Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Zoning


Parking requirements aren't one-size-fits-all

Hearings on DC's zoning update continue this week with sessions today and Thursday on parking minimums. I'm testifying about the need to reduce or eliminate parking requirements downtown and in transit-accessible areas.

Differences in parking requirements across the US. Image from Graphing Parking.

Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to present my testimony. My name is Matt Malinowski and I live in the Truxton Circle neighborhood in Northwest DC. I would like to speak in favor of the proposed revisions to the zoning regulations, and in particular in favor of eliminating parking minimums downtown and minimizing parking requirements elsewhere, especially near frequent transit.

The current off-street parking requirements for general office uses most of downtown, including the C-2-B, C-2-C, C-3-B, C-3-C, and C-4 zones for buildings on lots greater than 10,000 square feet, is 1 parking space for every 1,800 square feet of floor space in excess of 2,000 square feet. This rule seems very precise, and I am sure that there are parties here tonight who would like to maintain it. But is it right?

Many cities across the United States either have or have had parking minimums, so there seems to be a precedent for maintaining them. But what is interesting is that each city has a different minimum, with Baltimore requiring more and Philadelphia less.

How can each city be right? Or are all the cities, and the idea of parking minimums with it, wrong?

One explanation for the variation is that each city is built differently, and the urban form of each city demands different amounts of parking. Sure enough, even within DC, the minimum parking requirements vary by zone, with less-dense commercial zones like C-1, C-2-A, and C-3-A requiring 1 parking space for every 600 square feet of floor space in excess of 2,000 square feet.

In effect, crossing the street from one zone to the other has tripled the parking requirement. But has the urban fabric changed so much that three times as many people will now drive to work?

M Street NW forms the boundary between C-2-A and C-2-C zones, drastically altering the parking requirements. Image from the DC Zoning Map.

The current system breaks down not just at the boundaries, but also within zones. In Truxton Circle, there are three schools within a block of each other: the newly rebuilt Dunbar High School, one charter school, and another charter school in planning. According to neighbors, cars are overflowing the parking lot at Dunbar, while the existing Community Academy Public Charter School (CAPCS) has recently built a parking lot for 140 cars overnight, and apparently without any permits.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming Mundo Verde Public Charter School is seeking a variance to give up 36 of its 53 required parking spaces and build gardens in their place. Staff are expected to ride bikes, so there are 20 bike parking spots instead, and the Metro is a 10-minute walk away.

Mundo Verde conceptual site plan showing proposed gardens. Currently, the entire lot is covered by parking.

So even for the same uses in the same location, one-size-fits-all parking requirements do not apply. Rather than develop even finer zone boundaries or zone definitions (an overlay specific to green charter schools?), how about a simpler solution: eliminate or minimize parking requirements wherever possible. That means downtown, in other higher-density zones, and near high-frequency transit.

Rather than perpetuating the current set of arbitrary requirements based on unknowable ratios of drivers to occupants, please focus on what we do know: land in DC is expensive and driving is unsustainable and causes congestion. Eliminating or minimizing parking requirements allows for the market to provide parking to those who truly need it, while making it clear that free parking is not a right, and that DC values its residents and natural environment over its cars.

Next Tuesday, there will be another hearing about parking minimums. Each hearing starts at 6pm at 441 4th Street NW, near Judiciary Square. To sign up to testify or show your support for the zoning update, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth's website.

What do you think about my testimony? Please let me know in the comments. I hope to see you at one of the hearings!


How well do you know DC's rules?

Do you know when city elected officials get to make a decision, and when a federal agency or hybrid makes the decision instead? Do you know what our current zoning says and what planners want to change? Or what the height limit really is?

Photo by the DC Office of Planning.

I put together a quick quiz for the Washington City Paper about a few specifics of DC rules that you might not know. Take the quiz and post your score, or your questions, in the comments here.



Is a walkable neighborhood out of reach for you?

Are you getting priced out of being able to live in the kind of neighborhood you want? Do you wish your neighborhood had more local stores and other amenities in walking distance? Please tell your story below.

Photo by Oliver Sholder Photography on Flickr.

At recent hearings on planning and zoning issues, we've been hearing from a lot of activists who say that everything is just perfect now, so nothing should ever change.

Next week, DC's Zoning Commission will hear testimony on parts of the zoning update including accessory apartments (which would let a homeowner rent out a basement or garage) and corner stores. There will be a lot of people testifying there, too, that their neighborhoods are perfect just the way they are, and zoning needs to block any new people or stores.

But everything is not perfect and we can't simply ignore the skyrocketing costs of housing for people across the income spectrum.

This idea that we should freeze neighborhoods in amber ignores the huge numbers of people who can't afford a place to live in a walkable place near transit, especially not one with enough room to grow a family. Or they can afford an old house in a cheaper neighborhood, but that contributes to displacing long-time residents of those other neighborhoods. And they see not just gentrification's benefits, like safer streets and new shops, but also its harm from higher costs.

Either DC plans a way to keep up with its housing demand (which still outstrips the new units getting built), or it sees the city become out of reach for many people, from young professionals starting their careers to fixed-income retirees and legions of lower-income residents.

Adding housing doesn't have to mean skyscrapers or 6-story density everywhere or anything in particular, but it does mean finding places to put the 122,000 new units DC needs (and the same for walkable places in other inner jurisdictions like Montgomery and Arlington) somewhere, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and thinking that if we don't change a thing, then our current housing problems won't get any worse.

What about you? Are you finding that housing prices keep you from being able to live where you would like to? Or do you wish that you could have more corner stores or other retail walking distance from your home?

I'd like to collect stories about what residents and prospective residents want, beyond just the same voices that show up at hearing after hearing. A lot of you can't go to all of these hearings because you have day jobs, families, and/or things to do. But your experiences matter as well.

Please fill out the form below. I will forward your stories to NCPC and the Zoning Commission. It asks for your real name and address, because these decision-makers want to know the real people sending the opinions. In addition, the text you write will get posted to this article as a comment, but it won't include your real name or your address.

And it's still not too late to sign up to speak at the zoning update hearings next Wednesday on accessory apartments and Thursday on corner stores.


This survey has ended, but you can still participate in the discussion on this issue by posting a comment on this article.


Have you signed up to testify on the zoning update?

The epic hearings for DC's zoning update are coming up in just a few weeks (and so are Montgomery County's). Have you signed up to testify?

Photo by Rex Pe on Flickr.

There are 4 key hearings:

  • Wednesday November 6 on low-density residential areas. This includes the proposal to allow accessory apartments which will let a homeowner rent out a basement or garage to add housing and help with the bills.
  • Thursday, November 7 on moderate-density areas. That includes areas that could welcome more corner stores, though subject to many limitations.
  • Tuesday, November 12 on car and bike parking, the most talked-about part of the update. This hearing is actually full, but there is an overflow night on Tuesday, November 19 where you can speak.
  • Thursday, November 14 on downtown, where planners want to let property owners rather than regulations decide how much parking to build.

You can learn more about these proposals and other changes in the zoning update with a new set of "fact sheets" from the Office of Planning. They outline the main changes in each proposal around accessory apartments, alley lots, bike parking, car parking, corner stores, industrial zones, low-density residential areas, sustainability, zoning processes, and a general overview.

There will surely be many people testifying at the hearings about how welcoming new residents and businesses into DC's neighborhoods will destroy the quality of life in some way. We need to get as many people there as possible to show the Zoning Commissioners, a combination of federal and local appointees, that people of all ages want to see our city grow to be more affordable, walkable, and sustainable for all.


Sign up right now to testify on DC's zoning update

After 5 long years, DC's process to update its decades-old zoning code is almost done. But DC won't make important progress on reducing parking minimums, allowing accessory dwellings and corner stores, and more without your help.

The Zoning Commission just released dates for its public hearings on the zoning update. They will span 9 nights in November, with a different topic for each night. Residents will speak in the order they sign up, so please sign up right nowthe sooner you do, the earlier you will get to say your piece and then go home!

The most important night is Tuesday, November 12, when the Zoning Commission will hear input on proposed changes to parking minimums.

If you missed the scores of Greater Greater Washington articles on the update, the proposal calls for significantly reducing parking minimums in areas with good transit service and in higher-density residential zones. Originally, the Office of Planning considered eliminating parking requirements altogether near transit. While the new proposal has been watered down, it's still a huge step forward in building a more sustainable city.

Several other nights are very important as well. The hearings for corner stores and accessory dwellings are Wednesday, November 6 and Thursday, November 7 (with Wednesday covering the detached house zones up through low-density row houses like Georgetown, and Thursday being for other row house and apartment zones, like Capitol Hill and Petworth).

Thursday, November 14 is the hearing on downtown's zoning, including a proposal to eliminate parking minimums there.

Show your support

The most important thing supporters of the update can do at this point in the process is sign up to speak in person at one of the November hearings. Individuals not representing an organization have 3 minutes to speak. It really makes a difference to the Zoning Commission to see city residents moved to come out in support of a proposal, and no doubt, opponents will attend in great numbers as well.

If you aren't sure yet what you will say, don't worry. We are going to have a lot of articles on these topics in the coming weeks, and other resources to help you. But you don't need to be a policy expert. Some of the most effective testimony to the Zoning Commission is for people simply to talk about their own lives and neighborhoods.

While there are instructions for signing up to speak on the Office of Zoning news page, the Coalition for Smarter Growth reached out the the Zoning Commission to verify signup procedures and found out the person in charge of them is currently on vacation. We encourage supporters of the zoning update to use our form to submit your signup emails to make sure they go to the right place and help us better organize people at the hearings.

To sign up to testify, click the following links:

If you would like to speak in support of the zoning update at one of the upcoming hearings, you should sign up right away. It only will take a moment now, but the sooner you sign up, the earlier in the evening you will get to speak.


Zoning shouldn't be used to judge lifestyles

In Greater Washington, we hear all kinds of arguments against new development. But sometimes arguments drift into lifestyle issues: the apartments are too small, the location is too loud, or the tenants wouldn't appropriately invest themselves in the community.

Photo by Joselito Tagarao on Flickr.

While unfair, this might be expected from the public. However, when policymakers start to consider their own preferences when making decisions, as in the region's debate about accessory dwellings, they tread on dangerous ground.

In Berkeley, California, officials are using lifestyle concerns to fight a proposed building with 70 "micro-units." or studio apartments ranging in size between 307 and 344 square feet. The building is close to UC Berkeley, walking distance to a hot commercial strip and BART, and adjacent to major bus routes. It would be built on what is now a fairly ugly vacant lot, and contribute $1.4 million to the city's affordable housing fund. And it would be just 60 feet tall, not much higher than its neighbors.

Nearby neighbors aren't happy with it, citing the height and the proximity to detached housing nearby, which aren't unusual complaints. But they also object to the size of the units and the relative lack of activities in the neighborhood. Zoning commissioner Sophie Hahn concurred, comparing the units to "penitentiary housing" and said there wasn't enough room for "intimacy."

Rendering of the proposed building from the developer.

Though I don't want to speculate more on the concerns of massing and proximity, the others are a damaging sort of condescension.

When I choose where I want to live, I look at a number of factors: price, transit options, proximity to my friends, job, and favorite neighborhood. As a single person who spends most of his time out at work or at some hangout, I'm not so concerned about my home's size. I need a bed, a desk, and a place to make and store food. A studio apartment in the right location will do me fine.

I am representative of one particular niche of potential renters. Other renters will be more concerned about proximity to transit, others about price, and others will want the space to entertain. As we grow our cities, developers should have the flexibility to build units and buildings that cater to the various niches of the rental market. Not everyone wants to live in a Palisades mansion, and not everyone wants to live in a high-rise downtown.

We have our reasons for choosing the places we do, but it's the height of arrogance to assume that our preferences apply universally. So when citizens say that studio apartments are "a new style of tenement housing," I get upset. And when policymakers like Sophie Hahn say studio apartment living is "a bleak, lonely, unhealthy life that I would have a lot of trouble endorsing," that offends me, because she thinks that about my life.

Floorplan of a proposed "micro-unit" apartment.

The purpose of any market is to allow people to make their own decisions about what they want. I think beef tongue is disgusting. I have no idea why anyone would want to eat it. I mean, surely there's something wrong with someone who wants to chew on something that has the texture of their own tongue.

I also hate cilantro; it tastes like someone made nausea into a flavor and called it an herb. But will I advocate to ban these foods? Limit them to certain designated Mexican restaurants, perhaps, Vietnamese restaurants be damned? Of course not; it's preposterous to even consider. I can make my own opinions without asking others to agree with me. That's freedom.

So it's not the place of any zoning commission to pass judgment on the lifestyles of the people who live in certain kinds of housing. Their purpose is to determine whether a project meets the zoning code, whether its visual and traffic impacts will unduly harm surrounding neighbors, and whether it will be a safe and sanitary place to live. Nor is it their purpose to determine whether a project is financially viable or not. It's the developer's job to determine that.

And in a free society, it's nobody's job but mine to determine whether my lifestyle is a bleak and lonely one or not.

Once government steps into personal preference, it becomes a nanny, tut-tutting our choices of home and neighborhood. Sophie Hahn, and the neighbors whom she agrees with, should stick to a critique of the building itself, not the people, like me, who they think are too depressed to live anywhere else.

A version of this piece appeared in The Greater Marin.


DC planning office also backs down on corner stores

Parking isn't the only part of DC's zoning update that got cut back this month. In the latest drafts, DC planners have also limited plans to allow corner stores in residential areas.

Photo by MIT-Libraries on Flickr.

Originally, they considered permitting retail, service, grocery, and arts businesses as matter of right in corner buildings, subject to lots and lots of conditions. Instead, only grocery stores might be able to locate as a matter of right, while other businesses can apply for a special exception and have a hearing.

This responds to resident concerns about stores' impacts. While it might impede corner stores, the old rules were so restrictive that almost no corner stores could have opened anyway, so this will have little further impact.

Corner store proposal tries to restore historic patterns

DC's historic neighborhoods had a few "corner stores" (usually, but not always, on actual corners) scattered throughout neighborhoods. Before zoning prohibited commerce in residential areas, and before malls and big box stores, these stores met many everyday needs.

But in the era of single-use zoning, which sought to segregate all commerce from residences, DC and other cities outlawed these stores. Some remained open, grandfathered into the zoning, while others closed and, if they remained closed for 3 years, could never reopen. OP wanted to fix this problem.

Certainly, a store can potentially harm neighbors if there is a lot of noise, trash attracting rodents, smells from cooking, and so on. Therefore, planners tried to write a set of narrow rules limiting trash to being stored indoors, restricting on-site cooking, curtailing hours, and so on.

Leaders ask for hearings before stores can open

The Zoning Commission approved the idea in theory, but it drew opposition from many residents. Councilmember Muriel Bowser, in particular, expressed hostility to this idea. Some small stores in neighborhoods in her ward tend to sell mostly liquor and junk food and can be magnets for disturbances or crime, though OP's rules didn't allow liquor stores under the corner store proposal.

Bowser suggested there have to be a public hearing before any store could locate in a residential area. Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B, for southern Capitol Hill, also suggested requiring a hearing.

OP has agreed to change the rules so that a grocery store can still locate as a matter of right, but a retail sales business, art studio, cafe, or service business will require a special exception. To get one, an owner will have to apply to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), talk to the ANC, and have a hearing where neighbors can speak.

OP is still finalizing some of the details. For example, the old rules had many limits, including how close one store could be to an existing commercial corridor or mixed-use area. The idea was to ensure that such stores don't sap vitality from the actual commercial area. But, ANC 6B suggested, if the BZA is going to review an application anyway, instead of a firm rule this could be something the BZA can consider.

Similarly, maybe the strict limits on hours and size can be a little less absolute if the BZA is able to use its discretion and weigh the impacts against the benefits.

Is this the right move?

Certainly, this change will make corner stores harder to open than they would have been under the original, Zoning Commission-approved proposal. But there were so many limits on corner stores that there were actually vanishingly few eligible sites for corner stores at all.

Stores could only be in the moderate density R-3, R-4, and R-5-A zones, not the detached or semi-detached house R-1 and R-2 zones or the apartment R-5-B zones. They had to be at least 500 feet from any mixed-use zone (even one with no stores). They had to locate on corner buildings, or buildings originally built to be commercial.

That leaves few areas in most parts of the city. In Ward 4, for instance, only Petworth and a few tiny bits of other neighborhoods are eligible, and then only far from the commercial corridors. Even within the eligible area (shaded in yellow below), it's only corner buildings, most of which someone already owns and uses for a purpose other than a store.

DC's Ward 4. Eligible corner store area is shaded yellow. Corner stores cannot locate in the purple or white areas under OP's proposal. Click for larger map and other wards.

In this case, even with all the restrictions, neighbors might have an understandable concern about an impact the rules didn't anticipate. A special exception, while it creates a burden, might not be unreasonable here.

Meanwhile, residents need easy access to food, especially fresh food. The biggest potential problem with a grocer is trash, and rules require them to store all trash indoors. They also limit the store's size (1,200 square feet in the prior proposal), number of employees (3), hours (not after 10 pm and before 7 am), and more.

OP has tried to bend over backward to allow some stores while also keeping them from affecting neighbors. If their new, scaled-down proposal goes into effect, a very small number of new corner stores might open up, and then we can see how well they do. Or, the rules might be so restrictive that no stores appear.


Parking lots remain mandatory

DC planning director Harriet Tregoning announced today that minimum parking requirements in transit-oriented neighborhoods will remain in the new zoning code.

Photo by photobeppus on Flickr.

As part of its rewrite of the zoning code, DC's Office of Planning (DCOP) had proposed eliminating mandatory parking requirements in the densest, most transit-friendly parts of the city.

Anyone who wanted to build parking would still be allowed to do so, but it wouldn't be mandatory. The new zoning code will lower requirements for parking, but won't eliminate them completely.

The new proposal will keep parking requirements for institutional and industrial land uses similar to what they are now. The requirement will drop by about half for residential and office buildings.

Under existing zoning, any new residential units are required to build parking spaces, whether the owner wants them or not. The requirement is a huge subsidy for drivers, and a major burden on car-free households. It also adds tremendously to the cost of new housing.

There is a silver lining: DCOP is still planning to eliminate parking requirements in downtown DC.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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