Zoning is the legal framework that shapes just what can be built where in most cities, and DC just enacted a new zoning code. It’s pretty detailed, but we’re in luck: the the District’s Office of Zoning made this interactive map to illustrate where different zones are, what they mean, and why they’re organized it that way.
The map is one of many the zoning office has published to explain the changeover. If you click the image above, you’ll see a sidebar that shows the eight categories that define how land in DC can be used: Residential; Residential Flat; Residential Apartment; Neighborhood Mixed Use; Mixed Use; Downtown; Production, Distribution and Repair; and Special Purpose.
Clicking on the individual colored areas will bring up will bring up the specific “zone district,” one of the three parts of zoning that regulate the use and shape of a building. The others are the rules that apply everywhere in the city and processes that give the regulations flexibility, like Planned Unit Developments. But zone districts are the rules that shape specific neighborhoods, and it’s usually what people are talking about when they mention zoning.
Residential Flat (RF) is one of three types of Residential zones. Below, you can see examples of the others. Photo from DC’s Office of Zoning.
By breaking down the official map into the big categories and color coding them, you can see patterns. For example, the yellow and orange shapes show areas where only houses, flats, or apartment buildings can be built. At a glance, over half of DC’s residential land is zoned exclusively for
detached single-family houses — that’s conservative, since most other zones also allow single-family houses.
The new code organizes zone districts for residential use by building type: single family houses (R), flats in small apartment buildings and subdivided rowhouses (RF), and large apartment buildings (RA).
Zooming in on Historic Anacostia, the map below shows the denser RA and RF areas closer to Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. SE, with the area uphill restricted to townhouse, duplex or detached houses by their R-3 zone designation.
It might also look like there’s a lot of land across the city that’s zoned RA. But looking closer, a lot of this land is for campuses like those of American University, the Armed Forces Retirement Home, or built out with low-rise garden apartments in areas like McLean Gardens and Congress Heights.
Commercial zones saw a bigger change
The new code has no purely commercial zones. The downtown zone districts (D), meant for the dense core at the center of the city, don’t exclude apartments. Some even incentivize residential buildings by letting apartments be denser.
Farther out, medium-density commercial areas are now called Mixed Use (MU), to reflect that the code encourages both commercial and residential in those areas. That’s not new, but the name of old districts like “C-2-A” suggested otherwise.
A good example can be found around Mount Vernon Triangle and Northwest One: it’s mostly zoned D and MU, and many of the new residences built there are not in residential zone districts.
H Street NE was one of several areas used to have “overlays” added to modify the standard zone districts in a geographic area. Sometimes those modifications were the same across commercial and residential properties, but often they laid out custom rules for every single zone district the overlay touched. To figure out what was allowed on a given property, you’d first look in one chapter of the code for the “base zoning,” then flip to another chapter for the overlay.
Now, each of the existing combination of zones has been given its own subsection. Small commercial strips like H Street fall into distinct moderate-density neighborhood mixed use (NC) zones, meant to create a special character for individual neighborhood main streets, like Georgia Avenue and Carroll Street in Takoma.
Now, the overlay and base zoning information is all in one place, from the statement of purpose to technical restrictions. The same is true for the Special Purpose customized zones, used meant to give big areas like Uptown Arts on U and 14th Streets (ARTS), or at Walter Reed (WR) unique characteristics.
Zoom in on the map and click on a parcel, and the map will show a quick description of the site’s zoning. This little chunk of Howard University’s campus is one of the few remaining industrial (PDR, short for Production Distribution & Repair) zones in DC’s northwest quadrant.
None of these have industrial uses anymore; this lots is a development called Wonder Plaza, with fast-food eateries and no heavy machinery.
Perhaps this PDR designation was just kept by inertia; I’m not sure I would have noticed that without this map.
For me, the new organization of the code and the Office of Zoning’s map help with understanding not only what someone could build on some plot of land, but also how earlier planners shaped the the city and what might need to change. What does this map help you see?
Correction: An earlier version of this post said that over half of DC’s residential land is zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. That isn’t the case; over half the land is zoned exclusively for single-family houses, but not detached single-family houses.