Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Zoning

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44 years ago, when Richard Nixon was president, the same consultants that noted outdated ideas at the root of DC's then-outdated zoning code foresaw other problems looming for the city.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.

Ben 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.

Events


Events roundup: From Silver Spring to Shaw to Sweden

Talk about transit, walkability, and sustainability in Montgomery County, Shaw, and even Sweden at upcoming events around the region.


Photo by Evil Sivan on Flickr.

Rapid transit happy hour: If you like chatting about transit while enjoying a post-work beverage, join Communities for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth at a Montgomery County transit happy hour on Tuesday, April 15.

Learn about the county's Bus Rapid Transit plans and talk with other transit enthusiasts at the Metro- and MARC-accessible Communities for Transit office, 8630 Fenton Street, Suite 500, in Silver Spring. RSVP here.

After the jump: Walking tours of Shaw and East Falls Church, budgets in Arlington, and zoning in Montgomery County.

Smart growth and sustainability in Sweden: Interested in how other cities handle neighborhood and district planning? Walker Wells, a green urbanism program director at Global Green, will discuss sustainable planning practices in three Swedish cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo. The presentation is at the National Building Museum (401 F Street NW) on Tuesday, April 15, 12:30-1:30 pm. RSVP here.

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

Arlington Capital Improvement Plan forum: Arlington is preparing its 2015-2024 Capital Improvement Plan and needs your input! From streetcar funding to pedestrian projects to street paving, provide your opinions at a public forum on Wednesday, April 16 from 6-8:30 pm in the County Board Room, 2100 Clarendon Blvd at Courthouse Plaza.

Montgomery zoning update open house: Montgomery County planners have been hard at work rewriting the county's zoning code to update antiquated laws and remove redundant regulations. The Planning Department is hosting a series of six open houses beginning next Tuesday, April 22. Planning staff will be in attendance to answer questions. The full open house schedule is below:

  • April 22: Rockville Memorial Library (6-8 pm)
  • April 24: Wheaton Regional Library (6-8 pm)
  • April 29: Park and Planning Headquarters, Silver Spring (5-8 pm)
  • May 1: Marilyn J. Praisner Library, Burtonsville (6-8 pm)
  • May 5: UpCounty Regional Services Center, Germantown (6-8 pm)
  • May 6: B-CC Regional Services Center, Bethesda (6-8 pm)
Do you have an event we should include in next week's roundup and/or the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Send it to events@ggwash.org.

Politics


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wells has an idea to deal with that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evans:

Wells:

Gray:

Bowser:

Shallal:

Events


Events roundup: Streetcars and parks and buses and zoning

This week, help plan a streetcar line along DC's north-south axis and a park in the heart of downtown. Next week, learn about rapid transit in Silver Spring and weigh in at the last zoning update meeting.


Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

Planning a new streetcar route: The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is holding a series of meetings about the north-south streetcar line. Where should "premium transit" go? Should it be a streetcar or bus? How many stops? Dedicated lanes? There are 4 public meetings:

  • Tuesday, February 18 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 1100 4th Street SW.
  • Wednesday, February 19 from 10 am-12 pm, MLK Library, 901 G Street NW.
  • Wednesday, February 19 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Banneker Recreation Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW.
  • Thursday, February 20 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Emery Recreation Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW.

Redesigning Franklin Park: The National Park Service, DC government, and Downtown Business Improvement District have teamed up to design the future of Franklin Park. The park currently offers little usable space for area residents and workers, so the agencies devised three alternatives that add a playground, move walking paths, and add various amounts of plaza space.

The meeting is Wednesday, February 19 from 6-8 pm at the Hilton Garden Inn, 815 14th Street, NW. You can RSVP here.

Rapid transit in Silver Spring: Montgomery County is planning a Bus Rapid Transit system across the county, and Communities for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are holding an open house about the plan in Silver Spring on February 26 from 6:30-8 pm. It's at the Silver Spring Civic Center, 1 Veterans Place. You can learn more and RSVP here.

The last zoning update meeting: If you live in DC wards 1 or 2 (Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant south to the Mall, west to Georgetown and east to Logan Circle and Penn Quarter) the DC Zoning Commission wants to hear your opinion on the zoning update. This final meeting (hopefully) was rescheduled due to the snow and is now on Wednesday, February 26 at the DC Housing Finance Authority, 815 Florida Avenue, NW.

A lot of Ward 1 residents heard a one-sided pitch against the zoning update at a forum sponsored by Councilmember Jim Graham, so it's important for residents who are well-informed to attend and speak up. Sign up here to get on the list.

As always, if you have any events for future roundups, email us at events@ggwash.org!

Zoning


After hearing one-sided talking points against the zoning update, some residents are against the zoning update

This past weekend, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham convened a panel for several members of Committee of 100, a group that is actively organizing to fight DC's zoning update, to speak to residents of the ward. Nobody from the Office of Planning (OP) was a part of the forum, nor was anyone with a different point of view on the panel.


Photo by theunquietlibrary on Flickr.

A gloating press release from the Committee of 100 following the meeting claimed that "Ward 1 Residents Reject Zoning Changes." C100 spokesperson Byron Adams wrote:

The tone of the meeting was set by CM Graham. He pointed out that while the City Council is prohibited from participating in zoning decisions, more time is needed by citizens and elected officials to fully grasp the far-reaching, long-term consequences of OP's proposals.

Apparently Councilmember Graham missed the working group sessions in 2008 and 2009, or the hearings before the Zoning Commission in 2009 and 2010, or the series of meetings OP held in every ward of the city in 2012-2013, or the discussion at the DC Council oversight hearing for OP every year since 2008, or the multiple additional roundtables which Phil Mendelson has held since taking over as chairman, and so on.

We all know there is no housing affordability problem in the District. Clearly, there is no problem with simply putting off any changes year after year ad infinitum.

Adams continued:

Opposition increased as the C100 and the audience discussed the implications of the ZRR, including how developers and speculators were out-bidding potential residents for what are single-family homes and then carving them up to degrade the historic character of these buildings and neighborhoods.

As described by the C100 panel, the OP recommendations would invite creeping commercialization of residential property, including, taller garages and garage apartments, businesses in garages or accessory structures, multiple home occupations, conversion of housing for institutional uses and corner food markets. While making these changes easier, if not "by-right," the ZRR would dramatically decrease the opportunity for public participation, including by Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, in these zoning and land-use decisions.

A straw poll showed virtually unanimous opposition to the ZRR.

Really? When told that this crazy process which has supposedly happened without enough public input, which will "outbid" residents to "degrade the historic character" of neighborhoods, bring "creeping commercialization" and "decrease the opportunity for public participation," people who showed up to learn about the zoning update came away thinking it didn't sound like such a good idea? Really?

It seems that residents did not have a chance to hear about how people who live in houses bigger than they need could share some space with someone else, make a little money, and contribute to the 41,000 to 105,000 new housing units we need to meet demand.

It sounds like they didn't have a chance to have a serious discussion about how to find space for things like daycare for our children or pet care for our furry family members, uses which are already legal in residential areas after a public hearing but which some people at the zoning hearings raised as a specter of "multiple home occupations" and is what it sounds like the C100 panelists might have been talking about.

One C100 member suggested at the November 7th zoning update hearing that people taking care of children in our neighborhoods would damage our residential areas. She said, "Someone in a 2-story house on an 18-foot wide lot would be overwhelmed with the cries of 16 children outside in a daycare or a child development center if he lived in a 3-story area, or the cries of 25 children in a higher area," and went on to also oppose allowing senior living facilities of more than 8 residents.

When asked why he held an event with a panel made entirely of opponents of the zoning update, Graham wrote in an email that it was "just to provide some basic information to folks who largely were not informed." Unfortunately, most likely they are still not informed or are even less well-informed than before.

The Committee of 100 press release concludes by encouraging residents to testify at the Ward 1 and 2 public meeting on February 26. It definitely is important for residents who have actually gotten informed about the zoning update to show up.

C100 is also encouraging people to attend a mayoral forum they have organized on February 25, 6 pm at the First Congregational Church of Christ, 945 G Street NW. That will be a good opportunity to hear most candidates for mayor defend the God-given right for residents of the most exclusive neighborhoods to keep restrictive zoning that ensures their communities don't have to play any part in accommodating our housing needs, can remain devoid of younger people and less wealthy people, and won't be "begrimed" by local food markets or those loud and annoying children.

Retail


Flyer says "say no to corner stores," but makes a convincing case for them

Some residents have received this flyer, which urges them to "SAY NO! TO CORNER STORES" in the DC Zoning Update. But on closer inspection, it's hard to tell how the flyer is arguing against corner stores.

Almost all of the text (and the photo) come directly from the DC Office of Planning's fact sheet which lays out the case for corner stores: more potential access to healthy food, ability to shop nearby without a long drive, and rules to ensure the stores don't harm neighbors.

Rather than argue against these, the flyer just repeats the same rationale, with a few comments sprinkled in like "DO YOU BELIEVE THIS?" and "YOU DECIDE."

Is this for real? Or, as David Garber mused, "genius marketing *for* corner stores and the DC Zoning Update"?

Mark Bjorge pointed out, "It's a Rorschach test. Answers will depend on where one lives." What he means is that in many neighborhoods, the basic word "corner store" conjures up images of a run-down store that just sells junk food and liquor and cigarettes and the like from behind metal gates or thick plexiglass, and with folks hanging out in front up to no good.

I've spoken to people from some neighborhoods who immediately thought of that the moment they heard about the proposal. In fact, the address on the flyer is from a section of Petworth where some corner stores have looked like that. Within that context, reading the OP fact sheet one might well have exactly this reaction of disbelief.

Perhaps this is another example like this exchange from a year ago where zoning update opponent Linda Schmitt posted a photograph of an alley accessory dwelling. To her, it perfectly illustrated what residents should fear. But to me and many others, the well-maintained, attractive, clean little brick building was instead an ideal example of why accessory dwellings sounded great.

In neighborhoods with higher-quality stores, the idea of bringing in a small grocery within walking distance sounds great. Residents of the Navy Yard neighborhood can enjoy Cornercopia, the store pictured in the OP fact sheet and the flyer, which embodies what people want in such a store. Those who feel confident that looser restrictions on zoning might bring in a desirable amenity instead of blight, therefore, are excited about zoning opening the door to such an asset.

To help ensure that new stores are only positive and not negative, OP has dialed back the corner store proposal so that now any store, except a grocery, will need a public hearing and a "special exception." It is also fair for people to demand that DC enforce the rules that limit the amount of trash and noise a store could generate.

If you think that corner stores aren't automatically a bad thing for every neighborhood, you've got one last chance to let the Zoning Commission know. There are three more public hearings on the zoning update this week.

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