Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Corner Stores


Today's problems were visible decades ago, but zoning has blocked solutions ever since

No one could have foreseen that DC's zoning could push middle-class residents out of the District and force people to drive even to get milk, right? Actually, planners in 1970 warned of exactly of these dangers.

44 years ago, when Richard Nixon was president, the same consultants that noted outdated ideas at the root of DC's then-outdated zoning code foresaw other problems looming for the city.

Image from DDOT DC on Flickr.

The first Walter Washington admini­stration hired planning firm Barton-Aschman to examine the zoning code after the MLK assassination riots, urban renewal, the Metro, and freeway revolts. Planners greatly rethought their approaches after these seismic events.

Not all of Barton-Aschman's comments were negative, but they criticized the technocratic, autocentric attitude that underlay the 1958 zoning code. They found fault with the 1958 code's absolute separation of commercial and residential uses, which underlies the ban on corner stores.

They noted that the then-planned Metro system justified higher densities downtown and less reliance on automobiles. Finally, they anticipated that zoning restrictions made it hard to build enough housing for a growing city.

Barton-Aschman foresaw the problem with restricting housing supply

Studies for the 1958 code by its main author, a consultant named Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed large families and urban renewal instead of historic districts. The 1970 report says:

It is possible that zoning makes it difficult to develop new family-type housing units in the district, while also inhibiting the development of high-rise apartments which may be more attractive to single persons and families without children. ... If zoning helps deter population growth, is it contributing to an imbalanced society in the District?
They noted that these restrictions would push out the middle class, "leaving predominantly the rich and the poor of both races." They wrote that this is not a local fluke, but one that is recognizable nationwide:
The Douglas Commission has pointed out that existing codes and ordinances of major cities across the country deter the development of low-cost housing by private industry. Land is too expensive, parcels are to small, height and floor area ratios are too low, and density patterns are too restrictive to encourage modern, attractive, and livable low cost residential projects.
Aggressive downzoning, ostensibly to preserve urban character, exacerbated these problems during the 1980s. The report raised this concern, warning, "Local residents might stretch the zoning process to become exclusionary." The specter of explicit segregation was fresh in the public's memory, so they worried that the code might be abused to the same end.

Barton-Aschman realized that Metro changed everything

Barton-Aschman's 1970 report was blunt about how Metro would change the city:

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.
Lewis, meanwhile, saw his plan as an alternative to a mass transit system. At a public hearing on July 28th, 1956, he justified his plan:
Washington has, of course, a free choice as to which means of transportation it wishes to dominate the central city, ... no new transit system can possibly start operation for several years at the earliest, and it is therefore obvious that the [1958] zoning must be based on solid present trends and solid present fact.
Those trends? Declining transit ridership and the extensive network of highways that were soon to snake their way through Washington's neighborhoods.

In his published report, as well as the 20 public meetings held to discuss the plan, Lewis saw those highways as serving a second function, separating residential and commercial uses.

He saw the inner beltway as a great "dam" that would forever keep a shrunken downtown from bleeding into into residential neighborhoodsat least the ones that survived highway construction. Secondary arterials like Wisconsin Avenue in NW and Pennsylvania Avenue in SE would divide the city into residential cells, free of commerce.

Harold Lewis and NCPC imagined a Washington of nodes an neighborhoods.

Lewis tried to eradicate all corner stores

Lewis also saw corner stores as a blight, and proposed relocating all commercial activity to well-parked shopping centers, like the one in Spring Valley today. Residents could then drive down one of the major thoroughfares to the store.

Although Lewis had to introduce a Special Purpose (SP) mixed-use zone after the first round of comments, he still tried to force noncompliant uses like corner stores to close. The Zoning Advisory Commission decided that the enabling legislation didn't permit that. They agreed that separating uses was theoretically sound, but not politically feasible. Therefore, this attitude persists in the code's minutiae.

Recommended employment centers, from the Lewis report.

We don't know whether the authors at Barton-Aschmann would support the text of the proposed new zoning code as it was set down last September 9th. But we do know that they saw a lot wrong with the text we have now. We've known about those problems for decades; scouring the flawed assumptions and integrating the ad-hoc fixes is unavoidable to create a code for the 21st century.


Flyer says "say no to corner stores," but makes a convincing case for them

Some residents have received this flyer, which urges them to "SAY NO! TO CORNER STORES" in the DC Zoning Update. But on closer inspection, it's hard to tell how the flyer is arguing against corner stores.

Almost all of the text (and the photo) come directly from the DC Office of Planning's fact sheet which lays out the case for corner stores: more potential access to healthy food, ability to shop nearby without a long drive, and rules to ensure the stores don't harm neighbors.

Rather than argue against these, the flyer just repeats the same rationale, with a few comments sprinkled in like "DO YOU BELIEVE THIS?" and "YOU DECIDE."

Is this for real? Or, as David Garber mused, "genius marketing *for* corner stores and the DC Zoning Update"?

Mark Bjorge pointed out, "It's a Rorschach test. Answers will depend on where one lives." What he means is that in many neighborhoods, the basic word "corner store" conjures up images of a run-down store that just sells junk food and liquor and cigarettes and the like from behind metal gates or thick plexiglass, and with folks hanging out in front up to no good.

I've spoken to people from some neighborhoods who immediately thought of that the moment they heard about the proposal. In fact, the address on the flyer is from a section of Petworth where some corner stores have looked like that. Within that context, reading the OP fact sheet one might well have exactly this reaction of disbelief.

Perhaps this is another example like this exchange from a year ago where zoning update opponent Linda Schmitt posted a photograph of an alley accessory dwelling. To her, it perfectly illustrated what residents should fear. But to me and many others, the well-maintained, attractive, clean little brick building was instead an ideal example of why accessory dwellings sounded great.

In neighborhoods with higher-quality stores, the idea of bringing in a small grocery within walking distance sounds great. Residents of the Navy Yard neighborhood can enjoy Cornercopia, the store pictured in the OP fact sheet and the flyer, which embodies what people want in such a store. Those who feel confident that looser restrictions on zoning might bring in a desirable amenity instead of blight, therefore, are excited about zoning opening the door to such an asset.

To help ensure that new stores are only positive and not negative, OP has dialed back the corner store proposal so that now any store, except a grocery, will need a public hearing and a "special exception." It is also fair for people to demand that DC enforce the rules that limit the amount of trash and noise a store could generate.

If you think that corner stores aren't automatically a bad thing for every neighborhood, you've got one last chance to let the Zoning Commission know. There are three more public hearings on the zoning update this week.


Is a walkable neighborhood out of reach for you?

Are you getting priced out of being able to live in the kind of neighborhood you want? Do you wish your neighborhood had more local stores and other amenities in walking distance? Please tell your story below.

Photo by Oliver Sholder Photography on Flickr.

At recent hearings on planning and zoning issues, we've been hearing from a lot of activists who say that everything is just perfect now, so nothing should ever change.

Next week, DC's Zoning Commission will hear testimony on parts of the zoning update including accessory apartments (which would let a homeowner rent out a basement or garage) and corner stores. There will be a lot of people testifying there, too, that their neighborhoods are perfect just the way they are, and zoning needs to block any new people or stores.

But everything is not perfect and we can't simply ignore the skyrocketing costs of housing for people across the income spectrum.

This idea that we should freeze neighborhoods in amber ignores the huge numbers of people who can't afford a place to live in a walkable place near transit, especially not one with enough room to grow a family. Or they can afford an old house in a cheaper neighborhood, but that contributes to displacing long-time residents of those other neighborhoods. And they see not just gentrification's benefits, like safer streets and new shops, but also its harm from higher costs.

Either DC plans a way to keep up with its housing demand (which still outstrips the new units getting built), or it sees the city become out of reach for many people, from young professionals starting their careers to fixed-income retirees and legions of lower-income residents.

Adding housing doesn't have to mean skyscrapers or 6-story density everywhere or anything in particular, but it does mean finding places to put the 122,000 new units DC needs (and the same for walkable places in other inner jurisdictions like Montgomery and Arlington) somewhere, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and thinking that if we don't change a thing, then our current housing problems won't get any worse.

What about you? Are you finding that housing prices keep you from being able to live where you would like to? Or do you wish that you could have more corner stores or other retail walking distance from your home?

I'd like to collect stories about what residents and prospective residents want, beyond just the same voices that show up at hearing after hearing. A lot of you can't go to all of these hearings because you have day jobs, families, and/or things to do. But your experiences matter as well.

Please fill out the form below. I will forward your stories to NCPC and the Zoning Commission. It asks for your real name and address, because these decision-makers want to know the real people sending the opinions. In addition, the text you write will get posted to this article as a comment, but it won't include your real name or your address.

And it's still not too late to sign up to speak at the zoning update hearings next Wednesday on accessory apartments and Thursday on corner stores.


This survey has ended, but you can still participate in the discussion on this issue by posting a comment on this article.


Sign up right now to testify on DC's zoning update

After 5 long years, DC's process to update its decades-old zoning code is almost done. But DC won't make important progress on reducing parking minimums, allowing accessory dwellings and corner stores, and more without your help.

The Zoning Commission just released dates for its public hearings on the zoning update. They will span 9 nights in November, with a different topic for each night. Residents will speak in the order they sign up, so please sign up right nowthe sooner you do, the earlier you will get to say your piece and then go home!

The most important night is Tuesday, November 12, when the Zoning Commission will hear input on proposed changes to parking minimums.

If you missed the scores of Greater Greater Washington articles on the update, the proposal calls for significantly reducing parking minimums in areas with good transit service and in higher-density residential zones. Originally, the Office of Planning considered eliminating parking requirements altogether near transit. While the new proposal has been watered down, it's still a huge step forward in building a more sustainable city.

Several other nights are very important as well. The hearings for corner stores and accessory dwellings are Wednesday, November 6 and Thursday, November 7 (with Wednesday covering the detached house zones up through low-density row houses like Georgetown, and Thursday being for other row house and apartment zones, like Capitol Hill and Petworth).

Thursday, November 14 is the hearing on downtown's zoning, including a proposal to eliminate parking minimums there.

Show your support

The most important thing supporters of the update can do at this point in the process is sign up to speak in person at one of the November hearings. Individuals not representing an organization have 3 minutes to speak. It really makes a difference to the Zoning Commission to see city residents moved to come out in support of a proposal, and no doubt, opponents will attend in great numbers as well.

If you aren't sure yet what you will say, don't worry. We are going to have a lot of articles on these topics in the coming weeks, and other resources to help you. But you don't need to be a policy expert. Some of the most effective testimony to the Zoning Commission is for people simply to talk about their own lives and neighborhoods.

While there are instructions for signing up to speak on the Office of Zoning news page, the Coalition for Smarter Growth reached out the the Zoning Commission to verify signup procedures and found out the person in charge of them is currently on vacation. We encourage supporters of the zoning update to use our form to submit your signup emails to make sure they go to the right place and help us better organize people at the hearings.

To sign up to testify, click the following links:

If you would like to speak in support of the zoning update at one of the upcoming hearings, you should sign up right away. It only will take a moment now, but the sooner you sign up, the earlier in the evening you will get to speak.


DC planning office also backs down on corner stores

Parking isn't the only part of DC's zoning update that got cut back this month. In the latest drafts, DC planners have also limited plans to allow corner stores in residential areas.

Photo by MIT-Libraries on Flickr.

Originally, they considered permitting retail, service, grocery, and arts businesses as matter of right in corner buildings, subject to lots and lots of conditions. Instead, only grocery stores might be able to locate as a matter of right, while other businesses can apply for a special exception and have a hearing.

This responds to resident concerns about stores' impacts. While it might impede corner stores, the old rules were so restrictive that almost no corner stores could have opened anyway, so this will have little further impact.

Corner store proposal tries to restore historic patterns

DC's historic neighborhoods had a few "corner stores" (usually, but not always, on actual corners) scattered throughout neighborhoods. Before zoning prohibited commerce in residential areas, and before malls and big box stores, these stores met many everyday needs.

But in the era of single-use zoning, which sought to segregate all commerce from residences, DC and other cities outlawed these stores. Some remained open, grandfathered into the zoning, while others closed and, if they remained closed for 3 years, could never reopen. OP wanted to fix this problem.

Certainly, a store can potentially harm neighbors if there is a lot of noise, trash attracting rodents, smells from cooking, and so on. Therefore, planners tried to write a set of narrow rules limiting trash to being stored indoors, restricting on-site cooking, curtailing hours, and so on.

Leaders ask for hearings before stores can open

The Zoning Commission approved the idea in theory, but it drew opposition from many residents. Councilmember Muriel Bowser, in particular, expressed hostility to this idea. Some small stores in neighborhoods in her ward tend to sell mostly liquor and junk food and can be magnets for disturbances or crime, though OP's rules didn't allow liquor stores under the corner store proposal.

Bowser suggested there have to be a public hearing before any store could locate in a residential area. Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B, for southern Capitol Hill, also suggested requiring a hearing.

OP has agreed to change the rules so that a grocery store can still locate as a matter of right, but a retail sales business, art studio, cafe, or service business will require a special exception. To get one, an owner will have to apply to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), talk to the ANC, and have a hearing where neighbors can speak.

OP is still finalizing some of the details. For example, the old rules had many limits, including how close one store could be to an existing commercial corridor or mixed-use area. The idea was to ensure that such stores don't sap vitality from the actual commercial area. But, ANC 6B suggested, if the BZA is going to review an application anyway, instead of a firm rule this could be something the BZA can consider.

Similarly, maybe the strict limits on hours and size can be a little less absolute if the BZA is able to use its discretion and weigh the impacts against the benefits.

Is this the right move?

Certainly, this change will make corner stores harder to open than they would have been under the original, Zoning Commission-approved proposal. But there were so many limits on corner stores that there were actually vanishingly few eligible sites for corner stores at all.

Stores could only be in the moderate density R-3, R-4, and R-5-A zones, not the detached or semi-detached house R-1 and R-2 zones or the apartment R-5-B zones. They had to be at least 500 feet from any mixed-use zone (even one with no stores). They had to locate on corner buildings, or buildings originally built to be commercial.

That leaves few areas in most parts of the city. In Ward 4, for instance, only Petworth and a few tiny bits of other neighborhoods are eligible, and then only far from the commercial corridors. Even within the eligible area (shaded in yellow below), it's only corner buildings, most of which someone already owns and uses for a purpose other than a store.

DC's Ward 4. Eligible corner store area is shaded yellow. Corner stores cannot locate in the purple or white areas under OP's proposal. Click for larger map and other wards.

In this case, even with all the restrictions, neighbors might have an understandable concern about an impact the rules didn't anticipate. A special exception, while it creates a burden, might not be unreasonable here.

Meanwhile, residents need easy access to food, especially fresh food. The biggest potential problem with a grocer is trash, and rules require them to store all trash indoors. They also limit the store's size (1,200 square feet in the prior proposal), number of employees (3), hours (not after 10 pm and before 7 am), and more.

OP has tried to bend over backward to allow some stores while also keeping them from affecting neighbors. If their new, scaled-down proposal goes into effect, a very small number of new corner stores might open up, and then we can see how well they do. Or, the rules might be so restrictive that no stores appear.


Should corner stores require a hearing?

The ANC for southern Capitol Hill, ANC 6B, formally endorsed almost all provisions of DC's zoning update proposal, including removing many parking minimums, but it also wants to require a special exception to add a corner store in a residential area.

Photo by jacdupree on Flickr.

From their letter,

ANC 6B recommends changing the test to a special exception for certain commercial uses in residential areas in any building, including so-called "corner stores", if they meet the certain conditions set forth in OP's proposal.
A special exception for corner stores is far less onerous than the variance it requires today, but still is a significant burden to a small business owner. If the Zoning Commission does choose to require a special exception for any new store in a residential area, however, then we don't also need the long list of restrictions OP created to limit corner stores and their impacts.

Corner stores are very hard to open today

Today, it is almost impossible to put a store in a residential area, even in a location that historically had one, but the store closed. That means neighborhoods that once had walkable retail have lost the opportunity.

Someone can get a variance, but there is a very high legal bar that the owner essentially has to prove they can't use the property without it; since the building works fine as a residence, that's not possible. So even if neighbors are eager for a store, there isn't a path to get one.

One approach would be to allow a special exception, where the owner still has to go through a time-consuming and costly legal process, but the standard is lower. That gives residents a say, which is what many people want to see happen. Still, the process can be a burden; Aaron Wiener's story on the Anacostia Playhouse shows how waiting for a zoning hearing can block something even if people support it and the zoning board is almost sure to approve it.

The Office of Planning took a different approach. They instead said, if people are really concerned that a store will bring trash, noise, and smells, let's just set strict limits to avoid the impacts, but if someone can open a store with minimal effect on neighbors, then allow them to move forward without the time and expense of a hearing.

OP ended up placing so many limits on the stores, though, that it's possible we will see almost no corner stores. In particular, the stores now have to be in actual corner buildings, or buildings originally built as commercial; they also can't be within 500 feet of a commercial corridor to avoid competing with the commercial space.

The proposal also only applies in medium density house zones, but not detached house neighborhoods or higher-density apartment neighborhoods. All told, that leaves very few eligible spots for stores.

Here is Harriet Tregoning explaining the reasons for the corner store proposal at the recent DC Council oversight hearing:

An alternative: special exception, but more broadly

The Zoning Commission (ZC) ought to accept OP's proposal or even loosen the set of restrictions. However, if that board decides they aren't comfortable with any matter-of-right stores and wants to require a special exception, then potential retailers should be able to ask for a special exception to some of the restrictions as well.

In other words, if we believe that it necessary to have a zoning hearing that gives residents a chance to weigh in, and that forum can balance residents' desire for the store against the potential impacts, then we should trust the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) to have the leeway to decide how many square feet is too much, or how close to other stores is too close, or whether the store can include something on the second floor of a building.

OP devised a set of restrictions they thought would ensure stores had minimal impact. They suggested allowing stores as of right in only these extremely narrow circumstances. If ANCs or the ZC don't like this approach, fine, but then we don't really need this extreme set of restrictions.

Instead, make these general criteria the BZA should consider, but give the BZA freedom to allow a corner store even when it doesn't meet all of these criteria. Instead of a rule limiting the stores to corner buildings and historically commercial ones, let the BZA consider the impact on neighbors, understanding that a corner building may be less likely to affect neighbors.

Instead of forbidding stores within 500 feet of commercial corridors, let the BZA decide if the store is going to sap nearby commercial space. Sometimes there's commercial zoning nearby but few or no actual stores, not because the properties are vacant but because they're filled with other things. The BZA could have the power to decide whether a store is going to detract from a commercial strip, or not.

ANC 6B seems open to loosening some of the restrictions:

During ANC 6B's deliberations on this issue, there was discussion about the restriction in OP's proposal that a proposed use not be within 500 feet of a commercial zone and whether a different or more flexible standard might be worth considering. ANC 6B also discussed whether to recommend that "purpose built structures" should be matter-of-right rather than require a special exception. ANC 6B will investigate these questions and may propose further comments and recommendations at a later stage of the consideration of these zoning changes.
Basically, there are two approaches. One is to make zoning define what is and isn't allowable and let people plan their houses and stores around that without having to ask some board for permission each time. Under that approach, it's important to have clear and specific zoning rules to allow what you want but don't allow what you don't want.

The other approach is to pass the ball to a group of people who make a case-by-case decision including resident input on a case by case basis. In this situation, you don't need a lot of detailed rules, just guidelines, because the board can use its discretion.

There's no reason to do have both a very tight set of rules and also require a hearing even to open a store that meets all of those tests. Either go with OP's proposal as is, or replace it wholesale with a rule that you can create a corner store in a residential area under a broader set of circumstances, but need a public hearing and a special exception to do it.


Muriel Bowser unsure on parking minimums, corner stores

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

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

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

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


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

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

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

Muriel Bowser
Ward 4 Councilmember

Explanations of accessory dwellings are confusing

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

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

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

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

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

Map shows more about corner store proposal

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

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

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

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

Can you attend?

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

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

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

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


Epic Ward 3 zoning update meeting Tuesday night

This Tuesday is a very important day! It's my birthday. (And Kojo Nnamdi's.) Also, it's the zoning update meeting in Ward 3, a ward which houses many of the most strident opponents, but where a great many residents also support growing and more walkable neighborhoods.

Photo by Patrick Haney on Flickr.

Can you go to the meeting? You don't need to know much about the zoning update; it's a great chance to learn. It would also help a lot to say something. Many opponents will be there and not shy. The meeting is 6:30 pm at Wilson High School.

Reader Steve asked, "Do you have specific talking points that we should try to convey?" You can say whatever you want, of course, and make up your own mind, but below are a few themes you might want to mention.

In addition, there are many ways OP has backed off earlier plans based on either resident pressure or internal OP decisions to push for a less significant change than they had originally planned. Or there are ways the zoning update could go beyond the original proposals. Therefore, for each policy area, there are a few changes you could request, if you feel they match your own views.

Code organization

What's happening: The zoning update will restructure the zoning code (while keeping almost all provisions the same). Instead of having to look in up to 3 places for conflicting rules that all apply to your property, the key information will be in one place.

Main positive point: The zoning code is too hard to understand right now. It needs reorganizing into a form that better helps property owners understand what is and isn't legal on their property.

Parking minimums

What's happening: The zoning update removes minimum parking rules for buildings downtown, residential buildings under 10 units, and buildings in mixed-use and higher-density residential areas near Metro and frequent bus lines.

Main positive point: Current rules force many buildings to include more parking than their residents or workers need. It's really important to remove many of the parking minimums, especially downtown and near transit.

Ways OP could go further:

  • Fill in the "holes" in places like Logan Circle and Columbia Heights by making transit zones apply to non-residential uses in R-4 row house zones near transit.
  • Go even farther and have no minimum parking requirements at all, citywide.
  • Add parking maximums as well, in addition to one on 100,000-square foot parking lots. These would not have been absolute caps, but would just make developers do a Transportation Demand Management plan if they want to put in more parking than a set threshold.
Accessory dwellings

What's happening: In low- and moderate-density residential areas, people can't rent out a basement or existing garage without going through complex approvals. The proposal would allow this in most lower-density areas for interior units or existing external buildings, but still require a hearing for new or expanded external buildings.

Main positive point: Accessory dwellings help young people afford places to live and seniors age in place. They make housing more affordable and accommodate more residents without fundamentally changing the character of buildings in a neighborhood. They just let neighborhoods house the numbers of people they did 50 years ago.

Ways OP could go further:

  • Allow ADUs by right in new external structures as well (as long as the new external structure conforms to the other zoning rules).
  • Impose fewer restrictions such as on size, balconies, whether an artist can live above a studio, and more.
  • Include ADUs by right in Georgetown as wellthe current proposal requires a special exception for them (more on that later).
Corner stores

What's happening: Retail can locate in moderate density residential row house areas (not low-density or the higher density areas), as long as it's pretty far from other retail, in a corner building or historically commercial building, and satisfies many more restrictions.

Main positive point: People want to be able to walk to neighborhood-serving retail, and if they live in an area without a neighborhood commercial strip right nearby, they should be able to have a corner store to serve their needs.

Ways OP could go further:

  • Allow stores on properties besides literal "corners" and historically commercial buildings.
  • Allow corner stores even within 500 feet of mixed-use zones.
  • Let corner stores locate in row house and apartment zones (now R-5) as well; now they do not count.
  • Let the Board of Zoning Adjustment waive more of the conditions in a special exception hearing.
Green Area Ratio

What's happening: New or substantially changed buildings will need to get a certain score of environmental sustainability features, such as grass, green roof, stormwater management, or green walls, based on the property's size.

This will help reduce stormwater runoff and the urban heat island effect and potentially make DC a more pleasant place to live even as it grows. Some fear it will also further disadvantage urban development versus exurban greenfields.

Other changes

There are many other small tweaks in the zoning update, mostly good.

Some top positive changes:

  • The new code requires more bicycle parking for buildings. There would be "long-term" spaces, such as in a locked room inside the building for employees or residents, and "short-term" outdoor racks for visitors or shoppers.
  • Larger garages will have to have a number of car sharing spaces. Surface parking lots need canopy trees to shade some of the lot.
  • Rules for building homes on alley lots become a little bit more permissive.
Proposals OP dropped:
  • The previous proposal had the same limits on the actual size of a house but did not prescribe how many stories you can have inside (except as the fire code limits). In low-density zones, OP reinstated a limit of 3 stories.
  • The original proposal let homeowners build a house of similar size to others nearby even if their lot has an extra-short rear yard. The Zoning Commission approved this idea but OP removed it.
The meeting is at Wilson High School, 3950 Chesapeake St NW by the Tenleytown Metro. It starts at 6:30 with a presentation by Harriet Tregoning, an "open house" format where you can ask OP staff questions, and then a "town hall" where people can speak to the entire group about their views.


Go to a zoning update meeting, ask OP to fill in the holes

After a little breather for the holidays, it's time for DC's most contentious, important, yet timid public policy proposal to roll forward once more. The public meetings on the zoning update resume this weekend in Columbia Heights, with the biggest clash to follow Tuesday in Tenleytown.

Photo by BarelyFitz on Flickr.

Please attend one or more of the meetings this month and let us know which you'll be going to. It's especially important to get more folks to the Ward 3 meeting Tuesday. You don't need to go to the meeting in your own ward, and all meetings cover the same topics.

First and foremost, the meetings are a chance to educate yourself about the details of the plans and ask questions. In addition, you can ask OP to fill in some of the holes in their proposals.

Change is already here

The meetings start out with a presentation by the Office of Planning explaining the issues, the history of DC's zoning, and what they're hoping to tweak in the new code. After that, there is an "open house" format where you can write comments on post-its at various stations, and ask staff questions. They end the meeting with a more traditional "town hall" style where people can speak or ask questions one by one.

As they explain in the presentation, DC is very different than it was in 1950 and 1960, even though our zoning code is still substantially the same:

Images from the Office of Planning.

This last decade was the first time DC gained population since 1960, but the population is very different today. There are far more residents 60 years and older, and in the 20-34 age group, while there are far fewer children. The average household is a third smaller as well, which is why our existing stock of housing could be very full despite significant new construction, but still hold over 200,000 fewer people than in 1960.

What about the holes?

In its efforts to bend over backward and placate opponents, OP has left some significant gaps in proposals that are generally excellent steps forward. The upcoming meetings are also a good opportunity to ask OP to fill in the holes.

Parking minimums go away for mixed-use, non-residential, and high-density residential areas near transit and everywhere downtown, but that leaves what Matt Yglesias called the "Logan Circle gap": R-4 row house areas even right near transit. There's also a similar "Columbia Heights gap" and others.

Image from the Office of Planning.

There won't be parking minimums for residential buildings under 10 units, which covers most of the buildings in the "gaps," but this still leaves parking minimum requirements for some buildings right near Metro stations.

Corner stores will only be able to go in corner buildings or ones that have historically served as retail, and only 500 feet away from other retail. This leaves very few potential sites. Accessory dwellings can go in exterior garages but only if they already exist.

OP's early proposals had none of these holes. They added each one to try to address resident opposition and pare down the proposal to the absolute minimum necessary.

If the Zoning Commission approves the new code just as OP is proposing, it will be a major step forward for DC. It will fix many of the occasions when property owners have to ask for special exceptions to do things which match residents' desires and needs for our city. However, a number of these situations will remain, and we'll get less housing, bigger gaps between neighborhood stores, and more unnecessary parking than we might under a more expansive version.

Worse yet, if the Zoning Commission decides they need to "split the baby" and compromise between OP's plan and vocal opponents, we'll end up losing some essential component of the changes, since there's no fat left. There are almost no elements remaining that might be a good idea but maybe have some drawbacks, where you could go either way, since OP took all of those away already.

I'd have preferred to see OP leave the holes out, since we're better off without them, and also give zoning commissioners some room to compromise away elements that aren't absolutely essential. These public meetings are a chance to show OP that many residents not only support the zoning update but would support a less-timid variant as well.

Find the meeting nearest you

Here are the 5 remaining meetings over the next 2 weeks:

Saturday, January 510 am-noonWard 1Harriet Tubman Elementary School3101  13th St NW (1 block east of Columbia Hts Metro)
Tuesday, January 86:30-8:30 pmWard 3Wilson High School3950 Chesapeake St NW (adjacent to Tenleytown Metro)
Wednesday, January 96:30-8:30 pmWard 5Foster Auditorium (Ely Building), Gallaudet University800 Florida Ave NE (5 blocks east of NY Ave/Gallaudet Metro)
Saturday, January 1210 am-noonWard 7DOES Building, Room 2309/104058 Minnesota Ave NE (adjacent to Minnesota Ave Metro)
Wednesday, January 166:30-8:30 pmWard 4Takoma Education Campus7010 Piney Branch Rd NW (3 blocks west of Takoma Metro)

Which one can you go to? Let us know on this form and help us make sure we have good coverage at all the meetings!


Hill East changes tune on commercial strip

Do you want "commercial" uses in your neighborhood? Proposals for corner stores or commercial zoning can yield some great enthusiasm or strong antipathy. Often, this seems to depend on whether their experiences with local businesses have been good or bad.

Pretzel Bakery. Photo by Brian Flahaven.

In one part of Capitol Hill, residents once wanted to rezone 15th Street SE to eliminate an existing commercial strip, but 10 years later, many feel much more affectionately about the neighborhood businesses that have opened, and might prefer to keep the commercial strip around.

ANC Commissioner Brian Flahaven explains the history of zoning debates around this commercial corridor:

For most of the past decade, residents' experience with retail along this corridor has been negative. In the early 2000s, residents complained about crime and loitering around the now defunct New Dragon restaurant. And some residents also voiced concern that developers were taking advantage of the commercial zoning to build tall residential-only buildings along the corridor (C-2-A allows buildings up to 50 feet high compared to 40 feet for R-4).

In 2003, ANC 6B supported a request made by several frustrated 15th Street residents to rezone 15th Street SE from the commercial C-2-A to the residential R-4.

Current zoning in Hill East. Image from the DC Zoning Map.

The Zoning Commission did not change the zoning, but DC's Comprehensive Plan started showing the area as residential, rather than commercial or mixed-use.

Comprehensive Plan's Future Land Use Map.

When the Office of Planning finishes the zoning update, it could be an opportunity to change the zoning. But do residents still want that? Flahaven thinks perhaps not:

This past year saw the opening of two popular food establishments along the corridorThe Pretzel Bakery and Crepes on the Corner. The Pretzel Bakery (340 15th Street SE) has been a huge hit. And while Crepes on the Corner (257 15th Street SE) unfortunately closed, most Hill East residents I've talked to enjoyed having a place to grab coffee and lunch in the neighborhood. Southeast Market (1500 Independence Ave SE) was also recently sold and renovated. All three of these establishments are or were positive additions to the neighborhood.

While 15th Street will never be a Barracks Row, I can certainly envision a future time when the corridor acts as a small neighborhood serving commercial zone located halfway between the heavier retail activity around Eastern Market and the future retail activity on Reservation 13. Rezoning 15th Street to R-4 would eliminate future opportunities for restaurants, cafes and shops along the corridor.

With a change in the retail mix, people can now see the commercial corridor as a positive contribution to the neighborhood rather than a blight. Attitudes about living near stores also are continuing to evolve, as more people who want to be within a short walk of shops and restaurants move into urban neighborhoods.

Hill East had a commercially-zoned area already, and since the effort to zone it out didn't succeed, that neighborhood still has the chance to welcome more beloved local markets and eateries. But in many neighborhoods, there aren't commercial corridors for new businesses to start in. Some, like Big Bear Coffee in Bloomingdale, end up occupying buildings that were once commercial but whose zoning is now residential, which sets them up for a big zoning fight when someone objects. More often, neighborhoods just don't get any stores.

The zoning update's corner store proposal will allow just a few of thesemaybe too few. To some residents in the neighborhoods that could get them, the idea of commercial zoning conjures up images of problem shops, especially the ones that are mainly liquor stores and draw intoxicated customers. To others, it's the beloved local shop that adds to convenience and makes the neighborhood more appealing.

The corner store rules try to limit the actual impacts of commercial uses, such as trash (it can't be stored outdoors) or early morning or late night noise (stores can't be open outside 10 am-7 pm 7 am-10 pm). Any such set of rules, though, can't be perfect. If they keep out all of the businesses residents don't want, they'll also keep out many that they do.

Beyond the corner store rules, we also simply need to ensure there are enough neighborhood commercial corridors with real commercial zoning. There, businesses can open next to one another and benefit from each other attracting foot traffic. In Hill East, a commercial strip on 15th Street may become an asset to the neighborhood, and other neighborhoods need equivalents of their own.

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