Housing Complex

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.

  • http://ardvaark.net Brian Vargas

    I had heard rumors that there might also be regulations that made it more difficult to pop-up a row house, but without conferring the entire burden of historic preservation. Did you happen to see something like that in your read-through?

  • rt

    Why another year? Another year for nimbys to pressure Gray to chip away at this.

  • lex

    Does the new "mother in law" apartments rule refer to garages that touch an alley? Even if the alley isn't 30 feet wide? Are they rent-able?

    If so I can see that having a huge impact in a lot of desirable close-in neighborhoods.

  • Sarah

    I don't like cutting back the parking minimums (and preventing developers from leasing parking to others) -- it will just push more parking cars onto the streets. A new yuppie apartment building just opened up nearby with no parking and now the streets within a few blocks are always full. The real question is how DC allows people with VA, PA and other out-of-state plates to get residential parking permit stickers. That doesn't seem right.

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  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    How do reduced parking minimums prevent developers from leasing parking to others? They can still build that extra parking if they want to.

  • Sarah

    @ Alex B

    If the summary is accurate, it says "also, the code will make it harder to rent out those spaces, which had allowed them [the developers] to recoup the cost of overparking their projects."

    This change doesn't make sense.

  • colin

    any mention of change of status for alley lots/structures to be legal dwellings?

  • Kevin

    I like allowing commerce in neighborhoods and not relegating it all to (sometimes distant, crowded) commercial strips. It also makes sense to acknowledge that development around Metro stations is unique.

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  • Typical DC BS

    The "bullseye" concept of development that Arlington County implemented decades ago has proven to be a winner. You can build to great heights immediately around / on top of Metro stops, with heights and density decreasing the further away from a Metro station you are. I know the height restrictions in DC are "set in stone", but we need to realize some tweaking in density and building heights are necessary.

  • S

    @Typical DC BS - The height restriction is literally set in stone. It would take an act of Congress to change it. What could and should change is not allowing any NIMBYs to prevent density from going in on transit routes such as upper Wisconsin Ave.

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Brian Vargas

    I asked about pop-ups, and was told that the new regs don't do anything specific to address them. As long as they don't violate height and FAR limits for their zone, neighborhoods that aren't in historic districts have pretty much no prohibitions against them, as far as I'm aware.

  • Stephen Smith

    ...there's precious little land in the city for industrial uses...

    Little land, sure. "Precious" little, though, implies that people want the land and can't get it. But given the number of vacant industrial properties on Florida Ave. and NY Ave. in NE, this seems not to be the case.

  • Hillman

    Hard to comment on the Zoning forum, so I'll comment here instead.

    Lydia: Can you provide more info on the in-law housing on alleyways? I'm a HUGE proponent of this. A lot of other cities (Seattle, Baltimore, etc.) are starting to see their alleyways as a prime resource and a good way to include new housing in eco friendly ways.

    Of course the downside is you lose parking.

    The solution is simple. Require that existing parking be maintained. That would mean either building the alley structure up a bit into the lot to maintain the parking or, if you are converting a garage, require that the garage be maintained and the alley house can be built atop that.

    Also a big fan of allowing corner properties in residential areas to be commercial. Specifically, allowing them to be neighborhood restaurants.

    I love how in Philly you can go to literally a corner neighborhood restaurant.

    In DC we have to walk to designated commercial strips, which can often be five or ten blocks away.

    Perfect example is Jimmy Ts on Capitol Hill. Serves a real neighborhood need.

    We should allow more of this.

    But encourage restaurants, not just more dry cleaners, which we seem to have plenty of.

  • http://brettcairns.ca Brett Cairns

    Zoning is an issue that causes frustration in almost every town and city mainly because of the fact that codes are dated and the processes to change zoning is far too long and bureaucratic. If the changes discussed above have positive results, the lessons should be shared