Image from the Anacostia Playhouse.

Some District leaders are discovering that there really is a serious cost to having an outdated zoning code. The Anacostia Playhouse might face up to 6 months of delays because of silly parking regulations, and there’s not much the DC Council can rightfully do about it.

The City Paper reported last week that the playhouse, which expected to open in April, suddenly discovered its parking didn’t count toward its parking requirement. That’s because the parking is across an alley from the theater but the law says that required parking spaces have to be on the same lot as the building.

This is a stupid rule, and the Board of Zoning Adjustment will almost certainly grant an exception. But that takes months, and meanwhile a number of productions have already contracted to use the playhouse.

Councilmembers Marion Barry and Tommy Wells introduced emergency legislation to help the Playhouse move forward. It’s a worthy impulse, but the council doesn’t have power over zoning, and finding a way to grant an exception in this one case could set a dangerous precedent for others.

DC needs to fix parking minimums, and quick

First of all, this clearly shows why we need to reform the zoning code. It also shows the consequences of overly restrictive rules.

Many people like rules that force almost any development to request zoning relief, because it gives residents a chance to speak up at a hearing or for neighborhood groups to ask for changes or concessions. However, such a process also forces property owners to hire lawyers and spend months to get through these hearings.

Perversely, that is a lot easier for the big project which will have a greater impact on the neighborhood than for a smaller property owner, or in this case, a nonprofit opening with city financial assistance in an area which has struggled to attract many types of businesses.

The council can’t, and shouldn’t, override

Okay, but until we fix zoning, does the Playhouse have to suffer? Wells (ward 6) and Barry (ward 8) introduced emergency legislation to let the project move ahead, but as the City Paper also reports, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson refused to put it on the calendar. Is Mendelson being a scrooge? Not really.

That’s because the DC Council does not have power over zoning. Before Home Rule in 1974, the federal government controlled all zoning. Congress didn’t entirely trust DC’s elected representatives to make land use choices, so it gave that power to the Zoning Commission, a 5-member board with 3 people appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, and 2 federal representatives.

The DC Council passes plans, like the Comprehensive Plan and individual Small Area Plans, which the Zoning Commission is supposed to follow. But the Zoning Commission actually decides whether to rezone any property or change the regulations. The BZA is a second hybrid federal-local board which rules on individual variances and exceptions based on the zoning code.

The pending zoning update doesn’t need any approval from the council — just the Zoning Commission. While some councilmembers (like Muriel Bowser) have nonetheless been catering to residents who oppose the update, wiser councilmembers have been staying out of this contentious issue.

Barry’s and Wells’ original bill would allow DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to give the Playhouse permits to move ahead, but only temporarily. If the Playhouse then gets the zoning relief it needs, it can keep moving ahead; if for some reason it doesn’t, it would have wasted a lot of time. But since the ANC, the Office of Planning, and basically everyone else supports the Playhouse’s petition, they’d probably be okay.

Override this time, and what’s next?

Still, the bill flirts with a dangerous precedent: directing DC agencies to partly disregard zoning. The Zoning Commission has no police force to enforce its orders. It relies on DCRA to deny permits that don’t have zoning relief. We don’t want to go down a slippery slope where the Council passes laws telling DCRA to grant permits for projects that violate zoning.

It could work the other way as well. Residents angry about a proposed apartment building at Connecticut and Military asked Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3) to intervene and even pass an emergency law directing DCRA to block the project, at least temporarily, until there can be more community meetings. Cheh rightly pointed out that she doesn’t have that power.

In one of her responses to neighbors, Cheh wrote,

The Council has no authority over the zoning code: the Home Rule Act defined the Council’s legislative authority, but made it clear that the Zoning Commission has full authority over zoning matters. The issue was addressed directly by the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, who concluded that “the Zoning Commission is the exclusive agency vested with power to enact zoning regulations.” ...

You ask that I petition the Mayor to direct the agencies not to issue any more permits until the concerns are addressed. Again, because there is no discretion in the issuance of permits, an intentional delay could open the District up to liability for takings and discrimination. The law simply does not allow the remedy that you seek.

If the council had passed Wells’ and Barry’s Anacostia Playhouse bill and someone had wanted to sue, there’s a good chance the DC Court of Appeals would have struck it down. If they found a reason to uphold it, that would be even worse, because then it would create an opportunity for council meddling in zoning cases in the future.

This bill is probably safe because it doesn’t seem like anyone actually has a problem with the project, but it’s not a good idea to possibly set a dangerous precedent just because this specific case is uncontroversial.

There might be other fixes

This case does point to a flaw in the zoning process, in addition to the silly parking rules. Perhaps there should be a way for a property owner to petition for an expedited hearing when a longer delay would cause some hardship. Other processes include such shortcuts.

In fact, the zoning update doesn’t do that, but it does allow the BZA to add a “consent calendar” where they can move through uncontroversial matters much more quickly. Perhaps that can help as well for the next Anacostia Playhouse.

And we need to get rid of parking minimums. This case shows how, while stricter rules can sometimes prevent bad projects, they also can at times interfere with good ones. Zoning restrictions have a cost.

As for the Playhouse, apparently the problem is that the building and its parking aren’t on the same tax lot. A public alley separates the two. The DC Council does have complete control over tax lots and public alleys, unlike with zoning. Perhaps an emergency bill could temporarily close the alley, transfer the alley property to the Playhouse with a permanent public easement to let the public continue to cross it, join the two into one tax lot, then specify that everything goes back to the status quo ante, say, one year from now? Then DCRA can declare that the property meets current zoning and grant permits without messing with zoning at all.

That’s still messy and an awkward thing to do by emergency legislation, but to me it’s less dangerous than having DCRA issue a permit for a property that doesn’t meet zoning. Or perhaps the clever attorneys in the council and DCRA could come up with another way to make the property conform to zoning while we wait for the slower process of making zoning conform to common sense and the needs of our city today.

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.