Photo by AlephNull on Flickr.

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson hasn’t taken a public stance on the zoning update yet, but he will have the chance to soon. He’s holding a hearing on the zoning update for Wednesday, September 26, at 10:30 am.

Will the chairman adopt a reflexively knee-jerk oppositional stance to any reform in the zoning code, as some are pushing him to? Or will he keep an open mind about fixing some of the mistakes in a 54-year-old zoning code originally written when people thought Shaw, Mount Vernon Square/Triangle, Capitol Hill and Southwest DC were “obsolete”?

He needs to hear from residents about the reasons we need to reform the 1958 zoning code and fix its worst mistakes, changes which at a stroke repudiated some of the most historic and treasured neighborhoods of the District and outlaw their urban form for future generations.

Representatives of the Committee of 100, Federation of Citizens Associations and similar groups will surely show up to complain about the zoning update, as they have at each Office of Planning oversight hearing for the last four years. They might be joined by some residents who believed some of the scare tactics and outright falsehoods that anti-update agitators sadly continue to spread.

For example, on a Chevy Chase listserv post, opponent-in-chief Linda Schmitt asked, rhetorically, “Will parking be ‘eliminated’ a half mile radius of [sic] every metro stop?” This conjures up images of government agents in sunglasses and black helicopters coming to take away your parking.

Nobody will be forced to remove a single parking space as a result of the zoning update. What it will do is stop forcing new buildings to include more parking than their owners think is necessary, rules that forced costly boondoggles like the largely-unused garage at DC USA or make housing more expensive than it needs to be.

The Office of Planning has listened to thousands of residents and attended hundreds of community meetings over the last four years. The zoning update keeps most rules in place and avoids much change to single-family neighborhoods. But it also fixes a few of the worst mistakes of the “social engineering” from the 1940s and 50s, where leaders deliberately tried to drive people out of urban neighborhoods they considered “problem areas” and “obsolete.”

Click for a fact sheet on the zoning update (PDF).

The authors of the current zoning code banished neighborhood-serving corner stores under the now-debunked notion that all commerce needs to be far divorced from all residences. It mandated far too much parking under the misguided assumption that everyone would drive all of the time, instead of having some people drive and some use other modes.

It also forbade people from renting out garages and basements in many neighborhoods, not predicting that young people would have children later, seniors would live longer, and families would get smaller, which forced the population in single-family communities to decline over time.

The code has gone though many amendments since, which is why the core set of rules remains intact in the rewrite. However, those amendments have also made the code extremely complex and unwieldy, forcing a homeowner to check 2 or even 3 separate sections, with directly conflicting rules, to understand what restrictions apply to his or her home. The rewrite reorganizes the code to put all of the rules that apply to a specific property owner in the same place as much as possible.

Chairman Mendelson has long represented the whole city, but has focused primarily on issues around crime and the police, his policy area of focus. He also has periodically sent letters opposing one zoning case or another, mostly to please his older and upper Northwest-centric base. As chairman, he has a responsibility to take a broader and more inclusive view of policy areas such as planning.

He needs to hear from residents who like their walkable neighborhoods with basement apartments and corner stores, or who want to be able to afford to live in one. We need to remind the chairman that allowing a thing does not mean forcing something or taking away something from any property owner, and that this zoning update does not do so. The limited reforms in this zoning update will restore what worked in the past and allow DC to effectively grow to the future.

Please come testify at the hearing on September 26 if you can. To sign up to testify, call 202-724-8196 or email Crispus Gordon III, CGordon@dccouncil.us. If you can’t, send comments to Chairman Mendelson using the take action form below.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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.