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A second act for the walkable neighborhood

Change can be frightening, especially when it affects our own neighborhoods. That’s why it’s no surprise that the planners who are rewriting the District’s and Montgomery County’s zoning codes are running into trepidation, misinformation, anger and even conspiracy theories at community meetings.

The District and Montgomery, like most of our region, are indeed changing. But this change is happening on its own, unbidden by any planning official. The walkable neighborhoods of the D.C. region are growing more popular with residents of all ages, and many people want amenities such as restaurants and shops within walking distance and a convenient transit line to work.

In response, planners are trying to thread a difficult needle. They want to remove barriers to better, more inclusive walkable neighborhoods, but they also are trying to preserve single-family neighborhoods that remain popular with many others.

This effort is, in fact, long overdue. Most of the District’s current zoning dates to 1958; Montgomery’s code was written in 1977. Both have multiyear efforts underway to bring zoning up to date with the needs of the 21st century.

In the middle to later decades of the 20th century, U.S. cities, including the D.C. region, changed dramatically. Hundreds of thousands of people moved from cities to new suburbs fueled by cheap land, plentiful automobiles, massive government investment in road infrastructure and a measure of fear about crime and racial tension.

Amid this change, planners of the day sought to banish the old urban living patterns, which thinkers at the time thought irrevocably blighted and unclean. They created zoning rules that forbade rowhouses and that segregated homes from shopping. In short, they rendered illegal the historic neighborhood form that created such places as Georgetown, Capitol Hill and Old Town Alexandria.

We have learned much since then. Many still enjoy living in the classic suburban houses, but many others don’t want that. Couples who do not yet have children and empty nesters with grown children make up a rapidly growing percentage of the population. Many of them, and an increasing number of families with children, want to live in walkable places — if they can afford to. After a half-century of laws forbidding any new such neighborhoods, there are precious few of them, making those that still exist increasingly expensive.

This has led planners to a simple conclusion: Legalize walkable neighborhoods once more, and let our underused commercial and industrial spaces grow into new neighborhoods that satisfy this demand.

Amid all the talk about the virtues of walkability, some residents of single-family neighborhoods wonder whether planners consider them obsolete. Is there a plan afoot to radically remake every suburb into a land of apartment towers?

There is not. To the contrary, both the District and Montgomery, and most planners anywhere, have committed to essentially leave suburban-style, detached-house neighborhoods alone. Little if anything will change there. Neither zoning code significantly alters the height or density of buildings in such neighborhoods.

The zoning rewrite does relax a few rules for these areas. The District’s would let homes accommodate the numbers of residents that they used to 50 years ago, enable senior citizens to remain and thrive in their homes as they age, and bring zoning into line with the built environment that exists today.

Montgomery is not going to stop being a largely suburban county, but it already has large and thriving centers, such as Bethesda and Silver Spring, that are indeed urban and will continue to grow. The District’s population increased from 2000 to 2010 for the first decade since 1950.

These places are already changing. Planners cannot stop this nor are they responsible for it; rather, with tools like the zoning rewrite, they are trying to manage and shape it positively. Shouting down the zoning rewrite process will not stop this change, and saying that anyone who likes these more urban places should leave, as a few have done, won’t turn back the clock.

There is little to fear and much to be excited about in the District’s and Montgomery’s zoning updates. Planners in both jurisdictions have made enormous efforts to listen to the concerns of residents and to formulate new zoning codes that are, if anything, quite demure about change in many ways.

Where they do adjust existing regulations, they make it legal to have the very types of neighborhoods that historically characterized much of our region, which many people so treasure today, and which supply and demand have rendered out of reach for too many current and aspiring neighbors.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.

 
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