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Zoning


Should adding more housing be illegal even when neighbors support it?

If a property owner wants to divide a row house into multiple units, the neighbors agree, and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission does not object, should they be able to?


Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

The Office of Planning (OP)'s recent "anti-pop-up" zoning proposal would halt this practice, in an effort to keep row houses as one- or two-family homes and reduce the financial incentive to add on top and in back. But at two members of DC's Zoning Commission were not at all pleased with this proposal.

Commissioner Rob Miller said that the Board of Zoning Adjustment has been granting many variances recently to allow these multi-family conversions, but only whenand becausethe neighbors and ANC endorse the idea. In fact, he said, the BZA has been sometimes having to bend over backward to get such a request to meet the strict variance criteria. But, at least in his thinking, if this is something neighbors support, why shouldn't it be allowed?

OP's Jennifer Steingasser acknowledged that in the recent BZA cases, there has indeed been neighborhood support. Often that's because a property is vacant and crumbling, and neighbors are eager to see someone invest the considerable capital that might be necessary to overhaul it. Small developers have said that the economics only work out to do such substantial work if they can create more units.

Federal representative Michael Turnbull, who works for the Architect of the Capitol, doesn't believe that. He said, "I'm not really convinced by these marketing studies. For every marketing study that says one thing, you can get another marketing study that says, well no. ... So it's a little bit self-serving. I always look askance at these things."

But Miller does not agree. He said,

I think this proposal significantly constrains the ability of our existing housing stock ... and the existing zoning code to accommodate a growing population, including a growing proportion of smaller household sizes. We are very fortunate to have an existing housing stock that can partially accommodate this change and growth in our city. Cities are dynamic and we need to manage the change and make sure it doesn't change the residential character of a neighborhood, but I think we should do more to manage the change rather than just throw up additional roadblocks.
In response to much of the pushback OP has already received on its draft, Steingasser has developed some alternative approaches. One, which garnered some praise from the commission, would still allow converting row houses into apartments, but require that units beyond the first and second be below market rate units under DC's inclusionary zoning law.

This would permit more housing, but set some aside for people with lower incomes, perhaps ensuring that these neighborhoods remain mixed-income as they grow more dense. It would be helpful to know more about the economics of these conversions to ensure that property owners would still be able to afford them; otherwise, it's just a ban in another guise.

Miller also asked OP to add another option that would make multifamily conversions a "special exception" instead of a variance. In a special exception, impact on the neighborhood is the main test, rather than uniqueness financial need.

Where's the big picture?

Commissioner Marcie Cohen argued that OP should be making any proposal as part of a larger housing strategy instead of as a one-off reaction to public pressure. "I just don't think we have a comprehensive housing policy in this city and I'm worried about all the unintended consequences of [this proposal]. I personally prefer the alternatives that you have [proposed]. I do believe we must have opportunities that are supported by an ANC and supported by a neighborhood to move ahead with higher density in an R-4 district."

In response to questions about the impact on housing supply, Steingasser repeatedly said that the rules didn't originate out of an analysis about housing; rather, they were an effort to respond to public outcry about pop-ups (including a sudden election-year interest in the issue from councilmember Jim Graham, who later lost his primary).

But this is exactly the problem. OP has now in several cases proposed new limits on zoning which, officials readily acknowledge, arose entirely in response to some requests by some neighbors. OP should certainly listen to neighbor concerns, but needs to also think about the big picture. Miller pointed out that they got feedback on many different issues, like fixing Inclusionary Zoning, and asked, why has OP reacted so quickly to this particular one right now?

Every change, especially one that affects the overall housing supply, has an impact beyond just the immediate neighbors and the people who have specifically met with Steingasser or testified at a hearing. The Office of Planning needs to have a broader idea of how much housing of different types DC has and how much it needs.

A policy that pushes more row houses to be family-sized housing and discourages small apartments in row houses could be a reasonable one, so long as DC also has a bigger plan for how to provide the smaller sized housing that other people want. As UrbanTurf recently discussed, many families would prefer a row house (we certainly did).

Maybe a comprehensive housing supply strategy will conclude that fewer row houses should turn into apartments while more apartments should go on other spots. But at the moment, there are no concrete numbers about the demand and likely supply. There are just handwaving statements about how more units will appear at places like McMillan (maybe not enough, and even fewer if opponents get their way) or that we need more family housing.

The Office of Planning is going to be doing more quantitative housing analysis as it prepares to revise the DC Comprehensive Plan. Steingasser also told the Zoning Commission that OP has more data on row houses and family-sized housing. While this proposal might be a piece of a puzzle, it would make far more sense to propose it as part of a fuller plan to ensure DC has the amount and sizes of housing it needs.

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


DC planners want to limit row houses from becoming condos

In neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, people have been converting row houses to 3- and 4-unit condo buildings. Should zoning stop this practice? It would under a new proposal from the DC Office of Planning, but not all of DC's zoning commissioners were enthusiastic about the idea.


Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

This proposal would apply to the zones now designated R-4, including neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Trinidad, Bloomingdale, Logan Circle, Columbia Heights, and Park View. Today, it's legal to have two separate units in one of these row houses, but not more unless the lot is particularly large.

OP's proposal would take away the ability to have more than 2 units at all. It would also limit houses to 35 feet instead of 40 (though owners could go to 40 with a zoning hearing) and end the current policy allowing small "mezzanines" to not count as floors.

The Comprehensive Plan defines the R-4 zone as primarily single-family row houses (perhaps with basement apartments), not as apartment buildings. But in booming neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, OP planners say, developers have outbid individual families for houses with the expectation that they could get BZA exceptions to make the building into a multi-unit condo and add on to the top and back.


Color-coded map of residential zones (as of 2008). R-4 zones are in purple.

Zoning commissioners worry this may reduce housing

OP Associate Director Jennifer Steingasser presented this plan to the Zoning Commission, DC's part-federal, part-local board which has the final say on zoning, on June 9. Commissioner Marcie Cohen asked whether this change would reduce the amount of new housing that can get built in the city. She said,

A major concern that I have is the need for housing, and that's usually the need that's brought before us in the BZA cases. It's adding housing. And no one seems to appreciate density, yet we have the infrastructure in certain neighborhoods for density and I guess I'm in favor of taking advantage to provide the needed housing that we have in the city. How do we balance that?
Steingasser laid out the arguments, and said,
It's just a balance. We're trying to encourage housing, by all means, but we would rather it not be in the single family and at the expense of the historic row houses, that it be geared more towards these larger lots or into these higher-density, multifamily, commercial mixed-use areas.
Something of a debate ensued.
Chairman Anthony Hood: I'm glad to hear you say that, Ms. Steingasser ... While I understand the need, there are a lot of folks in this city who bought in their areas for a reason. ... Do we just throw everybody on top of them or do we kind of balance that out? ... While there is a need for housing, we have to be delicate with that because in this city who's been there a long time, they spent a lot of money in purchasing their homes which is their biggest investment, and they didn't buy into that.

Comissioner Rob Miller: That's why there are five members on this commission, because it is a changing city, it is a growing city, and where you tip the balancedoes two to three [units in a building] really change the character of a neighborhood? I don't think so. But maybe others do.

Steingasser: This is coupled with the new RF zones that we're proposing that do allow for more than 2 units. And where those get mapped will accommodate that. So it's not ensuring an amberification of all R-4, but allowing some areas to have more and some to have less.

However, Steingasser just walked back a very important proposal in the zoning update where homeowners in the R-4 zone, who can already have two units in their building, could put one of them in a carriage house without a zoning special exception. This will reduce the amount of housing that gets added in R-4 zones inside existing buildings.

At the moment, not clear if the neighborhoods that will take advantage of the new 3-unit and 4-unit zones will be R-4 (2-unit) zones, adding more potential housing, or R-5 (unlimited unit) zones, which would decrease potential housing.

In a blog post, unnamed OP planners added,

So, in a time when the demand for housing is great in DC, why would OP propose this? In addition to being inconsistent with the intent of the R-4 zone and sometimes the character of the neighborhood, this is having an impact on the diversity and the relative affordability of our family housing stock. ...

Buildings with one and two dwelling units represent approximately 38 percent of the District's housing stock, but only about 4 percent of the units in the housing pipeline over the next 15 years. Conversely, the District has a large supply of multi-family or mixed use zoned land and developments in the housing pipeline for multi-family housing that is appropriate to meet the demand of smaller households.

Few new multifamily buildings are being delivered with three or more bedrooms, unless they are part of housing planned to replace similarly-sized public housing units. Over the past three years, three-bedroom units have risen in price almost three times as fast as one-bedroom unitsa reflection of the limited supply, subsequent demand pressure, and rapidly escalating prices.

Families seeking to purchase relatively affordable homes are competing with developers who can pay more for a larger house than a family because they can profit by splitting up the building and selling smaller units. Ensuring that the R-4 zone remains a single-family rowhouse or flat zone can begin to address this pressure.

Despite appearances, this doesn't deal with pop-ups very well

OP is right that DC does need some family housing. It also needs single and couple housing. Encouraging family housing is a good idea, but like many zoning proposals from OP recently including the past few years of zoning update tweaks (and like DC's parking policy in recent years), it seems to be just layering customized rule on top of customized rule without a broader strategy.

This specific proposal doesn't even address many of the complaints people have. This is mainly being billed in the press as a move to stop pop-ups. The lower height will deter some of the worst pop-ups, but it isn't going to stop people from adding a third story onto a 2-story row house in a place like Trinidad and the biggest objection is usually that the pop-ups are cheaply made and ugly. A design review process may be better than a zoning limit. Nor will this do anything about many of the more infamous pop-ups, like the one on V Street, which is in an ARTS/C-2-B zone.

How about some actual planning?

Rather than slap on a patchwork of new rules that react to each neighborhood request, why can't the Office of Planning actually plan? Work with residents to figure out where the housing DC needs can go, and what's the best place for different size housing. Figure out where and what kind of family housing there could be, and then write rules to encourage that.

There's a good chance that existing row houses are a more ideal place for family-sized housing. A limit might make sense if, at the same time, the city has a strategy for adding the housing it needs in other ways. It doesn't have one now. There was also massive opposition to allow even targeted exceptions to the federal height limit. People are fighting development at McMillan, at Takoma, at the Big K site in Anacostia, and on my block, all saying that whatever is proposed is too big for whatever area it's in. There was a lot of opposition to allowing accessory apartments in single-family zones, even though that wouldn't change any buildings. And so forth.

Since the first zoning update proposals in 2008, Steingasser's division of OP has been largely reactive, responding to complaints and tweaking the zoning (just about always to make it more restrictive). The agency needs to start being proactive and engaging residents in a discussion about the best way to add the housing DC needs. It's got to be somewhere, and really a lot of somewheres.

Soon, DC will revisit its Comprehensive Plan, which is a good opportunity for this conversation. But it will only happen if OP actually plans for growth which DC's sustainability plan already calls for.

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


Dead ends: How zoning embalmed cities

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. In this one, he explains the history of zoning.

Since the last years of the nineteenth century, covenants had been widely used to exclude undesirable people, buildings, and activities from new subdivisions. But these private contracts worked only imperfectly and incompletely.


Sign for an early Kansas City suburb. Image from the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Older neighborhoods still lacked their protection. In principle, landowners could establish restrictions at any time, but in practice covenants had to be imposed in advance by the subdivider because a large group of homeowners could never agree on the details of the rules. And even when in place, covenants were hard to enforce. ...

Homeowners and real estate developers desired more comprehensive and more effective controls. This was something only the power of government could achieve.

The call for action was not unanimous. What covenants and zoning offered homebuyers was permanenceassurance that in future years they would be surrounded by people and buildings of the same quality as when they moved in. Stopping change was not in everyone's interest.

The subdividers of large tracts, who maximized the value of the initial sale with promises of permanence, benefited most. They spearheaded the push for government regulation as they had for deed covenants. Small-scale speculators, who dealt in property already subdivided and hoped to profit from new and denser uses, led the opposition.

Los Angeles took a first step toward the systematic separation of land uses in 1908. The Los Angeles Realty Board, dominated by developers of upscale restricted neighborhoods, urged zoning on the city with the support of affluent homeowners. A pair of ordinances created seven industrial districts and defined nearly all of the city's remaining territory as residential districts. There businesses were allowed only when the City Council granted an exception.

Other cities soon followed this example. In 1913 Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New York authorized cities, when property owners so requested, to establish districts where nonresidential uses were banned. The Illinois legislature passed a similar law that died when the governor, on being advised that it was unconstitutional, used his veto.

Early zoning laws often proscribed unwanted races along with unwanted land uses. In 1910 a Baltimore ordinance kept blacks from any block where more than half the residents were white. Birmingham, Atlanta, Richmond, St. Louis, and other municipalities soon enacted racial zoning as well.

Blacks could of course sleep in white neighborhoods when they were household help living on their employers' propertyand the Atlanta ordinance also permitted black homeowners to house white servants. This bow to constitutional doctrine showed how hollow was the promise of "separate but equal." A black man who presumed, in that time and place, to hire whites as domestic help would be lucky to see another sunrise.

Such maneuvers were too transparent even for the conservative judges of the day. In a 1917 case that gave the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People its first legal victory, a unanimous Supreme Court struck down racial zoning. Louisville's zoning ordinance, the court held, violated the white landowner's constitutional right to sell property to blacks. Racial segregation would have to rely on private contracts.

Zoning codes could no longer divide races, but they could still separate uses, and soon the nation's largest city had one. The skyscrapers that would dominate New York's skyline had just appeared, and many feared these giant buildings would shut off light and air and congest traffic.

Meanwhile, the spread of garment manufacturers into the upscale shopping district on Fifth Avenue was annoying retailers. Their customers were now forced to mix on sidewalks with immigrant workers. "Gentlemen, you are like cattle in a pasture, and the needle trades workers are the flies that follow you from one pasture to another," storeowners were told at a private luncheon.

Such rhetoric lacked mass appeal, so the merchants promoted zoning with other arguments. Their well-funded publicity campaign warned of a grab bag of evils from truck traffic to overcrowding to high rents.

The city's major real estate and commercial interests joined retailers and municipal reformers to seek the separation of land uses, and action came quickly. In 1914 the city gained authority to impose zoning, and two years later a detailed ordinance was in place.

Its underlying principle, as the framers conceded, was to freeze in place the existing land use. This entailed not a full spatial separation along the lines of upscale suburbs but a pattern similar to streetcar suburbsmidblock parcels were restricted to residential use, with commerce allowed on the avenues that carried through traffic.

The code also placed limits on tall buildings, imposing gradual setbacks of higher stories to allow light and air to enter. From this rule came the terraced skyscrapers that have long defined New York's skyline.

New York's adoption of a zoning code triggered a frenzy of activity in cities large and small. The landowning public clamored for separation of land uses, and developers of restricted communities joined in the call for government control.

Machine politicians joined municipal reformers in the embrace of zoningit was easy to see that variances, exceptions, and rezonings would open up a cornucopia of patronage and graft. By 1920 zoning ordinances were in place in 904 cities, including 82 of the 93 municipalities with populations over 100,000. Given further encouragement by a model ordinance issued by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1924, a wave of regulation rolled on through the decade.

The zoning movement quickly advanced beyond the isolation of residential uses to the exclusion of apartment houses from residential areas. The middle and upper classes did not like apartments. The most varied objections were raised. They were ugly; they gave off noise and smoke. They were simply not the way Americans should live.

But most of all, zoners objected to the people who lived in apartments. The flavor of the tenement seemed to attach to even the most luxurious buildings. Residents were prone to disease and immorality. Tenants were "a class of nomads," said Harvard University president Charles Eliot, "that have no stable footing in the town."

Many cities were already manipulating their fire and building codes to keep apartments out; with zoning they could reach the same end more directly. Berkeley, California, was first to take this path. Its zoning ordinance, adopted in 1917, enforced a rigid separation of uses that went far beyond contemporaries.

At a time when other cities were merely separating residential uses from commercial and industrial, Berkeley established a multitude of zonestwenty-seven in all. One-family, two-family, and apartment houses each had their own assigned districts, and homes were kept out of industrial areas as industry was from residential areas. Almost immediately, the exclusion of multifamily residences from single-family districts became a standard zoning rule. ...

The people who staffed the new planning bureaucracies had much useful work to do. Although they might, in practice, have little influence on the zoning of the areas already built up, subdivision control empowered them to shape the rapidly growing new suburbs.

Without question, unplanned suburbs had evils in need of correction: uncontrolled rainwater runoff, badly built streets, groundwater polluted for lack of sewers. Still, as a historian of planning has recognized, the overall effect was to "encourage cities to portray in long-range plans the conditions of the present rather than the changes required."

New subdivisions would avoid past mistakes, but the rigid zoning structure prevented future adjustment if their design was later found lacking. Planners might dream of molding the city of the future. They found themselves embalming the city of the present.

Parking


Thousands of public parking spaces in Bethesda and Silver Spring sit empty every day

Ask someone about driving in Bethesda or Silver Spring on a weekend night and he or she will give you a mouthful: "There's nowhere to park!" But as those communities have grown, their parking demands have actually gotten lower. On an average day, thousands of spaces there sit empty.


Montgomery's downtowns have lots of empty parking spaces. Image by the author using data from MCDOT.

This Friday, transportation planner Tom Brown and I will talk about parking and placemaking at Makeover Montgomery II, a conference about strategies for urbanizing suburban communities organized by the Montgomery County Planning Department and the University of Maryland. In 2011, Brown led a team at Nelson\Nygaard, where I now work, that recommended ways Montgomery County could better use its parking to promote and strengthen its downtowns.

Montgomery County has had its own municipal parking authority since the 1940s. A 1952 spread in the Washington Post's "Silver Spring Advertiser" section boasted, "Look at all the parking space!" in downtown. But downtown Silver Spring couldn't match the sea of free parking at new suburban malls like Wheaton Plaza, and it began to languish.


1952 Washington Post article about all the parking in Silver Spring.

Many communities around the country faced the same story, especially older suburban communities that have more in common with revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods than in greenfield developments on the fringe. Yet these older suburban communities often have the power of place: unique, local shops and businesses, walkable streets, and vibrant public spaces. Today, people will eagerly deal with the hassle of parking to visit places like this and, increasingly, to live in them.

When Silver Spring started competing on place, not parking, it started to take off as an urban destination for the entire region. And a funny thing happened: as more homes and offices and shops were built around the Metro station, filling downtown's gaps and vacant lots, the demand for parking actually decreased.

According to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, the demand for parking in Silver Spring actually peaked in the early 1980s, when it had fewer residents and jobs. Today, a majority of downtown residents get to work without a car. Over 40% of downtown's 9500 parking spaces are vacant all the time.

Realizing that its parking policies needed to reflect how people actually got around in its downtowns, county officials asked Nelson\Nygaard to offer suggestions. The resulting Montgomery County Parking Policy Study recommended reducing or eliminating parking requirements in urban areas, since there was already a glut of parking spaces, and finding ways to direct drivers to underused lots and garages.


Focusing on people, not cars, makes downtown a more attractive place to go. Photo by the author.

Officials are starting to take the advice. Last year, the county passed a new zoning code that still mandates parking in new developments near transit stations, but requires far fewer spaces than it does for more suburban, car-dependent areas. That will conserve land and reduce building costs, as structured parking garages are very expensive to build lowering the barrier for potential residents and businesses who want to come here.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has introduced demand-based pricing in Bethesda, setting higher rates for on-street parking spaces and lowering them in garages to encourage drivers to park there instead. This frees up on-street spaces for drivers staying for brief periods; reduces circling for a space, which causes congestion; and sends a message to drivers that they'll be able to find a space.

People will choose to live, work, and hang out in Montgomery County's downtowns not because it's easy to park there, but because they're great places to be. Some parking will be necessary, but these places will thrive if our community leaders focus on urban design and create complete streets that welcome everyone who already comes to Silver Spring or Bethesda by foot, bike, or transit.

Makeover Montgomery II runs from this Thursday through Saturday at the Silver Spring Civic Building in downtown Silver Spring. We'll be part of a panel discussion this Friday afternoon at 1:45 pm. For more information or to register, visit the conference website.

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.

Development


Dead ends: Euphemisms hide our true feelings about growth

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. Vicky Hallett also discusses the book in today's Express.

Ross is giving a book talk on Tuesday, April 22nd, 5:30 pm at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. Afterward, GGW is cosponsoring a happy hour at the Meeting Place, 1707 L Street NW, at 6:30pm. Stop by for just the talk, just the happy hour, or both!

In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee "that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they."


Photo by Michael Patrick on Flickr.

Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don't want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise.

Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

Land use disputes thus come before the public veiled in a thick fog of evasion, euphemism, and flat-out falsehood. From this miasma rises a plague of obscurity that infects the language itself. Terms devised to conceal reality become so familiar that they are uttered without thinking. Critics find themselves unable to question received dogmas for want of words to express their thoughts.

A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning.

Compatibility, in the enlarged sense, is often thought of as a sort of similarity. But if two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, while with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.

Compatibility, in this sense, is euphemism. A compatible land use upholds the status of the neighborhood. An incompatible one lowers it. Rental apartments can be incompatible with a neighborhood that would accept the same building sold as condos.

The euphemism is so well established that the narrow meaning has begun to fall into disuse. Neighbors who object to loud noises or unpleasant odors just lay out the specifics; incompatible has come to mean, "I don't like it and I'm not explaining why." The word is notably unpopular with New Urbanists. Faced with such an obvious case of incompatibility, in the literal sense, as a parking lot in a walkable downtown, they call it a "disruption of the urban fabric" or a "wasteful use of land."

Compatibility may be the most pervasive linguistic deformation, but it is hardly the only one. Homeowners will complain about the impact on their neighborhood when basement apartments are rented out or high-rises are built nearby. This word conflates purely psychological desires, among them the wish to keep away from people with lower incomes, with physical detriments like smell and shade. Its value lies in its vaguenessobjectors can make a case without saying concretely what their objection is. ...

Another slippery phrase is public use. Here the word use conveys almost the exact opposite of its common meaning. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, has a definition: public use space is "space devoted to uses for public enjoyment, such as gardens, plazas, or walks." A common example is the empty plaza that sits between an office building and the street, elevating the status of its surroundings through the display of conspicuous waste.

The operative word in the definition is not "use" but "enjoyment." In other words, no productive work can be done in the space. By this definitional sleight of hand, disuse becomes a kind of use, and indeed the only kind allowed. In one case in 2011, the planning board forbade the placement of a barbecue in a public use space when a neighbor complained that it would encourage the public to use the space. ...

Our linguistic tour would hardly be complete without a visit to the greedy developer. The key to decoding this phrase is that the word "greedy" lacks semantic content. Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avariceif anything, non-profit builders of low-income housing encounter more hostility than the truly greedy. The ostensible target is the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses. The real one is the people who will live in them.

The builder stands accused, often enough, of the sin of manhattanization. When first used in San Francisco in the late 1960s by opponents of downtown skyscrapers, this was a vivid and descriptive coinage. But just as the developer's first name lost its connection to avarice, manhattanization became unmoored from New York City. The term, in current usage, can refer to almost any structure that rises above its surroundings.

A campaign against manhattanizing Menlo Park, California, objects to two-, three-, and four-story buildings around the train station. The movement's leader explains her goals by asking "Are we going to remain a small town, with low-density development, or are we going to be more like Redwood City and Palo Alto?"

Manhattanize might seem an odd choice of word to convey the meaning of "make it look like Palo Alto," but stale metaphor, as George Orwell pointed out years ago, does a service. It releases the speaker from the need to explain, or even figure out herself, exactly what she means to say. The premise of the argument against density is left unstated and thus immune from challenge.

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," Orwell warned in his famous essay Politics and the English Language. For a half-century and more, deformed language has made it hard to think clearly about the communities we live in. Our system of land use will be the easier to understand, the more we use words that say plainly what we mean.

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.

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