Washington is not what it was a generation ago. It has evolved because of changing economic, socio-demographic, cultural, technological, environmental and regulatory conditions.
But Washington’s static zoning laws, enacted decades ago and so forceful in shaping the city, have not kept pace with the District’s evolution. Which is why the zoning ordinance is at last being updated to reflect 21st century circumstances and enhance urban livability for future generations.
To this end, the D.C. Office of Planning has spent the past several years analyzing the District’s complex, decades-old zoning code and drafting revisions it believes necessary to update the code. Proposed revisions, based on current data and projected needs, would apply only prospectively.
The District’s zoning update process has entailed countless meetings and participatory work sessions with citizens, civic groups, consultants and other agencies to explore and critique diverse ideas leading to the Office of Planning’s proposals. This fall, the D.C. Zoning Commission is conducting multiple public hearings focused on various aspects of the zoning rewrite.
Yet despite all the outreach, three of the proposed zoning revisions in particular have elicited skepticism: reducing parking requirements deemed unnecessarily excessive, primarily in areas well served by transit and for new commercial and residential projects downtown; allowing accessory apartments — one per house — associated with homes in residential zones; and allowing small, convenience-style corner stores in rowhouse and apartment building neighborhoods.
Reducing parking requirements reflects a behavioral shift. A growing number of Washingtonians, as well as commuters, use transportation modes — Metro, bus, taxi, carpool, short-term rental car, bicycle — other than private cars. Telecommuting also is on the rise. People are walking more in the city and will walk even more as the District’s walkability increases. The Office of Planning projects that, in the future, our children and grandchildren will need and own fewer cars and will drive them less often.
Legalizing accessory apartments in house basements or attics, or atop detached garages, serves a worthy social and economic purpose without threatening neighborhoods. Allowing accessory apartments limited in size and occupancy increases affordable housing opportunities, enables multi-generational families to live together and adds value to residential real estate.
Corner stores in certain urban locations would provide much needed convenience shopping for neighborhood residents who would come to the store on foot. No parking would be required. Restricted in size and function, corner stores would be allowed only on city blocks containing rowhouses or apartment buildings. Contrary to what some homeowners believe and fear, corner stores would not be permitted within single-family detached home neighborhoods.
District homeowners are nervous because they fear these zoning changes would lead to development that would adversely affect real estate values, jeopardize neighborhood quality and make parking spaces scarce and expensive.
Cynical, conspiracy-minded citizens suspect less-than-honorable motives behind zoning changes. They believe that public officials and private developers seek zoning amendments only for financial gain rather than for achieving worthy planning, preservation and development goals in the public interest.
Such fears, suspicions and cynicism are unwarranted. Zoning in Washington, and in many metropolitan regions, too often deters desirable growth and progress. Zoning can obstruct rather than enable justifiable new development and redevelopment. It can make providing affordable housing difficult, unduly increasing construction and other real estate costs.
Cities and suburbs are shaped by legislated zoning ordinances coupled with economic and other unregulated forces. The latter are constantly in flux, but not zoning. Therefore, citizens see zoning laws as stable, long-lasting and protectionist, the first line of defense against unwanted physical intervention.
Zoning constrains and separates land uses, restricts density, establishes minimum lot sizes and yard dimensions, and designates parking requirements. But it rarely addresses proactively and holistically how a neighborhood, street, open space or building should look, function or relate visually to the surrounding urban context.
Thus, the effort to rewrite the city’s zoning code is a commendable, although hardly radical, attempt to correct this deficiency. The rewrite could have gone further. Nevertheless, in the interest of making the ordinance less obsolete and politically more palatable, the Zoning Commission, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the D.C. Council should adopt the Office of Planning’s proposed changes.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.