As land use planning changes, ‘zoning’ is no longer appropriate

February 15, 2013

Let’s dump the word “zoning,” as in zoning ordinances that govern how land is developed and how buildings often are designed. Land-use regulation is still needed, but zoning increasingly has become a conceptually inappropriate term, an obsolete characterization of how we plan and shape growth.

Principles and methods of land use planning, transportation, regulation and real estate development are changing, as are demographics and social norms. Zoning conventions are no longer conventional. Throughout metropolitan Washington, zoning transformations are evident in dozens of new development or redevelopment projects.

Traditional zoning first took hold in the early 20th century with a clearly logical intent, as the word implies: to establish and keep apart discretely delineated areas of land use within counties and municipalities. Single-purpose zones ensured separation of incompatible uses such as dwellings and factories.

Zoning’s aspirations were essentially utilitarian, not aesthetic. Zoning rarely addressed or set guidelines for urban design and architectural quality. Rather, it protected public health and safeguarded property values by preventing negative effects attributable to laissez-faire real estate development.

Within each distinct zone, laws typically allowed only certain types of use, such as detached one-family homes or commercial buildings. Zoning also specified building densities and height limits, minimum yard and setback dimensions and minimum parking space requirements. Those zoning criteria have persisted.


Zoning is increasingly an outdated term. (Roger K. Lewis/Roger K. Lewis)

Fortunately, mixed-use development is at last beginning to supersede single-use development, especially to make new or revitalized areas more walkable. No one proposes building factories in the middle of residential neighborhoods. But today’s master plans, despite current zoning, increasingly envision communities that encompass not only diverse housing types but also retail shops and stores, restaurants, offices, cultural destinations and recreational facilities.

Prescribed maximum densities — dwelling units per acre or total building square footage — allowed under existing zoning ordinances are becoming negotiable and more flexible. Density can increase for several reasons, frequently not because of zoning but because of contracts or covenants signed by property owners, tenants, governments and sometimes citizen organizations.

Governments can grant a developer additional density rights in return for public improvements or amenities not required by zoning. Benefits offered by developers may include additional parkland, construction of a community facility, space in buildings for nonprofit or cultural entities, off-site street or utility improvements or a specified percentage of affordable housing units in addition to market-rate units.

Linked to density are increased building heights in appropriate locations and on sites that make urban design and architectural sense. Places exist in cities, towns and suburbs where higher buildings can become iconic landmarks, better enclose civic spaces, take advantage of favorable views and topography and contribute to activating streetscapes. Owing to greater tax receipts, higher buildings and denser development also yield fiscal benefits.

Recognizing the potential in allowing building height increases, the D.C. Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission, prompted by Congress, have just begun a study of the District’s 1910 Height of Buildings Act limitations. The study may show that there are sites in the District where increased building heights might be a good idea.

Extra density beyond zoning allowances can be granted to owners of properties well served by existing public infrastructure, especially transit. This reflects the contrast between today’s realities and those informing zoning practices decades ago, when the automobile dominated land use and transportation thinking.

Planning and zoning predicated on accommodating cars are now giving way to transit-oriented development patterns. Uses and densities are now being tweaked in areas served by rail, subway, streetcar and bus rapid-transit lines. Street and block networks are being configured, or reconfigured, to accommodate pedestrians and bikers, as well as cars and commercial vehicles.

Today, developers of transit-accessible properties may reduce parking below what’s required by zoning. The D.C. Zoning Commission voted recently to allow Douglas Development to build the Bond at Tenley, a 60-unit rental apartment building with about 20,000 square feet of retail space and only one parking space, according to news reports. Conventional zoning would have required more than 80 on-site spaces in a very costly underground parking garage.

What justified this radical parking waiver? Close to many shops, stores and eateries, the Bond at Tenley is a block north of the Tenleytown Metro station on Wisconsin Avenue NW and numerous bus stops. Apartments will be for tenants committed to walking, biking and transit, and who won’t have cars, which the lease will exclude. Of course, tenants still can rent cars when needed.

Parking requirements likewise can be eased in large, transit-oriented projects where residential, retail, commercial and institutional real estate share a common site and parking garage. Because parking garage construction has become very expensive, this is especially beneficial economically.

Zoning usually requires parking to serve each discrete use as if each use stood alone. But differences in parking demand timing can lower parking needs. At night, residents can park in empty spaces designated for retail and office during the day. During weekdays when retail and office parking demand is high, as is retail weekend demand, many residents are away. Thus, in the aggregate, some spaces can serve double duty.

Dropping the word “zoning” necessitates using an alternative vocabulary. It’s time to talk less about zoning restrictions and limits and more about visionary plans, urban design goals and architectural aspirations.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. His cartoon may be seen at www.washingtonpost.com/realestate.

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