The District of Columbia is many things to many people. It is a national capital; a city of diverse neighborhoods; a tourist attraction; a regional economic center; a place to live, shop, work, and play.
From its founding, the District has been guided by plans to create a diverse, beautiful, thriving city that can balance all of these different factors. In 2006, the District adopted a new Comprehensive Plan that maps out a vision for how the city will grow, change, and preserve what’s best about it over the first few decades of the 21st century.The main theme of this new plan is “growing an inclusive city.”
A vision is essential in deciding how we want to manage change, but it is only the first step along the way. The Comprehensive Plan outlines a number of steps that citizens and District officials will need to take to make the vision a reality. One of those steps is to revise and reorganize the city’s zoning regulations.
We’ve discussed previously why we’re undertaking this massive effort now. But how can a new zoning code help us grow the inclusive city we’ve envisioned?
Have you ever picked up the District’s zoning code and tried to read it? If so, the first thing you probably noticed is that it’s pretty heavy (it currently runs more than 800 pages). The second thing you’ll notice is that a lot of the language is difficult to read—unless you’re a lawyer. The third thing (assuming you haven’t already given up) is that it’s hard to figure out how the code is organized. The chapters don’t have clear relationships to one another, and it’s hard to figure out why a set of rules is in one chapter as opposed to another. Some of the more important regulations are buried in a chapter titled “Miscellaneous.” All of this can make it very difficult to figure out what you can do on your property (or what your neighbor can do on hers).
So what are we proposing to make things better? Unfortunately, the overall length of the code won’t change much. But much of that length will now be taken up by features that make it easier to find information and figure out what’s going on. We’ll have more tables that allow you to look up requirements more quickly. We’ll have graphics that depict the rules (as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words). And the code will be reorganized so there’s a clear structure, and a reader will always know which rules are “general” (applying citywide) and which ones are specific to a particular zone.
How does this lead to a more inclusive city? By making it easier for average citizens to figure out the rules, we’re creating a more level playing field. Your ability to invest in your home, or to participate in a public discussion about development in your neighborhood, shouldn’t depend on whether you can afford a high-priced lawyer to make sense of it all.
Washington’s diverse neighborhoods are part of what makes this city so strong—and so desirable to live in. This diversity is reflected not only in our people, but in the character of our buildings.While there are some commonalities, we know that the typical rowhouse in Georgetown looks different than the typical rowhouse in Anacostia. Yet our current regulations treat them as basically the same, with a set of rules for lot width, height, and side setbacks that don’t really work well for either neighborhood. In these and other neighborhoods, people often complain about “pop-ups” and “McMansions” that are out of scale, compared to homes on the same block.
We’re proposing a code that will have some new general rules that will prevent some of the worst offenders. These include rules that limit the games people can play with the height of buildings—in some cases adding a full extra story beyond what the regulations are intended to allow. We’ve also developed a toolkit that will allow communities to work with the Office of Planning to establish local standards that better reflect the character of individual neighborhoods.
By doing this, we’re acknowledging that the cookie-cutter rules that have been in place for the last 50 years have failed to recognize and celebrate the differences among neighborhoods, threatening the characteristics that make these places unique and lovable.
If we’re going to build an inclusive city, we have to respect the fact that people make different choices about how to live in the city, and different types of households have different needs. A family with two children may want a detached home, with several bedrooms and a yard to play in, and easy access to a car to shuttle the kids to school and activities. Once the children are grown up, many couples decide that they need less living space, and want to be in an apartment building or condo where more of their daily needs are within an easy walk.
One of the biggest choices families and individuals living in the District make is whether to own a car. Fortunately, we live in a city that makes that choice easier for people to go car-free (or “car-lite”). Unfortunately, our current regulations make some very outdated assumptions about how people live in DC today. Roughly 35 percent of households in the District live without an automobile—more than any city in the nation, other than New York. These families live all over the city—from downtown apartments to single-family homes. Yet our zoning regulations still say that every single-family home must provide at least one parking space, even in neighborhoods where the housing stock far predates the automobile era. And the regulations do not have enough flexibility to allow new multifamily development to cater to car-free and car-lite households.
Reforming our parking requirements will help us grow an inclusive city in another way—by supporting more affordable housing options. Did you know that a parking space can add as much as $50,000 to the cost of a housing unit? By forcing developers to build more parking than the market demands, the current regulations pass the costs of parking on to all households. Our Comprehensive Plan calls for us to find ways to “unbundle” the cost of parking, ensuring that families that choose to live without cars will not be subsidizing the choices of others.
One of the District’s key advantages over our neighboring jurisdictions—and over other cities around the nation—is the presence of a large number of highly walkable neighborhoods. A key measure of walkability is the number of services a person can get to within a quarter-mile or so. Do you have a corner store, a dry cleaner, a post office, and a coffee shop within a 5- or 10-minute walk of your home? If so, your life is probably much more convenient than if you had to hop in the car every time you wanted to visit one of these places. Your property values may even be higher.
Increasing the walkability of neighborhoods helps us grow an inclusive city in a very important way—by ensuring that neighborhoods can serve people of all ages and abilities. We’ve heard residents tell us that their first memory of independence as a child was being sent to the corner store to pick up a gallon of milk for dinner. And as more of our citizens want to “age in place,” it’s important to have the option of living in a neighborhood where essential services are only a short walk away.
We’re proposing some changes to allow a small variety of corner stores and similar services in the city’s rowhouse neighborhoods. In many instances, these changes would take effect on blocks that historically had commercial services, but where commercial is no longer allowed due to zoning changes.
We’ve talked a lot about how the zoning update will mean more choices for District residents, but it’s also important to talk about the consequences of our choices. The choices we make about how to develop the city, where to focus new development, how much driving is necessary to do, and so on, will have significant ramifications for us, for future generations—and for the planet. In 2006, the District’s greenhouse gas emissions averaged more than 18 tons per resident. Tackling emissions from both our built environment and the means of transportation we use are two of the most significant ways we can protect future generations from the effects of climate change. We also have significant steps that we must take to reduce stormwater runoff and protect the city’s “green infrastructure.”
In addition to reforming our parking requirements, we’re proposing a variety of other strategies to support sustainable modes of transportation and lower our carbon footprint. For example, we’re suggesting big improvements to bicycle facilities in private development. We’re asking people who build parking lots to devote more space for landscaping and tree canopy. And we’re proposing that large parking facilities set aside spaces for car-sharing vehicles.
We’re also trying to integrate environmental rules into the new zoning code in a much more comprehensive way. Properties in lower-density residential zones would have a requirement to provide a certain percentage of pervious surface, to allow stormwater to infiltrate into our aquifers. New commercial and multifamily developments will be asked to meet a new “Green Area Ratio” score that gives points for rain gardens, on-site renewable energy production, green roofs, and other environmental features.
By thinking about how we make development in the District of Columbia contribute to the long-term environmental sustainability of the city, we’re ensuring that we’ll continue to grow an inclusive city for many generations to come.
Get Involved, Learn More
If we’re going to grow an inclusive city, we have to include everyone. That’s where you come in. We’ve had hundreds of public meetings over the last five years, and we’re nearing the end of the process. But there’s still time to have an impact, and be heard. Stay tuned to ZoningDC.org for updates on how to get involved!