The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Zoning


A court just halted DC's McMillan development

DC's highest court just blocked development at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site. This is a setback for the city's effort to turn an empty yet historic field, which previously served to filter drinking water, into a complex of housing, offices, and more active parks. This may not be end of the project, but it's added some significant new hurdles.

McMillan's silos. Photo by Elliot Carter.

The 25-acre site along North Capitol Street was established in 1905 as a way to purify the water of the Washington Aqueduct. The water ran through 25 underground vaults which filtered out impurities. But we don't filter water this way any more, and in 1986 the federal government declared it surplus.

For years now, DC (which now owns the site) has been trying to work with a consortium of developers, called Vision McMillan Partners, who won a bidding process to redevelop the site. The plan would include 655 units of housing, office space for Children's Hospital, and retail.

The development plan. Image from Vision McMillan Partners.

A park would keep part of the site open, and preserve the above-ground silos (the concrete tubes in the image above). The developers would also try to restore one of the vaults for people to explore and experience. Other vaults are not stable enough and could collapse, so they would be removed.

This week, DC officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for the project, but Thursday, a court opinion halted further progress.

What the court said

The court opinion hinged on two project approvals. First, the DC Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say (except this court) on zoning, approved this project. It was a Planned Unit Development, which is where a project gets some relief from zoning in exchange for community benefits.

Second, this site is a historic landmark. DC's law allows demolishing some historic resources, either because of financial hardship or to construct a "project of special merit." The Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation, the administrative judge who decides such cases, determined this did qualify as special merit.

A 3-judge panel of the Court of Appeals vacated both approvals and sent the project back for another opinion, and possibly more hearings, before both.

Opponents have waged a sign campaign as well as a legal one. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

The zoning case is all about the Comp Plan

The DC Zoning Commission, which approved the project, is required to follow DC's Comprehensive Plan. However, the Comp Plan is often compared to the Bible: it says whatever you want to read into it.

Contradictory policies in the Comp Plan simultaneously say, for instance, that DC needs more housing but should preserve open space; that established neighborhoods should be protected but there should be infill development; that there should be density near transit stations but then a map shows low density in that area.

In approving the project, the DC Zoning Commission traded off among some of these conflicting priorities. An while I am not a zoning attorney (and haven't yet heard back from the ones I called), it appears the Court of Appeals understands this. However, the judges say that the Zoning Commission didn't adequately explain why it was choosing to honor the policies it did over the ones it did not.

The court doesn't prohibit high-density development

Some of the project would have larger buildings which qualify as "high density" in DC's land use categories. One part of the Comp Plan is a map, the Future Land Use Map or FLUM, which shows density levels in different areas, and McMillan is not colored red for high density. It's a combination of "moderate density commercial," "medium density residential," and "parks, recreation, and open space."

The Future Land Use Map around McMillan.

Opponents argued that since some buildings are high density, those aren't permitted here. However, the court disagreed, saying two things: First, on a large site like this, there could be some tall buildings and some short ones which essentially average out to moderate or medium density, and that's okay. Second, the Zoning Commission has the perogative to weigh the map's colors against the other provisions of the Comp Plan.

(Lawyers will parse how consistent this is with a recent case in Brookland, with two of the same three judges, where the court basically took the map literally and rejected a project for not matching its categories.)

However, the judges say that the Zoning Commission must explain its reasons for weighing some factors over others. The judges seem to take issue with some factors not being adequately explained. They have instructed the Zoning Commission to make another decision, potentially after more hearings, that better explains this:

The Commission stated that permitting high-density development on the northern portion of the site was "a critical and essential part of fulfilling the parks, recreation, and open space designation of the [FLUM], while at the same time achieving other elements of the Comprehensive Plan and the city's strategic economic plan."

[Friends of McMillan Park, a leading opposition group] argued before the Commission, however, that the other policies reflected in the Comprehensive Plan could be advanced even if development on the site were limited to medium- and moderate-density uses. The Commission neither provided a specific basis for concluding to the contrary nor stated reasons for giving greater weight to some policies than to others. We therefore vacate the Commission's order and remand for further proceedings.

The court worries about environmental impacts and housing costs

Environmental Impact Statements are an important tool to ensure that governments don't run roughshod over the environment. However, they require a lot of analysis by those advancing any project, and often that gives courts an opportunity to nitpick one or another of scores of analyses in the EIS. For example, the Purple Line, which is clearly better for the environment than everyone driving, was blocked for EIS deficiencies because the Maryland judge quibbled with ridership projections.

The court here may be adding some EIS-like procedure to approval of projects like this. The judges say that the Zoning Commission did consider environmental impacts, but not as thoroughly as it should have. That wasn't their reason for remanding the project, but it points to a way these judges might find fault with a subsequent approval as well.

(The environmental benefit of dense development in the core of the city is that it lessens pressure to build sprawl in farms at the edge of the region. This is an area of some disagreement between Smart Growth environmentalists and others that fight for open space regardless of its location.)

Opponents further argued that the project would "accelerate gentrification, increase land values, and result in a net loss of affordable housing." The opinion doesn't get into the policy issues here, simply saying that the commission didn't sufficiently address these either.

In reality, this project will not lead to a loss of affordable housing because it is creating more affordable housing. Having housing here is not going to push up housing prices nearby as compared to not having housing here. The opponents are making economic arguments that are intuitively true to some but contradicted by economic research, but it seems the judges identify with those arguments.

Is this "special merit"?

The court also vacated the Mayor's Agent approval to demolish much of a historic resource to construct a "project of special merit." This part of the ruling seems to pose an even higher hurdle for the project, as the court did not only find that the Mayor's Agent failed to sufficiently explain himself.

Rather, the court disagreed with the overall definition of "special merit." The Mayor's Agent in essence found that the affordable housing, medical office needs, and other overall economic development value of the site outweighed the historic preservation value.

If I'm reading the opinion right, it seems this court disagrees. Special merit can be things like outstanding architecture and also a "specific feature of land planning." That term is pretty vague, and the court is not at all convinced by the more general conclusion from the Mayor's Agent:

"If the special-merit inquiry could appropriately focus on the "totality" of the benefits arising from a project,
then presumably the Mayor's Agent should also take into account all of the project's adverse impacts. Under such an approach, the Mayor's Agent would function essentially as a second Zoning Commission, evaluating all of the benefits and adverse impacts associated with projects requiring a permit from the Mayor's Agent. We conclude that the Preservation Act assigns the Mayor's Agent the more discrete role of determining whether one or more specific attributes of a project, considered in isolation or in combination, rise to the level of special merit, thus triggering a balancing of those special-merit benefits against historic-preservation losses.
The developers weren't clear about whether some cells could be preserved, at least according to the judges. The Mayor's Agent dealt with that by requiring an additional step before the developers could demolish the cells, but the judges don't feel that is sufficient.

Finally, the judges pose one more, perhaps quite big hurdle:

Among other things, an applicant seeking approval to demolish or subdivide a historic landmark bears the burden of showing that demolition or subdivision is "necessary." ... "The applicant must show that it considered alternatives to the total demolition of the historic building and that these alternatives were not reasonable." Although an applicant need not demonstrate that there are no other feasible alternatives, an applicant "should be required to show that all reasonable alternatives were considered."
In short, to be able to demolish a historic resource, the court is saying that the property owner needs to show that there is no "reasonable" other way to preserve the historic resource. This creates a high hurdle.

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

The preservation law doesn't deal well with situations like this

Perhaps such a hurdle is appropriate. After all, if someone's talking about demolishing a really special, historic building, these kinds of obstacles seem intuitively sensible.

But this isn't a single, really significant building; it's a giant 25-acre site. The preservation law seems somewhat ill-suited to such things, because it doesn't provide for weighing various needs. If something is historic, it's historic. There's no "a little bit historic," and the law doesn't say the Mayor's Agent can consider how the historic value weighs against the need for housing, tax revenue, medical office space, or active (rather than fenced-off) parks.

The Mayor's Agent had, in other cases, used the "special merit" category for such situations, but this court decision throws that into doubt. DC makes it easier to designate things as historic than in some other places, but also somewhat easier to make changes as well; that may be changing.

If DC wants to be able to continue to add housing, it will eventually have to reckon with the twin trends of running lower on empty land and having more and more land designated as in historic districts or sites.

Historic preservation is valuable, but it needs to be weighed against other factors as well amid the various priorities for the city. If the court is going to reduce the Mayor's Agent's powers, perhaps the DC Council needs to amend the law to broaden them again.


A developer has agreed to build shorter and less dense than the law allows, but neighbors are still fighting it

An apartment building is slated to go up at the site of an old grocery store near American University. Some residents oppose the new housing and only want a grocery store to return there, but apartments are likely coming to the site no matter what. It's the grocery store that the opposition could kill.

This could turn into a grocery store with apartments on the bottom... or it could just turn into apartments. Image from Google Maps.

The old Superfresh site at the corner of Yuma and 48th Streets NW off of Massachusetts Avenue has been vacant since Fresh and Greens, another grocery store, closed in 2011. But that's set to change thanks to a proposed building from Valor Development.

The proposed development, called the Ladybird, would bring a grocery store and 230 units to the area, including 200 rentals and 30 condos, with 10 percent of these units set aside as affordable through DC's inclusionary zoning program. It also includes a public park that would connect the site with other stores in the area, making it easier for residents to walk from place to place.

Image from Google Maps.

According to the developer, these units would be aimed at attracting current residents in the area looking to downsize. The development would also connect the Spring Valley Shopping Center and rest of the neighborhood with a pedestrian avenue between the two buildings.

Instead of just apartments, the developer wants to build a grocery store too

The Superfresh parcel is zoned to allow "moderate-density mixed-used development" in a low- or moderate-density residential area like the one surrounding the site. That means that if it wanted to, the developer could build the proposed 230 residential units, just without commercial space (i.e. the grocery store), without any special approval.

Valor does want to build a grocery store, though, so it's proposing a deal: while the new building could have up to almost 32,000 square feet on a penthouse level, the current proposal only uses 14,000 square feet. And the proposed design includes almost 15,000 square feet of public space, which isn't required at all.

That deal, however, means the developer must submit their proposal for review by the Zoning Commission. This is because the grocery store causes the development to deviate from the standards allowed as a matter of right. The process here is different from a Planned Unit Development because Valor is not proposing to change the building's density (with the grocery store, it will be shorter and have fewer residents), but rather to change the building's use.

The diagram below compares what can go up on the Superfresh as a matter of right with the development that has been submitted to the Zoning Commission for voluntary design review. Note that "FAR" means floor area ratio.

Photo from of Valor Development.

It looks like the developer wants to give neighbors what they want, but neighbors are still opposed

Some residents, however, oppose the proposed development. A group led by Citizens for Responsible Development argues that even though the zoning says a moderate-density apartment building can go up, that shouldn't be allowed because the Future Land Use Map included in the DC Comprehensive Plan says the parcel should be "low-density commercial." They also argue the additional apartment units would strain schools and bring unwanted traffic into the area. Some are concerned that the development will lower property values in the area.

Residents have joined together to oppose the 230-unit development proposed for the old superfresh site (pictured in background). Photo by the author.

But the zoning map, not the Comprehensive Plan's Future Land Use Map, determines what can be built where. And as the DC zoning map illustrates, the question to ask about the Superfresh site is not whether there will be apartments, but whether those apartments will be built on top of a grocery store. If residents succeed in shooting down the developer's latest proposal during the design review, they may find themselves with an apartment building but no grocery store.

"There seems little doubt that housing will be built at the site one way or another," said ANC 3E Chair Jonathan Bender. "To the degree neighbors mobilize to negotiate about issues such as traffic management and public space design, they can potentially make the neighborhood a safer, more livable, and perhaps even more fun place. I, and I believe all of my ANC colleagues, will work hard to see that the developer does all that is reasonable to accommodate neighborhood consensus on such issues."

The apartments—both market price and those made affordable thanks to inclusionary zoningand grocery store would bring much-needed amenities to the area. The neighborhood surrounding the Superfresh site is largely made up of single-family homes, and Ward 3 has lagged behind the other parts of the city when it comes to building affordable housing. The closest full-service grocery store, meanwhile, is the Whole Foods in Tenleytown.


These two maps are the guides to your neighborhood's future. Here's what you should know about them.

At over 600 pages, the DC Comprehensive Plan is massive document, and few people actually read through the text. It has two maps, though, that are very easy to understand. They are, arguably, the pieces of the Comp Plan that are most often cited in decisions about development, and it's important that you know about them.

Photo by Euro Slice on Flickr.

What is the Comp Plan again?

DC has a giant planning document called the Comprehensive Plan. Most of it is super dense and complicated, but its goal is to lay the foundation for many city-wide decisions, in particular decisions on land use.

Partially because of its size and obscurity, many people just focus on two maps that exist as part of the Comp Plan: the Future Land Use Map (FLUM), and the Generalized Policy Map.


Shown below, the FLUM is intended to guide land use decisions for the District. It colors blocks or parts of blocks with various broad land use categories, like "moderate density residential," "high density commercial," "federal government," etc. Each of those categories are given specific descriptions in the legend, even as specific as including numbers of stories.

Does this sound like a zoning map? I can see why you'd think so, but in fact the language in the Comp Plan clearly states that this is NOT a zoning map. Instead, it is supposed to translate the land use policies in the Comp Plan text to a map, and act as a guiding document for the zoning commission when zoning changes are proposed.

The colors represent a combination of what land use currently exists on the ground, and what planners predict for the future. In the end, when a governing body in DC is asked to interpret policies embedded in the various chapters of the Comp Plan, that body is supposed to refer back to the FLUM to clarify and guide their interpretation.

This map is cited often at the Zoning Commission and was at the center of a recent court case limiting development near a Metro station.

The Generalized Policy Map

This map is similar to the FLUM in its purpose and scope. Rather than designate land use by color and description, the Generalized Policy Map is supposed to guide neighborhood policy decisions by highlighting a few general strategies. For example, it colors certain corridors of the city as "Main Street Mixed Use Corridors," signaling a certain policy framework that encourages said growth along that street.

The map's stated purpose is "to categorize how different parts of the District may change between 2005 and 2025," managing that change using the categories in the legend.

There are some reasons you should be worried about these maps

There's one big issue with both of these maps: they tend to preserve the status quo—more specifically, the status quo of 2006, which is when the Comp Plan was created.

For example, If you look at the Generalized Policy Map, a vast majority of the District is marked as "Neighborhood Conservation Areas," which do not forbid but do generally discourage new development from taking place. What that means is that in 2006, planners sectioned off a huge majority of the city as "let's leave it be" sections. If you look at the map closely, the most obvious concentrations of "Neighborhood Enhancement Areas" (where change is encouraged and expected to take place) are in Wards 7 and 8.

The FLUM is not much better, and truly acts more like a "Current Land Use Map." Look at your neighborhood; you'll notice that most of the land use designations match what exist today, and in many cases aren't too different from what existed in 2006. The map and Comp Plan in general are supposed to last until 2020.

If used more intentionally to plan for and accommodate the growth happening in the city, both maps COULD be great tools to help guide where residents and the city want to incorporate growth. Unfortunately, neither functions that way right now.

Photo by Daniel Lobo on Flickr.

Recent events have made these conservative maps more powerful

I've looked at these maps a lot, and even now as I read some of the language in the FLUM I'm struck: the text sounds like a zoning map even though the FLUM says it is not a zoning map. Each color in the legend gives ranges of stories (like 4-7 stories) for each of the land use categories. That really sounds like zoning. This makes it easy to interpret the map (incorrectly) to say that development in those areas should strictly fall within that range.

Many groups use such arguments when they go before the zoning commission, and now those arguments carry significantly more legal weight. The recent court case at 901 Monroe Street in Brookland created a legal precedent that the numbers of stories in the legends of these maps can be used to restrict new projects.

There's an opportunity to make changes to these maps

As we have been writing about, the Office of Planning is organizing an effort to amend and update the Comprehensive Plan. As a part of that update, groups are allowed to submit recommendations for what they'd like to see changed in the Comp Plan. This includes the maps.

Take a look at your neighborhood on these two maps. What suggestions do you have? If your neighborhood was to incorporate more residents, retail and jobs, how would you do it?


Planned Unit Developments are a big part of building in DC. Here's an explanation of what those are.

When it comes to development, there's often tension between what's practical or ideal and what the zoning rules at a given site allow. One tool available to builders in DC is called a Planned Unit Development. PUDs allow flexibility in the rules, and since they're happening all over the city, it's worth understanding what they are and how they work.

The space on the left, which is on E Street SE, between 13th and 14th Streets, used to be zoned "light industrial." Thanks to a PUD, residential units (rendered on the right) are going in. Images from Google Maps and Insight Property, respectively.

What is a Planned Unit Development?

Many residential or mixed use construction projects, whether carried out by a homeowner or a developer, meet the letter of DC's current zoning laws. In these cases, the city deems the plans "by right" and goes on to issue a construction permit. But other times, zoning rules allow for flexibility in their interpretation, and "zoning relief" can be granted.

For projects where a homeowner or developer wants to do something a bit different, like building closer to the edge of the lot than what's prescribed, additional review and approval are required, typically by DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). However, the BZA process is for relatively minor zoning relief, such as exceeding lot coverage or reduced parking requirements.

A third type of project, a PUD, gives developers more significant zoning relief. This can come by way of allowing a building to be taller or denser than what the zoning code says is allowed, or building a residential or commercial building in space that's zoned for industrial.

PUDs are managed by DC's Zoning Commission, which is in charge of changes to the zoning regulations or zoning map. The commission can grant zoning relief if it believes the proposed project—and, in particular, the way it deviates from what's allowed by right—will allow for something better for the surrounding neighborhood or city.

Because a PUD can provide substantial zoning relief, developers are expected to provide benefits to the community in return. The PUD process also provides the community an opportunity to engage with and influence the project in a substantial way. So while a PUD often means a developer can build higher or denser buildings, it also means the community can get things like streetscape improvements, community resources, or additional affordable housing.

Below is a map of all of the developments in DC that currently have approval to move forward, or whose approval is pending, and that used a PUD. There are 221 of the former and 28 of the latter.

Colors represent the proposed zoning through the PUD process. Map by Mao Hu, using the leaflet package for R. Data from DC Open Data.

What do PUD cases mean for the community?

Any case that requires zoning relief provides an opportunity for neighbors to weigh in on the planned project, through the ANC or the BZA. Because a PUD is typically a larger project with larger impacts on the community, PUDs typically involve a longer and more detailed community engagement process.

Another important feature of PUDs is that they require developers to provide a benefits and amenities package to the community in exchange for the request zoning relief. This means community participation in the PUD process is critical.

What is a benefits and amenities package?

When a developer asks for exceptions to zoning rules through a PUD, those exceptions clearly have some value; that means the developer has to "pay" for them. That payment usually comes in the form of a suite of benefits and amenities to the community, which should be roughly equal to the value of the zoning relief.

Benefits and amenities packages vary by project, and there are relatively few restrictions or even guidelines on what a package can include. The "benefits" component accrues to the community, while the "amenities" are typically more relevant for the residents of the development. An example of a benefit might be improvements to a local dog park or streetscape upgrades. Another might be a transportation "hub" in the development that provides information to residents on local transportation options.

Here are some typical categories of benefits and amenities:

  • Architecture and landscaping
  • Efficient and economical land utilization
  • Safe vehicular and pedestrian access; transportation management measures
  • Historic preservation projects
  • Employment and training opportunities
  • Affordable housing
  • Social services or facilities
  • Environmental benefits
In general, District agencies involved in PUD cases prefer public benefits that are physical investments, like playground equipment or bicycle racks, rather than "soft" investments, such as monetary contributions to a nonprofit organization. The rationale is that physical investments are relatively guaranteed to provide benefits to the community for the long term while soft investments may not always provide the intended stream of benefits (for example, the nonprofit could close).

PUD benefits don't have to be right on the development site, but they must be within a quarter mile or within the boundaries of the ANC in which the PUD sits.

Cross-posted from Nick Burger 6B06.


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

Tuesday is Election Day! In celebration, we're re-running our favorite April Fools post from earlier this year to remind everyone exactly how important it is to go vote! The polls are open until 7:00 in Virginia, and 8:00 in the District and Maryland. Find your polling place here, and Greater Greater Washington's endorsements here. Don't forget to vote!

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.


This map illustrates DC's new zoning rules

Zoning is the legal framework that shapes just what can be built where in most cities, and DC just enacted a new zoning code. It's pretty detailed, but we're in luck: the the District's Office of Zoning made this interactive map to illustrate where different zones are, what they mean, and why they're organized it that way.

Click to explore DC's new zoning map, including its quick descriptions of each zone.

The map is one of many the zoning office has published to explain the changeover. If you click the image above, you'll see a sidebar that shows the eight categories that define how land in DC can be used: Residential; Residential Flat; Residential Apartment; Neighborhood Mixed Use; Mixed Use; Downtown; Production, Distribution and Repair; and Special Purpose.

Clicking on the individual colored areas will bring up will bring up the specific "zone district," one of the three parts of zoning that regulate the use and shape of a building. The others are the rules that apply everywhere in the city and processes that give the regulations flexibility, like Planned Unit Developments. But zone districts are the rules that shape specific neighborhoods, and it's usually what people are talking about when they mention zoning.

Residential Flat (RF) is one of three types of Residential zones. Below, you can see examples of the others. Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

By breaking down the official map into the big categories and color coding them, you can see patterns. For example, the yellow and orange shapes show areas where only houses, flats, or apartment buildings can be built. At a glance, over half of DC's residential land is zoned exclusively for detached single-family housesthat's conservative, since most other zones also allow single-family houses.

Image from DC's Office of Zoning.

The new code organizes zone districts for residential use by building type: single family houses (R), flats in small apartment buildings and subdivided rowhouses (RF), and large apartment buildings (RA).

Residential Apartment (RA). Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

Residential (R). Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

Zooming in on Historic Anacostia, the map below shows the denser RA and RF areas closer to Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. SE, with the area uphill restricted to townhouse, duplex or detached houses by their R-3 zone designation.

It might also look like there's a lot of land across the city that's zoned RA. But looking closer, a lot of this land is for campuses like those of American University, the Armed Forces Retirement Home, or built out with low-rise garden apartments in areas like McLean Gardens and Congress Heights.

Commercial zones saw a bigger change

The new code has no purely commercial zones. The downtown zone districts (D), meant for the dense core at the center of the city, don't exclude apartments. Some even incentivize residential buildings by letting apartments be denser.

Downtown (D). Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

Farther out, medium-density commercial areas are now called Mixed Use (MU), to reflect that the code encourages both commercial and residential in those areas. That's not new, but the name of old districts like "C-2-A" suggested otherwise.

Mixed Use (MU). Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

A good example can be found around Mount Vernon Triangle and Northwest One: it's mostly zoned D and MU, and many of the new residences built there are not in residential zone districts.

H Street NE was one of several areas used to have "overlays" added to modify the standard zone districts in a geographic area. Sometimes those modifications were the same across commercial and residential properties, but often they laid out custom rules for every single zone district the overlay touched. To figure out what was allowed on a given property, you'd first look in one chapter of the code for the "base zoning," then flip to another chapter for the overlay.

H Street's old zoning.

Now, each of the existing combination of zones has been given its own subsection. Small commercial strips like H Street fall into distinct moderate-density neighborhood mixed use (NC) zones, meant to create a special character for individual neighborhood main streets, like Georgia Avenue and Carroll Street in Takoma.

Neighborhood Mixed Use (NC). Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

Now, the overlay and base zoning information is all in one place, from the statement of purpose to technical restrictions. The same is true for the Special Purpose customized zones, used meant to give big areas like Uptown Arts on U and 14th Streets (ARTS), or at Walter Reed (WR) unique characteristics.

H Street's zoning under the new code.

Zoom in on the map and click on a parcel, and the map will show a quick description of the site's zoning. This little chunk of Howard University's campus is one of the few remaining industrial (PDR, short for Production Distribution & Repair) zones in DC's northwest quadrant.

Production, Distribution and Repair (PDR). Photo from DC's Office of Planning.

None of these have industrial uses anymore; this lots is a development called Wonder Plaza, with fast-food eateries and no heavy machinery.

Perhaps this PDR designation was just kept by inertia; I'm not sure I would have noticed that without this map.

For me, the new organization of the code and the Office of Zoning's map help with understanding not only what someone could build on some plot of land, but also how earlier planners shaped the the city and what might need to change. What does this map help you see?

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that over half of DC's residential land is zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. That isn't the case; over half the land is zoned exclusively for single-family houses, but not detached single-family houses.


How strict land-use rules keep poor people in Mississippi

For much of the 20th century, the US labor market presented unrivaled opportunity for low-income workers to move to greener economic pastures. If the economy sucked in Oklahoma, Colorado, or Mississippi, you could move to California, Connecticut, or New York. Though certain barriers to moving, like racial discrimination, have since lessened, new ones have risen to block low-income Americans' access to thriving cities.

Image by Peretz Partensky on Flickr.

This is the second in a series of posts on the social and economic costs of unusually strict land-use regulation. You can find the first post here.

According to a recent working paper by economists Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag, it's getting harder for low-income and less-educated Americans to move to prosperous places. They find that, on net, these workers are trickling out of expensive cities, and stranded in poorer states. The reason, they argue, is restrictive land-use policies that price lower-wage workers out of economically-vibrant areas. This isn't just rough for a few individuals in Mississippi and other low-wage states; the authors find that the falling migration rates of lower-income workers might have increased US inequality by as much as 10% over the last three decades.

Let's back up to Ganong and Shoag's first observations. During the mid-20th century, average per capita incomes in poorer states grew faster than per capita incomes in richer states, closing the gap in average incomes between the two by about 1.8% per year.

This happened because in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, people migrated from poorer states to richer states. This migration increased the supply of labor in richer states, which caused local wages to rise more slowly. Conversely, cross-state migration decreased labor supply in poorer states, and helped buoy wages and incomes there.

Drawings by Jonathan Neeley.

But something happened in the last few decades. Fewer people were moving from poor to rich states.

The graphs below show the relationship between average state income and state population growth in 1940-1960 (left panel) and 1990-2010 (right).

Let's look at California in these graphs as an example. In 1940, people in California had high incomes (the state had a high "logged per capita income"). So from 1940-1960, California also had high population growth rate--people moved there to earn those high incomes themselves.

In 1990-2010, people living in California still had high incomes relative to people in other states. But its population growth rate had fallen dramatically--fewer people were moving to California. Why the change? The authors' argument is that restrictive land-use policies have kept people out.

All charts from Ganong and Shoag's paper.

And, as you might expect, this fall in migration slowed the rate at which incomes in rich and poor states came together. Between 1990 and 2010, income convergence was less than half what the authors observed before; just before the Great Recession, it had slowed to a crawl.

The graphs below show this. The left panel plots the relationship between initial state income in 1940 ("log income per capita"), and state income growth in 1940-1960. As we'd expect, the richer the state was initially, the lower its income growth--because lots of workers moved to those rich states, increasing their labor supplies, which tempered wage growth. Conversely, the lower the state's starting per capita income, the faster its income grew.

But this stopped happening in the 1990-2010 period, shown in the right panel. Both states that were rich and poor in 1990 experienced similar income growth in the 20 years that followed.

Mississippi is a good example of this. You can see that Mississippians had low incomes in 1940, but per capita income grew rapidly between 1940 and 1960, compared to other states. In other words, Mississippi was part of a broader trend during this period: a shrinking gap between rich and poor states. In 1990, the state still had the lowest per capita income of all states but its income growth rate was relatively worse--posting a growth rate barely better than already-wealthy Massachusetts. The result? More inequality across rich and poor states.
The role of land use regulations

To get at the role of land-use law, the authors created a way to measure how intense a state's land use regulations are. They track the number of local appeals court records that mention the phrase "land-use," scaled by the size of each metro. Unsurprisingly, the frequency of mentions has increased over time:

The authors show that, even accounting for the amount of available land, rich metros that developed more-restrictive land-use rules built less new housing, reduced migration among lower-income people, and curbed existing state trends towards per capita income convergence. This not only shunted the poor into low-wage states, it also exacerbated US inequality because the wealthy and educated are still streaming into rich areas. Migration is still worth it to them, as they are able to pay high rents and mortgages. As the authors write,

Had convergence continued apace through 2010, the increase in hourly wage inequality from 1980 to 2010 would have been approximately 10% smaller. The US is increasingly characterized by segregation along economic dimensions, with limited access for most workers to America's most productive cities and their amenities.
In other words, allowing for more housing (and more affordable housing) in places like suburban Washington could lower US inequality to levels seen in the mid-twentieth century. That seems worth the effort, or at least worth considering.


The Obama administration says zoning is at the heart of some huge economic problems

The Obama administration wants to talk zoning. According to a paper it put out this morning, laws that restrict new development and require new buildings to come with new parking, along with slow permitting processes and arbitrary preservation regulations, create barriers to opportunity for working families.

Houses in DC. Photo by nevermindtheend.

The White House's Housing Development Tookit starts with the belief that strict land use regulations are hurting the United States economy:

"Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified… The accumulation of such barriers - including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes - has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers' access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP [editor's note: Pete Rodrigue wrote about this for us last week] growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions."
The report goes on to say that while preventing new housing development can be environmentally beneficial, it can also amount to "laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing."

It also draws a direct link between zoning laws and both inequality and inequity in the US:

"When new housing development is limited region-wide, and particularly precluded in neighborhoods with political capital to implement even stricter local barriers, the new housing that does get built tends to be disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of color, causing displacement and concerns of gentrification in those neighborhoods."
Here's what we can do about the problem

The report urges places to modernize their zoning laws, and suggests ten tools to do so. They include:

1. Eliminating off-street parking requirements: All over the country, there are rules that require new buildings to come with a certain amount of parking. Building that parking means not building housing on the land, which developers would often prefer to do. It also means encouraging more people to drive.

Reducing parking minimum requirements can increase the housing supply as well as demand for frequent, reliable bus or rail service, which can make it easier for people to get to jobs.

Cutting parking requirements for developments located near a transit stop can increase the supply of housing units and lower costs. The availability of transit reduces the need for a vehicle and offers more space for development.

Luckily, a lot of cities are catching onto the logic here, including DC, and also New York City.

2. Allowing accessory dwelling units: New housing doesn't have to only be brand new buildings. A lot of people would rent out their basements, attics, or small cottages in their back yards into accessory dwelling units (ADUs) if their zoning simply allowed it. Often, the people renting these units have limited incomes, like someone starting their career or an older adult.

Thanks to its recent zoning code change, it's now easier to rent out ADUs in the District.

3. Using inclusionary zoning:Inclusionary zoning requires a specific amount of new housing units to be "affordable," where the rent or the selling price is lower than the market rate and the units are only available to people whose incomes fall below a certain level. In exchange, developers get something called a density bonus, which allows them to build more market rate units than they otherwise would be.

The White House's toolkit cites DC and Montgomery County as examples of places that have pushed for housing affordability via inclusionary zoning. It also cites inclusionary zoning as a reason for better educational outcomes for low-income children.

This matters in our region. A lot.

No single action will solve the housing affordability issues many cities face, but reducing barriers to development can increase opportunities for working families. As too often happens:

"The long commutes that result from workers seeking out affordable housing far from job centers place a drain on their families, their physical and mental well-being, and negatively impact the environment through increased gas emissions."
The White House's report relates to our region because we are one of the handful of regions in the nation where restrictive zoning has become a significant bottleneck. Detroit and Baltimore have the opposite problem; their vacant housing isn't getting used.

This problem is impacting metro areas to different extents. It's worst in the Bay Area, but New York, Seattle, Boston, and others all have similar problems… and so do we.


Adams Morgan could get more housing and preserve its plaza, too. But it probably won't.

Some Adams Morgan leaders have said "no" once again to a proposal to replace an ugly 1970s bank building at the corner of 18th and Columbia. Redevelopment would destroy what's now a plaza, but does it have to? If neighbors got over some "height-itis," maybe not.

April 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

For most of this year, controversy has swirled around proposals from PN Hoffman to redevelop what's now a two-story SunTrust bank building dating to 1973 and a brick plaza. Hoffman's initial proposal left a much smaller (but more attractively landscaped) plaza at the corner. Opposition was immediate, and took two forms.

Some people, like the "Save Our Plaza" group, focused most on the plaza itself. The place has some history involving the neighborhood's past efforts to push for fair lending to low-income homebuyers from the Perpetual Federal Savings bank, which used to use the building. Others simply feel that an open gathering space at Adams Morgan's central corner is a worthwhile part of the urban environment.

The plaza. Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Others, like Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A zoning committee chair JonMarc Buffa, focus opposition mostly on the size of the proposed building. Much of the 18th Street strip is three stories high, while this building would have been six or seven to the cornice line (plus a set back penthouse).

There are buildings of similar height in the immediate area, but many people including HPRB member, architect, and stalwart opponent of height (except on his own buildings) Graham Davidson said it was too tall and too massive.

September 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

Many others, like the commenters on this Borderstan article, argue that Adams Morgan could benefit from more residents (helping neighborhood retail besides bars and late-night pizza places thrive), that DC needs housing, and besides, this is private property.

Open space isn't a bad thing, but neither are buildings. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

How about a plaza AND new housing?

While this is indeed private property (though the city's historic preservation process has wide latitude to control what's built), there's some merit to the argument that in a well-planned Adams Morgan, it would still be good to have a plaza here.

My neighborhood has a large circular park right at the Metro station. Even though it takes a lot of land away from being used for needed housing, it's a terrific amenity and I wouldn't want it developed.

However, that doesn't mean I want to keep people out of the neighborhood, either. I support building more housing on other sites and would support taller buildings around the circle where they are low.

What is the priority for Adams Morgan residents? If the plaza is the most important thing, they could propose that instead of shrinking the building, PN Hoffman makes it even taller, but in exchange leaves more of the site open. Or want to minimize height? Then the plaza, which is not public land, probably has to go.

Site plan showing the current building.

I'd go with more height and more plaza space if possible. Tall buildings at prominent corners are actually a defining feature of DC (to the extent any DC building is "tall") and other cities. This marquee corner would be a great spot for something really dramatic that could anchor and characterize Adams Morgan. All of the proposals were architecturally conservative, and have gotten even more so in subsequent revisions. This is why DC has a reputation for boring architecture.

The best vehicle for such an arrangement would be what's called a Planned Unit Development. It's a more involved process that gives a developer more zoning latitude in exchange for benefits to a community. Hoffman hadn't been pursuing a PUD, perhaps hoping for a quicker turnaround in the process, but if neighbors agreed to support something with more density and more plaza space, it would reduce the uncertainty of doing a PUD and open up possibilities for a better project.

I don't want to represent that something is possible that might not be: I haven't talked to PN Hoffman about this possibility. Making a building taller adds construction cost; I'm not privy to the dynamics of their deal to control the land. But in most projects, there is some opportunity for give and take if neighbors really were willing to prioritize asking for one thing and being more flexible on another.

Not a lot of activity. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

And let's not kid ourselves—this plaza is nothing special. It's hosted a farmer's market, but Hoffman has said they'd work to relocate it to another large expanse of sidewalk right across the intersection. For most people walking through Adams Morgan, this spot is just the ugly dead zone in between the interesting commercial strips in various directions.

A smaller but well-designed plaza could be more useful. A larger AND well-designed one could be even better, and potentially even feasible if height weren't such a bugaboo.

Unfortunately, area activists don't seem likely to suggest a taller building and a better plaza. Instead, the Save Our Plaza people seem almost as angry about the number of feet proposed for the building; their petition actually mentions the height first, before the plaza.

A more detailed plan could help

The DC Office of Planning created a vision plan for the neighborhood last year, and it in fact cites the plaza as something to hopefully preserve. But there was no official policy change to protect it, nor did that plan consider offsetting zoning changes to add more housing elsewhere in the neighborhood. The plan had good uncontroversial ideas (better wayfinding, more green roofs, public art) but doesn't actually determine where new housing can go.

The zoning for this site allows a building atop the plaza. Historic preservation is almost wholly discretionary and the preservation board doesn't publish detailed written decisions, making it impossible to know what is and isn't acceptable.

If DC's practice was to devise more concrete plans, we could imagine having a clear vision that lays out how much housing DC needs, what proportion of that would be fair to allocate to Adams Morgan, and a strategy for where to put it and where not to. The zoning could then match this vision instead of bearing at best a passing resemblance.

Instead, it seems that the only thing that would satisfy Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C is virtually no change at all. That's not reasonable; the city is growing, and so should Adams Morgan's core. But neighborhood leaders can think through how they'd best accommodate that change, and the government could help. And maybe this site could still have a better building and a plaza at the same time.


Zoning: The hidden trillion dollar tax

Zoning in cities like DC is starting to get expensive. Maybe trillions of dollars too expensive.

Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh find that if we lowered restrictions that keep people from building new housing in just three cities (New York, San Jose, and San Francisco) to the level of the median American city, US GDP would have been 9.7% higher in 2009about $1.4 trillion, or $6,300 for every American worker.

The intuition is straightforward. These cities' strict zoning rules limit their housing supplies. That sends rents soaring and prevents people from moving in. But because these cities are hubs of finance, healthcare, and technology, they are unusually productive places to work and do business. When people have to live elsewhere, they miss out on all this.

As a result, displaced workers, who can't move to New York or San Jose, are less productive and therefore earn lower wages. The country misses out on their untapped potential--fewer discoveries are happening, fewer breakthroughs are being made--and we're all poorer as a result.

Just changing zoning practices in those three cities would lead to some massive shifts, according to the authors. One-third of workers would change cities (although they wouldn't necessarily move to those three metros). Even under a less drastic scenario, in which 20% of US workers were able to move, GDP would be 6.5% higher. Fewer people would live in places like Detroit, Phoenix, or Atlanta, but those who remained would earn higher wages. And, of course, the likely reduction in sprawl would help address local air pollution, global warming, and habitat loss.

Zoning rules have clear benefits, but it's a question of balance

Zoning and land-use regulations have benefits. Some ensure basic health and welfare; they keep toxic dumps away from your child's school, for example (though this works better if you're well-off). Others aspects of zoning provide more marginal benefits, and to say these laws safeguard your health would be a stretch, like rules that keep duplexes and other multi-family housing out of your neighborhood.

Large swaths of Wards 2, 3, 4 and 5 have these types of rules: they're zoned "R-1-A" or "R-1-B," which only permit suburban-style detached homes. As the "general provisions" section of the zoning regulations say, "The R-1 District is designed to protect quiet residential areas now developed with one-family detached dwellings."

This, of course, is not an accident: DC's zoning map also shows who has power in the city, and who does not. Parts of Georgetown, for example, have a unique zoning designation called "R-20"; it's basically R-1, but with stricter controls to "protect [Georgetown's] historic character… limit permitted ground coverage of new and expanded buildings… and retain the quiet residential character of these areas and control compatible nonresidential uses."

Meanwhile, equally-historic Barry Farm is zoned RA-1, which allows apartment buildings, like many other parts of Ward 8. And, of course, Barry Farm abuts a "light industry" zone, sits beside a partly abandoned mental hospital, and was carved in two by the Suitland Parkway. While Washington's elite can use zoning with extra care to keep Georgetown the way it is, the same system of rules hasn't exactly led to the same outcomes for Barry Farm.

Barry Farm. Image from Google Maps.

What to do?

Washington is better than San Jose, where the majority of neighborhoods are zoned for single-family homes, but our own suburban-style rules still have room for improvement.

This could be Atlanta, but it's actually Ward 4.

Addressing this problem doesn't necessarily require us to put skyscrapers in Bethesda or Friendship Heights, turn the Palisades into Tysons Corner, or Manhattanize Takoma. More human-scale, multi-family housing in these places, currently dominated by single-family detached homes, could be a massive boon to the middle class and poor.

If half of such houses in Chevy Chase rented out their garages, or became duplexes, I'd estimate that could mean 25% more families living near world-class transit, fantastic parks, good jobs, and good people.

As Mark Gimein wrote recently on the New Yorker Currency blog:

The cost of living in New York, San Francisco, and Washington is not just a local problem but a national one. That these cities have grown into centers of opportunity largely for those who already have it is not good for the cities, which need strivers to flourish. It would be a shame if the cities that so resiliently survived the anxieties of the atomic age were quietly suffocated by their own success.

If you're curious for more on Moretti and Hsieh's work, see this short description of their paper and this PBS interview with Moretti. For an in-depth discussion of zoning's effect on the economy (with less math), see this speech by Jason Furman, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

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