New Rules for the City: What to Look For in D.C.’s Zoning Makeover
As promised, last week I sat down with the Office of Planning to talk about something that will change how your city looks and feels: An overhaul of the zoning code, which has remained largely the same since it was instituted in 1957. Trust me, it's more interesting—exciting, even!—than it sounds.
The rewrite has been underway for three years now. Deputy OP director Jennifer Steingasser, who oversees development review, says there have been 159 public meetings and 40 appearances by the Zoning Commission so far (the chat-room-enabled website was supposed to foster online dialogue, but never really gained traction). The goal was ambitious: Listen to complaints from citizens and developers alike to simplify and modernize the code, and re-orient it from enabling car culture to fostering walkability, while still maintaining high standards for the city's built environment. "You shouldn't have to hire a land use attorney to make changes to your house," Steingasser says.
The process slowed down with the departure of several key staffers over the summer, but new project manager Arlova Jackson is now rewriting the drafts into a form that can be submitted to the 24-member volunteer task force that's overseen changes from the beginning, shooting for more community meetings and final Zoning Commission review next summer. That's sadly too late for the current wave of development, although many of the goals of the rewrite—like requiring less parking at new developments—are being accommodated through a steady flow of requests for relief from the current regs.
So I don't have much in the way of hard copy to explain for you in detail yet. What I do have is some of the biggest ways in which the code changes will matter. Here goes:
- More flexible review standards: Currently, if you want substantial extra density in your project, pretty much your only option is the cumbersome planned unit development process. The new text will have three gradations: Design review, something colloquially called "PUD-lite," and the traditional PUD process through which developers can request wholesale exemptions from existing zones. That should allow medium-sized projects to get through the process more easily.
- Treating transit differently: The final zoning text will set up defined "transit zones" around Metro stations that have slightly different rules, recognizing that more people will be walking around them. Steingasser is preemptively defensive about the intent of the transit tweaks—"It doesn't mean there will be more density around every transit station!"—but buildings will be required to orient themselves to the sidewalk, with things like fast-food drive-throughs no longer allowed. (If you think that there should be more density around Metro stations, be reassured that the recent Comprehensive Plan update encourages it.)
- Building in green: Architects have always thought about "floor area ratio," or the amount of bulk you can put on a lot of a given size. The new zoning regulations will have them thinking about "green area ratio" as well (proposed text here), requiring them to earn a set number of points through features like vegetative roofs, tree plantings, and permeable paving (yes, kind of like making LEED standards the law).
- Allowing commerce in neighborhoods: At the moment, although some of them were grandfathered in before the current generation of regulations, corner stores in the middle of residential neighborhoods are against the law, as is selling produce in your front yard. The rewrite will foster urban agriculture and allow more little grocery stores to be scattered through neighborhoods, while keeping them far enough away from commercial zones so as not to drain those retail strips. In addition, the rewrite junks regulations that now prevent stores and restaurants on major commuter thoroughfares that are primarily residential—like Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues—from advertising on the street.
- Un-parking: Under the new rules, multifamily apartment and condo buildings within the transit and downtown zones will no longer have to provide a set number of parking spaces—developers will be able to decide for themselves how much they need to make the building marketable. The drafters considered setting parking maximums, but decided against it after being assured that since each parking space lower than three floors underground costs $50,000, developers wouldn't be building more than necessary (also, the code will make it harder to rent out those spaces, which had allowed them to recoup the cost of overparking their projects).
- Making space for the in-laws: The old regulations allow structures in the back of single family, detached houses to be used for "domestic help." The new ones will take that concept and broaden it, allowing mini-houses (called "mother-in-law" apartments where I come from) to be built in rowhouse neighborhoods as well, which helps densify neighborhoods without creating any terrifying new tall buildings.
- Incentivizing housing in office ghettoes: Currently, downtown has a system of "transferable development rights" that allow builders to buy the right to build more density from someone else who'll agree to build more housing, retail, or cultural uses. The new regime—called a "housing credit system"—will simply require retail and cultural uses, while keeping the residential incentive in place. That system will extend to NoMa and the Capitol Riverfront as well.
- Preserving industrial spaces: As I learned in researching how much space is actually available to medical marijuana cultivation centers, there's precious little land in the city for industrial uses, like storage warehouses and light manufacturing, that serve commercial businesses and maintain employment diversity. The new regs seek to prevent the encroachment of offices and housing by allowing a greater floor area ratio for "production, distribution, and repair" businesses.
- Categories, not lists: Right now, the zoning code proscribes how land can be used with great specificity. Cobblers, icehouses, bowling alleys, laundromats, etc., are types of permitted uses. If your business doesn't fit on the list—like, for example, anything having to do with computers—you're technically out of luck. The new code will instead designate allowed categories of use, like "health care" and "motor-vehicle related," which will be much less of a headache to figure out.
- Overall reorganization: In order to make the whole thing more usable, the code will get restructured, and involve more tables than text (although it's not getting any shorter). That will affect the names of zones, which now have to be checked against a glossary that describe what they mean. "If you pay attention to zoning, it will be a little jarring," project manager Arlova Jackson warns. If you're just trying to understand it for the first time, though, things should get easier.
There's a whole lot more to this, obviously, and things could still change. But those are the major updates. Look out for the Office of Planning to explain this stuff in more detail during a series of community meetings in each ward in 2012.