Housing Complex

Office of Planning Neuters Zoning Update, and Then Some

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Pop-ups like this one on V Street NW would be restricted under a new proposal from the Office of Planning.

Last summer, smart-growth advocates were horrified—and car defenders delighted—to learn that the Office of Planning had decided to scale back its plans that would have allowed developers to construct fewer off-street parking spaces near high-capacity transit lines. As part of an update to the city's 1958 zoning code, the office, led then by Harriet Tregoning, had proposed eliminating parking minimums within half a mile of Metro stations and a quarter of a mile of high-frequency bus routes, as well as downtown, giving developers the freedom to build as many or as few spaces as they thought the market demanded. The proposal, Tregoning said, "was really wigging people out," and so rather than eliminate the minimum altogether in transit zones, the Office of Planning opted to cut the requirements in half.

Evidently that hasn't stopped people from wigging out, because the Office of Planning just pulled back on its proposal once again.

The office has released a revised version of the zoning update, and it retreats further from the initial ambitions to make D.C.'s new developments more transit-oriented and less car-centric. Under the new proposal, even the scaled-back change—cutting the parking requirements in half rather than eliminating them altogether—is gone for major bus corridors, leaving it intact just around Metro stations. The proposal also reduces the requirements for bicycle parking in large new buildings that were laid out in the earlier draft.

But the Office of Planning has gone even further, proposing to impose new restrictions on additions to rowhouses and reducing many neighborhoods' potential for residential density from what's currently allowed.

The office wants to cut the permissible height of buildings in rowhouse neighborhoods from the current 40 feet to 35 feet. Anything beyond that would require special approval from the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Such approval can be costly and time-consuming.

Some residents will no doubt cheer the proposal, given the outrage over certain unattractive additions to rowhouses, known as pop-ups. And the change would indeed give the city some control over the aesthetics of pop-ups: If a rowhouse owner wanted to build above 35 feet, he or she would have to win approval from the BZA, which could weigh in on visual grounds.

But other homeowners will surely be upset if they bought a house thinking they could build an extra floor up to 40 feet, only to be told now that they can't without hiring a lawyer and going before the BZA. Some might scramble for building permits to make the additions before the new rules take effect.

Likewise, the new proposal would restrict the ability to convert a rowhouse into multiple units without special permission. It would also eliminate the earlier proposal to allow accessory dwelling units in converted garages and carriage houses as a matter of right, instead requiring a special exception for these units.

Office of Planning Interim Director Ellen McCarthy says the changes came in response to public criticism of pop-ups and of the proposed changes to parking regulations. "The overarching thinking was trying to be responsive to so many of the concerns we’ve heard over the past couple of years," she says.

The latest proposal includes several other changes. New corner stores, which have been essentially banned under the current zoning code but would have been allowed under the Office of Planning's earlier proposal, would now face certain restrictions. For instance, they'd have to devote at least 20 percent of their space to perishable goods such as produce, meat, milk, fish, and frozen foods. That could serve as an incentive for new corner stores to offer healthier products—or as a disincentive for them to open in the first place.

The proposal would also force new retailers in excess of 50,000 square feet to apply for a special exception from the city's zoning officials. This is almost certainly a response to the Walmart stores that are opening across the city, which have aroused some public criticism but couldn't be prevented by the city, since they were built as a matter of right under current zoning law.

There's also a provision to ban camping on alley lots in rowhouse zones unless they receive a special exception. That's apparently in response to the cluster of tiny houses that's cropped up in an alley triangle in the Stronghold neighborhood, to the annoyance of some neighbors who used to park their cars there. The owners of these self-built homes aren't currently allowed to reside there. The people behind the tiny house project hoped that the zoning update would make it easier for people to live in alley dwellings; instead, this change could make it harder.

With the proposed revisions to the zoning update, certain top priorities of the rewrite would still be accomplished—principally the need to simplify the now-inscrutable code. But in her many public presentations pitching the Office of Planning's earlier version, Tregoning emphasized the need to respond to a growing city population by encouraging more residential density and transportation choices other than car ownership. Tregoning hoped that the move to allow more accessory dwelling units would ease the housing crunch and slow the rising cost of housing, and that the elimination of parking requirements near transit would promote Metro and bus ridership, walking, biking, and car sharing. Instead, the latest proposal not only retreats from the accessory dwelling unit change, but also limits the ability to turn rowhouses into multiple units, and scales back the parking changes.

Still, McCarthy maintains the latest version would promote more sustainable growth in the city. "I think our policy is still basically one where we're still committed to smart growth, we’re still committed to being consistent with the goals that were set in the comprehensive plan," she says. "But where there are real concerns that have been raised by people who’ve testified before the Zoning Commission, we’re trying to make sure we’ve been responsive to them."

Update: A reader points out that V Street NW would not specifically be affected by the pop-up proposal, since it's not zoned R-4. But many similar rowhouse streets would be.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery