Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Zoning

Development


Want to add a small apartment to your house in DC? That will soon be allowed.

It used to be that many homeowners in DC weren't allowed to build a small apartment, called an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), onto their property. Under DC's new zoning code, they will soon have the right to build some without seeking special permission.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

An ADU could be a basement or attic apartment, or an apartment over a garage or small cottage in the backyard. The important thing is that you can rent an ADU to a tenant. Allowing ADUs to go up more freely is one of the biggest changes of the new zoning code, which will take effect starting September 6.

In DC, households are shrinking from large families to singles or couples, while demand for housing is rising. Allowing homeowners to rent out parts of their property can help alleviate this demand, while providing income to offset the increasing cost of property.

Apartments have always been relatively easy for homeowners to add in higher-density row house zones—consider the classic DC "English Basement." Under the old zoning code they were allowed with a special exception, but now they are allowed by right in residential neighborhoods.

A big change under the new zoning code is making it easier to build new apartments in accessory buildings and inside houses. In the past, the lowest-density R-1 zones were the only place homeowners could build them, and even in those cases, they had to be occupied by a "domestic," meaning a family member or servant—a rather outdated stipulation.


Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Also, a apartment in an accessory building (a separate building on the property, like a garage) required a variance, meaning the owner would need to prove that they have a unique condition or situation that would make it a burden to comply with existing regulations. That was pretty much impossible, since accessory buildings were not allowed.

If the accessory building is already on the property, then homeowners can add an apartment by right. If the accessory building isn't there yet, the homeowner only needs a special exception, which neighbors can only stop by demonstrating that the building would be an undue burden on them.

These apartments are subject to conditions, such as those found in the building code that make sure there is enough living space and that the space is safe. The homeowner has to still live on the property, and there are a number of other conditions as well.

Under the new code, buildings can house a garage, artist studio, or storage area in addition to the apartment. They can't have a roof deck, perhaps because there's more of an argument that those are burdensome to neighbors. Apartments in accessory buildings also have to have dedicated access to the street.


Image from the City of Minneapolis.

How to make an ADU work on your property

Other things to consider with an ADU? First, keep in mind that only three people are allowed to live in the unit, with an additional three in the main home. Additionally, to rent out the property, homeowners need a Residential Rental Business License from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

There's also the question of how to actually build it. Few people have the experience or skills to construct an apartment or small building by themselves. With labor and materials, how much will it cost? How can you make sure that the rent you are charging will cover the cost of your financing and provide rental income?

Especially when building an accessory building, there are many that first time builders may not consider. Because even a small building requires a foundation, four exterior walls, and roof, they will be considerably more costly than an interior apartment.

Other costs include an architect's fees, as well as fees to tie into utilities. And, while its tempting to save 8-15% and not hire an architect, you don't want to skimp here; an architect's job is to make sure buildings are up to code and therefore legally rentable. With so many conditions in the new zoning code, you want to be certain you're meeting them.

Financial feasibility is also a major concern. Financing can come from banks either through loans, or refinancing the property, or it can come from friends and family. If a bank is making the loan, then the repayments may be higher, which may impact the rents that need to be charged. Its important to understand the rental demand in the neighborhood, and compare the prices being charged to the desired rent for your unit. Make sure the market can bear your rents.

If you are interested in learning how to use tools like financial modeling for rental properties, and in talking through financing options for small real estate projects like accessory units, consider attending the Small Developer Bootcamp in Silver Spring from Friday, May 13 to Saturday, May 14. This training designed to teach people how to build the kind of small real estate projects that make cities better and it is sponsored by the Incremental Development Alliance.

Correction: The initial version of this article suggested that the zoning changes were now in effect. They take effect September 6. Also, this article initially reflected an earlier proposal for the zoning update which would have allowed apartments in accessory buildings by right under some circumstances; the final version requires a special exception hearing.

Correction 2: My bad. I totally messed up this correction. I incorrectly thought that the DC Office of Planning had taken out the by right permission to build an accessory apartment in an external building. This is wrong. Well, it's right and wrong. OP did try to take that out, but this was one retreat that the Zoning Commission rejected and asked OP to reverse. I therefore incorrectly corrected this article. Emily Brown's original was more accurate, and has been restored (with a few minor edits).—David Alpert

Development


It's another delay for 200+ units of housing in Tenleytown

First, Georgetown Day School took 3 floors and 50 units of housing away from its proposed development in Tenleytown, following opposition from neighbors and the DC Office of Planning. Now, it has to delay the entire project because of a zoning technicality.


An earlier rendering of the project. Image from Georgetown Day School / Esocoff and Associates.

First, an exciting plan gets scaled down

The site on Wisconsin Avenue has been through many public battles over the years concerning denser, mixed use development, but this particular project originally looked to be one of the finer plans for the area.

Neighboring Georgetown Day School purchased the Safeway and adjacent parcel near 42nd Street and Wisconsin Avenue in 2013. It planned new school space, a pair of 9-story buildings with 270-290 units of housing (around 10% of those permanently affordable), and a host of other neighborhood amenities, including a bike share station, a beautiful set of pedestrian steps, and a small park.

Unfortunately, as soon as the plans were opened to public comment, a few neighbors began organizing against it. Last month, after the Office of Planning unexpectedly sided with opponents, GDS cut off one floor from one building and two from the other, removing 50 units of housing and a variety of amenities.


Aerial view of the project. Image from the PUD filing.

Now, another delay

This last week, another hiccup. The school decided to withdraw its application entirely and re-submit it. That's because, according to a letter released by the school, one of the opposing neighbors complained about an unspecified detail of the zoning regulations, and DC's Zoning Administrator (the official who interprets the zoning regulations and decides if projects comply with them) agreed with the objection.

Fortunately for GDS, this zoning provision (whatever it is) changed in DC's zoning update, which recently passed and will take effect in September. Therefore, rather than fight the Zoning Administrator's "informal" ruling, GDS will just withdraw and re-submit to be considered under the new rules.


Letter to the community from Georgetown Day School. Click to see the full letter.

Why this matters

While projects do need to conform to the zoning code, this also shows the great length project foes, particularly in some areas of DC such as this, will go to stop change. Remember, GDS's building would have been as tall as the one across the street, and now will be shorter. But that's apparently not enough for opponents.

GDS is fortunate that the zoning update is going into effect very soon, after more than eight years of delay getting finalized and approved. Otherwise, GDS would have had to fight the ruling, and the letter says, "While we may have prevailed at the Zoning Commission with our current PUD application, this informal ruling by the Zoning Administrator would have made us vulnerable to an appeal and cost us additional time and money."

We can imagine that the opposition will not sit idly by for the next round. This is a Tenleytown story, but it affects all of us in the city and region. With the current housing shortage, any loss of new housing, particularly so close to a Metro stop, is a loss we all feel.

If you are interested in staying informed and involved in this particular case, fill out the form below. We will continue to watch what happens here and look for ways for the larger community to make a difference.

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History


Where DC used to bar black people from living

One of many pieces of America's shameful racial past was when racial covenants forbade people in certain areas from selling their houses to an African-American family. DC had these in several neighborhoods, particularly Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Park View, and Bloomingdale.

According to Mapping Segregation in Washington DC, an interactive map created last year by a group called Prologue DC, covenants took two forms throughout the first half of the 20th century: restrictions in the property's deed, often set up by the developer when building a set of row houses, or an agreement that neighborhood activists would circulate as a petition around a neighborhood.


Lots with racial covenants in DC. All maps by Brian Kraft/JMT.

As the interactive map's text explains, covenants like these did more than just bar African-Americans. Covenants in some areas also prohibited Jews—"In DC this was more common west of Rock Creek Park," says the text.

These effectively kept black residents out of many neighborhoods through the early twentieth century, as this map of the area around Columbia Heights shows.


Lots with restrictions (purple) and the percentage of non-white residents (darker = more non-white), 1934.

Many covenants imposed other limits as well, like requiring "that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon." As Ben Ross explains, covenant limits on building size and use is the forerunner of modern zoning.

Covenants fall and segregation takes new forms

Black homeowners and groups like the NAACP challenged these restrictions—often unsuccessfully—in lawsuits from the turn of the century until finally winning the seminal Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, and a corresponding case in DC, Hurd v. Hodge (which used a federal civil rights law instead of the Fourteenth Amendment since DC is not a state).

 
Percentage of black residents by Census tract, 1930 (left) and 1960 (right). Darker colors signify more black residents.

In the years after legal restrictions fell, the percentage of black residents in nearby neighborhoods increased—just what the covenants' creators and defenders, illegally and immorally, feared. Amid this shift, the end of legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and other civil rights advances, many white residents moved to the suburbs.

There, whether intentionally or not, communities wrote zoning rules and school district boundaries in ways that perpetuated de facto segregation.

How covenants from the past still hurt people today

While this legal tactic is long gone, its effects remain. Emily Badger wrote about a study of how young black people are far less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to get help from their parents to afford the down payment on a home. Each generation invests in real estate and gains wealth in doing so, which it then uses to help the next generation—except if, a few generations ago, residents and the government stopped your ancestors from getting some wealth in the first place.

Badger writes, "Historic disparities in the housing market are transmitted over time, from parent to child to grandchild. Earlier generations of blacks were excluded from homeownership by lending practices and government policies, and as a result those generations didn't accumulate the housing wealth that enabled them to pass money onto their children."

Or, as she put it pithily on Twitter:

Correction: The initial version of this post identified some covenants as being in Truxton Circle, but they were actually in Bloomingdale. Also, a sentence has been updated to emphasize that the disadvantages to black residents came from a combination of both the government and private citizens.

Development


More housing is now banned from Lanier Heights. Organizing is what won the day.

A group of neighbors in Lanier Heights are fighting to downzone their rowhouses, hoping to restrict the ability to convert them into denser, multi-resident units. Monday night they won, and they did it by out-organizing the opposition.


Lanier Heights. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Earlier in March over 50 residents packed the zoning board hearing room, holding orange "For R-4" signs quietly under their seats (under orders from zoning Commissioner Anthony Hood—"there will be no demonstrating in the hearing room"). For the next 3-plus hours, advocates from the neighborhood laid out the arguments to change their current zoning level from an R-5-B to an R-4, bringing tighter building constrictions to their blocks that would effectively bar the development of multi-unit buildings and pop-ups.

Proponents started organizing long ago

This March 21st meeting has been over four years in the making. A growing number of owners in the neighborhood have sold or converted their single family units into denser, multi-unit dwellings.

Some reacted strongly against this trend, and began to organize to stop it, seeing zoning as tool to halt the work. Denis Suski, a local resident, began to gather his neighbors together around these issues as early as 2012. The group knocked on doors, began to engage their ANC, and hosted numerous community meetings to educate and persuade others to join in the downzoning movement. They cited a number of arguments: parking problems, loss of the character of the neighborhood, cheap construction techniques, and removing family-sized units from a family neighborhood.


Lanier Heights Row houses next to a rehabbed "pop-up" on the left. Photo by Dan Malouff.

They encountered resistance, and that resistance started to organize as well. Opponents created an online group, Neighbors Against Downzoning (NADZ). They argued that Lanier Heights is already full of apartment buildings; that restricting further development in their neighborhood only was the very definition of NIMBYism; and that many of the stated concerns did not reflect the realities of the city, or even a majority of the affected neighbors.

Opponents also noted that this change would downzone everyone's homes in the area, no matter how they felt or what changes the future would hold. The debate has gone on for years, and it all came down to this final hearing, late Monday night in March.

How it went down that night

Given the length of this fight, it's not surprising that almost everyone in the room knew each other. Proponents and opposition shook hands, talked amongst themselves and spoke directly to each other in testimony. During the opening presentation, given by Mr. Suski, the crowd rumbled in approval and disapproval at appropriate moments, earning admonition from Commissioner Hood on a few occasions ("We don't demonstrate in the chamber. Let's keep it civil"). Suski opened with a long presentation that summarized all the downzoners' concerns and arguments. Afterwards, the floor opened for testimony, the overwhelming majority of which was in favor of the zoning change.

Many rallied against the loss of "air and light" suffered because of these new 50 foot walls on their back door steps. Others spoke of the city's need of a "diversity of housing" and to preserve the character and family culture of the rowhouse neighborhood. A few came out on the defense—"We are simply not a NIMBY neighborhood"—but rather insisted that this was about their rights as homeowners and neighbors.

A fraction of the attendees spoke out against the downzoning, saying that some of the home-types in this area no longer suit the needs of the city and should be split up into smaller units. What is more, they argued downzoning infringed on their rights as homeowners to be able to sell, profit and build on their own land.

This affects you, too

What was missing from the meeting was a larger discussion of how downzoning affects our city as whole. In a adding 1,000 new residents a month, more housing and more housing density is desperately needed. Proponents at the meetings set up this issue as a battle between personal homeowner rights and developers, but the larger issue of incoming residents needs to be part of the discussion.

As Ron Baker, an organizer with NADZ, said in an email, "[T]he downzoners are always complaining about "greedy developers" but this isn't about the developers. There is a huge wave of young people moving to DC who need housing that fits their needs and budgets."

This trend of increased restriction block by block is not new to DC, and hurts the city's current residents and future ones. If small cohorts of neighbors across the city similarly fight to restrict more dense development, our problems will only get worse. Zoning commissioners and the Office of Planning know this, but when faced with the overwhelming show of downzoning support in the room, the officials seemed to lean towards the change.


NADZ Neighborhood sign. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Organizing counts

No matter which side readers come out on in this argument, we should take away one lesson: don't ignore power of organization.

Both sides were organized; the downzoners were organized better.

As Billy Simpson, ANC 1C commissioner offered in support, "In my 3+ years of service, I have never seen a proposal as thoroughly community led and community vetted as this one." Mr. Suski and his team had spent years handing out fliers, personally talking to each neighbor, hosting forums, and giving out surveys. They arrived that night with clear arguments and presentations, aligned talking points and a strong sense of team and community.

The opposition was organized as well; their website is informative and thorough, and they too have been active in canvassing and posting neighborhood signs. But on one night in March their organization did not translate into as many butts in the seats, strength in numbers and testimony.

On Monday night the Zoning Commission took a final vote was taken on the matter, and the downzoning proposal was approved 5-0. You can see just how effective the organizing was in the side-switching that occurred. The Office of Planning in March took a neutral stance and offered no recommendation. Now, it submitted documents in favor of the downzoning.

Commissioner Rob Miller said that while he is typically "skeptical of downzoning in this city where we have critical demand for housing, and over 1,000 residents arriving a month," he was convinced by the show of support and argument presented in the March meeting. Marcie Cohen agreed, saying she "is concerned with downzoning" but was impressed by the "clarity and completeness" of this case.

National Park Service representative Peter May most directly attributed the downzoning win to the organizing work. He said the vote is "a testimony to the thoroughness of the work that was done before it was brought before us."

The hard work of community organization won here, and stripped away potential units in a city suffocating for more housing. Are we, Greater Greater Washington, ready to organize for the city and issues we care about?

Development


America's most unattainable housing is right by downtown DC. That's a huge problem.

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Five people are currently vying for the chance to occupy the White House this November, but only one will win. This is a classic supply and demand problem, and the solution is simple: Build more housing.


Concept rendering for The Estates At President's Park. Original image by Jeff Prouse.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW is an extremely low-density property, with 82 acres housing a population of only 5 people (and a very small amount of office space). Even without adding new buildings, the existing one could become a taller apartment building with plenty of room for the Clintons, Sanderses, Trumps, Cruzes, and Kasichs, even without changes to Washington, DC's federal height limit.

This building is also located in a gated community with large open spaces around it which serve little purpose. They are off-limits to most pedestrian foot traffic and residents of the exclusive community are rarely seen using them either. The Ellipse, just to the south, is largely used as a parking lot. Developing some of these open areas could have provided even more housing.


Significant underutilized land. Photo by US Department of Defense via Wikimedia.

The exclusionary nature of this area has already prevented numerous families from being able to move here. According to news reports, families from Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky, Arkansas, California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and others gave up on their hopes of being able to move here for a better job. The lack of available housing is an clear impediment to labor mobility.

Historic preservationists and other groups may complain about such a move. After all, this house is one of many which tour groups frequently pass by on their tours, and some (but not all) US Presidents lived here, adding to its historic value.

However, Washington has many historic buildings; this one is not as architecturally interesting as the office building next door to the west. The National Park Service, which controls the area, is so under-funded it may have to shut down a bridge which carries 68,000 vehicles a day. NPS needs to prioritize its funds and not waste so much money on a property which few people can enjoy.

Original architect James Hoban actually proposed a larger building, but changed his initial design, supposedly to better reflect the "monumental" nature of Washington, DC. As Kriston Capps put it, it's a "Hoban cut off at the hipbone." "It's a perfect architectural metaphor for the almost-urbanism that characterizes life in Washington," he wrote.

Candidates react to the idea

Reached on his corporate jet, Donald Trump said, "I think it's terrific. I can make a great deal to build this and I'm working with the GSA on the hotel down the street which will open early and will be the best hotel in all of DC. I'm good at building things. I'm the best. I have built so many things. Good things, you know, really good things. I know how to build. I have the skills, the best skills. And I can get this done. And I have great taste in furniture, the best taste. We'll increase the quality of the finishes substantially, marble finishes, very, very high quality of luxury marble, the most luxurious marble you've ever seen. Just phenomenal luxury."

Based on the District's inclusionary zoning ordinance, the new White House will be required to include one affordable dwelling unit, which will likely go to Marco Rubio.

In a press release, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager said they'd worked out an agreement to use the basement to build an ultra-secure server room inaccessible to the House of Representatives.

Reached on the campaign trail in Wisconsin, Ted Cruz expressed his opposition to the proposal. "I'm an outsider. I don't need a building to live inside."

The Burlington, Vermont headquarters of Bernie Sanders' campaign sent this statement: "This is why we need to break up the big banks and make sure everyday Americans benefit instead of just Wall Street and big corporations."

While many are excited about the 1600 Penn project's increased density, others have expressed concern that this is simply another situation where developers will trigger displacement of another black family from a neighborhood with an overwhelming percentage of African-American residents according to the 2010 Census.

Still, this neighborhood is very close to ample parks, stores, jobs, and transportation, including multiple Metro stations. The low quantity of housing is a clear public policy failure. Let's end the Lafayette Square housing crisis immediately.

Zoning


Can a new zoning code make Mt. Rainier inviting and affordable?

Long considered up and coming, Mount Rainier is a Prince George's neighborhood just east of the District line that's attracting investors and where house prices are rising. Typically, more zoning means higher housing costs, but Mount Rainier residents are trying to use zoning to keep their neighborhood inclusive and affordable. Is that possible?


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Mount Rainier's MO: cheap and funky

Mount Rainier is a historic streetcar suburb bordering DC's Ward 5 that has, for decades, been an affordable destination for renters and owners as well as a haven for interracial, gay, and immigrant families. It's a diverse community, where multiculturalism is not an ideology, but a way of life.

A major part of the city's charm is this neighborly community vibe, which in turn is created and encouraged by the city's urban fabric: early 1900s vernacular architecture including porches near the sidewalks, front yard art installations, and other community-building features. Today, the motto of the local grocery co-op sums it up: "still cheap, still funky."

Today, Mount Rainier is still mostly a cozy collection of small bungalows and Victorians. But home prices are spiraling up, making renovations a hot topic.

Mount Rainier has been here before: Prior to the bursting of the early 2000s real estate bubble, Mount Rainier saw a wave of ambitious home renovations that peppered cheap and/or architecturally deaf flips and McMansions amidst the subsequent foreclosure crisis.


A Mount Rainier house during renovations. Photo by Milo Shepherdson.

Mount Rainier might change its zoning

In a process tracing back to the aforementioned era, the Mount Rainier community is considering a new zoning overlay to cover its single family homes. This Architectural Conservation Overlay Zone (ACOZ) has been proposed as a middle ground between a flipping free-for-all and a restrictive historic district.

The goal of the ACOZ is to encourage renovation and new home construction that is compatible with the existing built environment while preventing poorly executed projects.

As currently proposed, new code would impose detailed design standards and significantly expand the cases in which a building permit is required for residential home construction and renovations.

All homeowners would receive a "pattern book" with guidance and resources about maintaining Mount Rainier's residential architectural fabric, and a local committee would review applications for any project that required a permit to ensure compliance with the standards.

This might sound scary to some, but this is actually exactly how the process works now: A volunteer design review board already reviews many house renovation permits in Mount Rainier, so there is ample precedent for this type of review. Considering that current county zoning requires the board to review permits for residential fences, fears of the ACOZ creating a significant new permitting hurdle may well be overstated.

This has worked in Mount Rainier before

Conventional wisdom says that land use controls like zoning increase the cost of construction and restrict supply, making housing less affordable. And while most would support the laudable goal of maintaining the much loved sleepy neighborhood look, there is always a concern for unintended consequences.

Luckily, this is not Mount Rainier's first experiment with trying to invent a type of zone that both welcomes growth and incorporates the existing built environment.

In 1994 Prince George's County created the first Mixed Use Town Center zone in Mount Rainier, the goal being to revitalize traditional storefronts and invigorate the commercial district. The award-winning 2010 update of this plan established a community vision for a revitalized downtown Mount Rainier as a walkable, green, lively neighborhood-oriented retail center.

As many communities nationwide chase major chains or tourism dollars, Mount Rainier has recommitted to the local, the independent, and the original, saving environmental and financial resources with adaptive reuse of our historic buildings. The MUTC plan incentivizes historic reuse by imposing far more stringent review requirements on new construction, and establishes design standards to promote compatible and quality development.


Image from Prince George's County.

Redevelopment in Mount Rainier is also shaped by a second, larger zoning overlay known as the Gateway Arts District that stretches from the District border up Rhode Island Ave through Brentwood, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville. The Arts District was created in 2001 to provide policy infrastructure for the further development of the local economy and existing arts community, prohibiting many land uses and establishing at times extremely detailed visual standards for buildings and signage.

Nationally, multijurisdictional arts districts are all but unheard of, and the Gateway Arts District remains very much a community-driven experiment in progress. The dream of rezoning specific properties from conventional residential, commercial, and industrial categories to flexible mixed-use zoning that enables arts entrepreneurs to locate is in part confounded by the challenges created by requiring compliance with the zone's detailed design standards. It is unclear if recent developments like conversion of Mount Rainier's historic firehouse into Red Dirt Studios happen because or in spite of the zoning overlay.

A positive outcome isn't guaranteed

There's no guarantee that we can truly achieve our shared goals through yet more zoning. Chapel Hill, NC, used a similar zoning overlay somewhat differently to police tensions between owners and investors managing homes as rentals. There, advocates for "neighborhood conservation" draw a distinction between renting homes to families versus group houses of unrelated individuals, a sign of both town-gown and anti-immigrant tensions.

Payton Chung recently drew attention to a case in LA "of what Mike Davis called 'slow-growth Know-Nothingism,' Anglos are using their superior access to the machinery of zoning and local elections to write into law their feelings about 'those' people."

The Mount Rainier community is at a turning point where it must make choices. Do we let the hand of the free market move over the city, or is our local government capable of implementing a well-intentioned and well-designed public process to regulate residential development? Will the ACOZ worsen already difficult permitting processes, drive up the cost of renovation, and create a historic preservation mafia? Or can preservation and affordable housing coexist?

The past and the present are colliding in Mount Rainier, as they have in many other once-affordable historic neighborhoods like Brookland, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring. We believe Mount Rainier is special. Can we achieve a different outcome?

Development


Opponents of a new Dupont building gamble and lose

Well, they blew it. Last month, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission decided to turn down a deal for neighborhood benefits in the proposed development at St. Thomas Parish and roll the dice on fighting the project. That turned out to be a bad bet.


Roulette image from Shutterstock.

On January 12, the Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously approved a variance so that the proposed building could occupy 86.7% of the lot instead of the 80% normally allowed under zoning.

Arson destroyed the St. Thomas Parish at the corner of 18th and Church streets NW in 1970, and now the church is partnering with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church along with a residential building whose profits will help fund the religious one. After going through historic preservation approval, the design extended just a small amount closer to the nearby alley than in the first drafts, requiring a zoning variance.

CAS Riegler and St. Thomas representatives invited neighborhood leaders and nearby residents to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding for neighborhood benefits during and after construction, like rules for loading trucks or noise on the roof deck. But many residents objected from the start to the size of the proposed building, which is larger than adjacent row houses but shorter than other large apartment buildings a block to the east and to the north.

Based on that sentiment, in December the ANC threw away the negotiated MOU and instead decided to oppose the variance. (Disclosure: I participated in the MOU negotiations and supported the proposed final deal.)


Rendering of the proposed church building and the residential building behind.

Zoning board members critique poorly-directed opposition

When announcing the ruling, several BZA members chided the ANC and neighbors for arguing against the project as a whole instead of addressing the actual variance under discussion. Most opposition focused on the building's height, but the building steps back at higher floors; adding lot occupancy would have just taken a small amount from the lower floors, and only in the rear, on the alley.

Chairperson Marnique Heath said, "The request that they've made is just for 6.7% of lot occupancy, which is rather minor. The primary concern of the parties in opposition was in regard to the large scale... [but] the strongest concerns that the opposing parties had really wouldn't be addressed by not granting that request."

Peter May, the zoning commissioner from the National Park Service (read this for why a Park Service employee is involved here) said,

I cannot see where the parties in opposition have actually explained how their objections relate to the requested relief. A lot of people were objecting to the loss of the park and to the height of the building. I could find almost nothing that specifically relates to lot occupancy, which is where the relief is requested. ...

I'm frankly a bit disappointed. We often hear from neighbors who are unhappy with changes in the status quo, but I saw precious little appreciation from the neighbors for the 45 years they had for this public park, and I would hope that we would have seen more of that.

The only word to the contrary was from Fred Hill, a very new member of the BZA. Hill said he was "actually a little torn and "can understand why I wouldn't want something this large at the end of that block." But he went along with his colleagues on the issue of the law, recognizing that the variance wasn't actually about the size of the building.

Neighborhood leaders took a better approach in the past

Unfortunately, the ANC failed to steer a useful conversation in this situation. When there was controversy over the last church-related development project in the neighborhood, a parking lot at 17th and O, former commissioner and longtime resident Bob Meehan urged all parties to focus on achievable, specific requests that related to the zoning relief being debated. The main issue there was roof deck noise affecting residents at the building to the north; people negotiated and found some compromise.


Remember this? Photo by Adam Lewis.


What got built. Photo from Wikimedia.

Bob Meehan isn't on the ANC any more, and the relative lack of experience showed in the way many members had trouble evaluating how much weight their support or opposition would carry. In the end, that relegated the ANC to an ineffective position and left neighbors worse off.

Some commissioners decided to oppose the variance because of confusing and bad legal advice from the DC government about whether the MOU was enforceable. But others opposed it outright, and the ANC did not try to hold a special meeting or ask for a delay to work out any possible enforceability problems.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the 2013 government shutdown. John Boehner was trying to negotiate with Barack Obama, but his House GOP caucus kept refusing to make any kind of deal out of a zeal for partisan purity. As a consequence, the ultimate budget policies ended up being worse for the GOP than if they had made a deal.

DC needs more housing, and this corner is a good place for it. By implacably resisting the height of the proposed building and repeatedly refusing to engage on specific, achievable issues, the ANC really lost the chance to have a voice, to improve the quality of life without reducing the ability to add new housing.

Update: This article was edited to add a paragraph about the MOU's enforceability in response to questions.

Zoning


DC's zoning update finally passes!

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


Photo by muroo on Flickr.

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

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

Thank you, planners!

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

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


Opponents protest outside a 2013 hearing.

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

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

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