Photo by Blue Mountains Local Studies on Flickr.

On Friday, DC planning director Harriet Tregoning announced she’s giving into yet another demand from zoning update opponents: to reduce rather than eliminate minimum parking requirements in transit-rich areas outside downtown. Will this smooth the path forward for the remaining provisions, or only put other progressive changes at risk?

Until last week, the Office of Planning (OP)‘s plan was to eliminate parking minimums downtown and along corridors with Metro, streetcar, or high-frequency bus lines. Low-density neighborhoods of detached houses, and even moderate density neighborhoods of smaller row houses, would have retained minimums, though not for buildings of 10 units and fewer.

Now, only the highest density “downtown” neighborhoods, including developing centers like NoMA and the ballpark area, would have no parking minimums. Elsewhere, the minimums for multifamily residential will be 1 space per 3 units away from transit, and half that near transit, Tregoning explained.

Instead of exempting buildings up to 10 units, the new proposal only exempts buildings up to 4 units, and in “single-family” neighborhoods, even a single-family home will require a parking space unless it has no alley access. That means that nobody will have to put in a driveway curb cut for a single-family house, but might have to pave over a backyard even where street parking is plentiful.

In addition, property owners will be able to apply for an easier “special exception” to further reduce or waive parking minimums, rather than the tougher variance standard in effect now.

There is one significant step forward: OP had previously said that parking minimum changes (outside downtown) wouldn’t go into effect if and when the zoning update won approval. Instead, there would be another, subsequent process to “map” the transit zones in each neighborhood. That would likely have led to years more of acrimony.

Instead, Tregoning said, OP now proposes to simply write rules so that the half-as-strict parking minimum rule automatically kicks in for properties within ½ mile of a Metro station or ¼ mile of a streetcar line or designated WMATA priority bus corridor. (I forgot to ask, but hopefully Circulator lines will also qualify.)

That means that if the Zoning Commission approves the plan, property owners near transit could see less onerous requirements more quickly than when there was going to be a mapping phase. While this is a step forward, OP could always have used this formula to define areas with no parking minimums at all. This didn’t have to go hand in hand with retaining minimums.

This change isn’t the right policy; it’s just a political choice

There’s no doubt the zoning update has engendered fierce debate. It’s a constant topic of heated argument on neighborhood listservs, particularly in neighborhoods like Tenleytown, Chevy Chase, and Cleveland Park. A small group of opponents, almost all from west of Rock Creek Park, have shown up at hearings over 5 years to object to nearly every change of any kind.

From Tregoning’s statements to the press, it’s clear she’s made the change in order to appease opponents, not because she’s actually convinced keeping parking minimums is the better policy. She told Aaron Wiener at the Washington City Paper that abolishing requirements “was really wigging people out,” and Mike Debonis at the Post quoted her saying, “A lot of people were very, very concerned with the concept of no parking minimums.”

She also told DeBonis, “I’m not an ideologue. I’m very practical. The practical effect is not very different.” That may be true in most cases, though it still means some owners will build garages they know aren’t necessary, simply to avoid asking for zoning relief.

But the practical effect will be very different if the DC Zoning Commission further waters down the proposal before giving it final approval. Tregoning and associate director Jennifer Steingasser promised to transmit proposal to the commission by July 29. The commission, a hybrid federal-local body, has the final say on the plans, and can change them or ask OP to revise them in any way.

Opponents will pressure the Zoning Commission to scale back any changes, and there will be a strong temptation at least in the minds of some commissioners to shrink any proposal that meets substantial opposition. Had OP continued to propose eliminating minimums, the commission might have decided to keep some but reduce them. Now that OP set a new baseline of only reducing minimums, the commission may well decide to reduce them somewhat less.

Tregoning says she thinks the most recent change will appease some opponents, though some are blasting the new plan almost as vehemently. Chevy Chase resident and stalwart zoning update foe Sue Hemberger called the new proposal “repackaging [the] same anti-car policy.” Alma Gates told Mike Debonis she’s “not sure [the change] goes far enough,” and DeBonis paraphrased Juliet Six saying she thinks the move “was calibrated to create an illusion of consensus.”

The Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning have caved once again on parking minimums.

Retreat after retreat, and for what?

Why would this change engender any greater harmony, when OP has watered down its proposals several times in the last 5 years, never to any effect? Intransigence has paid off for those who opposed the zoning update since day one. They have managed to delay the update by at least a year, and bully the Office of Planning into successive rounds of scaling back.

OP has cut the fat, then the muscle, and now the bone from its plans. In 2008, the zoning update team was talking about eliminating all parking minimums and even establishing maximums. Travis Parker, the head of the update at the time, decided to leave in some minimums only in commercial corridors far from transit, because opponents say parking is most needed in those areas. Later, OP decided not to push forward on maximums.

When Parker moved to Colorado and Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser took over, she backed off further by promising to delay lower minimums around transit until after a further “mapping” process. It looked like Steingasser hoped that promise would quiet the small group of furious critics; it did not. Will this latest change be different?

Ironically, earlier last week, Matt Yglesias wrote in Slate that it’s a bad idea to reduce rather than eliminate minimums. Among other reasons, he said,

On a concrete level, this is a form of compromise that really fails in its goal of de-mobilizing opposition. If you are a street parker and your priority in parking policy is to defend your access to cheap street parking, then any reduction in parking mandates should spark opposition. Watering the reform down doesn’t lead to any genuine reconciliation of interests.

Maybe Tregoning has the pulse of the Zoning Commission — after all, her agency works with the commissioners day week after week, on hundreds of Planned Unit Developments and map amendments every year. Maybe by making this particular change, as opposed to all of the other changes they’ve made to appease opposition over the last 5 years, maybe zoning commissioners will say, ah, it’s clear OP has listened to public input, and we will therefore pass their proposal.

I hope so, but I think it’s much more likely that opponents will use this concession to try to get another concession, and zoning commissioners will still cut something back even more. Everyone wants to strike a compromise. But when one zoning update head compromises, then he leaves, his boss takes over, and she compromises, then the agency director compromises, and finally zoning commissioners compromise, we’re left with is a weak set of changes that do little to truly position the city for the future.


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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.