Low- and moderate-density residential zones in DC. R-4 zones are in purple.

The DC Office of Planning routinely posts their reports on zoning variance requests. This week, they recommended against approving two requests concerning tricky zoning issues: multifamily conversions and corner stores. Many neighborhoods have numerous townhouses divided into multiple apartments, and many have corner stores in residential districts. Creating new ones, however, requires a variance. Should we be doing more to encourage, or at least allow, these changes?

Both requests apply to properties in R-4 districts. DC’s zoning contains several residential zone types: R-1-A and R-1-B for single-family detached districts; R-2 for districts comprising mostly semi-detached homes, where pairs of houses share one wall; R-3 and R-4 for predominantly single-family neighborhoods which include row houses, with R-3 requiring larger lots; and R-5 (-A through -E) for “general residential” including apartment buildings and all other types.

This map shows the current residential zones up to R-5-B, the predominant residential zoning in neighborhoods like Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Logan Circle, and the area north of U Street. Both of these cases occur in R-4 zones, which include Shaw, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Bloomingdale, H Street, and Capitol Hill.

In one case, a property owner in Petworth wants to convert a three-story row house into three separate apartments. The local ANC has endorsed this change, as have several surrounding neighbors, but OP recommends denial under the zoning regulations.

R-4 districts allow conversions as long as the lot size exceeds 2,700 square feet per unit 900 square feet per unit, or 2,700 for a three-unit building. Most lots, including this one, aren’t big enough for three or more units under those rules. The typical townhouse in an R-5, where there’s no minimum lot size for a converstion, wouldn’t be large enough either under the R-4 rules).

It’s valuable to preserve a certain number of whole houses for families. However, we shouldn’t segregate all of those single-family homes into neighborhoods with nothing else. Many neighborhoods benefit from a mix of families, singles and couples,  ages and income levels. By prohibiting apartments in some of the houses in neighborhoods like Petworth, we deprive them of residential diversity. They also can’t grow in population, making most retail unprofitable in these neighborhoods and forcing residents to drive to meet many everyday needs.

Perhaps the zoning regulations ought not allow conversions anywhere as of right, but the variance test is too strict. The application must demonstrate “specific uniqueness” in the property and an “excptional hardship” upon the owner, meaning an average building on an average block couldn’t qualify for the variance.

Also, the relief must not “substantially impair the intent, purpose, and integrity of the zone plan.” According to OP, “The purpose of the R4 district is to stabilize low-density, single-family residential areas by allowing new construction of single-family and two-unit buildings.” But in neighborhoods like Petworth with three- and four-story row houses, a combination of some single-family buildings, some two-unit buildings, and some three- or four-unit buildngs adds diversity. The Kalorama Triangle neighborhood has a nice mix of housing types despite being an R-5-B, for example.

The second case concerns a grocery store at 1403 6th Street in Shaw. This isn’t the best example of a grocery store case, because the owner wants to move an existing grocery store from an adjacent building rather than establishing a new one. Also, according to OP, the applicant hadn’t adequately explained his hours of operation or how he will handle trash or deliveries.

We should allow small grocery stores in residential districts, provided they take appropriate steps to handle noise and trash. This particular application may not have taken those steps. Still, the burden required for a “use variance” is again too great. The grocer must do far more than simply show he’s minimized the impacts. An average building on an average corner wouldn’t have “specific uniqueness” and “excptional hardship”.

Also, the variance must not impose “substantial detriment to the public good”, which this OP report equates to “could have negative impacts on nearby properties.” A grocery store would most likely have some negative impacts, but the positive impacts on the surrounding residents of having convenient access to groceries might outweigh that in many cases.

Finally, according to the OP report, “The Regulations are intended to protect purely residential areas from encroachment by non-residential uses.  The application goes against that intent by proposing a retail store in the residential R-4 zone.” This may be true under current zoning, but we should change it. It’s not bad for residential uses to include the occasional grocery store, and our new zoning rules should allow that.

Some readers would prefer to abolish these restrictions and let free markets decide what to do with these properties. Other people want to keep the zoning regulations and our neighborhoods just as they are. At the residential and historic zoning meetings, some advocated for rules to make corner stores even scarcer and to disallow multifamily conversions altogether in some areas, even on the large lots that qualify today.

We should strive for a balance. Our zoning rules should allow a greater diversity of uses, with some corner stores in residential zones and a mix of single-family and multifamily buildings, especially when the community supports the change. Rules that require review but set a lower bar, such as under a “special exception”, could fit the bill and maintain a good stock of single-family homes while also helping our city grow, provide adequate housing choices to households of all sizes and all income levels, and strengthen our neighborhood businesses.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.