Photo by Melissa Robison on Flickr.
The Committee of 100 has relentlessly attacked the Office of Planning’s multiyear effort to update the DC zoning code to match the current Comprehensive Plan and the needs of a 21st-century city. The strange part is that based on their stated goals, the Committee ought to actually be thrilled with the zoning rewrite.
In their letter opposing Harriet Tregoning and Gabe Klein, Committee of 100 chair George Clark wrote,
During the past four years, Ms. Tregoning has pursued an agenda that she characterizes as smart growth, with the implication that the city is a victim of “dumb growth” and needs a radical makeover. We disagree with her definition. Smart urban growth is a targeted and disciplined approach that equates sustainability with preserving neighborhoods; and integrates environmental standards, community preservation, infrastructure improvements, economic opportunity, and public participation.
I suspect Harriet Tregoning would absolutely agree with all of the elements Clark lists as part of smart growth. And the zoning rewrite does all of these.
For example, at a recent preservation roundtable, Committee members Charles Robertson and Anne Sellin said they were “concerned” about the loss of “green space” from zoning changes that affect side courts and yards, though the effect of these will be very minor and even remove incentives to fill in small courts.
However, a major zoning proposal will drastically increase green space: the Green Area Ratio, a requirement that new buildings and those that more than double in size (excluding single-family homes) include a certain amount of landscaped, permeable surface, whether trees, lawns, landscaped areas, green roofs, and more.
In other words, instead of just requiring empty land and calling it “green space” even if it’s a trash-strewn alley or parking pad, the zoning code will actually require green space that’s really green. It will also increase environmental sustainability, another element of Clark’s list. Yet the Committee of 100’s letter does not praise Harriet Tregoning or the Office of Planning for this meaningful innovation.
You also wouldn’t guess from listening to Committee of 100 rhetoric on the zoning rewrite, but under OP’s proposals for residential zones, many neighborhoods would gain zoning limits that are stricter than those in effect today.
For example, current low and moderate density residential zones (R-1 for single family homes up to R-4 for rowhouse areas) all currently allow building heights of up to 40 feet. That means that any house or townhouse can get a “pop-up” 3rd above-ground story as long as it complies with lot occupancy and other restrictions.
The proposed zoning changes will change this. Areas with mostly two-story houses will get zoning that only allows two-story houses, for example. This will do far more to “preserve neighborhoods” than the current zoning. Those that believe in fewer regulations may oppose this change, putting OP on the side of the Committee of 100. Oddly, though, the Committee isn’t praising this element.
Meanwhile, I live in an R-5-B area, which allows far denser development than row houses like mine. In the last few decades, including in recent years, residents in some R-5-B zones like the area around 15th and T got their zoning changed to R-4, limiting development to something closer to what exists there now. However, this was a very time-consuming process, requiring long hearings and lengthy waiting periods for each small area.
OP, instead, is proposing new zoning that will set development limits in all row house neighborhoods to a level that matches existing buildings. For some reason, however, we haven’t seen any statements from the Committee of 100 cheering this development, which achieves a goal they have been pushing for decades.
Why is the Committee of 100 so apoplectic about a zoning code where planners have strengthened zoning rules to preserve neighborhoods and required green space? Richard Layman might have an answer from a hearnig a few years ago on the zoning code:
[George Clark] said it was basically fine. I said it was automobile-suburban oriented (it is a document from the 1950s after all), and that every overlay and special zoning category is an indicator that the underlying code is inadequate and not robust.
The current code might not be great, but it is predictable, and all the people against the rewrite have a lot of experience dealing with it as it is. They are comfortable with it, even if it is in fact very flawed with respect to urbanity.
Perhaps this is why all of the advocacy that’s come from the Committee of 100 in recent years has focused on stopping undesirable projects. Members, including our commenter Lance, insist they support many of the same things as Greater Greater Washington readers, but I can’t recall a single case during our existence where the Committee has actively pushed for a change.
Martin Austermuhle put it another way on DCist:
At the end of the day, both the Committee of 100 and Greater Greater Washington are forward-looking organizations — but what has changed is the time from whence they claimed to start looking forward. The Committee has been around long enough that it’s harder to define what it does as being particularly “progressive.” In fact, it seems downright conservative.
Truly responsible planning tries to shape the city’s growth in a positive way. Build here, but not there. Don’t change this; change that instead. Arlington did this with their famous “deal” around the Metro: build very densely right next to Metro, but protect single-family neighborhoods elsewhere. DC could likewise shape its growth into specific areas around Metro stations and in neighborhoods that want new residents and businesses.
As Layman pointed out in that preservation roundtable, groups like the Committee of 100 grew up during an era of a shrinking city. Now, we have a growing city, which brings different challenges and different solutions. The Committee has a great opportunity to shape that growth into the places in the city they want to see it and suggest the form it could take. That, however, would require moving beyond the current mindset that everything is “basically fine” and the best approach is not to change.