Photo by Ace Reston on Flickr.

Would DC’s zoning update or a small change to the Height Act bring concrete towers and crab-shaped buildings to Capitol Hill and displace all of the families? (No.)

A piece of fiction by the local historic organization raises that fear, and illustrates a key theme that Mike DeBonis explores in an article this weekend: our current planning and zoning debates have somehow taken on mythical proportions far out of scale to what’s actually in any of the proposals. That’s because the strife stems from some deep anxieties about the ways DC is changing.

We might not be able to stave off this hysteria, but we can keep it from steering officials or the Zoning Commission into a ditch by showing up at the zoning update public meetings this Saturday and next week, and pledging to testify when the time comes.

Cody Rice alerted us to this month’s column by Capitol Hill Restoration Society President Janet Quigley:

The Capitol should have been beautiful on this clear night, but my view was blocked by a cement bridge connecting two high-rise office towers, built soon after the Height Act was repealed, on either side of the avenue. ... Across 7th Street loomed a large platinum building that looked like a crab. “Maybe those twisted corbels weren’t so bad after all,” I thought, as a streetcar lurched up 7th toward the car barn formerly known as the Eastern Market.

[Tunni’s] moved to a bigger space at 9th and Penn. The mechanic who usedta be there closed up when they banned cars in the District a coupla years ago.

We walked down North Carolina Avenue toward Folger Park, past blocks of darkened houses sporting brass plaques for every imaginable trade association. I noticed two vacant school buildings and asked, “Where are the kids?” Clarence scowled at me as if I should know better. “Where do you think they’d be? All the houses have gone commercial and the biggest apartment built is a one-bedroom. They’ve moved away, along with their families and seniors and people who need affordable housing.

But they get a big kick out of coming back to visit Union Station. That casino in the main hall makes everyone a winner.” A train blasted its horn as it rumbled by on Virginia Avenue, followed by another, and then another.


Two main themes jump out here. First is the evident, dripping contempt for all things transit. Streetcars “lurch” down the street and displace, rather than enhance, a market that was originally built around the streetcar.

Meanwhile, it’s a tragedy that a beloved tavern was able to grow to take over a former mechanic’s shop. An industrial use for cars is nostalgia; a train is a blight.

It’s most ironic because streetcars were a historic element of Capitol Hill, as Topher Mathews pointed out. One might think a “restoration” society would want to restore historic transportation systems.

But before we mock this story too much, it illustrates an important second point: the way many people feel even small changes could start down a slippery slope to chaos. Make the smallest tweak in the Height Act, and in the blink of an eye there will be towers and concrete bridges astride Pennsylvania Avenue. Allow a few corner stores in residential neighborhoods, and before long there’ll be nothing left but trade associations and one-bedroom apartments.

It’s not only a rhetorical device; there are people who feel that each and every zoning rule, no matter how outdated or arbitrary or ill-fitting our neighborhoods’ current needs, represents a hard-fought bulwark against ruin. The District is already changing rapidly; many fear a small push send it out of control.

That’s the sentiment DeBonis captured in his article:

District planning officials are rewriting the city’s zoning rules for the first time in 54 years, a process that has hastened anxieties about growth and at times has erupted into a pitched debate about the future of the city.

The proposed changes are small — allowing a corner store here, fewer parking spaces there — but the debate has grown in recent months ... The process, underway for four years, has been complicated as the debate has grown to encompass anxieties over city growth that have little to do with the zoning proposals — the proliferation of bicycle amenities, new parking policies and a proposal to relax the federal law restricting building heights.


Thus, even fairly timid changes have become an epic battle.

The problem is that the zoning code is deeply flawed. It doesn’t actually reflect the historic patterns of the city, unless you consider only construction after 1960 to be historic. It doesn’t prohibit most of the things many residents really dislike, like ugly pop-ups or teardowns and McMansions, but it does prohibit the land use patterns that created places like Capitol Hill in the first place.

The code is too confusing and many restrictions burden homeowners even from making changes that enjoy near-universal support. Without fixes, the District won’t stop changing, it just might grow and evolve in an even worse way thanks to restrictions designed to force people into suburban patterns of living back when planners thought anything else was “obsolete.”

It would be wonderful if one could assuage these fears, or at least convince people that the zoning update’s actual changes won’t bring Armageddon. So far, despite the Office of Planning’s efforts to patiently explain and re-explain plans at an endless series of neighborhood and community association meetings almost all in Ward 3, where the opposition centers, it hasn’t worked; opponents keep repeating false and alarmist claims about the secret conspiracy to force everyone out of cars.

The only thing we can do is try to educate city leaders and convince them to let the process move forward. That’s why it’s crucial to attend one of the upcoming zoning update meetings this Saturday 12/8 in Southwest Waterfront, Tuesday 12/11 in Penn Quarter, or Thursday 12/13 in Anacostia. And pledge to testify when the hearings begin before the Zoning Commission.

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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.