At first glance, meeting the District’s proposed Green Area Ratio (GAR) requirement might seem like a daunting proposition. Fear not, satisfying the GAR requirements will not be as difficult as you think. The GAR is a way for the District to ensure, through the zoning code, that new projects and significant additions meet minimum environmental standards. The GAR requirements work in tandem with the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new stormwater management requirements (MS-4). Together, GAR and MS-4 require property owners to incorporate landscape elements and environmental site design components into their projects to reduce stormwater runoff, improve air quality, and mitigate the urban heat island effect. Do these new requirements (GAR and MS-4) mean that site design has to be approached in a new way? In some cases, absolutely, but the intent is to encourage designers to approach site design in a holistic way; improving the District’s environmental quality while simultaneously satisfying the GAR and MS-4 requirements.
First, let’s review some basic information about GAR applicability. GAR would not apply to one-family detached and semi-detached dwellings, although they are required to provide a certain percentage of pervious surface on the lot. If you live in an R-1, R-2, R-3, or R-4 zone, GAR would not apply.
Second, let’s try to address some concerns that have been expressed about GAR. We’ve heard people say that the GAR might conflict with other planning goals, such as creating lively and engaging streetscapes, and could instead result in sites with overly large setbacks. However, the GAR requirement could be met while still allowing for effective site design while including project elements consistent with the District’s planning goals, such as pedestrian plazas that include public seating, cafe seating and retail opportunities. Examples exist where landscape performance features have been incorporated into designs that accommodate both gathering spaces and green features.Extensive green roofs have been installed under walking grates at the American Society of Landscape Architects’ downtown headquarters. University of the District of Columbia’s Van Ness campus has incorporated an intensive green roof and commencement gathering areas, as well as a harvest/reuse system, into the main pedestrian plaza over the parking structure. In addition, there are several other ways designers could meet the GAR requirement, including the use of permeable pavers, vegetated walls, or planters with trees or native plant species.
Third, the way the GAR is calculated means that the required ratio can be met in several ways. Many of the GAR requirements are additive in nature, meaning that some elements could be double-counted. For example, a property owner including trees with groundcover plants underneath could obtain points for both the trees and the groundcover. A property owner including an intensive, occupied green roof with 36″ of soil planted with trees, shrubs and groundcovers, could get points for the green roof, trees and shrubs. If the applicant uses native plants, the project could qualify for bonus points.
Fourth, the GAR also has a review process where an applicant can ask for a special exception at the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) to request a change in the required ratio. The applicant would have to show that complying with the landscape standards is impractical because of the size of the lot, or other conditions relating to the lot or surrounding area that would tend to make full compliance unduly restrictive, costly, or unreasonable. So, as for that condensate recovery irrigation system you have been itching to include in your site plan, while such systems are currently not part of the GAR, a special exception case could possibly be made at the BZA.
The Zoning Commission is reviewing the proposed GAR regulations at this time and, on April 8, 2013, re-opened the public comment period for the proposed GAR text amendment for 30 days. Here’s a little bit more on applicability. GAR would not apply to projects already in the pipeline. OP is recommending a GAR phased-in effective date of October 1, 2013. GAR would not apply to projects which already have an approval from the Zoning Commission or Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). The GAR would not apply to projects that are matter-of-right and are well into design and engineering, or in the process of having a building permit reviewed by the city. In addition, there are a few projects that have gone through Large Tract Review (LTR) and are proceeding in conformance with the review conditions; OP recommends an additional one year phase-in for LTR projects provided they meet a minimum GAR of 0.1. OP has also proposed that the GAR would not apply to buildings undergoing only alterations or repairs.