Last Saturday, February 8, 2014, Councilmember Graham organized a meeting for residents of Ward 1 to learn more about the current proposal to revise the master blueprint for the District of Columbia, the DC Zoning Regulations. This has been a process that has been in progress for the past several years. The Zoning Regulation Review (ZRR) is intended to be the first major rewrite of the District’s Zoning Regulations since 1958. The meeting was held at the Columbia Heights Community Center from noon to 2 p.m. and was attended by 50 to 60 residents from most sections of Ward 1.
The program kicked off with a presentation by Nancy MacWood, chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. While her presentation got a bit detailed at times, overall she gave an overview of the rewrite and hit on three major themes: the ZRR’s impact on parking, accessory dwelling policies, and neighborhood policies. Handouts on these three areas were provided (click preceding links). You can also view the slide deck from Ms. MacWood’s presentation online.
Following the presentation, there was a panel made up of Alma Gates (a Committee of 100 trustee and chair of its Zoning Subcommittee), Sue Hemberger (a political scientist and member of the committee of 100 Zoning Subcommittee and Planning Subcommittee), and Laura Richards (former chair and a current trustee of the Committee of 100).
As one might imagine, understanding zoning can be an arduous task … and I think it is safe to presume that to do so would take more than the time devoted to the subject on Saturday. Also, it is easy for interested members of the community to ask questions seeking answers to help deal with problems in the community that are related to construction and development but actually not zoning issues. A good example was when 1A Commissioner Dotti Love Wade asked if the ZRR would prevent a property owner from digging out a front yard and lowering it to grade level. This has been done on a number of rowhouses in Columbia Heights by developers converting former single family houses into multi-family units. Lowering the yard to grade creates a patio and entryway into the basement level of the structure.
In response to Commissioner Love Wade’s question, the panel initially misinterpreted the question as one seeking clarity on building setback … and reasonbly enough, as setback is a zoning issue, but lowering a yard to grade is not. The presentation also made it clear that issues such as “pop ups”, an issue that Councilmember Graham has expressed great concern about, is neither addressed by the current zoning code nor would it be in the revision.
(Committee of 100 members answering community questions during the Ward 1 Zoning Briefing.)
One thing I found interesting is that at the beginning of the panel presentation Ms. MacWood stated that the single issue that rises to the top of most residents as a concern is the affordability of housing. This struck a chord with me as both the presenters and nearly all of the attendees seemed to be in opposition to the proposed changes (there were no Smart Growth advocates on the panel, nor did any seem to be in the audience) to the zoning code and even suggested that the community seek a moratorium on neighborhood development until key concerns are addressed … yet one could argue that the one thing the code does by loosening many of the rules is that it would make District housing more diverse, more dense, and as a result, more affordable.
Instead, a resident from Mt. Pleasant expressed great concern that original single family houses were being subdivided into multi-family dwellings at an ever increasing rate. She asked if we could get the Federal Government involved or come under the oversight of the National Capital Planning Commission as this is the Nation’s Capital. The panel of presenters replayed that this was not the answer, but that such testimony could be made to the Zoning Commission at the Ward 1 hearing on February 13th.
The issue of corner stores in residential neighborhoods was also touched upon during the presentation. These are only allowed if they were in existence prior to 1958 since they are currently not allowed in R-4 zones. Ms. MacWood expressed great concern that corner stores again be allowed in residential sections as a matter of right. What I find interesting, from my perspective as a resident of Park View, is that nearly all of the corner stores we had in the neighborhood prior to 1958 are still operating and for the most part are assets to the community rather than burdens. Which made me wonder if some of the changes proposed in the ZRR — the changes that are being opposed for fear that they will destroy the unique character that is Washington, D.C. — are actually coming close to embracing the spirit of the building conditions that were in play when much of Washington was built (When the current code was adopted in 1958, many buildings and uses were grandfathered in because they no longer conformed to the code).
From my perspective, I don’t think the proposed zoning rewrite will have a significant negative impact (if any) in Park View. I agree with others that there are a few issues with the zoning rewrite, but the areas of concern I have with the rewrite are not due to what the ZRR does, but rather what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t address the compatibility of significant alterations to structures in any meaningful way … which is a concern that frequently is used by residents coming to ANC meetings in opposition of Zoning Variance requests. But then again, one could argue that “pop ups” and aesthetics really aren’t zoning issues, but rather preservation issues. Perhaps the best approach would be to adopt the more liberal zoning proposal and create large conservation districts for the prewar neighborhoods that don’t currently enjoy historic district protection, an approached I’ve already suggested before.
All-in-all, I do think that a couple of things were clear. The vast majority of the meeting’s attendees do care about their neighborhoods, and they would like more time to get to know what the ZRR is all about. Whether you support or oppose the ZRR, it seems reasonable to me to extend the process by another six months to provide the opportunity for those concerned that they have not had enough time to become acquainted with its content to do just that.
The DC government agency that will vote upon the zoning changes is the DC Zoning Commission (ZC). The Zoning Commission has announced a public hearing to receive testimony this week. The hearing for Wards One and Two will be held on February 13, at the D.C. Housing Finance Authority at 815 Florida Ave., NW beginning at 6:00 p.m. and is open to anyone who wants to attend and offer testimony.