Georgetown’s zones. Image from the DC zoning map.

Tonight, Nancy MacWood of the Committee of 100 and Travis Parker of the Office of Planning will debate the zoning update’s effects on Georgetown this evening at 7:30 pm.

Parker heads up the OP’s zoning rewrite effort, and MacWood is both an ANC commissioner in Cleveland Park and a zoning activist in the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

The Citizens’ Association of Georgetown is hosting the meeting. CAG’s legal counsel, Richard Hinds, who like MacWood has testified against much of the zoning update, will moderate the exchange.

Much of the debate will center on 2 contentious topics: greater allowances for commercial uses in the neighborhood, and greater allowances for accessory dwellings.

However, the zoning rewrite’s recommendations on Low and Moderate Density Residential areas, which includes Georgetown’s residential areas, place tighter limits on development than currently exist.  The Committee of 100 and CAG’s Hinds haven’t mentioned these changes in their testimony, but they deserve mention as examples of the reasonableness and balance that the Office of Planning is bringing to the rewrite.

For example, stricter front yard and height requirements would place greater limits on the “McMansionization” of homes would be enacted through. Property owners would no longer be able to extend their homes out farther than other homes on their blocks, eliminating their front yard, even if doing so would fall within their lot occupancy limit (recommendation 3).  Owners would also no longer be able to “pop-up” an extra story in certain situations (recommendation 2). In Georgetown, historic roles already preclude most of this, but most neighborhoods have no such controls today.

Commercial uses in the neighborhood: Corner stores have always been central to Georgetown’s historic fabric and lifestyle.  But if the current beloved corner stores were to burn down and not be rebuilt within 3 years, they would be illegal.  How is that in keeping with historic preservation? 

The Office of Planning is recommending that, rather than focus on a narrow list of uses (e.g. churches, schools) that are permitted in new neighborhood construction, the zoning code should focus on neighborhood impact.  Corner stores that meet the needs of neighbors should be allowed.  Carry-out pizza shops open until after midnight should not be allowed (recommendation 10).

Accessory dwelling units:  Carriage houses and “granny flats” bring many benefits.  They enable seniors to age in place and they allow Georgetown to absorb the increasing population of DC without losing its historic character (recommendation 11).

In fact, the greater numbers of residents in existing buildings is actually part of the neighborhood’s historic character. In 1950, DC had 13,151 people per square mile. As of 2000, it had only 9,316 people per square mile despite building more buildings. This happened because household sizes decreased; 44% of households have only one person compared to 14.3% in 1950, and the number of children declined 39%.

Allowing a childless couple or empty nester to rent out a basement apartment or carriage house actually lets Georgetown’s historic buildings hold the same numbers of residents they used to hold, and bring potential customers to the neighborhoods’ shops.

Opponents have complained of the parking problems created by this increase in housing stock, but this should be addressed by better management of on-street parking.  In fact, DDOT has planned a parking pilot for Georgetown that would do just this, and CAG is on record as supporting it. 

There is also fear that these accessory units will invite more students into the neighborhood. However, by refusing to allow accessory units over the past 5 decades, Georgetown’s students have instead become concentrated into fewer buildings, creating a “student ghetto” instead of better integrating the students into the community. Boarding houses, incidentally, were also a very historic living pattern in Georgetown’s buildings.

If anything, the experience with the students shows us that preserving historic character amidst increasing population and housing demand requires continued development that is consistent in character with neighboring development in order to prevent existing housing from being overrun and existing residents from being displaced.

The Office of Planning and the Committee of 100 are both trying to preserve the neighborhood’s historic character. They are just taking very different approaches. CAG’s Hinds summarized this difference in his testimony on the zoning update:

I think one thing that needs to be done is basically to cut out historic districts from this entire process because it’s not taking their unique characteristics into account.  They are just different.  We’re trying to preserve.  We’re not trying to develop.

Most preservationists actually disagree, arguing that preservation is about managing change, not stopping change, or as former HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg often said, not about encasing a neighborhood in amber.

The Office of Planning is more focused on preserving historic character than keeping every physical square inch of space exactly as it is today. Sometimes preserving historic character requires placing tighter limits on development, as OP recognizes in their front yard and height recommendations.  But sometimes preserving historic character requires development that is tightly controlled to be consistent with neighboring developments.

The debate will take place at the Letelier Theater, on the upper courtyard level of Georgetown Court, 3251 Prospect Street NW. The reception begins at 7 o’clock with the program from 7:30 until 8:30. You can get to the theater from Prospect Street by coming up the staircase next to the garage entrance, to the left of Café Milano. Or you can enter Georgetown Court on N street (beside Neyla’s) directly onto this upper level.