Balancing Regulations and Local Character Reply

Every city’s zoning code has to balance tensions between two fundamental desires—the desire for order and the desire for neighborhood character.

We express the desire for order when we say things like “it’s only fair that people in one part of the city with the same zoning shouldn’t have more rights than people in another part,” or “it’s too confusing if people in my neighborhood, whose property is zoned the same as mine, are playing by a different set of rules than the ones people elsewhere are trying to follow.” But when we say, “the rules should acknowledge differences in neighborhood character,” or “it’s not appropriate to prescribe cookie-cutter solutions,” we’re talking about a desire for diversity.

The updated zoning rules acknowledge differences in neighborhood character

The updated zoning rules acknowledge differences in neighborhood character

The draft Zoning Update tries to balance these competing goals in a number of ways. First, the draft code sets out a number of “General Rules” that apply citywide. In general, questions like “how large should a loading berth be?” should have the same answers, no matter where you are in the city. As best as we can, we’ve tried to answer those kinds of questions in the General Rules, so everyone has a standard set of rules to follow.

At the same time, there are some rules that are designed to acknowledge the varied character of the District’s neighborhoods. The measurement of building height is a good example. Our general rules for measuring height tell you that you have to start measuring at the grade of the sidewalk. This works well for large parts of the city. But in areas where houses predominate, it’s been traditional for many years to build the first story of the house elevated a bit above the sidewalk, to help ensure privacy. In hilly neighborhoods, forcing you to measure the height of your house beginning at sidewalk grade would create an unfair and unnecessary penalty. So, in the “family” of zones called Residential House zones, the code lets you start measuring at the existing grade of your property.

We even get more specific for particular zones. Again, let’s take building height. We have a couple of zones around the Naval Observatory where, to protect the historic stature and functioning of that facility, we want to make sure that buildings don’t block sight lines. So, within the Residential House rules, we’ve written rules specific to just those zones, that set out some very specific rules to keep building heights low.

As we work through the Zoning Regulations Review process, we’ve found that it may be more appropriate to provide general rules. This can also help make for a more user-friendly code. For example, the existing zoning code is very specific about parking requirements for different land uses within each zone. Right now, an apartment building in a C-2-B zone requires 1 parking space for each 3 dwelling units, while the same building in a C-2-C zone requires 1 space for every 4 units. There may be a basis for this — many C-2-C zones good transit access and are centrally located, but the requirement isn’t driven by real world data. In the draft proposal, we’ve simplified the parking requirements, so that all Mixed Use zones would have the same parking requirement (1 space per 4 units, with an exemption for the first 9 units).

In other cases, we’re proposing revisions that allow more fine-grained requirements, to reflect the real differences among neighborhoods. For example, we’ve worked with citizens in Georgetown to examine their buildings, and recognized that the 40-foot height limit that currently exists for most buildings in low-density residential zones isn’t consistent with the historic pattern of development in that neighborhood. So, we’ve proposed to lower that limit to 35 feet. After the new code is adopted, we may be able to work with other neighborhoods to enact similar changes, based on the building patterns most prevalent there.

As we work through the many issues in the zoning code, we’ll constantly be struggling with the question of whether a rule should be general or specific – and how specific it should be.

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