Photo by amandacphoto on Flickr.

DC’s Office of Planning has announced dates for 8 public meetings around the zoning update. These forums will be ground zero for some epic battles, as they have in Montgomery County, even for complaints that have nothing to do with the zoning update.

Around the Washington region, we’ve been arguing for years now about a fundamental question: Should our communities keep growing, adding people and restaurants and shops, and making it easier to get around without driving? Or should existing neighborhoods remain static, with little change in buildings, people or transportation?

Bicycle lanes often become a flashpoint in this fight. DC has had it easy compared to New York, Toronto, and some other cities. Our last 3 mayors and their transportation directors have all steadfastly supported new bicycle infrastructure. The only question has been whether to build them faster or slower.

The 8 zoning update meetings will become another crucible for different views to duke it out. It’s already been happening for months on neighborhood email lists in Chevy Chase, Tenleytown, and Cleveland Park, and in public meetings for Montgomery County’s zoning update, which is confronting similar issues.

There’s been a lot of emotion in the emails. Often, though, people are upset about a lot of changes that have little or nothing to do with the zoning update. It’s even a little ironic that this zoning update, which is quite timid in many ways and which bends over backward to change little in single-family neighborhoods, is engendering so much ire.

Some of this passion stems from outright misinformation, like the emails from Chevy Chase resident Linda Schmitt, who’s become the chief organizer against the zoning update. She came out guns blazing this spring against the zoning update, even though about half of the things she claims the zoning update will change aren’t actually true.

An email last week on the Chevy Chase list continued the same pattern, with well-written, scary, and largely false warnings about OP schemes to “break down the barrier between ‘residential’ and ‘commercial’” (the very limited “corner store” provision wouldn’t even apply in Chevy Chase or other single-family neighborhoods at all), “allow 22-foot high expansion of garages for apartments” (a provision which OP has since removed), and “eliminate automobiles” (utter hyperbole).

Some of the replies there and in previous discussions cited changes that had absolutely nothing to do with the zoning update. Maybe they were about teardowns and McMansions, which have already been coming to Chevy Chase, and which the zoning update won’t hasten one bit. (Had residents constructively suggested ways to curb this during the early phases of the update, instead of just trying to discredit the entire process, maybe they could have done something about the problem instead of leaving it as a boogeyman.)

Even if these changes have little or nothing to do with the zoning update, they are real for people who are scared about change. The District (and nearby suburban jurisdictions) is indeed changing. It’s been the policy of at least the last 3 administrations to try to attract more residents to DC. Many find this exciting, while others find it frightening.

When the Office of Planning is proposing a fairly broad though conservative change to the zoning code, especially when some neighborhood leaders are constantly accusing them of a secret conspiracy to radically remake DC, it’s going to draw a lot of passionate testimony, whether relevant to the specifics of the zoning update or not.

That’s why you also need to attend. The upcoming meetings will be critical in either pushing OP to retreat further, or to stand their ground, or even to advance in some important ways where the zoning update doesn’t do enough. They will shape the media coverage of the issue and give Zoning Commissioners an early sense of public opinion.

Please mark your calendars and try to attend the one nearest you, or more than one.

  • Saturday, December 8, 10 am-noon at 1100 4th St, SW, 2nd floor (in Ward 6)
  • Tuesday, December 11, 6:30-8:30 pm in Ward 2
  • Thursday, December 13, 6:30-8:30 pm in Ward 8
  • Saturday, January 5, 10 am-noon in Ward 1
  • Tuesday, January 8, 6:30-8:30 pm in Ward 3
  • Wednesday, January 9, 6:30-8:30 pm in Ward 5
  • Saturday, January 12, 10 am-noon in Ward 7
  • Wedneday, January 16, 6:30-8:30 pm in Ward 4

OP says they will release locations for the other December meetings this week. There is one per ward, but you don’t have to go to the one in your own ward; all meetings are for all residents.

Also, sign up for Pro-DC below to get reminders about these meetings and updates about what you can do to help support positive changes in DC.

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.