Housing Complex

Not Asking for a Lot

Late last year, Douglas Development Corporation presented Tenleytown residents with two options. The ground floor of an apartment building it was planning for the site of the defunct Babe’s Billiards on Wisconsin Avenue NW could either become a parking garage—or it could be devoted to retail. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission deliberated, and at its Jan. 12 meeting, it delivered a unanimous verdict: shopping.

The decision might not seem all that surprising, since the site is a block from the Tenleytown Metro station, served by a half-dozen bus lines, and in an area that’s woefully underserved by retail (unless you’re in the market for a mattress or a container). But Tenleytowners are notoriously skeptical of development, particularly development that threatens to worsen the on-street parking situation. Now, a building with five new stories of residential units is set to have no off-street parking at all, and the local ANC gave its stamp of approval.

There’s a green-tinted reason. “The idea is, when you’ve got scarce land and you’ve invested a lot of money in public transit, you ought to take advantage of the fact that there’s this good transportation system,” says Tom Hier, the chairman of neighborhood smart-growth advocacy group Ward 3 Vision. “There are lot of younger people around who wouldn’t have a car if you paid them. So why not take advantage of that?”

The matter is far from settled. Despite the ANC’s initial support for the plan, the body won’t vote formally on it until Oct. 11, and its commissioners are still hammering out the community amenities package they’ll require from Douglas in exchange for the parking-free development. Between now and then, they’re sure to hear from the neighborhood’s very vocal NIMBY contingent, which is normally critical of development but in a particular tizzy over the parking-free plan. Douglas has already made one concession, sacrificing on-street parking permits for the building’s residents.

If the ANC gives the project the go-ahead, there’s still one more hurdle: According to the city’s zoning laws, Douglas is actually required to provide 30 off-street parking spaces for residents of the new building.

The city’s zoning code was adopted in 1958, a time when cars were ascendant, public transit was down and out, and parking seemed like a God-given right to a community of commuters. It mandated a minimum of one parking space for every one to four dwelling units, depending on the building’s zone.

“In 1958, they thought everyone would abandon transit and use their car,” says Cheryl Cort, policy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “We built cities for people and we built suburbs for cars. The 1958 zoning law tried to remake cities for cars.”

The zoning code is in the process of an update that will likely see the minimum parking requirement eased. But in the meantime, an increasing number of developers are doing what Douglas has done with the Babe’s site: requesting, with some degree of community backing, so-called variances to exempt their project from the parking requirement.

According to figures supplied by the Office of Planning, there have been 67 requests since 2003 for exemption from the parking requirements in commercial and commercial-residential zones, 65 of which the Zoning Commission approved. Twenty-nine of those 65 cases, or 45 percent of the total, have been since 2010. In other words, the average number of annual requests in the past two years is about double the average number in the previous seven years.

This isn’t the “war on cars” some armchair critics of urbanism have alleged: Plenty of new buildings have as much parking as ever. But it’s clear that D.C. residents don’t need cars like they once did, and some developers don’t want to be stuck with more parking spaces than they can fill.

***

If you want to understand whydevelopers are increasingly reluctant to incorporate off-street parking into their new buildings, Harriet Tregoning says you should look no further than car-sharing programs like Zipcar and Car2Go.

Where car ownership was once the key to flexible mobility, the director of the city’s Office of Planning explains, that’s no longer the case. Rather than pay thousands of dollars a year for a car that sits idle most of the time—as Tregoning does—D.C. residents are increasingly employing an all-of-the-above approach to getting around town: take the Metro when it’s raining, hop on a Capital Bikeshare bike when it’s sunny, and grab a Zipcar when you need to haul a dresser.

“It’s kind of a 20th-century question to ask, ‘How do you get around?’ or, ‘What is your mode of travel?’” she says. “Because, oh my gosh, in Washington, it depends on the day, it depends on the hour, it depends what plans I have in the evening.”

In that kind of future, mandating a certain number of parking spaces in a new residential building makes no sense. That’s why Tregoning is working to rewrite the parking regulations in the zoning-code update, which she expects will be released in sections over the course of 2013. The changes, as currently laid out, will see the end of the minimum parking requirement within “transit zones”—areas near Metro stations, high-frequency bus routes, or planned streetcar lines—and may reduce the requirements for other buildings of 10 or fewer residential units.

“This is a code that will be in place for decades,” Tregoning says. “So we want to acknowledge that whether or not we regulate parking, it’s a fact that we’re driving less, we’re parking less. And to require someone to invest in something that costs $50,000 to 75,000 per structured underground parking space, and then know that that asset is likely to be stranded, seems a ridiculous way to plan.”

Before the update, as more developers are requesting variances to get out of the parking requirements that are still in place, city officials have grown more open to granting exemptions from the zoning code.

North Capitol Commons, a planned 124-unit building at North Capitol and K Streets NE, is the latest example, having received a variance from the Board of Zoning Adjustment on Tuesday. The application that Be the Change, the developer, submitted for the variance demonstrates the lengths to which developers must go to receive an exemption from the parking minimum. It included a check for $8,320 to cover the application fee (not to mention the sums that Be the Change paid its law firm, Holland & Knight, to prepare the application) and a detailed explanation of why the variance was necessary and would “not cause substantial detriment to the public good.” Holland & Knight laid out the difficulty of constructing parking on the lot, and pointed to the site’s 92/100 rating on Walkscore.com as evidence that parking is not needed.

“We realized even going into this that the expected car ownership was going to be extremely low,” says Chapman Todd, a consultant on the project. “We are less than half a mile from two Metro stations. A bus stop is literally directly in front of our site. It’s about as transit-accessible as you can get.”

But it seems more than a little excessive that Be the Change was forced to fight for a parking exemption, given that all 124 units in the building will be dedicated to affordable housing, and 60 of them will be set aside for people exiting homelessness. The zoning code requires the building to include 31 off-street parking spaces, for a population that has very few cars.

According to Sam Zimbabwe, the associate director of planning, policy, and sustainability at the District Department of Transportation, the zoning update is necessary not only to respond to the city’s changing mobility, but also to spur it along.

“If we provide too much parking off-street, then we end up impacting the decisions people make and the ways people use the transportation system overall,” says Zimbabwe. “For many people, if you own a car, you’re more likely to use it. And so we want to help facilitate people not to own cars if they so choose. And so in some ways providing parking off-street is encouraging them to make a decision in one direction.”

Yet local opposition can force developers to abandon their quests for parking-free buildings. Take the Douglas Tenleytown project.

“In Ward 3, there’s never going to be a unanimity of opinion, and there are some very vocal folks out there who think they need to provide much more parking,” says Tregoning. “So it’s not clear if this project’s going to go forward if there can’t be more evidence of community support for the parking solution they’ve proposed. It’s still up in the air.”

Tregoning worries that if Douglas is discouraged, the company could abandon its plans and simply build a one-story commercial building as a so-called “matter of right,” in conformity with existing zoning regulations. Paul Millstein, the Douglas vice president in charge of the project, confirms her fears.

“If the ANC doesn’t vote to support, I don’t believe we’d go forward. We’d do something minimalistic,” he says. “I’ve gotta shit or get off the pot. I’ve gotta get it done or punt and go matter of right.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • http://leftforledroit.com Left for LeDroit

    Now, a building with five new stories of residential units is set to have no off-street parking at all, and the local ANC gave its stamp of approval.
    ....
    If the ANC gives the project the go-ahead...

    There is a bit more nuance to this.

    ANCs do not approve or deny anything legally binding other than their own budgets, rules, and appointments. They only support or oppose private parties' applications to other District boards, commissions, and committees.

    In the case of zoning relief, the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) or the Zoning Commission (ZC)* must give an ANC's opinion "great weight", meaning the BZA or ZC must formally respond in writing to each of the ANC's points. The BZA and ZC do not, however, have to agree with the ANC in any way whatsoever. In other words, only the BZA or ZC can grant zoning relief and they can decide however they want.

    _____________________
    * The ZC handles larger issues such as zoning text and map amendments, campus plans, and planned unit developments (PUDs). The BZA handles more routine variances and special exceptions (yes, there's a difference) including relief from parking requirements.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/ Aaron Wiener

    You're absolutely right, LfL. I was constrained by space, since this column's running in the paper as well, but if I'd had 500 more words, I would have explained that in greater depth. The ZC/BZA not only isn't bound by the ANC; it also takes into consideration other neighborhood voices -- and in this case, the loudest ones are opposed. So it's by no means a done deal if the ANC gives it the green light. Still, it's a major step forward.

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  • Steve D

    "Shit or get off the pot." Ha. How's that for candid?

  • 20002ist

    North Capitol Commons is a poor example, given that they were required to go to BZA anyway for several other areas of relief. They would have incurred most of the $8300 filing fee and attorney costs even without the parking issue.

  • DC_LovesYou

    The bottom line is folks still drive in 2012. Hell even a zip car counts. Not providing off-street parking for residents who own cars will force them to find spaces on the streets, thus causing wasting time and energy driving around looking for spaces. With that said, I agree that perhaps it's time to update the 1958 law to require less parking set-asides but to completely do away with requiring parking in new projects is a mistake. It's not about the needs of today, it's about the longer term.

  • xmal

    @DC_LovesYou:

    According to the 2009 American Community Survey, more than 50% of District residents do not use a car to get to work (whether driving alone or carpooling). That's an average across the entire District, and here we're talking about an apartment building on Wisconsin, a block away from Tenleytown Station, so the number will have to be even higher.

    If some small portion of the residents really demand Zipcar or parking, there's a market for that.

  • Teddy R

    I certainly hope the ANC is doing its due diligence on this one. A mixed-use building in TENLEYTOWN with NO parking? The ANC should demand that Jemal build a three new schools to deal with the overcrowding.

  • Bob Summersgill

    I like to explain that "Great Weight" means that the agency need only put in writing why the ANC is wrong.

    Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are advisory, as the name says. However they are elected by the neighborhood, so they do get great weight, while unelected neighborhood groups and individuals do not. That is, the ZC and BZA don't have to say in writing why the neighborhood group is wrong.

    Excellent article. Thanks.

  • Mike

    @DC_LovesYou, @xmal

    Census data shows that 35% of DC households had no vehicles, meaning that 65% of DC households have at least one vehicle. The percent of residents that use a vehicle to commute to work is not the data one needs to determine the need for off-street parking.

    According to the census, at least 65% of DC households have at least one vehicle, yet for this site, the parking requirement is one space for every two units, i.e., one space for each of 50% of the units. For many other areas, the requirement is lower. As DC_LovesYou states, doing away with required parking in new projects is a mistake. However, updating the regulations to provide less parking also would be a mistake.

    To be clear, Douglas Development is not only asking to provide no parking, except maybe one Zipcar space, rather than provide the 33 parking spaces for the residences and 53 spaces for the retail space for a total of 86 as currently required. According to the OP report, they are also proposing a building that is more than 50% larger than the PUD that had been approved for this site, a PUD that was supported by the Tenleytown community and quickly approved.

  • DC Guy

    First of all, one has to look at this project in context. It is reusing a building already there. If the developer were to conform to existing parking regulations, they wouldn't be able to without a variance. Given that, they gave the ANC a choice: either a few parking spots or a retail amenity. The ANC chose the latter.

    The proposed zoning regulations do no eliminate parking. They simply eliminate the government imposed minimums. There is a difference. However this development proposal should not be seen as a precedent where the zoning regulations are concerned.

  • Mike

    @DC Guy: The developer said that he plans on reusing the existing building and that the existing building has approximately 20 parking spaces which he will be removing and replacing with a restaurant. He described the restaurant as one that would attract customers from a large area, so presumably many would drive. While the existing spaces are not adequate for this project, removing them and replacing them with a use that will create a large incremental demand for parking seems to be a step in the wrong direction.

    Are you speaking for the ANC? I have not seen an ANC resolution stating a preference for a “retail amenity” over adequate parking, although several of the ANC commissioners expressed their personal preferences.

  • Bob

    The Jemal building in Tenleytown is a bad example for the question of whether parking minimums for large projects should be waived, because Jemal has already committed that the new building will be ineligible for street RPP permits. The transit corridors already have parking that is limited or otherwise restricted (e.g., during rush hours), which would mean that not requiring street parking for new projects would put additional demand on those and nearby streets where parking demand already exceeds parking capacity. While some new residents may choose to forgo owning cars or will use a shared service like zip car, others will require parking somewhere, even if they drive their own vehicles only occasionally. The best way to ensure that new projects without off-street parking are truly "transit-oriented" is to ensure that they will not generate additional demand for limited street parking by restricting RPP eligibility -- as Jemal is agreeing to do. Otherwise, eliminating the street parking requirements, while dressed up as transit-oriented smart growth, really will be just a means for developers to shift their costs of providing parking onto the public streets.

  • deedle

    North Capitol Commons is for homeless people. Not a lot of car owners. They paid those fees with taxpayer money, anyway.

  • Christine

    "Douglas has already made one concession, sacrificing on-street parking permits for the building’s residents"

    I have lived car-free in the District for ten years, and am agnostic as to whether or not this development would be better off with or without off-street parking, but how can a developer eliminate a resident's right to obtain a zoned parking permit for the area in which he or she lives?

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/ Aaron Wiener

    Christine: The only residents affected by this will be those in the new building, which doesn't exist yet. So Douglas, in its lease provisions, will require new residents to agree to forgo street parking permits. If they're not OK with that, they can choose to live elsewhere. It may make the building less attractive to some people, but no one is being denied an existing right.

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  • DC Guy

    @Christine

    If the street address is not RPP, then the residents won't be eligible. Further, as Aaron notes, it can also be part of the lease agreement.

    @Mike

    No, I do not speak for the ANC, but I have been following this closely, as development proposals in that part of the city are essentially sport.

  • Bob

    DC guy:

    You are not correct about RPP eligibility. First of all, if any part of the property touches an RPP zone, then DDOT interprets it to mean that the building is eligible. So just because, say a Wisconsin Avenue address is not zoned, a new multi-unit building can still be eligible if it abuts a side street. Second, any block can petition to become RPP. Only be covenanting (or regulating) that a project is RPP-ineligible (and putting it in the lease agreement, as you suggest), will a no-offstreet-parking project really be restricted from shifting the burden to RPP.

  • DC Guy

    @Bob

    The area on Brandywine Street adjacent to this development project is metered, not zoned. The developer and DDOT have both agreed not to zone the street and not to enable residents to obtain RPP stickers.

    So, what is the problem here?

  • Mike

    @DC Guy,

    Did you do an RPP Block Data Inquiry? According to the DDOT web-site, that block of Brandywine Street is eligible for RPPs.

    If you check the RPP regulations, you would realize that blocks with meters or other parking restrictions can be eligible for RPPs if they are adjacent to existing designated streets eligible for stickers.

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