The DC Office of Planning presented early draft recommendations to the Low & Moderate Density zoning working group last Thursday. Their approach revolves around a basic idea: the current zones (R-1A, R-1B, R-2, etc.) are too inflexible, imposing a one-size-fits-all approach on very diverse neighborhoods.

As OP discovered through a building typology study they conducted, each neighborhood has widely varying lot widths, setbacks, heights, lot coverages, and more. Only about half of the lots in DC conform to width requirements; in other words, whole neighborhoods are made up of houses whose lots are illegally narrow. If there is one vacant lot amidst a row of houses, it’s currently illegal to build a house just like the rest. That’s silly.

At the same time, the zoning in many areas allows more height than the prevailing buildings, leading to ridiculous eyesores like this and this. Each current zoning category weds building size with unit density: the lowest density zones allow only single-family, detached houses and the higher zones allow higher density row houses, but there are no zones to allow, say, multi-family detached houses, four-story row houses that are limited to two units per building, or many other combinations one could devise.

OP’s solution is to enable each neighborhood to determine the parameters of their own zoning by setting a number of variables, such as:

  • Maximum height
  • Lot width
  • Building width (for detached and semi-detached buildings)
  • Minimum and maximum front setback from the street (or, when both are equal, a “build-to line” that ensures a row of houses all line up in front)
  • Maximum building depth (to ensure some open space in the rear)
  • Number of units per building
  • Whether corner stores can locate in residential areas, and with what restrictions on hours, noise, garbage, etc.
  • ... and more.

This system will allow for zoning much better tailored to each neighborhood’s needs. The zoning map will become more complex, with many different zones instaed of large R-1, R-2, etc. areas; on the other hand, with the proliferation of overlays and text amendments over the last 50 years, it’s difficult to know all the zoning rules for a given area since they are split into so many different chapters and addendums. Under this system, a property owner will only need to look up the table of maximums and minimums for his or her specific area.

The biggest question is how each neighborhood will determine its own rules. Will the ANCs decide, or will there be a vote? Will members of the public submit comments to OP or the Zoning Commission? How will we balance the interests of the majority of residents against a possible vocal, self-interested minority? What about investor-owned properties, whose owners have a vested interest in increasing rental income without as much consideration for the quality of life in the neighborhood? On the flip side, how can we ensure newer residents have a voice as well as long-time residents?

The decisions we make about process will significantly influence the outcome. As someone interested in the dynamics of the political process, this should be fascinating; as someone who writes about zoning, this should provide a nearly bottomless source of good material. It should be exciting!

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.