Myth vs. Fact: Is the Zoning Update Out of Control? 2

Myth: The zoning update has exceeded its scope.

Fact: The Zoning Update was mandated by the Comprehensive Plan, which sets out a very broad scope. According to the Comp Plan, “the Zoning Regulations need substantial revision and reorganization, ranging from new definitions to updated development and design standards, and even new zones.” Nevertheless, when the process started in 2007, a few stakeholders—including at least one member of the Zoning Commission at the time—cautioned us that the process should be a “review,” and not necessarily a “rewrite.” OP took that mandate seriously, and began the process by reviewing the current code and identifying specific problems that we needed to address. Was the code clear about how to measure the height of buildings, or could people game the system to get taller buildings than was intended? How did treating nonconforming courts and sideyards as part of “building area” create unintended incentives to fill in those narrow spaces? These are the types of very technical questions that we set out to answer. More…

Save the Dates! 6

OP will be holding eight community meetings to discuss draft proposed changes to the existing zoning regulations.  We’ve been working on revisions and reorganization of the zoning regulations for the last four years, and have received valuable input at task force, topic-focused working group, and community meetings.  We are now preparing draft proposals for modernizing the zoning regulations, and are looking for your input at a series of community meetings, one in each ward, to be held in early December and early January.   At these meetings, we will describe the process to date, present the draft proposals, and solicit and listen to community feedback.  We will then make additional changes to the draft proposals, based on your comments, and take them to the Zoning Commission for consideration at public hearings. More…

Myth vs. Fact: Could You Have a Dry Cleaner Next Door? 1

Editor’s Note: We frequently hear some strange things about the Zoning Update. Some appear to be based on actual proposals we’ve made, but have been somewhat garbled or misheard—much like the old children’s game of “telephone”. The Office of Planning has started this “Myth vs. Fact” series as a way to clear up some of the confusion.

Myth: The Zoning Update would allow businesses like dry cleaners and funeral homes in residential zones.

Fact: No one is going to be able to establish a dry cleaner or funeral home in a residential zone. We have proposed a very limited set of permissions that would allow small-scale, neighborhood-serving commercial uses in rowhouse zones. These permissions have been narrowly tailored to allow businesses like a deli (but not a restaurant), a corner store (but not a large-scale grocery) or a shoe repair shop or florist. The proposal also would allow something like a valet service, where clothes could be dropped off and picked up, but any dry cleaning would have to be done off site.

How Can Zoning Help Us Build an Inclusive City? 1

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 District’s Comprehensive Plan calls for the revision and reorganization of the city’s zoning regulations.

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.

“A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter…” 5

Do you remember the Sesame Street episode where the little girl is sent to the store by her mother to pick up a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter? For those DC residents with a corner store in their neighborhood, picking up a gallon of milk or a stick of butter may be as easy as running around the corner.

Although many DC neighborhoods feature corner stores, current zoning does not allow for them. The Office of Planning is recommending a change to the city’s zoning ordinance to include a provision that would continue to grandfather existing stores and allow for new corner stores, as well as other limited service, retail, and arts-related uses, in certain rowhouse zones (currently known as the R-3 and R-4 zones).

Corner stores provide convenient access to goods and services for residents.

Corner stores provide convenient access to goods and services for residents and this has a number of benefits for the District. Programs such as DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners can bring fresh fruits and vegetables to corner stores in food deserts. Corner stores make it easier for the elderly to age in place. If driving is not possible and taking transit is difficult, seniors may be able to walk a few blocks to the nearest corner store to pick up groceries. Convenient access to food and other goods and services can also eliminate automobile trips and reduce emissions.


Why Now? 2

The current Zoning Ordinance of the District of Columbia was approved in 1958. Many of the problems with the current regulations are those that you would expect from a 50 year old document. Outdated terms like “telegraph office” and “tenement house” still reside in our regulations, concepts like parking standards and antenna regulations are based on 1950s technology, and sustainable development had not even been envisioned. For several years, the District has seen a steady increase in the number of text and map amendments presented to the Commission. New overlay requests, zoning consistency actions, and changes to the text are increasingly common.

The countless amendments to the ordinance over the last half century have served to keep the regulations relevant. However, piling amendment on top of amendment over the years has problems of its own. Even the simplest of text amendments have become extremely complicated as years of changes have made it very difficult to cross-reference interwoven sections and prevent unintended consequences.

All of these issues have led to the recognition that an overhaul is needed. The mayor made the kickoff of this process one of his first year initiatives. Just like the last time the regulations were updated, the Council has approved a new Comprehensive Plan that calls for “substantial revision and reorganization, ranging from new definitions to updated development and design standards, and even new zones.” The Office of Planning has committed to undertake this effort and is leading the public review of our zoning regulations.

Why Now August 2012-revised