Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Zoning Update

Zoning


Zoning update retreat on housing and parking gets a chilly reception from the DC Zoning Commision

DC's Office of Planning (OP) may have backed down on some key provisions of the DC zoning update, but some members of DC's Zoning Commission, which has the final say on zoning, voiced skepticism about the recent changes at a meeting last week.


Photo by Horia Varlan on Flickr.

A majority of commissioners may be prepared to reject several of OP's proposed amendments, including one that would have made it harder for homeowners to rent out a carriage house or garage and another that would have required more parking near high-frequency bus lines.

Before that happens, though, you get to spend yet another fun evening testifying before the Zoning Commission! That's because some of the commissioners "want to hear what the public thinks" about these changes. They will hold another hearing, likely in early September, to hear from people who happen to have the time and interest in spending a whole evening in a government hearing room.

New, stricter hearing rules for accessory apartments don't go over well

One of the zoning update's significant policy changes would allow more people to rent out space in their basements, garages, or elsewhere. Today, that's illegal in the low-density residential zones (R-1 and R-2) and lower-density row house zones (R-3) like Georgetown, In other row house areas like Capitol Hill (R-4), a rental unit can be in the main house but not in a garage or other external building.

OP has cut back the proposal several times to require a "special exception," where the homeowner has to go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a hearing, first for all accessory units in Georgetown and then for any newly-constructed external buildings.

Last month, bowing to what OP's Joel Lawson called "vociferous concern" from some residents, OP proposed also forcing a special exception hearing for any accessory apartment in any external building in the R-1 through R-3 zones. However, at the same time, planners also recommended allowing accessory apartments (by right inside the main building, by special exception outside) even for homes on lots that are smaller than the standard required lot size.


Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

Some members of the Zoning Commission also were not on board with this retreat. Rob Miller, one the five members of the commission, said:

This is at least the second or third compromise on this issue that would be being made. ... The need for affordable housingand any kind of housingin this city is so critical. ... And so I cannot support the additional compromise that's proposed here, that would require all accessory apartments in accessory bldgs to go through a special exception process that can be a very burdensome process for an individual homeowner. They will either do it illegally, as I guess is being done now, or the housing just won't be provided.
Commissioner Marcie Cohen agreed:
I think that we're at a point where, as a city, we are obligated to create more housing. We are in a crisis. Of course many of us do have our own homes but there are a lot of people coming into our city on a monthly basis. ... Accessory apartments provide an alternative of affordable units. Many of them. I'm very concerned about the need for affordable housing, and many cities around the country are looking at accessory apartments as addressing housing need.
Cohen also talked about the need for seniors, as they age, to potentially have caregivers come live with them, and may want that caregiver to have a separate apartment for greater independence. She said, "To subject them to any process other than the process of getting the proper building permits and the proper certificate of occupancyI think that's enough process for them to go thorough, as opposed to going to zoning for an exception."

She concluded, "We've already compromised once, and I think this is watering it down too much and it's bad public policy."

Lawson pointed out that another change OP made (at the commission's request), dropping the minimum lot size would more than double the number of properties which would be eligible. However, that lot size rule was something OP added between November 2012 and July 2013, making it another restriction that cut down on accessory apartments from the original proposal (and one I didn't even notice at the time). So OP would just be reversing that limit while adding another.

Lawson said that there were some neighborhood concerns that OP could perhaps address by adding some new and specific conditions to matter-of-right accessory apartments. Peter May, the representative on the commission from the National Park Service and one of two federally-appointed members, also sounded unenthusiastic about OP's new special exception rule and said that perhaps a mixture of the two options would be better.

May also questioned another accessory apartment rule that would not allow an accessory apartment where more than six people live in the main home and the accessory apartment combined. May said that many people (including himself) have families of five or more, and under these rules, a family of five could not rent a basement or garage to a couple. He suggested OP look at another rule, perhaps one that only limits the number of people in the smaller accessory unit.

Chairman Anthony Hood, however, prefers the special exception. He said, "Anytime you can get public input, and I think this is very critical, whether it's new or existing, it's very critical."

Commissioners frown on higher parking minimums near major bus lines and in the West End

OP's plans to reduce parking minimum requirements, especially near transit, have also gone through multiple rounds of cutbacks. A new base parking requirement in mixed-use and multifamily areas would be lower in some places than today; in addition, OP had been proposing to cut the requirement in half around Metro stations, streetcar lines, and WMATA priority bus corridors.

On top of that, OP was proposing a new Transportation Demand Management (TDM) rule saying that where buildings significantly exceeded the minimum, larger buildings would need to include things like more bike parking, trees, car sharing spaces, electric car charging stations, and more green roofs, walls, or space. Garages with 100 more spaces than required would have to add a Capital Bikeshare station.

Last month's change dropped the lower parking requirement around bus corridors and also increased the threshold where TDM kicks in to two times the minimum instead of 1.5 times as in the original proposal. Further, the zoning update specifies no parking minimum in downtown zones, but some people in the West End also asked to exempt their area from this rule. OP agreed.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

OP got negative feedback from zoning commissioners on all three counts.

Marcie Cohen said,

We must begin to recognize that there's just too much congestion and traffic in this city, and that we have to have a multimodal effort.

I don't want to take anybody's car away, but on the other hand, we can encourage people by improving service to use buses and other forms of transportation. ... We have to recognize that we are choking in this city or we will choke if we continue our behaviors. So I am not in favor of removing parking reductions. ...

It's sort of like the old adage that if you widen the roads you get more cars. If you provide parking you get more cars. We have to now bite the bullet and say we can't afford that any more, for health reasons. Cars are the second largest producers of carbon emissions after energy plants. So I really feel strongly about the vehicle parking.

Rob Miller agreed with Cohen. Hood, however, did not:
Anytime we reduce parkingI am not in agreemence with some of what I've heard about cars. We all choose a way of life, and we all need to do a balanced approach.

One of the things I've watched is [Rhode Island] Row. We had a developer come in and say, we have so much parking. The caveat to that is that they don't let you park in the first three rows, and nobody tells you that.

We do a disservice to the residents of the city when we squeeze them out of parking, when people have a problem finding parking. ... I've heard the developer, they stopped me in the street, and said you made us build too much parking. You have 3 rows cut off. I forget why they do that.

I thought at first that Hood might be meaning the Metro garage, but Dan Stessel of WMATA checked with the Metro parking officials, who said the first three rows in the Rhode Island Row private garage are reserved for retail users and short-term parking. *

May, who is likely the swing vote on this issue, didn't take a clear position on the bus route parking minimum, but he definitely opposed having a minimum for the West End. He also disputed OP's change in the TDM threshold from 1.5x to 2x. He said, "If you're going to go with that many more spaces than the minimum required, then you need to do things to encourage people not to use cars."

What's next?

The commission "set down" OP's amendments for a hearing. According to Sharon Schellin of the Office of Zoning, they haven't picked a date yet, but it will likely be in early September.

On the accessory apartment and parking issues, where at least some commissioners didn't agree with the amendment, it'll still go to the hearing, but the hearing notice will essentially advertise two options, to go with OP's change but also not to. That's a choice with any of the amendments, but the notice will make clear that the commission may indeed not be taking OP's recommendation on this point.

Even though many of you have slogged through many, many hearings over six years on this issue, it'll be important to show up yet again, as some commsisioners may make up their minds, at least in part, based on how loud the push is on each side.

* The original version of this article speculated that Hood was talking about reserved parking at the Metro garage. However, Metro parking staff don't think that is the case, and he was probably talking about the private garage. The post has been updated.

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.

History


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.

History


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

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


Photo by Live Life Happy on Flickr.

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

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

As of earlier this year, there have been:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Events


Events roundup: Urbanism, past and future

Learn about the history of urbanism nationwide, then give input on downtown Bethesda, the DC Circulator, Courthouse Square and more. See how the past influences the future in Shaw and East Falls Church. All this and more at events this week and beyond.


Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Two happy hours this month! Instead of having one Greater Greater Washington happy hour this month, we're cosponsoring happy hours around two interesting and informative events.

Tomorrow, come hear Greater Greater Washington contributor Ben Ross talk about his new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, with a happy hour afterward.

And next Wednesday, join us, CNUDC, YIPPS, and guests from the Montgomery County Planning Department to learn about the Bethesda Downtown Plan while enjoying a drink.

Ben Ross' talk starts at 5:30 pm on Tuesday, April 22 at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. After the talk, head over to The Meeting Place (1707 L Street NW) for the happy hour at 6:30.

The following week's Bethesda planning-and-drinking gathering is from 6-8 pm on Wednesday, April 30 at Tommy Joe's, 4717 Montgomery Lane, in Bethesda.

Discuss pedestrian safety: Join the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee for a lecture and discussion on pedestrian safety. Hillary Poole, Alexandria's Complete Streets Coordinator, will talk about design concepts that make streets safe for walkers, bikers, and drivers. The discussion is 6:15-7:30 tonight, Monday, April 21, at the Nannie J. Lee Rec Center, 1108 Jefferson Street in Alexandria.

Tour Shaw and East Falls Church: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's walking tours resume with two great ones this month. On Saturday, April 26 from 10 am-noon, see how new development is bringing a renaissance to the historic Shaw neighborhood in DC. And on Saturday, look at ways the area around East Falls Church Metro could become more walkable and bikeable. Space is limited so RSVP today!

Envision Courthouse Square: Arlington County is considering plans for transforming Courthouse Square into a town square. The second community workshop is Wednesday, April 23 from 7-9 pm at the Key Elementary School, 2300 Key Boulevard in Arlington. Help develop an action plan for the area to help make it a vibrant public destination.

Circulator pop-up meetings: DDOT is looking for feedback from current and future riders of the DC Circulator to shape the system's Transit Development Plan update. They are holding a series of six pop-up meetings to discuss the current system as well as future routes. Here is the complete schedule:

  • NoMa: Tuesday, April 22, 3:30-6:30 pm at NoMa/Gallaudet Metro (M St. NE entrance)
  • Southwest: Thursday, April 24, 3:30-6:30 pm at Waterfront Metro
  • Capitol Hill: Saturday, April 26, 12-3 pm at Eastern Market Metro
  • 14th and U: Tuesday, April 29, 3:30-6:30 pm at Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center (2000 14th St NW)
  • Anacostia: Thursday, May 1, 3:30-6:30 pm at Anacostia Metro
  • Georgetown: Saturday, May 3, 12-3 pm at M St NW & Wisconsin Ave NW
Open houses for Montgomery zoning update: The Montgomery County Planning Department's zoning update open houses begin this Tuesday, April 22. Interested in asking questions or providing feedback? Planning staff attend to discuss the updates. The full open house schedule is below:

  • Rockville: Tuesday, April 22, 6-8 pm at Rockville Memorial Library
  • Wheaton: Thursday, April 24, 6-8 pm at Wheaton Regional Library
  • Silver Spring: Tuesday, April 29, 6-8 pm at Park and Planning Headquarters, Silver Spring
  • Burtonsville: Thursday, May 1, 6-8 pm at the Marilyn J. Praisner Library, Burtonsville
  • Germantown: Monday, May 5, 6-8 pm at Upcounty Regional Services Center, Germantown
  • Bethesda: Tuesday, May 6, 6-8 pm at Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, Bethesda

Zoning


DC's 40-year out of date zoning code will get at least 6 months more stale

A team of professionals looking at DC's zoning concluded that the 1958 code was hopelessly outdated, and found an urgent need for a new code. That report was in 1973. Four decades later, the code will continue getting older, as Mayor Vincent Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until September before deliberating on the proposed zoning update.


Photo by Neal Sanche on Flickr.

After over five years of public hearings and meetings to write a new code, the DC Office of Planning submitted it to the Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say over zoning in DC, last year.

There have been seven months of hearings already, with exhaustive chances for everyone to learn about the code and speak their minds. But Gray now wants changes, including ones that will add housing and help people age in place, to wait even longer.

The commission "set down" the code for public comment and hearings on September 9th, 2013. There were public hearings in November, but when some residents said they hadn't had enough time to read the new code, the commission added another set of hearings in January and February. There are two more hearings, for Wards 7 and 8 on April 21 and citywide on April 24, to give people yet another chance to speak.

But this week, the Gray administration decided to ask for even more delay, and the Zoning Commission extended the deadline to September 15, over a year after they set down the proposals.

The delay was almost another year longer than that. Gray wrote September 15, 2015 in a letter, but the zoning commissioners decided to assume he meant September 15, 2014.

Some commissioners argued that the process had gone on long enough, while others welcomed even more time. Rob Miller, a Gray appointee to the board, said, "Going through this process for seven years, what's another six months?" By that token, what's another seven years? The code has sorely needed revision for over 40 years.

Major problems with the zoning code were evident in 1970

In a July 1970 report, planning consultant Barton-Aschman Associates looked back at the code from the far side of highway protests, racial tension, riots, environmentalism, urban renewal, and the Metro system.

They didn't like what they saw. Despite some patches after Home Rule, the language was outdated and the code had major flaws. The study said,

A considerable number of provisions are archaic or substandard and need to be systematically reviewed and modernized. New techniques should be developed to accommodate changing market demand, technological advances, and new social conditions and programs.
Studies for the original code by its principal author, Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed people continued to have large families and drove everywhere, and that no historic neighborhoods would be preserved. The 1970 report criticized these assumptions as already out of date.

The 1958 code also did not plan for a city with Metro, with the lower dependence on driving and greater densities that made possible. The 1970 report argued,

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.
In 1976, 18 years after the zoning code was written, a panel of citizen representatives agreed that a zoning code which separated residential from commercial uses was harming the city:
The rigid separation of uses contemplated by our existing zoning is no longer desirable in many instances, and indeed, the separation of residential and commercial uses contributes positively to the increasing deadening of Downtown after dark.
The Special Citizens Advisory Committee on Urban Renewal included the 1958 code as part of the policies of an unrepresentative government that had decimated the city with slum clearance and highway construction. In the same period, the city made some additions to the planning laws, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and the Planned Unit Development process.

Downtown got new zoning in 1991 and amendments in 2000, and DC has added overlay districts to tweak zoning in many residential neighborhoods, but for most of the city, the zoning remains substantially the same as in the 1968 plan, and many of its problems were never solved.

For decades, people have said the zoning code is out of date. The earliest response to the highway riots questioned the zoning produced at that time. Then, one of the first actions of an independent DC was to question the land use regulation that was tied up with urban renewal. They patched the regulations up, but didn't reconstructed them in a way that improved stability and quality of life over the long term.

Some people say that changes to the zoning code will only worsen existing problems. But many of those problems exist because of the way the zoning is written now. Perhaps the city has become comfortable with the problems it's known about for 40 years. The risk of short-term pain is not a good enough reason to delay a much-needed update any more.

Development


Fairfax City is starting to lay down a strong foundation for smarter growth

The City of Fairfax has long struggled to establish a clear vision for future development. Despite a strong master plan for Fairfax Boulevard, the town hasn't established strong guidelines for revitalizing its central commercial corridor. While nearby areas such as Merrifield and Fair Lakes have flourished, Fairfax City's commercial tax base has been stagnant.


Photo by the author.

But the tide has started to turn. Since a new mayor was elected in 2012, Fairfax City has approved 250 new apartment units near its downtown and has started to rewrite its zoning code. Two major redevelopment projects on Fairfax Boulevard are in the queue. The city has also made pedestrian and bicycle projects a higher priority.

Supporters of smarter growth in Fairfax City should be encouragedand press for more. With elections for mayor and all six city council seats scheduled for May, Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth has released a progress report on the performance of the current mayor and council. They have gotten some important things done, including:

Expanding housing near downtown: Last June the city council approved a pedestrian-friendly redevelopment of Layton Hall apartments. This will bring more residents near downtown and better connect downtown businesses with the apartments and nearby neighborhoods. The project also prompted difficult decisions about housing affordability, which the city is grappling with.

Zoning overhaul: The city has commissioned Duncan & Associates to review and thoroughly update its zoning code. In March the consultants released their initial report, including strong recommendations for enabling mixed-use development.

The redevelopment of Fairfax Circle Plaza is moving through the city's land use review process. The proposal would add 400 apartment units and new retail to the eastern end of Fairfax Boulevard near Vienna, and improve pedestrian and bicycle access between the property and nearby neighborhoods, trails and the Vienna Metro station.


Image from the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan.

The mayor and council have been laying the foundations, but the heaviest lifting still lies ahead. The city has a lot of catching up to do after allowing the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan to lie idle while nearby communities, such as Merrifield, built on their foundations of solid planning to spur revitalization. The retail and office markets are extremely competitive. How will the City attract and guide quality redevelopment?

A big part of the answer lies overhauling the city's zoning code. Excessive one-size-fits-all parking standards and the lack of any mixed-use categories are among the vexing elements of the current ordinance. The city will also need to focus on the redevelopment of Northfax at the intersection of 123 and Fairfax Boulevard. Both the zoning rewrite and Northfax are extremely complex processes that will require a lot of political will to see to a successful finish.

The next month is a good time to influence the conversation about future development in Fairfax City. Along with our progress report, Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth has sent a questionnaire to the mayoral and council candidates to gauge their support for smart growth priorities.

Mayor Silverthorne and City Council members are signaling a new receptiveness to compact, walkable, mixed-use development. City voters who want more walkable communities and vibrant public spaces can send their own signal by attending upcoming candidate forums, going to the polls and making informed choices on May 6.

Events


Events roundup: How can longtime and new residents coexist?

The District is changing rapidly as many people, including many young professionals, want to move to walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented neighborhoods. That is also creating tension with long-time residents worried about themselves or their neighbors getting pushed out or favorite businesses closing. What can we do to build harmony rather than conflict?


Diverse hands image from Shutterstock.

The Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) is holding a forum about this very issue tonight, Thursday March 6, 7-9 pm at All Souls Church, 1500 Harvard St. NW. It will feature longtime residents and new residents who share the same concerns about housing affordability, transit, and more, along with candidates for DC mayor.

Also, get your zoning update questions answered at open houses, get an update on Red Line repair progress, and more after the jump.

WIN's Drew Bongiovanni writes,

[DC's demographic change] has created in our city a constant tension, a perception that DC is split between new and long-term resident, between have and have-not, where residents of differing age, race, and class do not see one another as neighbors. The voice of the media often insists that new and native DC residents are at odds, pitting these communities against one another by warning that they do not share the same vision for the city.

The action is about seeing whether DC residents can meet that tension head-on and unify around common interests such building affordable housing, ending homelessness, creating living wage jobs, and building a better transit system that better serves all residents.

WIN seeks to ... bring together young voters who share rooms and split rents on Capitol Hill, the families that move into the suburbs, and the seniors who are all struggling to afford housing in the District. To bring together the 18 year-old that has found themself without a place to sleep and the recent college graduate who has moved to the city for their very first job. To organize the rider of a city bus and the bus driver to work together to demand a better transit system. To discover the common ground between the young couple that worries they will need to move from the city to raise kids to those whose roots to this city are too deep for them to ever imagine leaving.

More details are on this flyer.

Zoning update open houses: DC's Office of Planning is holding a series of open house meetings for residents to discuss the proposed changes to the zoning regulations. You can talk to OP staff about the changes on a one-on-one basis to learn more about the proposals. Go here for the draft zoning regulations.

Here is the schedule for the remaining open houses:

  • Friday, March 7, 8:30 am-5 pm at the DC Office of Planning, 1100 4th Street SW, Suite E650.
  • Tuesday, March 11, 4-8 pm at Petworth Library, 4200 Kansas Avenue NW.
  • Wednesday, March 12, 4-8 pm at Deanwood Recreation Center, 1350 49th Street NW.
  • Friday, March 14, 8:30 am-5 pm at the DC Office of Planning, 1100 4th Street SW, Suite E650.
  • Saturday, March 15, 10 am-2 pm at Thurgood Marshall Academy PCHS, 2427 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE.
  • Friday, March 21, 8:30 am-5 pm at the DC Office of Planning, 1100 4th Street SW, Suite E650.
  • Friday, March 28, 8:30 am-5 pm at the DC Office of Planning, 1100 4th Street SW, Suite E650.
Women and transportation webinar: The American Planning Association is hosting a free webinar on issues facing women who work in transportation. The webinar is on Friday, March 7 from 1-2 pm. To register, go here.

Get a Red Line progress report: Next week, hear about Metro's work to rebuild the Red Line from deputy general manager Rob Troup. He'll be speaking at the Action Committee for Transit's monthly meeting this Tuesday, March 11 at 7:30 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place. As always, ACT meetings are free and open to the public.

Organize for 16th Street bus lanes: The Coalition for Smarter Growth is kicking off a campaign for a dedicated rush hour bus lane on 16th Street, where half the people move by buses which get stuck in traffic. Join them for a happy hour from 6-8 pm at JoJo Restaurant and Bar at 16th and U on Wednesday, March 12.

Speak up for King Street bike lanes: The King Street bike lane saga continues at the Alexandria City Council meeting on Saturday, March 15. Show your support for pedestrian and bicycle improvements with fellow walkers and bikers, and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The public meeting is 9:30 am-12 pm at 301 King Street #2300 in Alexandria. If you'd like to speak at the meeting, please RSVP through CSG.

Politics


Where will DC's next 200,000 residents go? The mayoral candidates weigh in

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here is the first of 2 posts on discussions about housing with candidates for mayor. See all of the posts here.


Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.

"We've been a city of 800,000 before, and we're going to be a city of 800,000 again," said Muriel Bowser. "Keep in mind, the city's population at one time was 800,000 people," said Jack Evans. "The city used to have 800,000 people, but we have only 640,000 today," said Andy Shallal.

When talking about growth and development, multiple candidates for mayor brought up this number. In many cases, they were citing it as evidence that there must be plenty of room in the city to add 200,000 new people. How can there notthere used to be!

But the city looked very different in 1950. Families were much larger. A lot of row houses had become boarding houses during World War II. Homeowners lived in one room and rented the rest out to unrelated people. Americans got married younger and had children younger. In short, our existing houses that have one or two empty nesters or a young couple with one child today might have held 5 or even 8 people 60 years ago.

What would our candidates for mayor do about it? Mayor Gray talked about "air rights." Evans and Bowser both pointed to less developed areas of the city; Evans highlighted Shaw, where we were speaking, as a corridor ripe for new housing and retail. He talked about his experience pushing for the Whole Foods, then Fresh Fields, to come into Logan Circle; during the first meeting, Fresh Fields representatives wouldn't even step out of the car, while today that is "the largest-grossing Whole Foods in the chain on a per-square-foot basis."

Bowser referred to her efforts building support for development at places like Walter Reed. She would like to see DC more proactively plan for the housing we need, through citywide and small area plans. She promised to make sure that the Comprehensive Plan, which is up for revision again soon, finds room in the city to grow back to 800,000. That's important, because according to the Office of Planning, even building everything to the limits in the Comp Plan won't be enough for our housing needs after 10-20 years.

Where exactly the housing might go, Bowser was less clear. She also proudly defended her efforts to remove a floor from a proposed building at the Takoma Metro, saying that there needs to be a participatory process to make sure residents are comfortable with a new development. But, I asked, doesn't that mean that every project will get a little smaller, lose a floor, and so on, I asked? Will that prevent us from building enough housing in the aggregate?

She wasn't concerned. "There are going to be some very smart people to make sure [the new residents] will have a place to live." And later, "The thing I know where there is a lot of demand is that the units will be created. In markets where people are looking for housing, and it's profitable for them to create housing, they will."

Tommy Wells criticized most of the thinking on this issue as being very "linear" and "two-dimensional," saying that as our needs change, many people will use space differently. More younger residents are willing to move into smaller spaces because instead of needing to own or rent all the space they'll use, people are "using the collective of shared space that they all pay for together," such as common rooms in buildings and public places like parks in the city.

Meanwhile, he said, offices are also using less space as fewer employees have their own offices, employees spend more time working at home, and people use common areas. Therefore, he said that people at one of the downtown business improvement districts think that some office space can become housing.

Andy Shallal is worried about the trend toward building smaller units. "I think those types of developments [are] overdone throughout the city," he said. "They're temporary housing, because when people get married, have a child, they can't really live in those small spaces. I'm just worried about this rush to build these small units, cookie cutter units, is going to make the city less desirable for families that want to live in larger homes."

Wells has an idea to deal with that:

I've been working with another architecture firm and a major developer to do what I call "flex buildings." With a flex building you can build small apartments, but as your life changes you can aggregate, so if you have a small child or your life changes in another way, you can add above or below or to the side, instead of bldg a fixed infrastructure with 3-bedrooms, 2-bedrooms and 1-bedrooms. That's an old way of thinking. The future of cities like ours is an adaptable way of thinking, not a linear use of space.

Another way to add flexibility is to let people rent out their basements or garages, as has been proposed in the DC Zoning Update. Shallal said, "I think we have to have some flexibility in those types of zoning laws. ... These homes are empty nesters now with one or two people living in a 3-4 story townhouse. For those people who are becoming elderly, maybe they want to have a little income and stay in their home. ... I think it's a great way to keep people who have lived here a long time to be able to stay in the home they've lived in ... rather than building another high-rise of apartments that are overpriced and end up requiring lots of parking."

Bowser isn't on board. She opposes the Accessory Dwelling Unit recommendation in the DC zoning update, though she tried to couch her opposition as minor and generally praised the zoning update. "I think that having our zoning codes not be reviewed in a comprehensive way for 50 years ... I think that they spent a lot of time on a lot of different issues. I think at the end of the day I have only 4 areas I wanted them to ... that's pretty remarkable for a 5 yr process. I think they have looked at all of the concerns."

What she didn't say is that the "only 4 areas" of concern are essentially the major policy recommendations of the zoning update, such as accessory apartments, corner stores, and parking.

Bowser also reiterated her opposition to any changes in the height limit.

I think the Congress should focus on things that we've asked for, and we've asked for budget autonomy. I think Congress should focus on how we unhinge our city from the federal government's budget. We're not a federal agency, we're a city. We collect our own taxes and we should be able to spend our own revenues. ...

You've got to wonder why they are focusing on something that nobody in the city has saideven including the development community, the government, the councilmembers saidthat we need or want and the things we do need and have asked for have been totally ignored. You've got to wonder about the motive, don't you?

Mayor Gray, meanwhile, defended his administration's efforts to change the federal Height Act.

What I think wasn't entirely clear was that we weren't proposing a particular change or a specific change in the height limits. What we were proposing was that the District have more control over setting the height limits, which would still give the people of the city a chance, through the Comprehensive Plan, through zoning, through legislation, a chance to be able to address, specifically, proposed height changes.

It was not that we would go out on Rhode Island Avenue and say we were going to have buildings that would be 37 fett tall. It was to say, just like we say with budget autonomy, shouldn't we have greater control over our city, especially areas outside the L'Enfant city? So we've sort of stopped at this stage, and we're working now to try to make sure people are clear about what it that we were proposing. But it wasn't that Building X was not going to become 14 stories higher than what it was.

In fact, Gray became the most energetic and animated just after we'd turned off the cameras, when perhaps he was more relaxed. He told stories about how he'd contacted DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson when Mendelson introduced his resolution against the height limit. It's a home rule issue, not about the heights, he'd tried to convince Mendelson, an argument which didn't go anywhere to Gray's evident frustration.

Tomorrow, we'll look at what the candidates said about public land and subsidized housing. Meanwhile, you can watch the entire exchange on housing with each candidate.

Evans:

Wells:

Gray:

Bowser:

Shallal:

Events


Events roundup: Events to keep you warm

The polar vortex is back, and so are your chances to talk about DC's proposed zoning update, buses in the District and Montgomery County, housing in Arlington, and more at events around the region.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

It's time for the Circulator: The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is hosting its Semi-Annual Circulator Forum this Tuesday, February 25.

The discussion will likely cover the planned National Mall route, a potential fare hike, and a 2014 update to the Circulator's longer-range plan. The forum is 6-8 pm at Eastern Market's North Hall, 225 7th Street SE. If you can't make it, you can send comments to Circe Torruellas at circe.torruellas@dc.gov or call 202-671-2847.

After the jump: speak up on King Street bike lanes and DC's zoning update, learn about bus rapid transit in Silver Spring, glean wisdom from Arlington housing officials, and take a walk to see the negative implications of a proposed highway in Montgomery County. Plus, don't forget about our happy hour in Alexandria this Thursday!

Big meeting for King Street: Alexandria's Traffic and Parking Board, which decided to defer bike lanes on King Street, will discuss the issue once again tonight at the council chambers in Alexandria City Hall. WABA says it's an important meeting and there will be a lot of "vocal and motivated" opponents. The meeting starts at 7:30 and you have to sign up by 7:45.

Final zoning update hearing: A snow day forced the DC Office of Zoning to reschedule its planned hearing on the zoning update for residents of wards 1 and 2. The meeting, which is the last of the series, will finally take place starting at 6 pm this Wednesday, February 26 at the DC Housing Finance Authority, 815 Florida Avenue NW. If you are a ward 1 or 2 resident who wishes to testify but has not signed up, please click here.

Rapid Transit open house: Montgomery County planners are working on a bus rapid transit (BRT) network to improve accessibility and mobility throughout the county. Join Communities for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth on Wednesday, February 26 from 6:30-8:30 pm for a brief presentation on how the system is an opportunity to move people and connect communities, even as population and congestion rise. A collaborative discussion and questions are welcomed.

The event (and refreshments!) are free but RSVP is recommended. The meeting will be held at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.

Join us for happy hour this Thursday: Greater Greater's monthly happy hour series heads to Old Town Alexandria this Thursday, February 27, with cosponsors CNU DC. Come share drinks, snacks, and conversation with us at the Light Horse, located at 715 King Street between Columbus and Washington streets, from 6 to 8 pm. The Light Horse is a 15-minute walk from the King Street Metro station, but there are also a number of bus and Bikeshare connections as well.

Hear neighborly advice from Alexandria: If you're not at the happy hour, also on Thursday the Montgomery County Planning Department hosts housing officials from Alexandria in part two of its Winter Speaker Series. Mildrilyn Davis and Helen McIlvaine will talk about about how Alexandria has redeveloped blocks of public housing into mixed-income communities and built affordable housing alongside new public buildings.

The APA National Capital Area Chapter is co-hosting this event, which is free to the public. It starts at 6 pm in the Montgomery County Planning Department Auditorium, 8787 Georgia Avenue.

Learn about law and planning: That's not the only forum APA-NCAC is cosponsoring on Thursday. The National Capital Planning Commission is hosting a panel discussion with area planners about how the laws of our region's many jurisdictions and levels of government shape our planning. That's 6-7:30 pm at NCPC, 401 9th Street, NW Suite 500.

Walk and talk about Midcounty Highway's future: Over the summer, the Montgomery County Planning Board received 237 comments from the public about Midcounty Highway or M-83, a proposed highway between Montgomery Village and Clarksburg, 228 of which were in opposition. This Saturday, March 1, you can join the TAME Coalition (Coalition for Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended) in Montgomery Village for walking tours, to see exactly what the proposed highway would damage or destroy.

The tours start at South Valley Park, 18850 Montgomery Village Avenue, and end at Montgomery Village Avenue. You can choose to tour either the wooded area or the non-woods area that would be affected. Registration begins at 12:30 pm, and the tours will go from 1:30-3:30 pm. You can park at South Valley Park near the ball field, next to Watkins Mill Elementary School.

Support Us

How can our region be greater?

DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC