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DC's zoning update finally passes!

Seven and a half years ago, residents turned out to a pivotal hearing on reforming DC's zoning code. Last week, after a tumultuous and controversial three quarters of a decade, the changes they were pushing for won final approval. Please thank the people who made this happen!

Photo by muroo on Flickr.

The DC Zoning Commission voted unanimously on January 14 to adopt a brand-new zoning code. Planners hope the new code will make zoning rules simpler and easier to understand, though it's unquestionably still complex. It also incorporates some significant policy reforms:

  • Accessory apartments: It will be legal to rent out a basement or other part of a house in many areas where it wasn't legal before. Homeowners who want to rent out a garage or carriage house will still have to go through a hearing, but may not need a hearing, or if they need one, they will have an easier time getting approval. This will let DC add more housing in ways that have little impact on neighborhoods.
  • Parking minimums: New buildings, especially near Metro and frequent bus lines, will be able to build less parking in keeping with newer data on how many people actually drive. This will drive down the cost of construction and potentially make some lower-cost new housing possible where it wouldn't have succeeded before.
  • Corner stores: It will be possible (though not trivial) to open grocery stores in residential row house areas, subject to a lot of restrictions. There will also be a more difficult path to open other kinds of stores. This might give residents a new way to get food without having to drive a long distance.
  • Expanded downtown: The downtown DC area is much larger than just the part around Metro Center, and the zoning now reflects that, incorporating NoMa, the Capitol Riverfront, and other high density central areas in the Comprehensive Plan.
While it's taken a long time, and many details got watered down along the way, this is a really big deal and a significant step forward.

Thank you, planners!

Please thank the Office of Planning's development review leaders, Jennifer Steingasser and Joel Lawson, for their work in getting this over the finish line, and the DC Zoning Commission for approving the changes. OP held over 350 meetings over more than eight years. Most recently, the team sorted through hundreds of comments, compiled detailed responses to reassure commissioners that public input had been considered, and made many technical changes to respond to useful suggestions from that input.

The commission approved the plan despite unflagging opposition from a group of people who ceaselessly asked for more and more delays up to the end (despite having little substantive complaint with the changes) and, according to some reports, may still try to bring a lawsuit to block the zoning update. AAA Mid-Atlantic also put out a last-ditch fearmongering press release that WTOP's Nick Iannelli dutifully transcribed.

Opponents protest outside a 2013 hearing.

This vote doesn't mean the zoning code changes overnight. The new text will take effect September 6. Before that, OP still has work to do to help inform people about the change and ensure that the people in the Office of Zoning, who actually review and approve permit applications, are up to speed.

It's been a long road for all of us who've advocated for eight years, and even more for the people at OP who've held meetings, summarized feedback, made changes, and then rinsed and repeated over and over. Come celebrate this victory at our upcoming happy hour on January 28 in Adams Morgan, one area that will benefit from the new regulations. And please fill out the form below to give the government officials involved a quick thank you for their work.

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Philadelphia is losing parking spaces, but finding a parking space is getting easier

Philadelphia has fewer parking spaces overall, but it's now easier to find a space in the city's garages and lots. What gives?

Photo by Jukie Bot on Flickr.

Philadelphia has cut its number of parking spots

Planners in Philadelphia do a parking census every five years, and Plan Philly reports that in the past five years, the number of public off-street parking spots around Center City (the name for Philly's downtown areas) shrank by seven percent, or a little over 3000 spaces.

Everywhere you can park in Philadelphia's Center City. Image from Philadelphia Parking Inventory.

Most of the decline in off-street parking is because surface parking lots have become new buildings, some of which built new parking but many of which did not. A lot of spaces that were lost used to be in public parking lots or garages that were sold to make way for new office and apartment buildings.

Center City is getting denser and demand for land means that it's more lucrative to redevelop these parking sites for more than just car storage. Some of the parking will be replace once construction is done but most spots are gone forever as some of the buildings reserve what parking they have for tenants instead of anyone just looking for a place to park to visit elsewhere.

The percentage of people using parking spots has fallen as well

Meanwhile, there's a smaller percentage of people parking in Philadelphia's available spots. It's much easier to find one than it was five years ago.

Parking Lot occupancy rates in Center City Philadelphia. Image cropped by author from Philadelphia Parking Inventory.

It turns out that there are simply a lot of people in Philadelphia who choose to use transit, walk, or ride a bike to get around.

Cities are realizing they don't need to build parking

The news from Philadelphia's parking inventory is the latest in a trend that shows that cities are getting smarter about parking. A critical first step for many cities is to simply count how many parking spaces it actually has. Philadelphia is ahead of the curve in that respect.

But Philadelphia also runs a lot of its garages through the Philadelphia Parking Authority. DC doesn't manage nearly as many garages, with over 20 different garage operators filling the role. Getting good information on the total number of spots and how often they're used might be harder for DC to collect.

But once a city knows how many spaces are availablem it is in a much better position to actually plan for how much parking it will need in the future rather than relying on parking ratios that may be decades old. Philadelphia's inventory is a good start and confirms a lot about what we've learned about parking here in DC as well.


These are the US cities doing away with parking minimums

Under DC's new zoning code, there will be fewer requirements to build parking next to new buildings. Lots cities are making similar moves, with some doing away with parking minimums altogether.

A map of places that have changed their parking rules. Map from Strong Towns.

In the graphic above, which the folks at Strong Towns created, green pins represent cities that have ditched parking minimums , either entirely or at least in certain neighborhoods. The blue pens show blue pins show where parking minimums have been lowered, and the orange ones show cities that are considering lowering their minimums.

Locally Alexandria, has a blue pin, while DC is still orange. Once DC's zoning update goes through, it will change to blue (though original proposals did call for total elimination).

DC is also changing things up when it comes to its parking meters, with a performance parking pilot going on in Navy Yard and one to come in Gallery Place.

Cities originally mandated parking minimums out of fears that without them, nobody would have anywhere to park. But we've since learned that parking minimums lead to greater congestion and higher housing prices in cities and neighborhoods. Matthew Yglesias sums it up nicely in his book, The Rent Is Too Damn High:

Cities choke density with rules mandating the quantity of parking that must be constructed to go along with any new residence. The rules, in other words, increase the number of parking spaces over what a free market would create. That helps make real estate more expensive than it otherwise would be by ensuring that either homes are smaller or else parcels are larger than would be the case absent regulation.
Cities from Seattle, San Francisco, and Philadelphia to Anchorage, Bismarck, and Fayetteville are among the places doing something to address the error that is parking minimums. Strong Towns' map is open source, so if you know of any cities that are missing, you can add them in.


This cartoon shows why we should rethink parking minimums

A number of cities, including DC, are rethinking parking minimums, or rules that require new buildings to have a certain amount of parking. This video from Ottawa explains why parking minimums can be harmful.

Parking costs more than many people think. Surface parking lots are expensive in that they deprive land owners of using the land for something that'd be more profitable (like housing). They also make neighborhoods less comfortable to walk around in. And building undeground lots requires a tremendous amount of resources.

The video points out that Ottawa's best neighborhoods were there before its parking rules came about, and that if you wanted to build places like them today you couldn't because "you'd have to build so much parking to comply with the zoning."

As cities provide residents with more choices to get around, from transit to bike lanes to sidewalks, fewer people need to drive. That means they also don't need to park, which is allowing us to think about using space differently.


DC's move to legalize a little more housing (and other zoning changes): The finish line is in sight!

If you want to rent out a basement or garage and can't today, you might be able to by the end of 2016. DC's long-running zoning update finally got, um, "preliminary final action" approval at a meeting Monday.

This might be mostly legal in less than a year. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

The zoning update, in a nutshell, does two types of things. First, it will completely overhaul the District's zoning code to be more modern and, at least in theory, more understandable. Second, it makes a few targeted policy reforms, like allowing buildings near transit to have less parking if the owner doesn't think it's necessary, or letting homeowners in low-density areas rent out a basement or a garage or other space in a home to make some extra money and provide more housing.

Other changes let grocery stores possibly locate in residential areas as long as they're on corners and comply with a raft of other limitations; make it easier for theaters to operate in church basements and elsewhere in residential zones, subject to a public hearing; expand the area where certain downtown zoning applies; and a plethora of other small tweaks.

Advocates of keeping the cost of housing reasonable have been eager for the provisions to allow renting basements and garages (accessory apartments). Doing so creates the potential for more housing, and lower minimum parking requirements, which reduce the cost of building housing. Unfortunately, these efforts, which gained general Zoning Commission assent in 2009, have been waiting since, while the DC Office of Planning in the meantime pushed through other zoning changes that reduced potential new housing.

Good changes got caught up inside bigger, harder ones

One reason the zoning update has been delayed so many years is because a new zoning code is certainly intricate. The Office of Planning's former staffers who ran the zoning update back in 2008 may have made a tactical mistake in coupling key policy changes together with the new code in its complexity; anyone uncomfortable with the scale of such an undertaking balked at parts of the process even if their intent was not to hasten the rise in housing prices.

For example, several neighborhoods now have "overlays" which add special zoning rules on top of the base ones for similar areas. The new code instead sets up new base zones for each area with an overlay, so property owners don't have to look in two places and reconcile conflicting rules. But to people familiar with the old code, this is initially confusing, and the new approach has some cons along with the pros.

Coupling the important policy changes with technical ones like this hooked the effort to add housing to a very slow caravan. This afforded more chances for opponents of the actual changes to lobby to water them down. Politicians nervous about adding housing could couch concerns in the language of confusion or community engagement more readily.

The changes to accessory apartments and parking minimums are valuable, if too little on their own to make much dent in DC's housing needs which have grown since 2008. Had these more modest changes passed in 2010, say, it could have moved the ball forward and given people a chance to demonstrate these changes don't cause calamity. Accessory apartments would not have brought criminals into a building or engendered elder abuse, as some of the more strident opponents claimed; buildings with less parking would not have brought carmageddon.

The zoning board says, let's go

Much of the public opposition, at this point, is not really about substance, but process; the Committee of 100 argued that the code needs a third party review (and, of course, substantially more delay). Ward 4 councilmember Brandon Todd asked for another month's delay. But DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which makes the final decisions on zoning, has had enough of this process after eight years.

Chairman Anthony Hood did repeatedly express that he was "nervous" about signing off on a new zoning code. He worried about having to stand in front of Costco (which is relatively near his home) and defend the new zoning code to neighbors. He bit at the Committee of 100's independent-review idea, but the other commissioners felt the time for that was long past and the code was ready for approval.

Well, almost: The Office of Planning still has to make a few more small, mostly technical tweaks and present a final version. The commission will consider taking "final final" action (versus this week's "preliminary final" action) on January 14, but there will be no more testimony in the meantime.

Also since the last revision, OP has backed off somewhat on its plans for alley lots; there will have to be a hearing before alley lots can get housing, while previously OP was proposing allowing one dwelling unit on such a lot without a hearing.

If approved in its final form, the Office of Zoning, which administers the zoning code, will publish it in the DC Register, and then six months later, the new zoning code will apply. Anyone applying for a building permit before that date will use the old code; after (with a few exceptions), the new one.

Residential zones as of 2008. Accessory apartment rules apply to R-1 (yellow), R-2 (orange), R-3 (red), and R-4 (purple). Image by David Alpert from Office of Zoning base map.

Change may be less than a year away!

This means that if you live in one of the low-density areas of the city (generally, detached houses, or houses in pairs which share one wall—yellow and orange in the above map, or a very small set of areas with row houses that are categorized R-3 today, red in the above map) you will be able to rent out a part of your house as a separate unit, with a variety of restrictions, but without having to go through a public hearing.

If you live in one of those areas, or a moderate-density row house area like Columbia Heights or Capitol Hill (purple in the above map) and you have a garage, you will be able create a unit in that garage. However, you will still have to show up at a public hearing where neighbors will be able to oppose (or support) the idea, and will probably need a zoning lawyer to navigate that process.

A few buildings will be able to get built with less cost. A few corner groceries may appear in some residential areas. It'll be a significant, but small and long-awaited, step forward.


Friday's your last chance to speak up on DC's zoning code (and you should!)

Opponents of DC's zoning update are continuing to try to delay changes that will add housing and make it less expensive to build. But DC's zoning commission has had enough of delay. They now need to hear support from residents to actually approve the changes.

Photo by Warren R.M. Stuart on Flickr.

The final deadline to comment on the proposal, which has been going on for eight years, is this Friday.

Here are the key provisions and my comments. If you agree, the best thing to do is write a short (1-2 sentences is fine) explanation in your own words of the same general concept (or any other you believe in) and submit it through the online tool, linked next to each item below.

Accessory apartments: This proposal will let homeowners in detached house zones rent out a basement, other room, or existing garage to earn some more money from otherwise-unused space as well as providing someone else a place to live.

Comment here, and select section 253.8. I'm saying, "Please approve the proposal for accessory apartments. Many homeowners have extra space and need money to help cover a mortgage, pay for needs in retirement, or other expenses. Meanwhile, many people need places to live in DC. This proposal is a win-win that addresses both needs."

Parking: The new zoning code will lower minimum parking requirements, most deeply around Metro stations, streetcar lines, and high-frequency bus corridors.

Comment here, and select section 701. I'm saying, "Please approve the proposal to reduce minimum parking requirements. These requirements are often unnecessary and drive up the cost of new housing. Issues with street parking should be solved through street parking rules and not in the zoning code."

If you want to go further, you can advocate for even deeper reductions, or an outright elimination, of the parking minimums. The original proposal got watered down over time.

You can also comment on any of the other changes, all of which you can read about in The Office of Planning's zoning update blog.

The online tool is the easiest way to comment. You can also email a PDF letter to or use one of the other methods at the bottom of this page.

The zoning board says enough is enough

At least 40 opponents sent letters asking to extend the time even further. They also asked to have the Office of Planning go back to neighborhoods for yet another round of meetings, and to translate the zoning code into more languages.

Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood, who had pushed for more meetings and some delays in the past, has had enough. He said,

We've extended the time and extended the time and extended the time. I understand this is a new undertaking, but ... we extended it 90 days, and on our own, because of concerns of things ending in August, we extended it a few more days ... so it went from 90 to 119 days. To extend it again and keep extending it and keep extending it; I think this city will not have a new zoning code which was forecast years ago. I think we have done due diligence for the residents in this city. It's probably 8 years now. This is an 8-year project.
On the translation issue, OP's Jennifer Steingasser noted that the agency had previously created and circulated a fact sheet, explaining the main changes, in Amharic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Zoning staff said a full translation of the text would cost $100,000 per language and is not required by law.

The commission voted unanimously to deny all of the extension requests, except for one from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4A to submit its testimony about two weeks late. That ANC will get its minor extension; everyone else needs to speak by this Friday, September 23 25.

Go do it!


This is your very last chance to weigh in on DC's epic 8-year zoning update (probably)

DC homeowners could soon have more freedom to rent out their basements and carriage houses, residential neighborhoods could get more corner groceries, and there might be less unneeded and unused parking in new buildings. That's if DC's Zoning Commission gives final sign-off to an update of the zoning code this fall. First, there's one last public comment period for residents to weigh in.

DC started revising its zoning way back in early 2008. A new Comprehensive Plan had just been approved, and it called for adjustments to the zoning code. Also, the code dated back to 1958, and while it had been amended along the way, it also had many outdated elements.

The Office of Planning convened public meetings to get resident input on what should change. Most of the changes are just reorganizing the code, ostensibly to be easier to use. Through those meetings, the planners also came up with some specific policy changes on a few topics.

What's changing?

One big change would let people rent out a basement or an external garage in zones where that's illegal today. While most row house zones allow a basement unit, and in many places "English basements" are common, that's not allowed in the lowest density row house zones and the zones with detached and semi-detached houses.

The zoning update would legalize such units, though with a number of restrictions: The owner still has to live in the house, there can't be more than a certain number of people, the door has to be below ground level or on the side to keep the house looking like a single-family house, and others.

Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

A second topic is car parking. Outdated assumptions that assumed people would drive, which date from long before Metro even existed, required more parking than necessary in many buildings, driving up the costs of new housing. Numerous examples surfaced of buildings which had built parking as prescribed by zoning and then found many required spaces difficult to rent or sell, or garages even going mostly empty.

The zoning board was also regularly granting exceptions to the parking rules, adding time and expense. The new minimums would give much more flexibility citywide and even more around Metro stations, high-frequency bus corridors, or streetcar lines.

Another change would make it easier for grocery stores to locate in residential zones, if they can occupy a corner building or one that was historically a commercial building, sell fresh food and at most a very small amount of liquor, and other restrictions.

Some neighborhoods have corner groceries in residential areas that have existed for a long time. But in neighborhoods without them, they can't start up; with this change, it's possible one could.

Photo by rockcreek on Flickr.

There are a lot more details, and you can learn a lot from the Office of Planning's summary blog posts explaining the rules on accessory apartments (like basements), car parking, and corner stores, as well as changes to alley lot rules, loading zones, downtown zoning, and industrial zones.

How you can speak up, one last time

The DC Zoning Commission will make the final decision on the new zoning code soon. The commission has heard testimony over many years at this point. It published the nearly-final new code in the DC Register in May for the last, legally-required official public comment period, and that comment period closes on September 25.

The commission probably won't make many changes, as it's already heard most of the arguments on each side, but you never know; with the recent "pop-up" rules, one commissioner, Park Service representative Peter May, who cast the swing vote, changed his mind after the final comment period, reversing a previous decision. Opponents of the zoning update are trying to generate public comments against the final draft.

If you want to weigh in, you can comment at a special page on the Zoning Commission website. Parking is in Subtitle C, General Rules, while accessory apartments and corner stores are in Subtitle U, Use Permissions. (If you followed earlier versions, they've moved out of the chapters on the various types of zones where the used to be into a new Subtitle U that consolidates all rules around uses in one place.)

Didn't I testify on this before? Maybe in 2009?

If you're been reading Greater Greater Washington or following DC planning, you might have participated in the zoning update process before. Maybe it was around 2009-2010, when the Zoning Commission had a first set of hearings on the broad policy questions. Or 2012, when the Office of Planning held public meetings in every ward on the proposal.

You might have participated in late 2013, when the Zoning Commission held its hearings on the actual text, or early 2014, when it held another set just because opponents said they hadn't had enough time to prepare. Or maybe you sent in comments in 2014, when Mayor Vince Gray asked for another six months to allow even more comment.

But this might be the last time. If the Zoning Commission takes "final action," then the zoning could could become effective... sometime soon. The commission has not said exactly when the new code actually would take effect, and there could be a grace period.

If the commission takes immediate action, then the code will become final about two years after the Office of Planning formally submitted it. That came after about 5½ years of OP deliberations on the code.

The original public process statement estimated 2-3 years for the whole process from start to finish; it has now been 7½. Most of the extra came because opponents of the changes continually complained to Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and others, claiming the code was a "moving target."

Hood and others responded by asking for more public process, but opponents simply kept arguing that they hadn't been consulted enough, asking for even more and more process. When OP made changes in response to opponents' requests, the opponents then even took that opportunity to claim that since OP had made changes, the code was some kind of moving target and some part of the process should start over.

A group of people protest to ask for delays in the zoning update process. Photo by the author.

For context, the recent "pop-up" rules, which added more restrictive zoning rules for many of DC's row house areas, went from OP's presentation to the Zoning Commission to final implementation in a day less than one year. The commission also made that change effective immediately upon approval rather than having a "vesting" grace period.

You can encourage the Zoning Commission to not waste any more time by submitting comments on the comment form. We can hope this saga can complete before DC gets yet another new Comprehensive Plan, which OP plans to start on this fall.


Car-free housing could come to historic Blagden Alley

One hundred twenty-three new units of housing could come to Shaw's historic Blagden Alley. Many residents think that's a great idea, but some aren't happy that the project would contain no parking spaces. That idea deserves support, not opposition.

Rendering of the proposed development.

The misconception that everybody drives and needs a place to park has long shaped cities' zoning codes. But developers are starting to look beyond that assumption and consider buildings that cater to people who want to travel in other ways.

The two small buildings, by developer SB-Urban, would run along Blagden Alley between M and N Streets NW in Shaw, adjacent to the Convention Center and Mount Vernon Square Metro station and close to downtown. Blagden Alley is a unique historic alley for DC, featuring both residences and small businesses including La Colombe Coffee. This alley, and its northern neighbor Naylor Court, are small alley networks that allow for vehicles and pedestrians to share space in a way that is common in European cities.

The new buildings will have no parking

SB-Urban would build two apartment buildings with 123 small, short-term, fully-furnished rental studios averaging 380 square feet. It replaces two vacant lots used for surface parking and restores a historic garage on the interior of the alley. And it would contain no off-street parking. It's similar to projects in Dupont Circle and Georgetown which have already gotten through the approval process.

Units without parking won't be for everyone, but would appeal to the many people who don't need cars to work, shop, or socialize. It's near downtown and near ample transit.

SB-Urban has described the complex as a good fit for an individual who arrives by taxi or Metro with little more than a suitcase. This person prefers to live in a vibrant urban neighborhood and navigate the city by foot, bike, bus and train. An ideal tenant, for example, might be a consultant in town to work for nine months.

Any new housing development in Shaw is likely to succeed. But to make sure the residents can live without parking spaces, SB-Urban will invest $70,000 in a new 27-dock Capital Bikeshare station (and 14 new bikes) and each resident will get a membership. The building will provide car share memberships, real-time transit screens, and a bike maintenance room. There will also be someone on site to advise residents on how to get around without a car.

Rendering of the proposed development.

No parking draws opposition

Despite support from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F, DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment has yet to approve SB-Urban's proposal. Board members worried that despite all efforts to ensure apartment residents will be comfortable without a car, the project will still lead to more cars on the street and a raised demand for parking in a neighborhood where drivers already complain of tight parking.

At a December 2, 2014 hearing, several nearby residents objected to the project's lack of parking. Board of Zoning Adjustment Chairman Lloyd Jordan repeatedly expressed skepticism that building zero of the 62 spaces otherwise required by zoning would not have a negative impact on the neighborhood, despite repeated affirmation by both DC Office of Planning and DC Department of Transportation officials.

"What do we do two years from now when the buildings are up and running and we have a problem?" Jordan asked. He did not specify what he meant by a parking problem. And his and other residents' concerns are misplaced.

This project is smart because there's demand for it

Parking is often far more expensive than most people realize. Fewer people all over the region and country are owning cars. More than a third of households in DC are car-free, and that number is 41% among renters in the Census tract containing the project.

This neighborhood has an astonishingly high walk to work rate: 37%, versus DC's overall 11%, which is already the second highest in the country. This makes sense because of the proximity to downtown.

The Blagden Alley project is not appealing to just a small niche, but rather to a large and growing share of DC's households: young professionals who are much less likely to own a car and more likely to want to walk and bike to daily activities.

The rapid growth of DC, with more than 42,000 people arriving between 2010 and 2013, is led by young adults who are willing to trade larger living spaces and car ownership for living in more walkable, mixed use neighborhoods.

Without the ability to get an RPP sticker, if any residents later decide they do want cars, they will have to rent an existing off-street parking space nearby. Even so, opponents of the development argue that new residents would find a way to get a sticker or at least a temporary permit from the police. SB-Urban representatives stated that the leases in the building would prohibit this.

Blagden Alley apartments will add affordable housing and pedestrians

Shaw is a neighborhood that's in high demand in a rapidly growing city. In addition to adding much-needed housing, the Blagden Alley project is setting aside 11 units for moderate and low-income residents as part of the city's Inclusionary Zoning affordable housing program.

By bringing in new residents who walk to stores, work, and transit, the project will also push its historic neighborhood toward being more pedestrian-oriented. More people walking on the streets help lower crime, support local businesses, and strengthen the case for better transit.

Construction of these buildings with alley addresses and no parking also reinforces the pedestrian orientation of the alleys, which do not have sidewalks. Forcing more cars into the alley would degrade the character of this shared-use space.

SB-Urban also makes the case that this kind of housing minimizes vehicle trips, lessens traffic, and shrinks the carbon footprint of residents. "Buildings with parking attract people with cars; buildings without parking attract people without cars," said project manager Brook Katzen in a statement about the project.

Today, the BZA will continue to discuss the case. These Blagden Alley apartments represent an excellent chance to welcome new residents to the city with minimal carbon footprints.

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