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Zoning


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.

Politics


Most mayoral challengers oppose reducing parking minimums

At a forum last month, four candidates for DC mayor argued against a proposal by the Office of Planning to relax minimum parking requirements in transit-rich areas of the city. Andy Shallal and Tommy Wells didn't address it directly, though Shallal argued for more parking capacity while Wells argued for reducing parking demand.

The Office of Planning (OP) is proposing changes to the zoning code that would let property owners choose the right amount of parking in the highest density downtown neighborhoods, including developing areas like NoMa and Capitol Riverfront. Elsewhere, the zoning code would require one space per three units in apartment and condominium buildings away from transit corridors and half that near transit.

This proposal is the result of multiple compromises by planning director Harriet Tregoning to satisfy opponents' concerns. If the response of mayoral candidates is any indication, Tregoning's compromises have resulted in only more demands for compromises, an outcome that many predicted.

At the forum, moderator Davis Kennedy, editor of the Northwest Current, asked the following question:

Some have criticized our city planners for reducing the amount of required parking in new apartment buildings in some neighborhoods and for allowing apartments in single family homes. The fear is that it will substantially reduce on street parking availability. Others feel if we did not reduce the new apartment parking requirements, as underground parking is so expensive, it would contribute to much higher rents. What do you think?
Kennedy asked a good question that fairly represented both sides of the issue. Here are the answers of each candidate, with the portions that directly answer the question in bold:

Muriel Bowser:

Bowser directly opposes OP's proposal, then argues that expanding alternative transportation is the better solution:

I think that the Office of Planning got this one wrong, and that's why I introduced emergency legislation that in some cases would limit the expansion of visitor parking. Walking in Georgetown neighborhoods, walking all around ward 2, people tell me that DDOT got it wrong and we stopped it working with your councilmember who joined me in that effort.

This is what I know: our city's roaring. We'll have 200,000 new people here by the year 2040 and not everyone will be able to drive. I approach our transportation system in a balanced way. We have to have excellent public transportation. We have to have excellent bikeshare or bike parking, bike lanes. And we have to have roads that work and the ability to park.

It's very important that we approach our entire transportation system with a balance. We asked the Office of Planning not to eliminate parking minimums, because that was their first plan, but to look at a way to manage it in a better way.

This has become the standard way for elected officials opposing OP's proposal to frame the issue, and Evans and Orange follow suit. But fewer parking requirements and more multimodal streets solve different problems. Reducing parking requirements prevents regulatory-driven overbuilding of parking, which induces greater demand for parking and streets and makes housing less affordable. Bike lanes won't do that.

What's also concerning is that she sees alternative transportation as needed because "not everyone will be able to drive." Everyone I know who uses bike lanes, buses and so on also is able to drive and does whenever they want to.

Jack Evans:

Evans goes the furthest in opposing OP's proposal, saying he would keep the 1958 minimum parking requirements currently in place:

The Office of Planning definitely got this wrong. I agree with keeping the parking requirements just as they are, and I'm joining with Councilmember Bowser and Councilmember Cheh to address that with the Office of Planning. Taking away more parking spaces in this city is a terrible idea.

What we have to do is focus on alternative means of transportation, something I've done in my 22 years on the Council. I served on the Metro Board and was the advocate for not only completing the 103-mile system that currently exists but for expanding Metro and someday we hope to have a Metro in Georgetown.

Secondly, bike laneswe have more bike lanes in Ward 2 than in all the other wards combined and we will continue to promote bike as another alternative transportation. Light railagain something this Council has supported, building the light rail system that will connect Georgetown to downtown and to the eastern parts of this city. So the alternative means are very important but keeping the parking as it is is also very critical.

He repeats Bowser's framing by saying that "what we have to do is focus on alternative means of transportation," taking credit for bike lanes in Ward 2 that everyone knows would have happened without him.

Reta Jo Lewis:

Lewis addresses the issue the least directly, offering general arguments for more parking. She says it would be "unacceptable" to "eliminate any parking inside of buildings," but minimum parking requirements apply to new buildings.

I served as the chief of staff in the Department of Public Works when it used to be called DPW. I want you to know that parking is one of the most important things any agency does when it deals with transportation.

Now I live right downtown, right on 5th and Mass. And I've watched everything get built. And what I've watched is not any more parking spaces coming on. And it would be unacceptable to allow our offices of administration to eliminate any parking inside of buildings.

What we have to do is continue to offer a comprehensive strategy, a comprehensive plan, of how residents, not just downtown, but in all of our neighborhoods, especially like Georgetown. In your 2028 Plan you specifically talked about parking. It is fair for us in communities to have parking spaces.

Vincent Orange:

Orange, like Evans, specifically supports the existing minimum residential parking requirement of one space per unit. His unique bit of unhelpful framing is to pit new residents against long-time residents:

I also think that the Office of Planning got this one wrong. There needs to be a proper balance. If you're gonna keep building units, then there at least should be a parking spot per unit. Clearly there needs to be a balance here in the District of Columbia. We're getting more and more residents.

But also that balance has to include those residents that have been here during the bad times, to still be able to be here in the good times, and allowed to travel throughout this city and be able to find parking. So there has to be a balance.

I applaud those that really are really studying this issue, to make sure there are bike lanes, there's light rail, there's transportation needs being addressed by Metro and others. But there has to be a balance. And I believe that balance can only be maintained by when you build units there should be parking associated with those units.

It's at this point that one notices none of the candidates have responded to Kennedy's argument for reducing minimum parking requirements, that it promotes affordable housing that enables long-time residents to stay in DC. Bowser and others have complained about the high rents on 14th Street for example, but part of those rents are needed to pay for minimum parking requirements.

Andy Shallal:

Shallal doesn't address minimum parking requirements, but offers complaints about insufficient parking:

I agree there's a problem, obviously, with parking. Owning a business in the District, it's very difficult as it is. And when my customers tell me they're having a hard time parking, it really makes it even that much more difficult to attract business and keep business.

It's very interesting: often times I will get a lease for a space to be able to open a restaurant, and then all the neighbors get upset because there's no parking there. I have nothing to do with the way that it was zoned and suddenly I am the one that's at fault and needs to find parking for all the people that have to come in.

The other I think we can't really address parking unless we address public transportation. I think that's one of the major issues is the fact that a lot of people want to see the Metro open later, especially on the weekends. They want to see it later. Maybe we can go for 24 hours. A lot of my patrons and my customers, my employees, would like to be able to see that.

The other thing is that increasing the hours of the parking meters is not working for many of my customers and I think we need to bring it back to 6:30.

This is concerning given that Shallal has made affordable housing a central tenet of his campaign. His platform doesn't include any positions on transportation.

His only position on parking that he offers in his response is that parking meters shouldn't be enforced after 6:30pm. However, this a peak period of demand for scarce on-street parking, and pricing on-street parking according to demand would be a better solution.

Tommy Wells:

While Wells is the only candidate to not offer arguments against OP's proposal, he also doesn't argue in support of reducing parking requirements. Instead, he uses the opportunity to argue for his bill to give OP the power to not allow residents of new buildings to receive residential parking permits:

I think that on something like parking, like everything else, we have to work smart. First thing is that if a building does put the parking space in there and everyone gets a residential parking sticker, we're going to wipe out all the neighborhood parking in Georgetown if they have the neighborhood right to park in the neighborhood. We have to be a lot smarter than that.

You know you've adopted a plan in Georgetown that does say that there be a new Metro station here. We'll bring in a streetcar system which I've been a champion of. As the city grows if our businesses are going to survive, and our local businesses, people have to come into Georgetown and out and they all shouldn't come in a car.

One of the bills that I've proposed (which I proposed last time, and this Council killed, and I've re-proposed) is when we have infill development and we put a building in there and they want anything from the government they negotiate that the residents at the building will not get residential parking. We can't build any more residential parking. And so, on the streets, we cannot add more spaces. So its more important to be smart.

While Wells' bill is good, it's disappointing that none of the candidates offered any arguments in support of scaling back parking requirements. Georgetown is a difficult audience with which to discuss minimum parking requirements, but if we are serious about affordable housing and not allowing our city to turn into a car sewer we have to address parking requirements directly instead of changing the subject.

Parking


Zoning Commission grills AAA on parking minimums

We don't know yet if the DC Zoning Commission will go along with proposals to reduce parking minimum requirements, but some commissioners certainly seemed skeptical about a few arguments to keep the old rules from AAA Mid-Atlantic.


Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

Many residents testified on the proposal at a hearing on Tuesday. So many people had signed up that there's an overflow hearing this coming Tuesday (and you can still sign up to speak!) 33 residents spoke in favor of reducing minimums, while only 7 opposed the reduction.

Many supporters echoed a theme about housing affordability. Since underground parking can add $30,000-50,000 per space to the cost of construction, that forces buildings that would provide more affordable market-rate or below-market units to charge more and/or create fewer units.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesperson John Townsend was one of the opponents, and he took issue with this approach. Earlier in the night, outside the hearing room, he personally apologized to me for the insulting remarks he made about me to Aaron Wiener of the Washington City Paper, which I accepted. He also said he wasn't going to be testifying, which is odd since he very quickly thereafter did.

Townsend argued that reducing parking minimums would have "a deleterious impact, not only on the District and its residents and its businesses and its houses of worship, but its restaurants and its citizens." He said that parking is a problem, and we know it is because DC wrote more than 1.8 million parking tickets last year, Townsend said, a practice he called "a hidden tax on people who only want to do one thing: to enjoy the nation's capital."

He also claimed that the affordability argument was a "myth," and asked for empirical studies proving that reducing this cost actually cuts down on the cost of housing. Instead, he said, there is not enough parking and it's too expensive. "It drives people out of this city. It makes housing more unaffordable," he said, especially "the one-third of the population below the poverty line that has been edged out and edged out of the social fabric" of the city, as well as tourists.

Later, in response to questions, he also brought up the Washington area's heavy traffic as another reason to believe there is a problem and mandate more parking in zoning.

Some members of the Zoning Commission, who will actually decide the zoning code, weren't buying Townsend's arguments. Dupont resident and Zoning Commission vice-chair Marcie Cohen talked about her own experience with housing finance.

Cohen: I almost thought you were arguing two sides of the coin. Basically, if we suffer the greatest gridlock in the country, then it seems to me you would want to encourage people to use alternative transits, and that the more parking you have, the more you are encouraging people to park in those spaces within buildings. ... You seem to be saying that we have a problem and the way to solve that problem is to add parking spaces. ...

I do believe, strongly, because I did finance for 20 years, housing throughout the country, that parking, especially underground parking, does contribute to the cost of housing.

Townsend: What I said was, where are the real world empirical studies that say that the developers will pass on the cost, the savings if you were to jettison the parking minimums? Where is the real-world, economically-based, research-based empirical studies that they will pass on these costs to homeowners? That, in our worldview, is not a reality.

Cohen: Yeah, we've heard from witnesses who are expert in this area, and my own experience, which I mentioned is over 20 years of financing housing, is it does happen. It's passed along. I can't cite a particular study except the testimony we've heard tonight plus my own experience in financing housing. And, in affordable housing, we attempt to reduce the requirements so that they won't be burdened by these costs.

Peter May, the representative from the National Park Service and a Capitol Hill resident, grilled Townsend on some of his points. May also challenged Townsend on the argument that since we have a lot of traffic, we need more parking. "We have the worst gridlock in the country," said Townsend. May replied, "So, if there are more parking spaces available, and theoretically it's cheaper and easier to get parking, wouldn't that increase gridlock?"

Ultimately, that led to an entertainingly barbed exchange. After Townsend cited a number of statistics on DC's growth, May said, "So, uh, can you answer my question?"

Townsend: "I did answer your question."

May: "No, you didn't. I asked whether the availability of parking has an effect on gridlock, and you told me that there's an increase in the number of people living in the District and the number of jobs."

May also probed Townsend's claim that DC's high number of tickets relates to parking policy. People probably get tickets, May suggested, because they're trying to avoid paying a higher garage rate, not necessarily because there's no garage at all. It quickly became clear May wasn't buying Townsend's argument.

May: So, the people who are getting parking tickets here are all doing it because they can't find another place to park? It's not because they're not willing to pay $25 to park?

Townsend: Yes, that's what I'm saying. It's symptomatic of the fact that you have a pernicious parking problem in the city already. That's what it means.

May: I think you can look at the same set of facts and come to a different conclusion about why people are getting parking tickets. A lot of times people are getting parking tickets because they're not willing to walk an extra block, or not willing to pay 25 bucks.

Townsend: "It comes down to whether we perceive that parking is a public good or a private good. And by that I mean, the city has a role to play in this and to make parking part of the social and economic fabric of the city.

This exchange actually illuminates a great deal about why AAA is advocating so hard on this issue. By one argument, why should it matter to them? They provide services to drivers (including at least 3 members of the Zoning Commission, as those members themselves noted at the hearing). However much parking there might be, those people who want or have to drive will probably want to sign up with some kind of towing and lockout protection service like AAA. Why alienate so many residents with their divisiveness?

But if you view parking as part of a culture clash, where car-owner culture is fighting for dominance within the city with non-car-owner culture (walking, biking, taking transit, using Zipcar and car2go and taxis and Uber), then the very idea of allowing more car-free residents doesn't fit into that vision or might even seem like a threat.

For most of us, drivers and non-drivers alike, parking is a necessary evil. Cars will be a part of the transportation mix, and (until they become self-driving and need not park) there has to be space to store them near many of the homes and the jobs and the stores. But parking spaces drive up the cost of housing, create pedestrian dead zones, and otherwise interrupt the city's historic, walkable character.

Lower car dependence isn't really a serious business risk for AAA, since cars won't be going away. But it's certainly possible that, as the city grows, more and more residents have many available choices for transportation, and cars and parking become just one in the crowd. Alternately, AAA would like cars to be more than just a tool, but a part of our very soul, the "social and economic fabric" of the city.

Parking


Parking requirements aren't one-size-fits-all

Hearings on DC's zoning update continue this week with sessions today and Thursday on parking minimums. I'm testifying about the need to reduce or eliminate parking requirements downtown and in transit-accessible areas.


Differences in parking requirements across the US. Image from Graphing Parking.

Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to present my testimony. My name is Matt Malinowski and I live in the Truxton Circle neighborhood in Northwest DC. I would like to speak in favor of the proposed revisions to the zoning regulations, and in particular in favor of eliminating parking minimums downtown and minimizing parking requirements elsewhere, especially near frequent transit.

The current off-street parking requirements for general office uses most of downtown, including the C-2-B, C-2-C, C-3-B, C-3-C, and C-4 zones for buildings on lots greater than 10,000 square feet, is 1 parking space for every 1,800 square feet of floor space in excess of 2,000 square feet. This rule seems very precise, and I am sure that there are parties here tonight who would like to maintain it. But is it right?

Many cities across the United States either have or have had parking minimums, so there seems to be a precedent for maintaining them. But what is interesting is that each city has a different minimum, with Baltimore requiring more and Philadelphia less.

How can each city be right? Or are all the cities, and the idea of parking minimums with it, wrong?

One explanation for the variation is that each city is built differently, and the urban form of each city demands different amounts of parking. Sure enough, even within DC, the minimum parking requirements vary by zone, with less-dense commercial zones like C-1, C-2-A, and C-3-A requiring 1 parking space for every 600 square feet of floor space in excess of 2,000 square feet.

In effect, crossing the street from one zone to the other has tripled the parking requirement. But has the urban fabric changed so much that three times as many people will now drive to work?


M Street NW forms the boundary between C-2-A and C-2-C zones, drastically altering the parking requirements. Image from the DC Zoning Map.

The current system breaks down not just at the boundaries, but also within zones. In Truxton Circle, there are three schools within a block of each other: the newly rebuilt Dunbar High School, one charter school, and another charter school in planning. According to neighbors, cars are overflowing the parking lot at Dunbar, while the existing Community Academy Public Charter School (CAPCS) has recently built a parking lot for 140 cars overnight, and apparently without any permits.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming Mundo Verde Public Charter School is seeking a variance to give up 36 of its 53 required parking spaces and build gardens in their place. Staff are expected to ride bikes, so there are 20 bike parking spots instead, and the Metro is a 10-minute walk away.


Mundo Verde conceptual site plan showing proposed gardens. Currently, the entire lot is covered by parking.

So even for the same uses in the same location, one-size-fits-all parking requirements do not apply. Rather than develop even finer zone boundaries or zone definitions (an overlay specific to green charter schools?), how about a simpler solution: eliminate or minimize parking requirements wherever possible. That means downtown, in other higher-density zones, and near high-frequency transit.

Rather than perpetuating the current set of arbitrary requirements based on unknowable ratios of drivers to occupants, please focus on what we do know: land in DC is expensive and driving is unsustainable and causes congestion. Eliminating or minimizing parking requirements allows for the market to provide parking to those who truly need it, while making it clear that free parking is not a right, and that DC values its residents and natural environment over its cars.

Next Tuesday, there will be another hearing about parking minimums. Each hearing starts at 6pm at 441 4th Street NW, near Judiciary Square. To sign up to testify or show your support for the zoning update, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth's website.

What do you think about my testimony? Please let me know in the comments. I hope to see you at one of the hearings!

Zoning


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.

Parking


Is caving on parking minimums a smart move?

On Friday, DC planning director Harriet Tregoning announced she's giving into yet another demand from zoning update opponents: to reduce rather than eliminate minimum parking requirements in transit-rich areas outside downtown. Will this smooth the path forward for the remaining provisions, or only put other progressive changes at risk?


Photo by Blue Mountains Local Studies on Flickr.

Until last week, the Office of Planning (OP)'s plan was to eliminate parking minimums downtown and along corridors with Metro, streetcar, or high-frequency bus lines. Low-density neighborhoods of detached houses, and even moderate density neighborhoods of smaller row houses, would have retained minimums, though not for buildings of 10 units and fewer.

Now, only the highest density "downtown" neighborhoods, including developing centers like NoMA and the ballpark area, would have no parking minimums. Elsewhere, the minimums for multifamily residential will be 1 space per 3 units away from transit, and half that near transit, Tregoning explained.

Instead of exempting buildings up to 10 units, the new proposal only exempts buildings up to 4 units, and in "single-family" neighborhoods, even a single-family home will require a parking space unless it has no alley access. That means that nobody will have to put in a driveway curb cut for a single-family house, but might have to pave over a backyard even where street parking is plentiful.

In addition, property owners will be able to apply for an easier "special exception" to further reduce or waive parking minimums, rather than the tougher variance standard in effect now.

There is one significant step forward: OP had previously said that parking minimum changes (outside downtown) wouldn't go into effect if and when the zoning update won approval. Instead, there would be another, subsequent process to "map" the transit zones in each neighborhood. That would likely have led to years more of acrimony.

Instead, Tregoning said, OP now proposes to simply write rules so that the half-as-strict parking minimum rule automatically kicks in for properties within ½ mile of a Metro station or ¼ mile of a streetcar line or designated WMATA priority bus corridor. (I forgot to ask, but hopefully Circulator lines will also qualify.)

That means that if the Zoning Commission approves the plan, property owners near transit could see less onerous requirements more quickly than when there was going to be a mapping phase. While this is a step forward, OP could always have used this formula to define areas with no parking minimums at all. This didn't have to go hand in hand with retaining minimums.

This change isn't the right policy; it's just a political choice

There's no doubt the zoning update has engendered fierce debate. It's a constant topic of heated argument on neighborhood listservs, particularly in neighborhoods like Tenleytown, Chevy Chase, and Cleveland Park. A small group of opponents, almost all from west of Rock Creek Park, have shown up at hearings over 5 years to object to nearly every change of any kind.

From Tregoning's statements to the press, it's clear she's made the change in order to appease opponents, not because she's actually convinced keeping parking minimums is the better policy. She told Aaron Wiener at the Washington City Paper that abolishing requirements "was really wigging people out," and Mike Debonis at the Post quoted her saying, "A lot of people were very, very concerned with the concept of no parking minimums."

She also told DeBonis, "I'm not an ideologue. I'm very practical. The practical effect is not very different." That may be true in most cases, though it still means some owners will build garages they know aren't necessary, simply to avoid asking for zoning relief.

But the practical effect will be very different if the DC Zoning Commission further waters down the proposal before giving it final approval. Tregoning and associate director Jennifer Steingasser promised to transmit proposal to the commission by July 29. The commission, a hybrid federal-local body, has the final say on the plans, and can change them or ask OP to revise them in any way.

Opponents will pressure the Zoning Commission to scale back any changes, and there will be a strong temptation at least in the minds of some commissioners to shrink any proposal that meets substantial opposition. Had OP continued to propose eliminating minimums, the commission might have decided to keep some but reduce them. Now that OP set a new baseline of only reducing minimums, the commission may well decide to reduce them somewhat less.

Tregoning says she thinks the most recent change will appease some opponents, though some are blasting the new plan almost as vehemently. Chevy Chase resident and stalwart zoning update foe Sue Hemberger called the new proposal "repackaging [the] same anti-car policy." Alma Gates told Mike Debonis she's "not sure [the change] goes far enough," and DeBonis paraphrased Juliet Six saying she thinks the move "was calibrated to create an illusion of consensus."


The Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning have caved once again on parking minimums.

Retreat after retreat, and for what?

Why would this change engender any greater harmony, when OP has watered down its proposals several times in the last 5 years, never to any effect? Intransigence has paid off for those who opposed the zoning update since day one. They have managed to delay the update by at least a year, and bully the Office of Planning into successive rounds of scaling back.

OP has cut the fat, then the muscle, and now the bone from its plans. In 2008, the zoning update team was talking about eliminating all parking minimums and even establishing maximums. Travis Parker, the head of the update at the time, decided to leave in some minimums only in commercial corridors far from transit, because opponents say parking is most needed in those areas. Later, OP decided not to push forward on maximums.

When Parker moved to Colorado and Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser took over, she backed off further by promising to delay lower minimums around transit until after a further "mapping" process. It looked like Steingasser hoped that promise would quiet the small group of furious critics; it did not. Will this latest change be different?

Ironically, earlier last week, Matt Yglesias wrote in Slate that it's a bad idea to reduce rather than eliminate minimums. Among other reasons, he said,

On a concrete level, this is a form of compromise that really fails in its goal of de-mobilizing opposition. If you are a street parker and your priority in parking policy is to defend your access to cheap street parking, then any reduction in parking mandates should spark opposition. Watering the reform down doesn't lead to any genuine reconciliation of interests.
Maybe Tregoning has the pulse of the Zoning Commissionafter all, her agency works with the commissioners day week after week, on hundreds of Planned Unit Developments and map amendments every year. 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.

Zoning


Parking lots remain mandatory

DC planning director Harriet Tregoning announced today that minimum parking requirements in transit-oriented neighborhoods will remain in the new zoning code.


Photo by photobeppus on Flickr.

As part of its rewrite of the zoning code, DC's Office of Planning (DCOP) had proposed eliminating mandatory parking requirements in the densest, most transit-friendly parts of the city.

Anyone who wanted to build parking would still be allowed to do so, but it wouldn't be mandatory. The new zoning code will lower requirements for parking, but won't eliminate them completely.

The new proposal will keep parking requirements for institutional and industrial land uses similar to what they are now. The requirement will drop by about half for residential and office buildings.

Under existing zoning, any new residential units are required to build parking spaces, whether the owner wants them or not. The requirement is a huge subsidy for drivers, and a major burden on car-free households. It also adds tremendously to the cost of new housing.

There is a silver lining: DCOP is still planning to eliminate parking requirements in downtown DC.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Parking


Curb parking and garage parking aren't the same

"It almost always comes down to parking," said DC Councilmember Tommy Wells at a hearing last week on DC's zoning update, and he's right. Wells tried to explain a tricky point to opponents of the zoning update: how higher parking minimums don't make it easier to park on the street.


Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.

Wells agrees with many residents that parking on neighborhood streets has become more difficult, and he wants to do something to ease that task for existing residents. However, he doesn't believe that requiring new apartment buildings to build more parking, or preventing them from building less, is going to really have any effect.

"In ward 6 we've had substantial infill development," he said, "and the way we've managed parking is through regulation" like adding meters and limiting parking on one side of many streets to Ward 6 residents. Residents of some new buildings also can't get residential permit parking (RPP) stickers. And, Wells argued, it's worked.

On the other hand, minimum parking requirements along with the existing cheap, easy-to-get RPP stickers won't dissuade people from parking on the street, said Wells:

If you put in minimum parking and they get RPP, there's 2 things that will happen. The first is, almost every building charges for the parking... If they get RPP, which are they going to pay for? a $100-200 a month space, or $35 [a year] for the RPP sticker? You know exactly what they're going to do, it'll be $35 for the RPP sticker and they won't buy the parking inside."
Wells wants to solve this problem with his legislation (which Chairman Phil Mendelson opposed last year) to let developers opt out of RPP eligibility. Before a specific building has anyone living there, its developer can agree that future residents, in perpetuity, won't be able to get residential stickers.

Some people don't like the idea of residents of some buildings not being able to get stickers while their neighbors can get them, but Arlington and many other cities do have similar practices. Whether you support this approach or not, Wells is right on the mark that parking minimums won't make parking on the street easier.

Off-street parking is not the same as on-street

Many people seem to assume that parking is a single market. If you build more parking of any type, it becomes easier to find; build less (or even require building less), and it will get more scarce. But in fact, there are two separate markets.

Later in the hearing, Lon Anderson of AAA made the same mistake. He expressed his incredulity that the Babe's project, which will have 60 units, only 1 parking space (for persons with disabilities), and a deal with the ANC to prohibit residents getting RPP stickers, would work. Why? Because it's hard to park in Tenleytown.

In fact, it's hard to park on the street. It turns out that there are extra spaces for rent in the Whole Foods and Best Buy garages. But people assume that if the streets are full, there must not be any empty space in a garage, and that's what Wells is trying to rebut.

Allen Seeber, one of the witnesses, claimed that the Office of Planning "can't produce any evidence whatsoever" that some buildings have overbuilt parking. Wells immediately cited the Loree Grand, a building in NoMA. Seeber pressed on, and Wells again jumped in with the Bernstein property in Southwest where, Wells said, "they built a condo building, they provided a bunch of parking, and it didn't sell."

People are renting their spaces and parking on the street

Wells said that in his experience, people on Capitol Hill are actually renting out their spaces and using their RPP stickers to park on the street. "They have parking behind their house, and then they park on the street for $35 a [year], and they can get $100-200 a month for the parking behind their house," he said. "[Parking minimums] did nothing to protect our parking in that part of the Hill."

Wells also mentioned a pair of parking spaces on the Hill which just sold for $120,000. The purchaser was an area business, which wanted the spaces after new restrictions reserved more of the neighborhood space for residents. And that, Wells said, was the point. Instead of competing with residents, businesses now have a reason to pay for the parking they need.

Witness and Palisades resident Alma Gates said she'd rather have employees in her neighborhood be able to park on the street. That's fine, if that is what Palisades residents want. Neighborhoods ought to have input into how to allocate on-street spaces. On Capitol Hill, the decision was for residents.

Whoever gets the spaces, having a scheme which rationally divvies them up among users makes much more sense than leaving them first come, first served, then opposing any new development and insisting on big garages just in the vain hope of keeping the demand low. As Wells explained, the demand for on-street spaces has a lot to do with how many people and businesses there are in the neighborhood, and very little to do with the size of garages since people will usually pick the cheap street parking over the pricey garage.

"I strongly want to protect neighborhood parking in the District of Columbia," Wells said, but "I am not sure [parking minimums] will protect neighborhood parking in the District of Columbia." He's right: we need to fix on-street parking with better on-street parking regulations. Lowering minimums won't really help or hurt the on-street situation. There's no reason to hang onto that outdated policy tool when it's not working.

You can watch the entire 10-minute exchange between Wells and the opponents:

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