D.C. zoning revamp stokes residents’ fears about changing city


The skyline of Washington, D.C. (Ron Edmonds/AP)
December 1, 2012

District planning officials are rewriting the city’s zoning rules for the first time in 54 years, a process that has hastened anxieties about growth and at times has erupted into a pitched debate about the future of the city.

The proposed changes are small — allowing a corner store here, fewer parking spaces there — but the debate has grown in recent months, pitting some longtime residents and civic activists against city officials and advocates of denser transit- and pedestrian-oriented development.

Planners say the changes are necessary to shape a growing city, one that could see hundreds of thousands of new residents in coming decades as congestion fouls automobile commutes, energy prices rise and environmental considerations become more urgent. Detractors fear that the changes will dramatically change the character, or at least the car-centric way of life, in outlying residential neighborhoods.

Linda Schmitt, a Chevy Chase resident who is organizing opposition to the rewrite, said the changes could alarm residents who chose their neighborhoods with particular expectations.

“You put down your life savings, you pony up the mortgage, you take care of your property, you fix the roof, you try to be a good neighbor . . . and all of a sudden somebody wants to turn the apple cart over,” she said. “Who asked us if this was something we wanted? We don’t want this.”

But city planning director Harriet Tregoning said the proposed changes are modest, particularly in residential neighborhoods like Schmitt’s, but are needed to manage the District’s growth.

“It’s a necessary thing that we have to do if we really want the city to be prepared for the future,” she said. “It would be worse than a tragedy to allow people to continue to build for a 1960s city.”

The rewrite is also intended to organize and simplify a cache of regulations that has become a palimpsest of amendments and overlays. The new code will replace blocks of text with tables and illustrations to make it simpler for a property owner to figure out how their land can be used. Antiquated terms like “penny arcade” and “telegraph office” would be replaced by broader, less-explicit categories of acceptable land uses.

In terms of encouraging growth, the changes are somewhat marginal. Building density standards, for instance, will remain largely untouched outside of downtown and emerging neighborhoods to its east, where planners want to offer incentives for residential development.

But controversy has emerged over smaller changes meant to reflect policies that encourage walking and transit use, mixed residential and commercial development, and environmental sustainability.

Driving force behind debate

To discourage short car trips, for instance, corner stores would be made legal for the first time in a half-decade in denser, rowhouse-type neighborhoods. (Stores that existed prior to 1958 continue to operate in older neighborhoods, particularly Capitol Hill and Georgetown.)

Homeowners in most neighborhoods would have more freedom to create “accessory” apartments on their properties — for instance, basement apartments or garage dwellings that are not currently allowed or require the approval of a city zoning board.

Commercial property developers would be required to include environmentally sensitive measures in their projects, such as green roofs, rain gardens and tree canopy.

And in perhaps the single most controversial plan, planners propose to eliminate minimum parking requirements for parcels in “transit zones” — areas within a half-mile of a Metro stop or a quarter-mile of a major bus line.

Residents settling in transit-rich city areas are increasingly opting to live without cars, Tregoning said, adding that it makes little sense to require developers to build expensive parking for which there is little demand.

“I’m just looking for more balance in our transportation system,” Tregoning said. “A resilient city is a city that gives people choices, and increasingly people want those choices.”

The District’s zoning code was last overhauled in 1958, when urban planning was consumed with how to adapt large cities to the automobile.

The planner who led the effort, Harold MacLean Lewis, declared in a 1956 report that the zoning code then was “incapable of adapting the physical structure of the city to new forms of urban living.” Those new forms, he believed, would revolve around the car’s “universal use as the principal means of transportation will continue.”

But it did not.

“We thought public transit would become a thing of the past, that everyone would have their own private automobiles,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supports the zoning changes. “We’ve certainly rethought that attitude over the years. . . . It’s not compatible with the historic fabric of our neighborhoods, which we realized that we loved.”

D.C. is only the latest American city to revise zoning rules dating to the 1950s and 1960s to reflect a new planning consensus that the car is, at best, only one player in the urban ecosystem. New York, Baltimore and Buffalo have rewrites underway.

But the prospect of new residents without new parking spaces have some D.C. residents, mainly but not exclusively in Upper Northwest neighborhoods, fearful that now-bountiful curbside parking could grow scarce.

“There’s been a big push to make having a car less appealing,” said Alma Gates, who is monitoring the zoning update for the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, an influential organization of civic activists. “However, I think anyone who lives in the Palisades area, we can’t get around otherwise. We have very bad bus service here. We’re not near Metro. . . . We don’t have a parking problem here, but we don’t want one.”

When Tregoning appeared last month at a meeting of the Federation of Civic Associations in Woodley Park to explain the zoning changes, much of the questioning concerned parking. At one point, she noted that 25 percent of District households do not have a car. (Census numbers indicate the figure is closer to 35 percent.)

“Not in my neighborhood,” replied federation president Anne Mohnkern Renshaw, a Chevy Chase resident.

Public meetings start soon

The D.C. Zoning Commission is expected to consider and adopt the new zoning code starting in the spring. City planners are holding a series of community meetings from Dec. 8 though Jan. 16, one in each of the city’s eight wards.

The process, underway for four years, has been complicated as the debate has grown to encompass anxieties over city growth that have little to do with the zoning proposals — the proliferation of bicycle amenities, new parking policies and a proposal to relax the federal law restricting building heights.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has joined with an urban-planning blog, Greater Greater Washington, to organize supporters of the changes to attend the meetings and the commission hearings expected next year.

David Alpert, the blog’s proprietor, said he was concerned that city planners have already retreated from proposals that would further restrict parking and would have given homeowners even more freedom to create accessory dwellings. He fears the proposals, which he called “very moderate” and even “timid” in some cases, will be watered down unless supporters make themselves heard.

Opponents, meanwhile, feel that despite scores of meetings, the planning office has at times been evasive and unresponsive to the concerns of residential neighborhoods.

Schmitt said she believes planners have ignored the input of longtime residents to cater to “a single segment of the population: this future population that isn’t even here.”

The most recent census estimates indicate that the city added an average of 1,000 residents a month in the 15 months ending in July 2011. Tregoning said she believes that rate of growth has continued since.

Schmitt acknowledged “a slight bump” in population. “That doesn’t mean you turn the city upside down,” she said.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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