Photo by bark on Flickr.

DC still operates under a zoning code adopted in 1958, though with some changes over the years. Harold Lewis, the New York engineer and planner who led the code rewrite, also published a report in 1956 explaining his reasoning behind the code. The Office of Planning has posted it online, and it’s a fascinating look into the thinking of the day.

More detailed analysis will come once I get through the entire report, but in the meantime, here are a few of the choicest statements from the section at the start entitled, “Outstanding Findings of Fact.”

PRESENT REGULATIONS are incapable of adapting the physical structure of the city to new forms of urban living. Inability of the central city to adapt to these new forms will almost inevitably lead to its economic decay.


This “social engineering” theme pervades the entire report. We must force the city to change, or it will die. The reality turned out to be the opposite.

THE POPULATION of the District of Columbia is expected to increase from an estimated 850,000 in 1955 to 907,000 in 1970 and 932,000 in 1980. The capacity of vacant land to absorb this growth is such that there will be no great pressure to build new apartments by displacing existing homes until after 1970, at which date the zoning should again be revised.


Lewis clearly failed to predict suburban flight, and also didn’t anticipate the decline in family size, which means that DC has a far lower population even with more housing units than existed in 1956.

PUBLIC SENTIMENT in Washington is apparently not ready to back a thorough zoning effort in depth for the salvation of the downtown area and, pending the completion of further study and planning, limited zoning revision, as proposed, appears to be the best prospect.


In other words, people didn’t quite want to destroy the city wholesale.

THE AVERAGE size of 3,800 semi-detached house lots studied was only 2,480 square feet compared with a minimum standard recommended by the American Public Health Association of 3,650 square feet; this represents the worst abuse of single-family standards to be found in the District.


More social engineering. Public health professionals of the time thought we had to force people to live in large suburban lots for their own good.

IF THE TREND toward blight and slums is to be arrested, all new construction must be the kind that will encourage the continued residence of the most sensitive and scrupulous elements of the population.


Racial overtones much?

IT MAY BE confidently expected that there will be continued increases in the population of the metropolitan area, in car ownership per family, and in average use of cars, all contributing to future traffic growth and increasing the parking problem.


That was right for a while, but average use of cars has declined more recently. Lewis also didn’t anticipate the oil shocks of the 1970s, though in the ‘90s, gas was cheaper after inflation than at any previous time.

A DEVELOPMENT policy aimed at correcting the most characteristic condition of spreading blight has not yet emerged except for the general commitment to restore, through redevelopment and the inner loop highway, the ring of development around the downtown area.


Fortunately, the “public sentiment” Lewis mentions stopped at least the inner loop highway (or most of it).

And finally:

GROWING USE of the automobile provides a reasonable prediction that the trend toward its universal use as the principal means of transportation will continue.


Not quite.

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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.