Mark your calendars for next Monday, May 5th, 6:30 pm. Smart Growth needs you.

May 5th is the next meeting of the Low & Moderate Density zoning meeting. The attitudes of the citizens who attend this group will determine whether DC’s zoning code makes it easier or harder for existing buildings to house more people.

Should it stay legal for property owners to add rentable units in their basements? Should we limit the number of condos one can make out of an existing building? Should alley dwellings be legal? Last week’s Historic Structures meeting comprised many people who want to restrict most of this.

Under the rubric of historic preservation, they pushed for rules which would essentially prevent new residents from coming into old neighborhoods. And while we should preserve worthy buildings including the townhouses in our historic neighborhoods, increasing unit density without much changing the buildings is an important way to allow people to live in our city at reasonable prices.

There weren’t very many people fighting for the don’t-let-anything-ever-change position. But there were almost no people fighting for an alternative viewpoint either. These meetings aren’t large—about 20 people total at the last one, with maybe five doing most of the talking. But these meetings are far from useless. If most of the people in the group push for a particular change, then the Office of Planning can’t ignore the consensus.

For example, right now someone can convert their townhouse in an R-4 district (like Capitol Hill or Mount Pleasant) into a multi-family building as long as they have a 2700-square-foot lot and each unit is at least 900. But the group had been pushing to limit this to bigger buildings and fewer units in historic districts, which would restrict the people that can move into a neighborhood. In their draft recommendations, the Office of Planning folks suggested that the issue be referred to the Low & Moderate Density working group to come up with a city-wide rule instead of one rule for historic areas. Since this rule doesn’t have anything to do with changing the building itself, it’s hard to see how restricting it would “change the character of the historic district” as some argued, unless having more and often younger people in your neighborhood is an adverse impact to your neighborhood character.

Despite OP’s recommendation, almost everyone in the room supported changing the rule to allow only two units per building. I was the only one to speak against it, and without my opposition, OP would have been forced to put the rule in. Instead, it got pushed off to the Low & Moderate Density group.

But the same people are going to be at the Low & Moderate Density group too. When that group considers whether to relax the rules against alley apartments, we need to be there to support them. When the group considers how many condos one can make out of an existing building, we need to keep them from excessively restricting the number. Even five people at that meeting would tip the balance. I hope you will come.

Low and Moderate Density working group
Monday, May 5th
6:30-8:30 pm
441 4th St (One Judiciary Square)
South Lobby, 11th Floor

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.