Photo by Horia Varlan on Flickr.

DC’s Office of Planning (OP) may have backed down on some key provisions of the DC zoning update, but some members of DC’s Zoning Commission, which has the final say on zoning, voiced skepticism about the recent changes at a meeting last week.

A majority of commissioners may be prepared to reject several of OP’s proposed amendments, including one that would have made it harder for homeowners to rent out a carriage house or garage and another that would have required more parking near high-frequency bus lines.

Before that happens, though, you get to spend yet another fun evening testifying before the Zoning Commission! That’s because some of the commissioners “want to hear what the public thinks” about these changes. They will hold another hearing, likely in early September, to hear from people who happen to have the time and interest in spending a whole evening in a government hearing room.



New, stricter hearing rules for accessory apartments don’t go over well

One of the zoning update’s significant policy changes would allow more people to rent out space in their basements, garages, or elsewhere. Today, that’s illegal in the low-density residential zones (R-1 and R-2) and lower-density row house zones (R-3) like Georgetown, In other row house areas like Capitol Hill (R-4), a rental unit can be in the main house but not in a garage or other external building.

OP has cut back the proposal several times to require a “special exception,” where the homeowner has to go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a hearing, first for all accessory units in Georgetown and then for any newly-constructed external buildings.

Last month, bowing to what OP’s Joel Lawson called “vociferous concern” from some residents, OP proposed also forcing a special exception hearing for any accessory apartment in any external building in the R-1 through R-3 zones. However, at the same time, planners also recommended allowing accessory apartments (by right inside the main building, by special exception outside) even for homes on lots that are smaller than the standard required lot size.


Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.


Some members of the Zoning Commission also were not on board with this retreat. Rob Miller, one the five members of the commission, said:

This is at least the second or third compromise on this issue that would be being made. ... The need for affordable housing — and any kind of housing — in this city is so critical. ... And so I cannot support the additional compromise that’s proposed here, that would require all accessory apartments in accessory bldgs to go through a special exception process that can be a very burdensome process for an individual homeowner. They will either do it illegally, as I guess is being done now, or the housing just won’t be provided.


Commissioner Marcie Cohen agreed:

I think that we’re at a point where, as a city, we are obligated to create more housing. We are in a crisis.  Of course many of us do have our own homes but there are a lot of people coming into our city on a monthly basis. ... Accessory apartments provide an alternative of affordable units. Many of them. I’m very concerned about the need for affordable housing, and many cities around the country are looking at accessory apartments as addressing housing need.


Cohen also talked about the need for seniors, as they age, to potentially have caregivers come live with them, and may want that caregiver to have a separate apartment for greater independence.  She said, “To subject them to any process other than the process of getting the proper building permits and the proper certificate of occupancy — I think that’s enough process for them to go thorough, as opposed to going to zoning for an exception.”

She concluded, “We’ve already compromised once, and I think this is watering it down too much and it’s bad public policy.”

Lawson pointed out that another change OP made (at the commission’s request), dropping the minimum lot size would more than double the number of properties which would be eligible. However, that lot size rule was something OP added between November 2012 and July 2013, making it another restriction that cut down on accessory apartments from the original proposal (and one I didn’t even notice at the time). So OP would just be reversing that limit while adding another.

Lawson said that there were some neighborhood concerns that OP could perhaps address by adding some new and specific conditions to matter-of-right accessory apartments. Peter May, the representative on the commission from the National Park Service and one of two federally-appointed members, also sounded unenthusiastic about OP’s new special exception rule and said that perhaps a mixture of the two options would be better.

May also questioned another accessory apartment rule that would not allow an accessory apartment where more than six people live in the main home and the accessory apartment combined. May said that many people (including himself) have families of five or more, and under these rules, a family of five could not rent a basement or garage to a couple. He suggested OP look at another rule, perhaps one that only limits the number of people in the smaller accessory unit.

Chairman Anthony Hood, however, prefers the special exception. He said, “Anytime you can get public input, and I think this is very critical, whether it’s new or existing, it’s very critical.”

Commissioners frown on higher parking minimums near major bus lines and in the West End

OP’s plans to reduce parking minimum requirements, especially near transit, have also gone through multiple rounds of cutbacks. A new base parking requirement in mixed-use and multifamily areas would be lower in some places than today; in addition, OP had been proposing to cut the requirement in half around Metro stations, streetcar lines, and WMATA priority bus corridors.

On top of that, OP was proposing a new Transportation Demand Management (TDM) rule saying that where buildings significantly exceeded the minimum, larger buildings would need to include things like more bike parking, trees, car sharing spaces, electric car charging stations, and more green roofs, walls, or space. Garages with 100 more spaces than required would have to add a Capital Bikeshare station.

Last month’s change dropped the lower parking requirement around bus corridors and also increased the threshold where TDM kicks in to two times the minimum instead of 1.5 times as in the original proposal. Further, the zoning update specifies no parking minimum in downtown zones, but some people in the West End also asked to exempt their area from this rule. OP agreed.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.


OP got negative feedback from zoning commissioners on all three counts.

Marcie Cohen said,

We must begin to recognize that there’s just too much congestion and traffic in this city, and that we have to have a multimodal effort.

I don’t want to take anybody’s car away, but on the other hand, we can encourage people by improving service to use buses and other forms of transportation. ... We have to recognize that we are choking in this city or we will choke if we continue our behaviors. So I am not in favor of removing parking reductions. ...

It’s sort of like the old adage that if you widen the roads you get more cars. If you provide parking you get more cars. We have to now bite the bullet and say we can’t afford that any more, for health reasons. Cars are the second largest producers of carbon emissions after energy plants. So I really feel strongly about the vehicle parking.


Rob Miller agreed with Cohen. Hood, however, did not:

Anytime we reduce parking — I am not in agreemence with some of what I’ve heard about cars. We all choose a way of life, and we all need to do a balanced approach.

One of the things I’ve watched is [Rhode Island] Row. We had a developer come in and say, we have so much parking. The caveat to that is that they don’t let you park in the first three rows, and nobody tells you that.

We do a disservice to the residents of the city when we squeeze them out of parking, when people have a problem finding parking. ... I’ve heard the developer, they stopped me in the street, and said you made us build too much parking. You have 3 rows cut off. I forget why they do that.


I thought at first that Hood might be meaning the Metro garage, but Dan Stessel of WMATA checked with the Metro parking officials, who said the first three rows in the Rhode Island Row private garage are reserved for retail users and short-term parking. *

May, who is likely the swing vote on this issue, didn’t take a clear position on the bus route parking minimum, but he definitely opposed having a minimum for the West End. He also disputed OP’s change in the TDM threshold from 1.5x to 2x. He said, “If you’re going to go with that many more spaces than the minimum required, then you need to do things to encourage people not to use cars.”

What’s next?

The commission “set down” OP’s amendments for a hearing. According to Sharon Schellin of the Office of Zoning, they haven’t picked a date yet, but it will likely be in early September.

On the accessory apartment and parking issues, where at least some commissioners didn’t agree with the amendment, it’ll still go to the hearing, but the hearing notice will essentially advertise two options, to go with OP’s change but also not to. That’s a choice with any of the amendments, but the notice will make clear that the commission may indeed not be taking OP’s recommendation on this point.

Even though many of you have slogged through many, many hearings over six years on this issue, it’ll be important to show up yet again, as some commsisioners may make up their minds, at least in part, based on how loud the push is on each side.

* The original version of this article speculated that Hood was talking about reserved parking at the Metro garage. However, Metro parking staff don’t think that is the case, and he was probably talking about the private garage. The post has been updated.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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 here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.