it makes the most sense. If the proposal goes through this fall, OP will still have to find ways to add more housing, especially near transit, or see the city's housing costs continue to spiral ever higher.

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. 


Add a comment »

well this will now provide a rationale for building a street car where bus vs street car is debatable - ironic in that many of "NIMBYs" on parking are also street car skeptics.

I assume the proposal is still for zero parking mins downtown?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 27, 2014 11:09 am • linkreport

These delays are very frustrating. I had two questions:
1) What are the next steps for the zoning rewrite and how can we help push it forward?
2) Once the new zoning rewrite is in place, would changes to individual aspects be easier (can we tweak the numbers for various things over time easier than passing a zoning update)?

by GP Steve on Jun 27, 2014 11:23 am • linkreport

It looks like they are sticking with no parking mins in the downtown district. Good.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 27, 2014 11:31 am • linkreport


How close to a street car line does a building have to be to qualify for lower parking mins? Does the streetcar line actually have to be in operation by the time the building is complete? By the time the building starts construction?

The entire discussion of street car routing, and timing, is totally different now.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 27, 2014 11:39 am • linkreport

This is pitiful and horribly opaque. Is there a way to vote out the small number of people that seem to be controlling the development destiny of the city? If not, then we need to completely rethink not only the zoning code, but how the zoning code is administered.

Most folks in DC are progressive but a zoning code that locks in current densities is guaranteed to make this town unaffordable to all but the wealthiest households, a code that forces developers to build excess parking beyond what the market demands is guaranteed to increase traffic and congestion. A code like this is the antithesis of progressive.

by TransitSnob on Jun 27, 2014 11:51 am • linkreport

I long for the day wasteful forced consumption of automobile storage is stripped out of the code.

No one can say that the free market would fail to meet demand at a cost commesruate with the real costs.

by Crickey7 on Jun 27, 2014 11:52 am • linkreport

@AWITC, Subtitle C, Section 1902 of the ZRR specifies that this applies within one-quarter miles of the streetcar line not necessarily within a quarter-mile of a streetcar stop) that is in operation or for which a construction contract has been awarded.

by OtherMike on Jun 27, 2014 12:10 pm • linkreport

OP is perpetuating the unfortunate assumption in DC government that a transit line with rails is somehow inherently better than a bus line regardless of how quickly either one moves.

I think that assumption is true. Many of Pike Rail's detractors claim that articulated buses are just as good as rail. The reality is that rail lines attract more users even if they operate in mixed traffic. Rail lines are also permanent so they allow for permanent changes to planning, zoning, and development because you don't have to worry about a bus line getting re-routed.

I realize the author wasn't necessarily trying to knock rail in comparison to buses but let's just be clear that buses are not an equivalent alternative to mixed traffic rail.

by Falls Church on Jun 27, 2014 12:14 pm • linkreport

This summary of the changes in the parking minimums doesn’t seem to match OP’s reports. It simply is not the case that parking minimums outside of the areas around streetcar lines and Metro stations have been restored to their current levels.

On May 5, 2014, OP filed a spreadsheet showing how the minimum parking requirements would change, without considering any eligibility to reduce the requirement by 50%. For most of the examples given, there is a very large reduction in the minimum parking requirement. This is available at or at

For example, according to OP, a 300,000 square foot office building in a C-1, C-2-A, or C-3-A zone would currently have a minimum parking requirement of 497 spaces under existing zoning, and that would be reduced to 149 spaces under the ZRR if it not near a streetcar line or Metro station, and 75 spaces if it with a half or quarter mile of a Metro station or streetcar line.

For a building with a substantial number of medical offices in those zones, the requirement with current zoning is 994 spaces and that would be reduced to 149 spaces or 75 spaces depending on whether there is a 50% reduction in the requirement.

For apartment buildings with 100 units in R-5-B, C-2-A and C-3-A zones, the parking requirement would be reduced from the current requirement of 50 spaces to 32 or 16 spaced depending on whether it is eligible for the 50% reduction.

I do suggest that if one wants to form an informed opinion on the ZRR, one needs to do their homework and actually look at what is being proposed, rather than relying on someone else’s summary. The information is available on the Office of Planning and Office of Zoning web-sites.

by OtherMike on Jun 27, 2014 12:14 pm • linkreport

"Rail lines are also permanent"

Yeah, apparently not.

the "accessory" movement seems to be dead, which is good. You don't want more density in suburbans areas that already have carriages or garages.

The parking minimums pullback is also a real win. If you want to build a new building, provide some parking and don't expect street parking will work out.

by charlie on Jun 27, 2014 12:17 pm • linkreport

"AWITC, Subtitle C, Section 1902 of the ZRR specifies that this applies within one-quarter miles of the streetcar line not necessarily within a quarter-mile of a streetcar stop) that is in operation or for which a construction contract has been awarded. "

if the street car line is in planning when the developer submits their plan for approval, but the construction contract for the street car is not expected to be awarded till later (but before the building is to be opened for occupancy) could the building be approved with the reduced parking minimum?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 27, 2014 12:19 pm • linkreport

the no parking mins downtown is still a big win, the reduced mins near street cars is still a win, and even more so if other mike is correct - the corner stores is a win. ADUs seem to be alive wrt basements.

DA it turns out was probably wiser than Tregoning about the political dynamic (it didnt help that she left) but it still looks like a big step forward.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 27, 2014 12:22 pm • linkreport

the "accessory" movement seems to be dead, which is good. You don't want more density in suburbans areas that already have carriages or garages.

Why? I mean, there are laws around the country that say garages are for cars only (sorry garage bands and tinkerers) but it's not like that's an actual reason instead of a tautological defense that is probably in defense of someone's poor sense of how property values work.

by drumz on Jun 27, 2014 12:24 pm • linkreport

"If you want to build a new building, provide some parking and don't expect street parking will work out."

Or reform RPP's first and then revisit the issue.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 27, 2014 12:24 pm • linkreport

And with the absence of a minimum and no provision regarding a maximum there's no reason to expect that parking won't be built at all.

by drumz on Jun 27, 2014 12:27 pm • linkreport

@AWITC, Subtitle C, Section 1903 gives the conditions under which a special exception for a full or partial reduction in the minimum parking requirement may be granted.

Also, the question isn’t whether I am correct about how OP’s proposal will change the minimum parking requirements, but whether OP presented accurate information to the Zoning Commission in its May 5, 2014 filing, Exhibit 722, at

If, on May 5, OP presented accurate information to the ZC, then the information in this post is not accurate.

by OtherMike on Jun 27, 2014 12:38 pm • linkreport

@ AWalkerInTheCity; no, not really.

In the rowhouse areas, there is enough room on one block for the houses there -- assuming one family per unit.

Once you start carving them up into 3 condos, you've got a problem. Reforming RPP isn't going to stop that.

by charlie on Jun 27, 2014 12:45 pm • linkreport


Not necessarily true. If RPP rates were more than the current 9.5 cents/day ($35/year) to something more logical (even 50 cents/day) might encourage less people to own a car and thus you can have greater density without having a parking issue. Previously I sold my car and did not own a car in DC (now I have kids and we have 1 family car). Perhaps even higher rates in good transit areas?

by GP Steve on Jun 27, 2014 12:54 pm • linkreport

@ GP Steve ; don't buy the hype.

Would "market rate" RPP mean people are dissuaded - -yes. Market rate would mean several hundred dollars a month.

The increases you talk about -- to 90 or 100 a year -- no.

by charlie on Jun 27, 2014 12:58 pm • linkreport

Once you start carving them up into 3 condos, you've got a problem. Reforming RPP isn't going to stop that.

Define the problem first.

by Alex B. on Jun 27, 2014 1:00 pm • linkreport


I'm open to different numbers. Maybe it's not 50 cents/day. It's a trial and error thing. Market rate varies by area. In Dupont, parking can be $200+/month for a dedicated space (so non-guaranteed street parking is worth less). In Glover Park, where I live, it's more like $150/month for a dedicated space. Similar to adjusting parking meter rates to get 80-90% occupancy at a given time, the RPP rates should be evaluated yearly in smaller areas than a ward.

by GP Steve on Jun 27, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport


The problem is your baseline assumption that every household has a car. It's not the case, especially for the kinds of households that would live in an ADU.

by MLD on Jun 27, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

If you want to build a new building, provide as much parking as you think there will be demand for. If you think your customers will want parking, provide it. Otherwise, don't.
Parking is not a human right.

by alurin on Jun 27, 2014 1:41 pm • linkreport

the adu dial back is disturbing. Although I do think a case could be made for those of us in R1 and R2 districts that requiring a special exception for adus in separate buildings is somewhat of a taking, deserving of compensation for the cost of the process of getting the exception.

As far as "suburban areas" go wrt charlie's comment, I would disagree. The issue of appropriateness is dependent on the size of the block and the proximity to transit stations especially but also frequent service bus lines.

Definitely in a one mile catchment zone of Metro stations, adus should be encouraged where they can be accommodated.

And e.g. on my block, lots are 140 feet long and can very easily accommodate conversion of garages or construction of new buildings without significant negative impacts on quality of life.

Similarly, even in some R4 areas, there are big sections of block interiors that are vacant, and used for parking.

In either case, adding housing on the interior accomplishes four goals: (1) provides housing options, of likely lower cost without unduly stressing existing infrastructure; (2) provides additional revenue streams to homeowners, enabling them to buy a house when they might not otherwise be able to afford it; (3) adds residents on the interior of blocks, contributing positively to public safety in an eyes on the street way; (4) more residents = more income and sales tax income, and the unit will increase property tax assessments and revenues.

by Richard Layman on Jun 27, 2014 1:56 pm • linkreport

@MLD; I'm taking parking minimums, not the ADU bit there.

@Richard, I'd agree with your first part that it would provide more housing and at a lower cost. We'll have the disagree with the scope of that, becuse as I said before in DC the controlling factor would be nature of the landlord - tenant relationship. If you'd loosen that up maybe. On your others goals, no. 2 -- additional revenue streams for homeowners isn't going to help them buy a house -- they already own a house! 3) and I thought "suburban" DC was nice and safe. Or at least that is what the real estate agents say. 4) Increasing the property tax assetment may be good for the city but bad for the homeowner.

by charlie on Jun 27, 2014 2:21 pm • linkreport

This effin' city. One half-step forward; three steps back, always.

by LowHeadways on Jun 27, 2014 2:24 pm • linkreport

" no. 2 -- additional revenue streams for homeowners isn't going to help them buy a house -- they already own a house"

In areas where it is legal, the presence of a legal rental unit to help pay the mortgage is noted in RE sales ads, and is apparently a factor in what buyers are willing and able to pay.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 27, 2014 2:29 pm • linkreport

The have a whole show dedicated to it on HGTV.

by drumz on Jun 27, 2014 2:32 pm • linkreport

kids do stuff in the alleys. A garage and a fence in our alley have tags on them, probably from independent kids, not by gangs. High school aged kids have been known to walk through the alley, picking bottles out of recycling bins, and breaking them.

Last summer, I found a stolen car placed in the parking area of a house under renovation and vacant, on the other side of the street, etc.

A year or more ago, a couple in their "exposed" hot tub in the rear of their yard were "jacked." (That house is located closer to Somerset Place, west of 5th Street NW, and Somerset Place is a "hot spot" of criminal issues. A person I know who lives up that way told me he once saw an MPD car over that way covered in graffiti.)

Anyway, the outer city isn't all the Palisades...

But it's still a hell of a lot safer than it was to live North of H Street NE in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Rayful Edmond's crew was selling crack. It's all relative. A lot safer than U Street, and Langley Park, not as safe as Narrowsburg, New York.

2. the landlord tenant relationship is a good point. I have a solution for this, but it's "proprietary." Sometime, if we ever meet in person, we can talk about it.

3. people buy houses based on their income, etc. and some people buy houses based on revenue streams generated by English basement apartments, etc., contributing to the mortgage. Real estate ads in the Hill Rag frequently mention income units as part of the appeal of particular dwellings.

by Richard Layman on Jun 27, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport

Income Property is a great show, even if the figures they give for what mortgages cost in Canada has to be a complete lie. No way you have a $2000/mo. mortgage for a $500,000 property. But the host does a great job, other than that.

by Richard Layman on Jun 27, 2014 3:01 pm • linkreport

@RichrardLayman; ah, I see what you mean. I stand corrected. That said, not the easiest past to affordabiltiy -- as you can see with the english basment thing it tends to increase the price of the "mother house"

I'd post that turning NE, let alone EOTR into a place as safe as the Palisades would do far more for affordabilty than the ADUs. I'll try to concede the point that it may make the Palisades more affordable...

by charlie on Jun 27, 2014 3:17 pm • linkreport

I believe typically a house with an english basement is net more affordable than one without a legal basement - the increase in price is less than the value of the rent - it would have to be, because the buyer is foregoing the use of the use of the basement.

As of the benefits of increasing public safety EOTR, they would be huge. I am eager to find out how that would be accomplished - bonus points if it does not involve displace a large part of the existing population EOTR.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 27, 2014 4:11 pm • linkreport

AWITC -- Yes about the value of the Eng. Basement. A lot of those houses, if the Eng. Basement hadn't been constructed, would have sub-optimal basements, at least according to the various H St./Capitol Hill houses I've been in that date to the 1890s to 1910s.

wrt EOTR, obvious charlie and EOTR are right. HOWEVER, it's not either or but and-and. Eventually those houses will be snapped up and as the areas improve, prices will escalate. It's gonna take a few decades though.

Frankly a big part of it is "otherness" because there is plenty of nice housing stock. It's just that the price of being an in-migrant can be very high.

wrt ADUs, it is variable. E.g., our house has a walk out basement because of the topography of our block, with a nice high ceiling. It'd be perfect for a basement apartment. The same goes for a "carriage house." We have a suboptimal garage, plus no cars. It's perfect for conversion.

On our lot/house, having two units would work fine with minimal negative impact. (OTOH, Suzanne wouldn't want someone else living in "our house" but would be up for use of an ancillary carriage house, which I joke could also accommodate her aging parents and my aging mentor--actually if her parents came here, we'd put them on the first floor and fix up the attic for us.)

by Richard Layman on Jun 27, 2014 4:37 pm • linkreport

It's almost like it doesn't matter if opponents of parking minimums outnumber supporters at every hearing.

I remember testifying about this in 2008 at the Zoning Commission and thinking, "we won!", when we outnumbered parking minimum supporters.

by Ken Archer on Jun 27, 2014 8:03 pm • linkreport

If you want to reduce parking demand and traffic, here's one way to do it: strictly enforce the laws such that new residents have to register (and pay tax on) their vehicles. I am cognizant of an apartment building that opened a couple of years ago, which provides few off-street parking spots. It fronts on a street with multple bus line. Yet when the building opened, significant numbers of cars appeared on the intersecting side street. Most have out of state plates, yet use the free RPP visitor placards distributed to all households, including apartment units. The ticket writers say their hands are tied as long as the placards are valid, yet they know that abuse is rampant. Because the system is broken, DC is being deprived off tax revenue, and insurance rates for those who obey the laws are higher because the insurance pool appears smaller than the number of vehicles actually parked in DC. Enforce the laws, and newcomers will either comply or maybe decide DC's fees are too high and some will give up their cars.

by Randy on Jun 27, 2014 8:05 pm • linkreport

Randy -- other cities don't stupidly provide free visitor passes like DC does. E.g., Miami Beach sells packs of 10 for $1.07 each, but there is a maximum of one pack per month, and you have to scratch off the date on each one.

But if the parking enforcement people would track parking closely, probably those cars would be caught by ROSA regulations requiring DC registration.

by Richard Layman on Jun 27, 2014 8:54 pm • linkreport

I'v seen no evidence that eliminating parking minimums nor higher density is resulting in more affordable housing options in DC. The District is not hurting for tax base growth via residential growth, the District at this point needs a growth in the business tax base.

I would agree that parking minimums are not the best planning tool, but because smartgowth-urbanist tend to be lazy and elitist politically its the best that we have for now. You guys need to get out of your bubble and get real. The District does not need to blow-up single family homes and rowhouses to grow and have affordable housing stock.

by W Jordan on Jun 30, 2014 10:14 am • linkreport

I would agree that parking minimums are not the best planning tool,

So then we shouldn't require them.

but because smartgowth-urbanist tend to be lazy and elitist politically its the best that we have for now.

I don't understand the reasoning here. It sounds like "lazy" and "politically elitist" would work at cross purposes. That said, I think parking minimums persist for a much more banal reason, people like free parking and think parking minimums help achieve that. That's a better assumption than advocating for minimums just to spite the myopic little twits.

The District does not need to blow-up single family homes and rowhouses to grow and have affordable housing stock.

I'm unaware of any proposal that calls for this.

by drumz on Jun 30, 2014 10:32 am • linkreport

I'v seen no evidence that eliminating parking minimums nor higher density is resulting in more affordable housing options in DC.

What evidence would suffice? I'll note that we have not eliminated parking minimums, except in a few cases, so I'm not sure any evidence would be expected.

But, as part of DC's inclusionary zoning program "Inclusionary Zoning requires that a certain percentage of units in a new development or a substantial rehabilitation that expands an existing building set aside affordable units in exchange for a bonus density." So, that seems like a pretty clear case where added density led to more affordable housing. Did prices crater? No. Is it a city-wide effect? No. But at the margins, it's there. So again, what evidence would suffice?

by David C on Jun 30, 2014 12:06 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us