Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Zoning


Vincent Orange wants to build 1,000 tiny houses. That's a great idea if they go in these spots.

Vincent Orange wants to have DC build 1,000 "tiny houses" for low-income and young residents of DC, spread around the city. His bill is kind of "gimmicky" and has some problems, but underneath, there are some good ideas as well.

Tiny houses in DC. Photo by Inhabitat on Flickr.

Orange's bill calls for the DC government to build the 1,000 houses, spread equally across the city's eight wards. Each would be 600 square feet, with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, electricity, plumbing, and heating. He'd limit the construction cost to $50,000.

The Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity (currently, Courtney Snowden) would set up a process to pick locations, offer these homes to residents, especially first-time homebuyers, and keep the price under $50,000.

Is this a good idea?

Like many Orange bills, this reads a bit more like an idea someone might throw out on a listserv or blog than legislation. Orange has a habit of thinking of something, then writing a bill which describes his idea in incredible specificity. Such a bill has virtually no chance of becoming law, but generates some headlines.

Also like many Orange bills, this one includes some illegal provisions. In this case, by calling for housing specifically for millennials, it likely violates federal fair housing rules forbidding discrimination against older people.

But if we just pretend he wrote a blog post somewhere about this idea instead of a bill, is it a good idea? If we peel away a few of the conflicting details, there are some good ideas at the core.

  • Orange is acknowledging that we need to build more housing in DC. Lower-income residents and young people who can't afford expensive homes are indeed two of the groups most in need of housing.

    Many of the millennials, in particular, are willing to live in smaller spaces to be in areas with good walkability and transportation. That also applies to some lower-income residents, but many have families and a tiny house might not offer enough space.

  • Orange wants to spread the housing out across the city. This is the right policy. Every neighborhood should be a part of the solution and none should get a veto over accommodating more residents.

    Helping low-income kids grow up in wealthier areas also gives them a better chance to succeed long-term, though again, that benefit would only come if families moved into what are pretty small spaces.

This isn't the best use of all land, but is a good use of some

On much of the city's land, tiny houses aren't a great idea. If you're going to put a small dwelling unit there, it's even better to put a small apartment building with four, eight, twelve, or more units. The building could have outdoor space that people share; there are a lot of great buildings like this all around DC.

There is one place where this is a great idea: Alleys. All around DC there are small garages, sheds, or historic carriage houses along alleys. Some people have large backyards and don't need all of that space. There are also some alley lots, lots that border an alley but no main road, such as in blocks where the alleys make a loop.

Property owners could build tiny houses here or convert existing garages to tiny houses. This would be a perfect way to give existing owners some income and create new housing in the kinds of spaces Orange is talking about.

The DC Office of Planning was trying to legalize these units, called accessory apartments. The long-running DC zoning update, now eight years in the works, included provisions to allow them. But, facing outcry from some residents of upper Northwest neighborhoods, they pulled back on the rule on accessory apartments in separate buildings.

An accessory apartment in an alley building.

Approve accessory apartments now!

If the zoning update ever gets approved (the DC Zoning Commission was going to discuss it on October 22 but delayed until November 16), property owners could build an accessory apartment in an existing or new garage, but would have to still go through a time-consuming zoning hearing first.

These would be perfect spots for Orange's 1,000 tiny houses. He could help encourage this to happen by asking the Zoning Commission to move forward with the accessory apartment rules. He might also consider asking the government to set up a program that could help interested homeowners create these accessory apartments on their lots and navigate the zoning approval process to get them done.

Many other cities have these, called "laneway housing" or some such. It's not crazy at all to try to create 1,000 tiny houses—as accessory apartments. Great idea, Councilmember Orange!


DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson is blocking Mayor Bowser's zoning board nominee

Mayor Muriel Bowser has nominated David Franco, a local developer, to sit on the DC Zoning Commission, but DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is blocking the nomination. I spoke with Franco about work, his vision for DC, and his views on the need to build more housing.

David Franco. Image from video by Level 2 Development.

Franco would replace Marcie Cohen, a former affordable housing and community development professional. Cohen has been a strong advocate for zoning that allows more overall housing in DC, speaking about the need for more housing many times. (Disclosure: she also lives on my block.)

It'll be important for Cohen's successor to also understand the importance of growing the District's housing supply so that new and long-time residents can all find places to live that they can afford. Does Franco? I sat down with him to find out.

Mendelson isn't happy about developer nominees

Mayor Bowser chose Franco after Cohen's term expired earlier this year. However, he first has to be confirmed by the DC Council, and the Zoning Commission falls under the purview of Chairman Phil Mendelson. After a few months passed without a hearing, Mendelson recently said he's not planning to move forward.

Mendelson told the Washington Blade that he's concerned about having developers on the commission. "David Franco is an active developer with a development company that has cases before the Zoning Commission," he told reporter Lou Chibbaro, Jr. "He or his company has appeared before the Zoning Commission several times over the last 24 months. That's the primary concern I have."

Mendelson also told Chibbaro he was unhappy Bowser didn't talk with stakeholders like citizens' groups before making her pick.

Whether developers should sit on the commission has been controversial in the past. When Adrian Fenty was mayor, he nominated two developers and the council, then chaired by Vincent Gray rejected one. When Gray went on to be mayor, he nominated Cohen and his longtime staffer Rob Miller; the commission now includes no developers.

Cohen's not a typical community member; Franco, not a typical developer

Both Cohen and Miller have been strong supporters of the overall need to build more housing. On recent cases about whether homeowners can rent out basements or garages or add units to row houses, Miller and Cohen have been the strongest votes for increasing housing supply. Chairman Anthony Hood (who Fenty wanted to replace and Gray renominated) along with Architect of the Capitol representative Michael Turnbull have been more skeptical of the need for housing, and the National Park Service's Peter May has been the swing vote on key decisions.

Unlike many developers, Franco has also been a supporter of the District's Inclusionary Zoning program which granted extra density in exchange for requiring projects to include some below-market affordable housing. He speaks very proudly of a deal he worked out to save affordable housing on 14th Street across from his View 14 development.

I recently spoke with Franco about his development work and his vision for his service on the Zoning Commission. Here are some of his answers; an upcoming post will delve into some specific issues we discussed in more detail.

Discount Mart in Anacostia. Photo by AboutMyTrip dotCom on Flickr.

Tell me a bit about your history in DC, including your business ventures, and your work in development.

My father owned a children's apparel, furniture and toy store on 12th and G Street, which was originally opened by my uncle in 1939. As a child, I grew up in my father's store and he helped launch my family's other retail venture, Discount Mart, which was a chain of discount department stores serving areas of northeast and southeast DC.

In my early 20s, I left the family business to join a partnership that acquired Tracks Nightclub and Trumpets restaurant. After a few years, I realized the nightlife business was not for me an decided to go back to my retail roots, opening up a chain of men's clothing stores catering to the gay market.

The business eventually grew to six outlets before I realized I could no longer ignore my passion for architecture and my fascination with urban planning, which led me to real estate development. I partnered with a close friend, Jeff Blum, and in 2003, we finished our first project together—a 12-unit condo development on Chapin Street called The Mercury.

We [later] acquired the Nehemiah Shopping Center, which had become run-down and crime-ridden at the time, and we redeveloped it into Capital View Apartments on 14th St. We also developed The Harper on 14th Street and the Keener-Squire and Takoma Central apartment buildings in Takoma, DC.

View 14, at the corner of 14th and Florida. Images from Level 2 Development.

What development project in DC are you most proud of and why?

Without a doubt, View 14 [at Florida Avenue and 14th Street NW] is our proudest accomplishment. Through the project's Planned Unit Development, we were able to come up with a really creative approach to save the 48-unit Crest Hill Apartments (now Milestone Apartments) from losing its low-income affordability, which would have resulted in the building being redeveloped as market-rate apartments.

During the time that we were beginning to develop View 14, Crest Hill Apartments across the street was being sold at market rate and the tenants could not afford to buy it without an additional $1 million in gap funding. The stories of families we met, some who had been there at least 25 years, resonated with us and inspired us to help our neighbors.

Our solution was to propose a $1 million contribution to the Sankofa Tenants Association as a portion of our affordability proffer along with some on-site units. The support we received for this approach was far-reaching and we received bench approval from the Zoning Commission in the second-fastest PUD of that time.

Soon after Zoning Commission approval, we funded the donation and saved the building, though our own project would soon be in peril with the financial meltdown. We funded the donation from equity, and took a huge risk. I remember a discussion with my business partner Jeff Blum during the dark days of the recession, lamenting that we may not be able finish construction and that all of the project equity was lost, and our company finished. We realized and both agreed, "If, in fact, all is lost, at least at the end of the day we did some good and saved 48 families from losing their homes."

There's often a tension between citywide priorities, like the need to create more housing, and local neighborhood interests which often manifest as opposition. How do you think the Zoning Commission should balance these pressures?
I think there are smart ways to create more housing where it is appropriate to do so. There is no catch-all solution, but rather it's a process that must include grassroots neighborhood input that is thoughtfully considered.

It's often a delicate balance of what's good for the people in the neighborhood and what's good for the larger community, but I don't think that those types of priorities and decisions need to have a winner and a loser. I think digging deep to understanding the issues and working hard to help develop and guide creative solutions will create more win-win solutions.

The Harper, at 14th and T.

How do you think the District could best approach the need for subsidized affordable housing?

There is no silver bullet. ... The District currently utilizes bonus density to subsidize affordable housing, which has been effective in generating new affordable housing and has not disrupted affordable housing production (contrary to the naysayers).

This is an effective tool and we should look at this more carefully as more affordable housing is sought, however, there will not be the same opportunities that came with the original bonus density plan. We cannot simply add bonus density ubiquitously without changing the character of our neighborhoods. We need to look at bonus density selectively and responsibly determine which areas can accommodate it and which areas cannot.

There are other [solutions], such as tax abatements, and we may also want to consider that to some degree we can't meet a zero-sum cost structure and that ultimately some land values will be reduced to enable new multi-family development opportunities. All of these solutions have their pros and cons and should be thoroughly analyzed and vetted.

Anything else you'd like people to know?
I would really like to clarify why I am interested in being a Zoning Commissioner. I will have the opportunity to utilize my passion for urban planning, my skills as a developer along with my passion for the District to positively impact this city that I've always called home.


People pushing to limit Airbnb in DC say it raises housing prices. Does it?

At-large councilmember Vincent Orange is proposing two bills to limit the Airbnb short-term rental service in DC. Proponents say that taking housing out of the long-term rental pool will raise prices. However, Orange himself pooh-poohed this kind of argument the last time he was involved in a debate over housing supply. Which take is right?

Photo by OuiShare on Flickr.

Lydia DePillis reported on the two bills, one proposed by Unite Here Local 25, the hotel workers' union, and the other from large hotels.

The union bill would make it illegal to rent a unit on Airbnb except for renting out a room inside one's own house, in a single-family (detached or row) house, with a special permit, and after notifying all nearby neighbors and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

The industry bill would allow owners to rent out a totally independent unit like a legal basement apartment and not necessarily live at the property, but each person could only own a maximum of five Airbnb units and only one in any single building.

A Unite Here consultant analyzed Airbnb listings and found 66% of DC's 3,500 Airbnb units were for separate units, which the union's bill would outlaw. 40% of units were from owners who owned more than one (which also would be illegal under their bill). One owner had 79 units, DePillis reported.

Addendum: Since there was some confusion, it's also good to understand that Airbnb already faces some regulation in DC; in particular, it collects the same tax that hotels pay, which was one of the biggest complaints of an uneven playing field in the past.

Does Airbnb affect housing supply and prices?

Whatever you think of these specific provisions (and it seems there is a decent argument for some of them and not others), there's also a fascinating discussion about whether Airbnb raises the cost of long-term rental apartments in DC.

The general theory of housing supply holds that if the demand for apartments and houses exceeds the supply, the prices will rise and only the more affluent people will be able to afford them. When a proposal arises to restrict supply, like limitations on row houses enacted in June (often somewhat misleadingly called "pop-up regulations"), it raises a concern that the cut in potential supply will further exacerbate housing unaffordability.

Unite Here leader John Boardman told DePillis, "Are we going to allow Airbnb to subtract large numbers of housing units from an already waning housing stock? Are we going to allow that extraction to drive rents already higher than they are now?"

Councilmember Orange hasn't sympathized with the supply argument in the past. Earlier this year, he advocated for a blanket moratorium on making row houses have three or more units (a proposal which didn't pass).

There isn't unanimity on this issue among activists pushing for more housing supply as a way to keep rents from rising. In San Francisco, where a housing crunch is extremely acute right now, voters will consider a ballot initiative this year, Measure F, to limit Airbnb. While the pro-more-housing Renters PAC voted to oppose Measure F, PAC leader Sonja Trauss does think Airbnb pushes up prices. In a phone conversation, she said that while she has some specific qualms with F, Airbnb does remove units from the long-term rental market.

In DC, DePillis noted that Airbnb listings only represent at most 1.1% of housing units at the moment. A percentage point or two can certainly make a difference on the margins. On the other hand, "this won't affect many units" has also been an argument some have made against worrying about supply in other zoning cases.

The best solution to a "waning housing stock" is to grow the housing stock rather than keep it out of the hands of visitors, people who also should be able to find a place to stay. (Letting visitors enjoy neighborhoods beyond just downtown, where most hotels are, also boosts the economy and people's enjoyment of our wonderful city and region.)

This post has been updated with more information on Sonja Trauss's views on Measure F in San Francisco following a phone conversation.


Prince George's is way behind on smart growth. Courts are helping it catch up.

For decades, Prince George's County has seen less commercial and high-density residential development than its peers in Montgomery, Arlington, and Fairfax, particularly around its 15 Metro stations. That could begin to change now that Maryland's highest court has smoothed the path for new development there.

Maryland court image from Shutterstock.

In a game-changing decision last month, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the Prince George's County Council cannot deny approval of new development projects after the county's planning board approves them, except in extreme circumstances.

Previously, the council's ability to overrule planning board decisions made it nearly impossible to predict which developments might ultimately win approval, and which might never see the light of day.

With such uncertainty hanging over every proposal, developers stayed away. Now, with much less threat of a last-minute council veto, developers may become more likely to build quality projects in Prince George's.

Details of the court case

The court ruling states the council cannot overrule decisions of the planning board in development review matters unless those decisions lacked supporting evidence or were otherwise arbitrary, capricious, or illegal.

Maryland law gives the Prince George's County Planning Board broad authority to review and either approve or deny development proposals.

The county council, on the other hand, has more discrete, but nevertheless significant, powers under state law when it comes to development. It appoints members of the planning board, sets zoning, and rules on appeals from the planning board. But the council cannot, according to this court ruling, overrule the board's decisions on individual development cases, unless the board committed some sort of legal error.

Before this decision, the county council always purported to exercise "original jurisdiction" when it reviewed the planning board's decisions. This allowed the council to decide cases however it wanted, as long as there was evidence to support their decision.

The court, however, said that approach was incorrect. The county council does not have original jurisdiction. Rather, like an appeals court, the county council only has "appellate jurisdiction," meaning it has to assume the planning board's decision was correct, unless the board's decision was legally wrong or wholly lacked evidence.

In other words, the council can no longer simply take development review into its own hands and overrule the planning board's judgment whenever it wants.

Importantly, the court's decision does not eliminate public input from the process. The public still has a full right to argue before the planning board, and can still appeal to the council and then to the courts if they are aggrieved by the board's decision. However, appeals must be based on a legal error, not simple opposition to the project.

The CVS that started it all

This lawsuit arose out of a nearly 10-year effort to build a CVS in Adelphi.

A CVS. Not the one in Adelphi. Photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

The case began in 2004, when the county rezoned the property to allow retail. In 2011, a developer submitted a site plan for the CVS. The planning board approved the site plan, saying it met the rules of the retail zone.

No one appealed the planning board's decision, so everything seemed a go. Until the county council called up the case. They wanted changes, so they sent it back to the planning board with instructions to reconsider a few issues.

In 2012, the planning board approved the site plan again, this time with a few modifications in response to the council's requests. Again, no one appealed.

But once again, the council called up the case for review. This time, they denied the application altogether, after the council member in whose district the property lay spoke against it.

The council listed 14 reasons for its denial, none of which related to the original issues the council had first raised in its 2011 call up.

The developer sued, and three successive courts found the county council in the wrong.

A win for smart growth

A suburban-style CVS in Adelphi may not be the kind of development smart growth advocates usually hope for. But this case will ultimately make approval of genuine smart growth projects easier, by reducing the role of politics in development review.

Bottom line: No longer will developers have to work for years on a seemingly-approvable project, only to have the council yank the floor out from beneath them at the eleventh hour. Rather than leaving development up to the political whims of the county council, this court decision will hopefully allow objective law to rule Prince George's County development review.

A version of this post appeared on Prince George's Urbanist.


This is your very last chance to weigh in on DC's epic 8-year zoning update (probably)

DC homeowners could soon have more freedom to rent out their basements and carriage houses, residential neighborhoods could get more corner groceries, and there might be less unneeded and unused parking in new buildings. That's if DC's Zoning Commission gives final sign-off to an update of the zoning code this fall. First, there's one last public comment period for residents to weigh in.

DC started revising its zoning way back in early 2008. A new Comprehensive Plan had just been approved, and it called for adjustments to the zoning code. Also, the code dated back to 1958, and while it had been amended along the way, it also had many outdated elements.

The Office of Planning convened public meetings to get resident input on what should change. Most of the changes are just reorganizing the code, ostensibly to be easier to use. Through those meetings, the planners also came up with some specific policy changes on a few topics.

What's changing?

One big change would let people rent out a basement or an external garage in zones where that's illegal today. While most row house zones allow a basement unit, and in many places "English basements" are common, that's not allowed in the lowest density row house zones and the zones with detached and semi-detached houses.

The zoning update would legalize such units, though with a number of restrictions: The owner still has to live in the house, there can't be more than a certain number of people, the door has to be below ground level or on the side to keep the house looking like a single-family house, and others.

Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

A second topic is car parking. Outdated assumptions that assumed people would drive, which date from long before Metro even existed, required more parking than necessary in many buildings, driving up the costs of new housing. Numerous examples surfaced of buildings which had built parking as prescribed by zoning and then found many required spaces difficult to rent or sell, or garages even going mostly empty.

The zoning board was also regularly granting exceptions to the parking rules, adding time and expense. The new minimums would give much more flexibility citywide and even more around Metro stations, high-frequency bus corridors, or streetcar lines.

Another change would make it easier for grocery stores to locate in residential zones, if they can occupy a corner building or one that was historically a commercial building, sell fresh food and at most a very small amount of liquor, and other restrictions.

Some neighborhoods have corner groceries in residential areas that have existed for a long time. But in neighborhoods without them, they can't start up; with this change, it's possible one could.

Photo by rockcreek on Flickr.

There are a lot more details, and you can learn a lot from the Office of Planning's summary blog posts explaining the rules on accessory apartments (like basements), car parking, and corner stores, as well as changes to alley lot rules, loading zones, downtown zoning, and industrial zones.

How you can speak up, one last time

The DC Zoning Commission will make the final decision on the new zoning code soon. The commission has heard testimony over many years at this point. It published the nearly-final new code in the DC Register in May for the last, legally-required official public comment period, and that comment period closes on September 25.

The commission probably won't make many changes, as it's already heard most of the arguments on each side, but you never know; with the recent "pop-up" rules, one commissioner, Park Service representative Peter May, who cast the swing vote, changed his mind after the final comment period, reversing a previous decision. Opponents of the zoning update are trying to generate public comments against the final draft.

If you want to weigh in, you can comment at a special page on the Zoning Commission website. Parking is in Subtitle C, General Rules, while accessory apartments and corner stores are in Subtitle U, Use Permissions. (If you followed earlier versions, they've moved out of the chapters on the various types of zones where the used to be into a new Subtitle U that consolidates all rules around uses in one place.)

Didn't I testify on this before? Maybe in 2009?

If you're been reading Greater Greater Washington or following DC planning, you might have participated in the zoning update process before. Maybe it was around 2009-2010, when the Zoning Commission had a first set of hearings on the broad policy questions. Or 2012, when the Office of Planning held public meetings in every ward on the proposal.

You might have participated in late 2013, when the Zoning Commission held its hearings on the actual text, or early 2014, when it held another set just because opponents said they hadn't had enough time to prepare. Or maybe you sent in comments in 2014, when Mayor Vince Gray asked for another six months to allow even more comment.

But this might be the last time. If the Zoning Commission takes "final action," then the zoning could could become effective... sometime soon. The commission has not said exactly when the new code actually would take effect, and there could be a grace period.

If the commission takes immediate action, then the code will become final about two years after the Office of Planning formally submitted it. That came after about 5½ years of OP deliberations on the code.

The original public process statement estimated 2-3 years for the whole process from start to finish; it has now been 7½. Most of the extra came because opponents of the changes continually complained to Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and others, claiming the code was a "moving target."

Hood and others responded by asking for more public process, but opponents simply kept arguing that they hadn't been consulted enough, asking for even more and more process. When OP made changes in response to opponents' requests, the opponents then even took that opportunity to claim that since OP had made changes, the code was some kind of moving target and some part of the process should start over.

A group of people protest to ask for delays in the zoning update process. Photo by the author.

For context, the recent "pop-up" rules, which added more restrictive zoning rules for many of DC's row house areas, went from OP's presentation to the Zoning Commission to final implementation in a day less than one year. The commission also made that change effective immediately upon approval rather than having a "vesting" grace period.

You can encourage the Zoning Commission to not waste any more time by submitting comments on the comment form. We can hope this saga can complete before DC gets yet another new Comprehensive Plan, which OP plans to start on this fall.


What we hope to do on housing

Greater Greater Washington will be growing thanks to a generous gift and foundation grant, and increasing our focus on housing. Here's what we have in mind for housing.

Welcome mat photo from Shutterstock.

Rising housing prices in DC and many in-demand parts of the region is one of the biggest challenges our region faces. With rising prices comes displacement of longtime residents, while people who want to move to walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods find themselves priced out and shut out.

We've talked about these issues on Greater Greater Washington since the site began, but we hope to do much more, including discussions about more neighborhoods and featuring voices of more residents (and potential residents).

We also hope to bring the discussion offline. Greater Greater Washington has been able to bring together a community of people who want to discuss the shape of the neighborhoods in the Washington region and how they are changing, but not everyone sits in front of a computer all day at work with the freedom to click over to non-work websites every so often (which, face it, is the way most of you read the site).

Finding solutions to housing problems that are truly inclusive requires having a conversation beyond just the website itself. We want to foster more conversations in person, so that more people can participate and so that members of our current community engage more with neighbors with different backgrounds and life experiences.

At the same time, we're still a media site and our biggest strength is sharing information with a wide range of people. Therefore, as we convene offline discussions, we'll look for ways—maybe text, maybe video, or who knows—to let those who can't attend an event still hear from the people who could.

Multicolored houses image from Shutterstock.

Let's make sure there is enough housing for all

Our region must build enough housing for the people who want to come here without displacing those who are already here. That includes enough housing at the top of the market, lower-priced but unsubsidized housing in cheaper areas, and guaranteed "affordable housing" as well.

The San Francisco Bay Area is in the middle of a major housing crisisfar, far worse than here—because it didn't build nearly enough new housing. We can't let that happen in DC.

Building enough housing is going to require every neighborhood to do its part. It's simply not fair for some neighborhoods, especially wealthy and powerful ones, to tell other neighborhoods that the brunt of all new housing construction must fall there.

That doesn't mean residents should have no say in how their neighborhoods grow. Maybe some places in a neighborhood aren't the right ones for new housing, but other spots are. We'd like to spark conversations, both online and offline, about the best and most sustainable ways for neighborhoods to grow. We want all residents (and prospective residents) to be able to participate in those conversations, no matter their backgrounds.

We don't expect to come in with all of the answers for each neighborhood. The answers aren't one-size-fits-all. What can span across neighborhoods are some basic values. We'd start with "growing, inclusively." We should seek to welcome all people, not shut them out, and welcome greater diversity of background and income level.

We might have a good home in a neighborhood we love, but not all do. We might have good access to our jobs, but many do not. What we value in a place, we should wish to make available to others as well. When I started Greater Greater Washington, I wrote, "As the region grows, we must preserve what already works and expand what is possible, to ensure that there are enough great neighborhoods for everyone who wants to live, work, shop or play in one."

As it happens, "growing an inclusive city" is the tagline for the 2007 DC Comprehensive Plan. The District will soon begin the process of revising the "Comp Plan," which could be one excellent forum for this conversation and an opportunity to ask the District to clearly envision the growing, inclusive city of coming decades. This is also an issue that affects the entire region, and every jurisdiction needs to play a part as well.

If you would like to be part of this conversation, add your name here. You can help organize discussions, write articles about housing in your community, or just join the discussion online and offline. And if you would like to organize it as your job, check back tomorrow when we post our open positions.


Big news! We're growing and doing more on housing

We're excited to bring you big news for Greater Greater Washington. We've just gotten a donation and a grant which will make it possible to improve and expand our content and add a bigger focus on housing, an issue we've long hoped to cover in more detail.

Growing house image from Shutterstock.

Greater Greater Washington started out as a labor of love and a volunteer operation. I started this site in 2008 to write (and learn!) about the forces shaping our communities. It grew as more and more people wanted to read, comment, contribute articles, help edit, and run more of the site.

We will always be a community-driven site, but some things are difficult when your community is all volunteers. We need an editor to help our contributors turn great ideas into effective articles that inform and educate interested residents across our region and beyond.

Our annual reader drives bring in enough money to hire an editor part-time: first Dan Reed, now Jonathan Neeley. The fact is, though, that bringing you four articles every weekday and constantly recruiting new contributors needs to be a full-time job. And that's not to mention our desire to give our editor a decent living.

Unfortunately, it's very hard to be a nonprofit with just one staff member. It takes time to manage an organization, and even though we all wish this didn't have to be the case, it takes time to raise money as well.

In addition, while we've always written about housing issues such as the DC zoning update's efforts to legalize basement and garage apartments, there's a lot more to discuss about housing affordability. We also really want to expand this conversation to more communities all around DC and the region, including east of the Anacostia River.

Enter the Open Philanthropy Project

We recently spoke with the Open Philanthropy Project, an effort funded primarily by former Wall Street Journal reporter Cari Tuna and her husband, tech entrepreneur Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook, Asana).

"Open Phil," as they call it, is working to give away billions in a wide range of areas, like public health in the developing world, forestalling potential catastrophes that could wipe out the human race, and a number of US policy topics like criminal justice reform and labor mobility (all great causes!) You can learn a lot more about Open Phil from recent feature profiles in the Washington Post and Vox.

One of Open Phil's priority US policy causes is expanding housing in supply-constrained metro areas. Restrictive zoning and other rules make housing far too scarce and expensive, particularly in the most desirable, highest-wage metro areas. This locks out all but the wealthiest people from the opportunity to live in good neighborhoods with easy access to the best jobs. These metro areas should be adding a lot more housing to meet the demand.

That's an issue we have worked on since Greater Greater Washington was founded, and when we heard that Open Phil was interested in supporting work on housing supply in the Washington region, we spoke with them. Based on those discussions, Tuna decided to make a personal gift of $75,000 to Greater Greater Washington (which is in the process of registering as a 501(c)(4)) for non-political use, and Open Phil made a two-year, $275,000 grant to our 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor, Smart Growth America. These contributions will help us expand our efforts and do much more work on housing issues.

We will be able to support the activities of three full-time staff. Jonathan will be converting to full time and continue editing the site while adding some more responsibilities. We'll be hiring two additional people, and we'll talk about that more in an upcoming post.

Open Phil, true to its name, openly posts an analysis of each grant it gives. You can read the summary of its thinking about our grant here.

Community growing photo from Shutterstock.

Some very important things won't change

We want to emphasize three elements of Greater Greater Washington that will NOT change.

First, we will always continue to be community-driven. Just as, say, Wikipedia has a staff and a foundation and raises funds to keep things going, but its content still comes from its community, the same applies to us (though on a far, far smaller scale).

Our articles will continue to be written by members of our community who want to tell stories about changes in their neighborhoods or policies they've learned about. Our volunteer editorial board will continue handling a lot of the site's day-to-day operation, like looking at emails, moderating comments, and organizing fun events.

Most importantly, the editorial board will continue setting our editorial policies to ensure we stay true to our community.

Second, we'll still need support from our readers and many others. This isn't the gravy train that'll set us up for life. Open Phil is not funding 100% of what we need for this growth, and is only promising support for two years.

That means we need to keep up and grow the reader drives, reach out to foundations, and much more. This makes it even more important to have support from all of you.

Finally, this new housing focus will not detract from our existing content. We'll still be writing about transit, parks and architecture, education, and many other topics our community members want to discuss.

Stay tuned

Tomorrow, we'll post more about our ideas and plans around housing, and then we'll talk about who we want to hire to execute on our exciting new plan.

We're really looking forward to embarking on this new phase of Greater Greater Washington's growth with you!


Neighborhood commission catches "height-itis" on a Dupont Circle church and condo project

If a building is taller than 59 feet but you can't see it, does it make a sound? In Dupont Circle, it makes a big racket in one ongoing development controversy.

Images from CAS Riegler.

The St. Thomas Episcopal Parish, whose main church at the corner of 18th Street and Church Street burned down due to arson in 1970, wants to build a new church. To fund that, they want to use part of their property to build a new condo building.

The proposed church is not particularly controversial, especially now that the parish revised their design to a better one than they had first proposed. But many neighbors are fiercely fighting the adjacent condo building, which will be closer to nearby row houses. (Disclosure: My house is almost directly across the street.)

The building has now gone before the Historic Preservation Review Board three times, and will return for a fourth on Thursday. I've been fine with the condo building proposal since fairly early in the process, and the Dupont Circle Conservancy supported the version proposed in March. The HPRB and local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, however, have asked for more changes to further shrink the building.

The ANC reached what members thought was a compromise in March, where they agreed to support the condo building, but only as long as the perceived height for a pedestrian around the building was no more than 59 feet. And, in fact, on the recent versions of the proposal, if you are standing on the sidewalk across from the building, you won't be able to see any parts that are taller.

While I think it was unnecessary in this case, this can be a smart approach. Small setbacks on the upper floors of a building can do a lot to make a building feel shorter when walking past on the street, without actually taking away much of the opportunity to add housing. You can get a large building that feels small instead of blocking the building and the potential new residents it can hold.

Beware of "height-itis"

Unfortunately, many neighbors focus not on the human experience but the total number of feet at the building's highest point. Let's call this "height-itis." Some of this comes from the fact that developers often talk at early community meetings about the height that zoning allows, and present a "massing diagram" which depicts a large box filling the zoning envelope.

Even if the developers never considered building such a box, some neighbors get caught up in talking about the total number of feet. Later architectural plans also show elevations, where high floors are just as visible as low ones.

Other elements of a building, like materials, windows, landscaping, and street-level detail, ultimately will matter much more than height. Developers generally have some leeway to make design changes, but if forced to lop off whole floors from the building, it severely constrains how much they can "shape" the building lower down and still make the project work economically.

"Height-itis" often makes it harder, not easier, for residents to get changes that will actually affect their property, like setbacks on upper floors to minimize the shadows a building casts. It can also lead to buildings that look boxier and less appealing (just as DC's height limit does downtown).

The Dupont ANC gets stuck

This is where a tricky detail comes in. The ANC's resolution says the condo building (not the church building) should look to be no more than 59 feet from anywhere on Church Street, 18th Street, P Street, or the nearby alley. If you go far enough down a street, then set back parts of the building would become visible, but the whole building is also far away and much smaller visually.

That's why historic preservation standards generally look only at the appearance of a building from right nearby. For example, other neighbors are adding a fourth story to their row house, which I will be able to see from my upstairs windows, but it's set back so you can't see it from the sidewalk (and, honestly, I'd be fine with it even if they didn't have to set it so far back, since the design looks very well done).

But the ANC's resolution is stricter. And many HPRB members look not at detailed legalistic standards, but the overall tenor of community feedback. Just having the ANC say it doesn't support the project has held it up significantly.

Further, the HPRB is not immune to "height-itis." One member, Graham Davidson of Hartman-Cox Architects, is in fact one of its most acute sufferers. He consistently suggests that buildings take off a floor and is rarely satisfied with setbacks that simply make it look shorter, as in a contentious case at 13th and U in 2013.

So HPRB has sent the project back for revisions multiple times. Last month, board members had only very minor changes, which the developer made. But Davidson opposed a motion to let the preservation staff handle any further issues, and instead suggested the project return on what's called the "consent calendar," where the board can approve it without a hearing and vote.

The ANC, however, passed yet another resolution opposing the project, saying that it doesn't meet the letter of their March resolution. Opponents are pushing for HPRB to take it off the consent calendar and force yet another hearing because of this.

The ANC says make it shorter, but acknowledges making it shorter is silly

Their resolution is strange. On the one hand, it says the ANC won't support the project. But on the other, it says,

Whereas the ANC 2B Zoning, Preservation and Development committee acknowledges the current design with its limited visible elements above 59 feet subjectively creates a more textured and attractive building and removing the 7th floor altogether may lead to a subjectively less attractive building design.
In other words, they know lopping off the floor would make the building worse, but hung their hats on 59 feet before, and won't budge. The resolutions have also been unanimous, even though some members have told me privately that they don't actually object to the building at this point.

Unfortunately, the effect is for the ANC to force HPRB to eventually disregard their views, perhaps diminishing the ANC's credibility. It also has delayed this project and forced everyone to attend numerous hearings.

Asking to improve a project is fine, but neighbor requests and ANC resolutions are most effective when they're well-considered. Succumbing to "height-itis," and then being stubbornly unwilling to consider more creative ways to deal with concerns, is not a good way to represent neighborhood interests on complex development projects.

Update: HPRB voted Thursday morning to approve the project on the consent calendar. Davidson and fellow board member Nancy Metzger advocated for further delay and hearings, but other board members supported moving the project forward.


DC's two futures

After a generation of losing population, the District is attracting people of all ages, and housing costs have skyrocketed as a result. While growth has slowed, costs continue ascending beyond the reach of not only poor residents but also many middle- and upper-middle-class families.

Photo by David Bailey on Flickr.

As long as this trajectory continues, the District faces two futures: A city inaccessible to all but the most affluent, with rampant displacement pricing out people in all corners of the city (as in San Francisco); or a diverse city that has planned enough housing to fit all of the new residents alongside longtime ones.

Which course the District takes depends on the foresight (or blindness) of its leaders. They can plan for a growing and inclusive city or ignore the dangers ahead.

Continue reading my latest column in the Washington Post.



Baltimore is in line for a new zoning code. But just like in DC, it's taking a while

In 1971, Richard Nixon was president, gas cost 40 cents a gallon, bell bottoms were in style, and Baltimore's current zoning code was passed. A lot has changed since then, and Baltimore is rewriting its code in an effort to keep up. But just like DC's, the rewrite has faced quite a few hold ups.

Photo by тereѕa on Flickr.

Most cities want mixed-use development, and a growing number of people want to live car-free. These are big changes for Baltimore, which was an industrial town when the current code went into place.

The proposed code would provide a big boost for smart growth

There's lots to be excited about for those who want to live in a vibrant and walkable city. Under the proposed new code, areas around rail transit stations will have special transit-oriented development designations that will allow for denser development and less parking.

The code also calls for removing parking requirements from some zones altogether and relaxing them in others.

Under a new category known as Industrial Mixed-Use, obsolete buildings can become artists' live-work spaces or workshops for industrial entrepreneurs. And under a provision known as Neighborhood Commercial, structures in rowhouse neighborhoods that were once used as corner stores can once again be used for business.

By allowing long-abandoned buildings to be developed and setting policies that favor people over cars, the new zoning code has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of life in Baltimore.

Photo by Lee Burchfield on Flickr.

Baltimore's City Council is holding things up

Unfortunately, the zoning code has spent the last nine years waiting for the Council to approve it.

In 2006, the City Council passed a master plan that called for a zoning rewrite. Work on the new code began in 2008, the Planning Commission held hearings in 2012, the City Council held its own hearings in 2013, and the Council Land Use and Transportation Committee started going through the entire code page by page in 2014 . The committee still isn't finished.

With the 2016 elections approaching, many observers are concerned the Council may not even pass the bill!

Part of the reason the process has taken so long is that City Council members are pushing for a large number of changes. Fourteenth District Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke wants to remove those parts of the code that ease parking requirements, and she has shown a great deal of hesitation towards anything that increases population density.

The Council also wants to continue being involved in specific local land use cases. Under the current code, the Council is responsible for approving certain conditional uses. A conditional use is a use that, due to the impact it has on the surrounding area, is best approved on a case by case basis. This is referred to as "conditional by ordinance." In most cities, a zoning board handles these issues.

The proposed code would remove this authority from the Council and make all conditional uses subject to zoning board approval. There is a clear consensus among Council members that conditional by ordinance should be in the code for certain uses.

Council members like having this power, as it gives them the authority to approve development in their districts based on what they feel is in the best interests of the affected community. They also don't trust the zoning board as they feel its decisions are too often in favor of developers.

One use currently subject to conditional by ordinance is that of multifamily conversions in rowhouse districts. Under the proposed code, anyone who owned a rowhouse could convert it into a multifamily dwelling as long as they met very strict standards set forth in the code. However, many Council members want to retain conditional by ordinance when it comes to this use.

Councilwoman Clarke also wants to remove Neighborhood Commercial from the code. Neighborhood Commercial would allow for a limited number of commercial uses to be opened in structures located in rowhouse neighborhoods that have historically been used for commercial purposes.

Corner stores were once staples of Baltimore communities. But over time they became associated with crime, loitering, and general urban decay. As a result, and due to planning philosophies that favored a complete separation of uses, these stores became nonconforming uses when Baltimore passed its last zoning code in 1971. This meant that once stores closed for two years, only residences could be built in them. It also made it impossible for new stores to open up.

Many have questioned this policy in recent years. Since these stores were in structures built for commercial uses, many of them became vacant and have remained that way. Many areas of the city are food deserts where residents lack access to fresh food and vegetables. In Baltimore and around the country, and mixed use development is becoming increasingly desirable.

Historic preservationists, community development professionals, and some neighborhood organizations, sick of all the vacant properties in their communities, have strongly supported Neighborhood Commercial. But Councilwoman Clarke continues to remain skeptical of this designation, and Fourth District Councilman Bill Henry wants it to be made conditional by ordinance.

The Council members argue that since some businesses operate in an irresponsible manner, all businesses should be banned from residential areas or subject to approval from the City Council.

These proposed changes would be detrimental to Baltimore

Requiring certain conditional uses to go before the Council presents a problem. When a conditional use is handled by the zoning board, the decision is based on a clear set of criteria set forth in the code. When conditional uses go before the council, politics takes over and the outcome becomes difficult to determine.

This adds a great deal of uncertainty to the process and makes it difficult for developers to obtain financing. And that means it's a deterrent to investment in some of Baltimore's most distressed communities.

Conditional use by ordinance is especially harmful to small developers who lack political connections. Designating uses such as Neighborhood Commercial, multifamily rowhouse conversions, and residential development within Industrial Mixed-Use zones as conditional by ordinance will have a negative impact on development and set up significant obstacles to population growth in the city.

The detrimental impact of parking requirements has been well documented on this site and elsewhere. Given that much of Baltimore was built before widespread use of the automobile, parking requirements just aren't practical in large parts of the city. Many of the city's most desirable neighborhoods could not be built were they to follow modern day parking requirements.

Supporters of the new code are pushing it forward

A number of different groups are working to get the code passed. The Citizens Planning and Housing Association, the Maryland Building Industry Association, the Community Development Network of Maryland, and the Baltimore Development Workgroup recently signed on to an open letter to the City Council calling for the code to pass.

The Citizens Planning and Housing Association is also running a blog in support of the code that covers the Council's Land Use and Transportation Committee's work sessions.

It is the job of the City Council to thoroughly vet all legislation in order to ensure it is in the interest of their constituents. However, land use works best when everyone is playing their proper role and individual land use decisions should be left in the hands of the zoning board. It's time for the Council to pass the code and keep its most transformative provisions intact.

Support Us