Overlay model of zoning. Image from Franklin, Tennessee.

Councilmember Phil Mendelson (at-large) testified against the proposed Giant development at Wisconsin Avenue and Newark Street on Monday. His was the only testimony aside from the official presentations by the Office of Planning and DDOT, as cross-examination by the many individual parties in opposition, each representing a small number of nearby residents, consumed the entire evening. The Zoning Commission hearing will resume for its third, though likely not final, night on April 23rd.

Here is Mendelson’s testimony. He makes two points. First, he believes that this area ought to remain “low density commercial” and that the Giant proposal is not low enough for him. Second, he argues that the neighborhood zoning overlays ought to remain sacrosanct, trumping the development plan.

The commercial corridors are the right place to put higher density along Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues. Much of their length, including near the Giant project, are already moderate or even high density. At the first installation of this hearing, Councilmember Mary Cheh argued for Smart Growth on these corridors and sees “broad-based support” for her viewpoint within her ward.

While Cheh looks forward to a better Ward Three, Mendelson looks backward, to the anti-development neighborhood fights of the 1980s when he was an ANC Commissioner and helped downzone the area and institute the overlay. Then, cities were demolishing valuable, walkable neighborhoods to replace them with isolating and ugly suburban-style buildings that we’re now arguing over whether to tear down. Many of the Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) communities successfully blocked in the 1980s would indeed have damaged their neighborhoods. But today, many PUDs instead repair those scars by filling in gaps with attractive, vibrant streetscapes.

This area has a zoning overlay that prohibits PUDs from exceeding the height that’s otherwise allowed by zoning, and the Giant proposal goes about one story higher. In his testimony, Mendelson argues that if the Zoning Commission approves a PUD that violates the overlay, that would not only “destroy” this neighborhood but the sanctity of overlays in general. We need zoning tools that aren’t so rigid.

The PUD process intentionally provides latitude in exceeding zoning requirements in exchange for greater scrutiny, deeper resident involvement, and community benefits. The overlays unilaterally prohibit certain types of latitude, as in this case, or ban PUDs entirely, as in Dupont Circle. This patchwork now just makes it more difficult to improve the most politically-connected neighborhoods, even when, as in this case, most residents support the project. Slavish adherence to these overlays today, simply because they were necessary twenty years ago, would condemn today’s good ideas because some people, like Mendelson, are still preoccupied with yesterday’s bad ones.

Opponents of the Office of Planning’s Low and Moderate Density Residential zoning recommendations will argue the same points at tonight’s hearing, part of the comprehensive zoning rewrite process. The report suggests, among other things, replacing the crazy quilt of overlays with a more generalized system that accomplishes the same purpose. The proposal would replace the current broad zones like M, C-2-A, and R-5-B that impose the same setbacks, side yards, building heights, lot coverage and more on diverse neighborhoods, supplemented with completely nonstandardized overlays.

Instead, OP suggests a system with a set of variables, like height, setback, and yard size. Each neighborhood or even each block can set those variables differently. To begin, the new rules would set those variables at the same values as the current zones or overlays. Then, OP will work with local areas to better customize them for that community’s needs, whether reducing or enlarging the permitted densities, heights and setbacks.

This system gives communities more control, rather than less. Nevertheless, some people have criticized the proposal on grounds that actually argue in favor. One resident of the Dupont Circle neighborhood attacked the plan at a recent forum with Mayor Fenty, for example, claiming that it would undo the hard work of residents in the northeastern part of the neighborhood who recently succeeded in downzoning their blocks from R-5-B to R-4. But the new recommendations wouldn’t undo that at all. In fact, had the plan already been in place, they could have actually changed their zoning more quickly than the multiple years it actually took.

From the rhetoric, opposition to this proposal seems to stem from uncertainty. Groups of activists in certain areas fought hard to plant local obstacles to development over the past twenty years. Any change to those hard-won rules may appear more likely to weaken than strengthen them. For those only concerned with protecting their particular exemption, that might be true. But the overall system makes more sense, while striving hard to protect communities’ ability to manage change.

The 1980s are over. Not all PUD proposals will enhance neighborhoods. But many will. It’s time to focus on the good of our city rather than blind adherence to a set of overlays. For the zoning code, a more flexible system could preserve the overlays’ goals while also softening their sharp edges. For the Giant PUD in particular, this is a good project with strong community support. If an overlay prohibits a popular and positive improvement to the neighborhood, it’s time to reexamine that overlay.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.