Atlantic Cities

D.C. Looks to the Past to Fix Its Zoning Code

D.C. Looks to the Past to Fix Its Zoning Code
Flickr/NCinDC

Corner stores, garage and basement apartments, alley dwellings and less parking. These are common features of many cities’ historic neighborhoods, which grew up before the automobile era. These neighborhoods are now becoming cities’ most desirable (and expensive), yet zoning codes instituted in and around the 1950s make such neighborhoods illegal to build today.

In Washington, D.C., a city with many historic neighborhoods, a project to rewrite the zoning code is going back to the past, looking at development patterns from 100 years ago while adding some 21st century touches. The goal is to let historic neighborhoods fill in their empty or damaged spaces with compatible development and allow the city to grow in ways that extend rather than ignore treasured elements like walkable commercial streets and local retail.

D.C.’s Office of Planning has been working for 4 years to rewrite its current zoning code, adopted in 1958. Now, after hundreds of public meetings and many rewrites, a recently-released draft of first third of the zoning text clocks in at 458 pages. The vast majority of the changes just updates, streamlines, and simplifies the text, like combining overlapping zones and overlays into a simpler system and getting rid of out-of-date elements like definitions and rules for a telegraphy operator.

There are also a few significant policy changes. In particular: 

  • More homeowners will be able to create accessory dwellings, like garage or basement apartments. 
  • A limited number of small art studios, corner groceries, shoe repair shops, hardware stores and the like will be able to open in residential areas when there aren't any commercial areas nearby. 
  • Fewer buildings will be forced to provide parking, or will not be forced to provide as much. 
  • More alley lots will be able to have houses. 
  • Green Area Ratio will require landscaping and other storm water-management features in multi-family and non-residential projects.

With the exception of the Green Area Ratio, a very 21st-century sustainability idea, the other changes harken back to the past. They correct some of the most egregious problems from the 1958 code, where it imposed social engineering ideas in vogue at the time that ended up eliminating local corner stores, pushed people out of urban neighborhoods, and forced new buildings to take a suburban form incompatible with the walkable communities that previously existed.

If popular neighborhoods like Georgetown, Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill (which is far more than the place Congressional staffers work) didn't exist today, they couldn't be legally built as they are. Even many single-family neighborhoods of detached houses farther from downtown are mostly illegal as well under current zoning.

Accessory dwellings

Back when the 1958 zoning code was written, the average D.C. household had far more people than today. Families had more kids, senior citizens more often lived with adult children, and more young and single people lived in group homes and boarding houses than now.

Therefore, fewer people live in D.C.'s existing houses than they did at the time. Allowing accessory dwellings is a way to let those buildings serve their historic population levels in the modern day. An accessory dwelling is a separate legal unit either in the same building as a larger, main residence or in an accessory building like a garage or carriage house.

These houses used to hold more people. Today, many owners are empty-nesters who used to have kids in the house but no longer do. Retirees on fixed incomes find it harder to afford to keep up their homes. The simple solution is to let people rent out separate units to get some extra income, or even live in those small units and rent out the main house.

One change would let people create accessory dwellings by right in many (but unfortunately not all) of these zones.

This map was created in 2008. Courtesy: David Alpert

Corner stores in residential areas

Flickr/Mr. T in DC

A big part of historic development patterns was the local corner store, selling many of the necessities of life. Far more Americans could walk a short distance to do their daily shopping than today. Those days aren't coming back, because malls and online shopping can be quite convenient, but there's still enormous value in having some local options.

The local shops of today might be different than those of the past, like yoga studios rather than general stores, but the principle remains. Under current zoning, however, no commercial use can locate in a residential zone.

OP's proposal would allow some limited retail in residential areas, but with a great number of restrictions. The stores could only hold arts, food, retail or service businesses, not locate in buildings near existing commercial areas, not concentrate in too great numbers in any one area, limit the size to 2,000 square feet, close by 7 p.m. and open after 8 a.m., have no more than 4 employees, keep trash indoors, and not cook food (reheating is okay), use a grease trap, or use dry cleaning chemicals.

Despite these regulations, a number of residents are nervous about allowing any commercial use in a residential area. They understandably worry about noise, traffic, and other effects of commercial activity. OP seems to have tried to set rules that cut off the problematic impacts, like late night activity. On the other hand, some other residents and bloggers worry the restrictions make this change "too timid."

Minimum parking requirements

Few zoning rules have done more to harm urban neighborhoods than parking requirements. The view in the 1950s was that since everyone would drive everywhere all the time in The Future, all buildings need to have lots of space for cars.

It turned out, however, that many of the parking requirements were far too high, forcing buildings to dedicate precious space to parking lots. That makes construction more expensive and creates gaping holes in the urban fabric. It also pushes architects to design buildings around cars rather than people, making them less pedestrian-friendly and forcing residents to drive more and walk less.

A major rationale for these requirements is that curbside space is limited, and a new, larger apartment building, church, or office will lead to many people parking on the street, making the spaces more scarce for existing residents. But the proper way to solve this problem is by pricing or restricting curbside parking.

Fortunately, D.C.’s new zoning code will scrap many, but not all, minimum parking requirements. This was another compromise between residents concerned about change or fearful about "spillover."

In the compromise draft, residential buildings of 9 or fewer units don’t need to build parking, but at least in lower density areas, non-residential uses do, including churches, schools, daycares, rec centers and retail. These are the very kinds of buildings that shouldn't be car-oriented in residential neighborhoods. A daycare in a residential area ought to be serving the neighbors, not attracting people from far away. If it has no parking, that's more likely.

Alley lots

Flickr/Mr. T in DC

Residences in alleys are a big part of D.C.'s history. African-Americans came to live in many D.C. alleys after the Civil War, and a number of alley residences remain. While the ones in the late 19th Century weren't the most sanitary or well-built, there's no reason modern ones can't be perfectly safe and habitable.

Current rules allow alley dwellings as long as the alley lot is a certain size, it has adequate plumbing and so on, and the alleys serving it are particularly wide, wider than most DC alleys. The new code removes the width rule, but any alley unit will still have to get a special exception and satisfy DC agencies on fire safety, traffic, waste and more.

If the fire department doesn't think it can put out a fire in an alley dwelling, it shouldn't go in, but if one satisfies them, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Works and the others, an arbitrary alley width shouldn't be the obstacle.

Green Area Ratio

D.C. could be the second city in the nation, after Seattle, to implement a  "Green Area Ratio" for large buildings. Projects which have a GAR requirement must include a certain amount of green space as a percentage of the lot area.

At a hearing before the D.C. Council on the zoning rewrite, Harriet Tregoning, the District’s visionary planning director, said that OP wants to be the "Wayne Gretzky of planning" – they will skate to where the puck, or in this case the city, will be, not where it is. With this new zoning code, that’s what they are doing, but just like in hockey, where the puck is going to be sometimes is not that different from where the puck was in a previous game.

A version of this post originally appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

Top image credit: Flickr user NCinDC, used under a creative commons license.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. All posts »

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