Photo by martin on Flickr.

In the six-year-and-counting saga of DC’s zoning update, the Office of Planning (OP) has watered down proposed zoning changes yet again. Planners have removed residents’ right to put an accessory apartment in a carriage house or other external building and reinstated most of the existing parking minimum requirements around high-frequency bus lines.

While the zoning update is still a meaningful step forward, it has become, over the years, a smaller and smaller step forward as opponents have successfully pushed for more and more delay, and as staff turnover has replaced people who’d already compromised with new people who look for a compromise.

OP did make a few positive changes, at the request of members of the Zoning Commission. Planners dropped a rule that only allowed accessory apartments on lots of a certain size. Commissioners felt this was unnecessary.

The fire department had pushed to require any accessory apartments be on an alley at least 24 feet wide, and reachable through other alleys that are also as wide. Many in blocks in historic neighborhoods like Capitol Hill do not have alleys that big. The Zoning Commission pushed back, and the new rules would only require at least 8 feet (though the Board of Zoning Adjustment would now be reviewing all of these).

However, there are two significant retreats.

Homeowners can still add an apartment their basements or elsewhere inside the house in a single-family residential areas where this is illegal today. However, they will have to file for a “special exception” with the Board of Zoning Adjustment to place such an apartment in a carriage house or other existing external building. While the BZA is often willing to grant special exceptions, it is a lengthy process requiring many months of time, hiring zoning attorneys, and more.

Parking minimums will still be cut in half around Metro stations and streetcar lines, but not around major bus corridors. That means along Wisconsin Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue, Benning Road, and others, and in parts of Logan Circle, Adams Morgan, and many other neighborhoods, new buildings will still have to build parking at a rate which developers have said is often larger than the actual market demand.

By specifying that parking minimums get cut in half around streetcar lines (and Metro stations) but not high-frequency bus lines, OP is perpetuating the unfortunate assumption in DC government that buses don’t count as meaningful transit.

The proposal does still set new and lower basic parking requirements for many types of buildings in many zones.

How many times has this happened already?

These retreats have become par for the course in the zoning update. The people on the original zoning update team, none of whom are still working on the project, crafted a set of changes to encourage new housing, walkability, and building near transit, and reduced the number of extra zoning hearings necessary for things that are in the public interest, like adding accessory apartments.

Over the six years since, successive staffers and leaders at OP whittled the plans down step by step. Here is a rough chronology for these two policy areas:

Parking minimums:

  • 2008 original consultant recommendation: Eliminate all minimums and institute maximums.
  • 2009: Retain minimums far from transit in commercial corridors and residential buildings over 10 units. Only establish maximums downtown and for very large lots.
  • 2010-11: Drop downtown maximums. Exclude moderate-density row house areas from lower minimums.
  • 2013: Keep minimums for all areas but instead cut minimums in half near Metro, streetcar, and bus lines.
  • 2014: Exclude areas around major bus lines.


Accessory dwellings:

  • 2009: Allow accessory dwellings in main house or external building subject to many conditions.
  • 2010: Exempt Georgetown so that a special exception is required there.
  • 2011: Also require a special exception for new or recently-renovated external buildings everywhere.
  • 2014: Require a special exception for all external buildings.


Was this necessary?

These changes didn’t appear to come at the behest of the Zoning Commission. OP has created a spreadsheet of all commissioner comments, and they don’t show the commissioners asking for these changes. Another spreadsheet of public comments shows many comments in support of OP’s proposal. Yet OP’s rationale for changing parking minimums and accessory dwelling rules is that “residents” asked for the change.

When Harriet Tregoning decided to cut back the parking proposal the last time, to halve rather than eliminate parking minimums, I wrote,

Maybe Tregoning has the pulse of the Zoning Commission. ... 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.


Looks about right.

There are many more smaller changes

The revision makes numerous other changes, some of which make sense. Corner store rules allow groceries in residential areas as of right; the new rules require these groceries to have a certain amount of fresh food.

Corner stores also have to get a special exception to sell any alcohol, which ought to alleviate concerns that the stores in poorer areas will just end up being liquor stores. Finally, corner stores are prohibited in the Foxhall neighborhood, which already has some small retail spaces.

Bicycle parking standards got tweaked to better match current practice. Some bicycle parking requirements will decrease. Larger garages no longer have to include car sharing spaces, but they get credit for multiple parking spaces if they do. The West End keeps parking requirements even though it will be part of the new downtown zone.

Some activists, who had started paying attention to the process fairly late, asked for a special exception for large retailers, and the Office of Planning added such a rule for retailers larger than 50,000 square feet.

In one recommendation to loosen a rule which OP did accept, I pointed out overly-restrictive limits on theaters in residential zones. They must get a variance, a very difficult burden, to operate even in buildings such as churches. The Spooky Action Theater discovered this when it tried to put on shows at 16th and S. So did the Keegan on Church Street when it bought its building and discovered its Certificate of Occupancy allowed for a theater arts school but not theater performance despite the building having been used for shows for decades.

Zoning Commissioners agreed, and OP wrote a rule allowing this by special exception, as I had suggested. It’s an easier burden and one that still gives neighbors a chance to weigh in. However, OP’s rule only applies to buildings with “existing theater or performance space” in an institutional building like a church or school (maybe reasonable), and only when the building owner is renting that space to an unrelated group. That latter rule basically makes this cover the Spooky Action situation and not the Keegan situation, making it at best a half solution.

You can see a complete list of changes in the tables on this post, or in great detail in the actual amendment text.

It’s a very small measure now, but still worth passing

The zoning update still takes some steps to allow more housing across much of DC, though it will probably add a very small amount with all of the restrictions. A few buildings near Metro will more easily be able to match parking to actual demand, though many won’t.

The zoning update is worth passing, but doesn’t really solve the city’s bigger problems of not having enough housing, especially in the places where it makes the most sense. If the proposal goes through this fall, OP will still have to find ways to add more housing, especially near transit, or see the city’s housing costs continue to spiral ever higher.

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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.