Photo by Live Life Happy on Flickr.

Last week, Mayor Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until at least this fall before considering the proposed DC zoning update. This comes after nearly seven years of deliberation and resident input, and will now mean an entire year after a full draft was released for public review. 

Public involvement is a critical part of good planning, but on this project, city officials have established what must be a new record for public consultation. Already, there has been enormously more public input than when the original zoning code was passed in 1958.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth is urging residents to tell Mayor Gray that further delay in creating a more walkable and inclusive city is simply not acceptable.

As of earlier this year, there have been:



  • 81 public work group meetings on 20 topic areas in 2008-2009, with a total of 1,000 participants
  • 42 open task force meetings by a representative task force of 25 residents
  • 59 public hearings and meetings by the Zoning Commission on specific topics starting in 2009
  • 8 meetings in each ward in December 2012 and January 2013 to discuss the zoning revision
  • Over 100 ANC, community group, and special interest group meetings with the DC Office of Planning.



Miles away from the 1958 zoning code

Meanwhile, back in 1956-1958, there were no more than 25 public hearings. 20 of those were clustered in two 10-day breaks for public input.

The zoning codes were developed by a private consultant; the public had its input; and then a three-man group called the Zoning Advisory Council made significant alternations.

The Zoning Advisory Council was group of three “experienced” individuals, representing the National Capital Planning Commission, the Zoning Commission, and the District Commissioner. They advised the Zoning Commission when big changes came up. The Zoning Commission had to consider each of their views.

The current zoning update began with public and open working groups on each topic. The previous one began with a contract, in November 1954. At the time, there was no Office of Planning. The National Capital Planning Commission did most of the work. Zoning was the job of the Zoning Commission, which comprised the three District Commissioners, as well as a representative from the Architect of the Capitol and the National Park Service.

Two of the District Commissioners were civilians appointed by Congress. The third, and by far the dominant, was an ex-officio representative of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Engineer Commissioner was effectively the city manager.

Having no planning staff of its own, the Zoning Commission issued a contract in November 1954 for Harold Lewis, a well-respected engineer and urban planner. His father, Nelson Lewis, was a founder of American planning.

Lewis presented his plans over ten summer weeknights, June 18th-29th, 1956. Crowds packed into the stuffy auditoriums of schools and the Wilson building to voice their opinions on Lewis’ proposal. Lewis or one of his assistants began each event with a defense of the assumptions that underlay the report.

The public addressed Lewis’ plan with a barrage of testy testimony. Unlike the current process, the 1956 commission didn’t break up the meeting by topic. This was the first time anyone had seen the proposal.

The zoning change significantly altered the zoning map. Lewis also wanted to force nonconforming structures and uses to close down entirely. And the code dramatically downzoned much of the city.

The 2008-2014 zoning update does not touch this level of controversy. The map does not change, and no areas get upzoned or downzoned. Policy changes, such as the controversial ones around parking, corner stores, and basement and garage apartments, are tiny compared to the changes of 1958.

Lewis took some of the public comments into consideration. He delivered his final report, known as the Lewis Report, on November 9th. A 7-month comment period then began, and ended with 10 days of hearings at the Wilson Building, May 27th-June 6th.

If the summer meetings were hot, this was volcanic. But it ended with the Zoning Advisory Council taking the comments behind closed doors. They issued a report on July 12, 1957. Other than details, the law went into effect on May 12th, 1958. With some alterations, what was set down then is still law.

Little changes shouldn’t make it hard to solve big problems

It’s not that the 1958 process was better. Far from it; the openness of the current process should be praised. And it’s always worth examining how a public process could be more open. However, it’s not clear how new rounds of testimony increase participation by underrepresented groups.

More time will just allow vocal residents to rehash the same disputes again. All to defend regulations that, no matter how comfortable they may have become, are based on discredited and outdated theory.

Comprehensively updating our zoning code for the first time since 1958 will help to make housing more affordable, by giving builders more flexible options in construction and easing the rules that allow homeowners to create an accessory apartment.

In a city with housing costs that are rapidly spiraling out of control, we can’t afford to waste any more time with unjustified delays. Let the Zoning Commission begin deliberating! Send a message to Mayor Gray that DC residents are ready NOW for a new, modern, and more understandable zoning code.

We've just launched our brand new website and are working out some kinks. Find something that looks like a bug? Please help out by sending us an email with the details!

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.

Alex Posorske is the Managing Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Before joining CSG, he managed two top tier Congressional races, organized key constituencies in the 2008 presidential primaries, built grassroots operations in numerous regions throughout the country. Alex has a B.A. in Journalism from Webster University in St. Louis, Mo.