Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Accessory apartments, corner stores, alley dwellings, and less parking, all of which were legal when DC’s historic neighborhoods grew into their current form, could become more prevalent under a proposed new zoning code. The first third of the code is now out as a public draft, and residents will debate these and other changes in the coming months.

Formal Zoning Commission hearings to approve or reject the zoning code will come later this year, but there is a sort of preseason exhibition hearing tomorrow. The DC Council’s annual oversight hearing for the Office of Planning will bring sparks as advocates on various sides push their cases, though the council doesn’t actually decide these issues.

The Office of Planning has been working for 4 years to rewrite the District’s zoning code. Now, after hundreds of public meetings and many rewrites, OP’s draft of the actual new zoning text clocks in at 458 pages, and that’s just for the first third of the text, covering general issues as well as low- and moderate-density residential zones.

The vast majority of the work just updates, streamlines, and simplifies the text. Today, under the zoning code approved in 1958, rules and restrictions appear in general chapters that cover zone types or other, neighborhood-specific sets of rules called “overlays.” Many rules use terms that aren’t defined anywhere, like “building façade line,” which seems very simple until you start thinking about buildings with rounded turrets.

There are also a few significant policy changes. In particular:

  • More homeowners will be able to create accessory dwellings, like garage or basement apartments.
  • A limited number of small art studios, corner groceries, shoe repair shops, hardware stores and the like will be able to open in residential areas when there aren’t any commercial areas nearby.
  • Fewer buildings will be forced to provide parking, or will not be forced to provide as much.
  • More alley lots will be able to have houses.
  • Green Area Ratio will require landscaping and other stormwater-managing features in projects, though not the low- and moderate-density residential buildings covered in the chapters released so far.

With the exception of the Green Area Ratio, a very 21st-century sustainability idea, the other changes actually harken more back to a past era than to the future. They correct some of the most egregious problems from the 1958 code, where it imposed social engineering ideas in vogue at the time that ended up eliminating local corner stores, pushed people out of urban neighborhoods, and forced new buildings to take a suburban form incompatible with the walkable communities that previously existed.

If Georgetown, Capitol Hill, or Petworth didn’t exist today, they couldn’t be legally built as they are. Even many single-family neighborhoods of detached houses like AU Park, Brookland, and Hillcrest are mostly illegal as well under current zoning. Where the new zoning code makes changes, it’s to legalize the kind of development patterns that formed the neighborhoods residents treasure today, rather than forcing radically different forms which characterize much of the mistakes of the mid-to-late 20th century.

Accessory dwellings

Anacostia. Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

Back when the 1958 zoning code was written, the average DC household had far more people than today. Families had more kids, senior citizens more often lived with adult children, and more young and/or single people lived in group homes and boarding houses than now.

Therefore, fewer people live in DC’s existing houses than they did at the time. Allowing accessory dwellings is a way to let those buildings serve their historic population levels in the modern day. An accessory dwelling is a separate legal unit either in the same building as a larger, main residence or in an accessory building like a garage or carriage house.

Row house neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, and Bloomingdale already allow these units because they are R-4 districts, which allow 2 apartments per building. But in the few R-3 row house neighborhoods, like Georgetown, the northern half of Petworth, Anacostia, and a few small others, these units are illegal except in those unusual buildings which are completely detached, and then only with a “special exception” from the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

Low and moderate residential zones as of 2008.

There are many neighborhoods with semi-detached houses, where houses are connected in pairs (the orange areas in the above graphic), and accessory dwellings are also illegal in these buildings. Fully detached single-family homes (the yellow areas) can have accessory dwellings, but only by special exception (except to create housing for domestic employees in the 2nd story of a garage), and only in a main building, not a standalone garage or carriage house.

This is bad policy. These houses used to hold more people. Today, many owners are empty nesters who used to have kids in the house but no longer do. Retirees on fixed incomes find it harder to afford to keep up their homes. The simple solution is to let people rent out separate units to get some extra income, or even live in those small units and rent out the main house.

OP proposes a policy change to let people create accessory dwellings by right in the detached and semi-detached residential areas. In the R-3 row house areas, owners could create them as well, but would still need special exceptions.

This is a good change, but there’s no reason to impose such burdens just on people in these row house districts, especially when only slightly denser row house districts allow far more by right. OP should amend its proposal to permit accessory dwellings by right in R-3 zones (which will be called R-14 in the new code) as well as in lower density ones.

Corner stores in residential areas

Georgetown. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

A big part of historic development patterns was the local corner stores selling many of the necessities of life. Far more Americans could walk a short distance to do their daily shopping than today. Those days aren’t coming back, because malls and online shopping can be quite convenient, but there’s still enormous value in having some local options.

The local shops of today might be different than those of the past, like yoga studios rather than general stores, but the principle remains. Under current zoning, however, no commercial use can locate in a residential zone.

OP’s proposal would allow some limited retail in residential areas, but with a great number of restrictions:

  • Only “Arts Design and Creation” (arts studio, furtniture making, radio broadcast station), “Food and Alcohol Service” (deli, ice cream parlor), “Retail” (drugstore, grocery, jewelry store, but not auto shop or firearm sales), and “Service” (bank, travel agency, tailor, but not daycare, animal boarding, health clinic, or sexually based business) uses are allowed.
  • They can’t be in any building within 500 feet of a commercial or mixed-use zone, so this doesn’t let existing retail corridors expand (though, arguably, some of that might be a good idea).
  • There can’t be more than 3 other arts, retail or service uses within 500 feet, or more than 1 other food establishment, to prevent too much of a concentration of these non-residential uses in one area.
  • It can’t be above the ground floor of any building, except for artist live-work spaces. This prevents a building from becoming entirely commercial.
  • It can’t be larger than 2,000 square feet.
  • It can’t be open after 7 pm or before 8 am.
  • There can’t be more than 4 employees at the business at any time.
  • It can’t have more than 1 sign, a lighted side, or a sign sticking out from the building.
  • All of the trash and materials have to be stored inside; there can’t be a dumpster, for instance.
  • Any alcohol sold has to be for consuming elsewhere, not at the business, and can’t take up more than 15% of the business’s floor area. That means a small grocery could offer some beer and wine, but there can’t be a wine bar or liquor store.
  • Food sales can’t involve cooking food on-site, but reheating pre-cooked food is okay. Grease traps (a part of kitchens that do frying or other cooking with grease) aren’t allowed.
  • There can’t be dry cleaning chemicals, so a dry cleaner in a residential district has to be the kind that sends its clothes out to be cleaned rather than doing the work in the building.

Despite these regulations, a number of people are nervous about allowing any commercial use in a residential area. They understandably worry about noise, traffic, and other effects of commercial activity. OP seems to have tried to set rules that cut off the problematic impacts, like late night activity.

Maybe there need to be additional restrictions, or maybe some of the proposed uses are just too risky for neighbors to be comfortable. If so, we should amend this section rather than scrap it entirely.

Minimum parking requirements

Dupont Circle. Image from CSG.

Few zoning rules have done more to harm urban neighborhoods than parking requirements. The view in the 1950s was that since everyone would drive everywhere all the time in The Future, all buildings need to have lots of space for cars.

It turned out, however, that many of the parking requirements were far too high, forcing buildings to dedicate precious space to parking lots. That makes construction more expensive and creates gaping holes in the urban fabric. It also pushes architects to design buildings around cars rather than people, making them less pedestrian-friendly and forcing residents to drive more and walk less.

In the low- and moderate-density residential areas covered by the zoning rules OP just released, buildings of 9 or fewer units don’t have to build any parking. That’s great, but many buildings still do. Nobody can build larger residential buildings in these zones, but existing ones become nonconforming.

All non-residential uses in these districts also have to build parking. That includes churches, schools, daycares, rec centers, chanceries, and retail. These are the very kinds of buildings that shouldn’t be car-oriented in residential neighborhoods. A daycare in a residential area ought to be serving the neighbors, not attracting people from far away. If it has no parking, that’s more likely.

Many neighborhoods have fought with churches which want to tear down historic row houses just to create parking lots for parishioners who don’t live in the city. Minimum parking requirements only exacerbate this problem instead of solving it. Neighbors have fought with embassies about converting grassy yards to parking lots. Why make this mandatory in the zoning code?

The rationale for these requirements is that curbside space is limited, and neighbors don’t want the patrons of these other uses to take up curbside parking. But the proper way to solve this problem is by pricing or restricting curbside parking, not to force such buildings to devote a lot of their space to parking which makes traffic even worse. If DCPS builds a new school in a residential neighborhood, building less parking, not more, lets kids have more space to play and encourages as many teachers as possible to take the train or bus.

The higher-density residential, mixed-use, and other areas of the city will distinguish between transit-oriented areas, near Metro, high-frequency bus or streetcar lines, and areas without good transit access. While it’s probably unnecessary to require it in zoning, there’s some argument that a store in a commercial area far from transit might need some parking.

But these parking minimums for non-residential uses in low- and moderate-density residential areas even will apply right next door to a Metro stop. A potential school just a block or two from Takoma, Potomac Ave, or Deanwood Metro will nonetheless need to build considerable parking. That’s wrong.

Alley lots

Blagden Alley. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Residences in alleys are a big part of DC’s history. African-Americans came to live in many DC alleys after the Civil War, and a number of alley residences remain. While the ones in the late 19th Century weren’t the most sanitary or well-built, there’s no reason modern ones can’t be perfectly safe and habitable.

Current rules allow alley dwellings as long as the alley lot is 400 square feet or greater, it has adequate plumbing and so on, and the alleys serving it are particularly wide, at least 30 feet. The new code removes the 30-foot alley rule, but any alley unit will still have to get a special exception and satisfy DC agencies on fire safety, traffic, waste and more.

If the fire department doesn’t think it can put out a fire in an alley dwelling, it shouldn’t go in, but if one satisfies them, DDOT, DPW and the others, an arbitrary alley width shouldn’t be the obstacle.

Example Green Area Ratio for a property.

Green Area Ratio

A 21st-century change creates a new “Green Area Ratio” for large buildings. Projects which have a GAR requirement must include a certain as a percentage of the lot area. Grassy space, green roofs, water features, trees, and other sustainability elements each give a certain number of points based on their size, and the sum of all of those must equal a set fraction of the lot’s size.

Parking lots, in particular, also have landscaping requirements, mandating a certain number and size of trees and grassy areas to ensure that parking lots have shade, don’t form urban heat islands, and can handle some stormwater runoff.

This version is still just a draft. OP will make changes from comments by residents including a citizen task force, hold more public meetings, make more changes, and finally move to formal public hearings before the Zoning Commission. You can send OP your comments here.

Opponents of these changes are organizing groups to attend tomorrow’s oversight hearing, which starts at 10 am. If you want to speak, email to sign up, or you can watch the fireworks online.