The skyline of Washington, D.C. (Ron Edmonds/AP )
District planning officials are rewriting the city’s zoning rules for the first time in 54 years, a process that has hastened anxieties about growth and at times has erupted into a pitched debate about the future of the city.
The proposed changes are small — allowing a corner store here, fewer parking spaces there — but the debate has grown in recent months, pitting some longtime residents and civic activists against city officials and advocates of denser transit- and pedestrian-oriented development.
Planners say the changes are necessary to shape a growing city, one that could see hundreds of thousands of new residents in coming decades as congestion fouls automobile commutes, energy prices rise and environmental considerations become more urgent. Detractors fear that the changes will dramatically change the character, or at least the car-centric way of life, in outlying residential neighborhoods.
Linda Schmitt, a Chevy Chase resident who is organizing opposition to the rewrite, said the changes could alarm residents who chose their neighborhoods with particular expectations.
“You put down your life savings, you pony up the mortgage, you take care of your property, you fix the roof, you try to be a good neighbor . . . and all of a sudden somebody wants to turn the apple cart over,” she said. “Who asked us if this was something we wanted? We don’t want this.”
But city planning director Harriet Tregoning said the proposed changes are modest, particularly in residential neighborhoods like Schmitt’s, but are needed to manage the District’s growth.
“It’s a necessary thing that we have to do if we really want the city to be prepared for the future,” she said. “It would be worse than a tragedy to allow people to continue to build for a 1960s city.”
The rewrite is also intended to organize and simplify a cache of regulations that has become a palimpsest of amendments and overlays. The new code will replace blocks of text with tables and illustrations to make it simpler for a property owner to figure out how their land can be used. Antiquated terms like “penny arcade” and “telegraph office” would be replaced by broader, less-explicit categories of acceptable land uses.
In terms of encouraging growth, the changes are somewhat marginal. Building density standards, for instance, will remain largely untouched outside of downtown and emerging neighborhoods to its east, where planners want to offer incentives for residential development.
But controversy has emerged over smaller changes meant to reflect policies that encourage walking and transit use, mixed residential and commercial development, and environmental sustainability.
Driving force behind debate
To discourage short car trips, for instance, corner stores would be made legal for the first time in a half-decade in denser, rowhouse-type neighborhoods. (Stores that existed prior to 1958 continue to operate in older neighborhoods, particularly Capitol Hill and Georgetown.)
Homeowners in most neighborhoods would have more freedom to create “accessory” apartments on their properties — for instance, basement apartments or garage dwellings that are not currently allowed or require the approval of a city zoning board.
Commercial property developers would be required to include environmentally sensitive measures in their projects, such as green roofs, rain gardens and tree canopy.
And in perhaps the single most controversial plan, planners propose to eliminate minimum parking requirements for parcels in “transit zones” — areas within a half-mile of a Metro stop or a quarter-mile of a major bus line.
Residents settling in transit-rich city areas are increasingly opting to live without cars, Tregoning said, adding that it makes little sense to require developers to build expensive parking for which there is little demand.
“I’m just looking for more balance in our transportation system,” Tregoning said. “A resilient city is a city that gives people choices, and increasingly people want those choices.”
The District’s zoning code was last overhauled in 1958, when urban planning was consumed with how to adapt large cities to the automobile.
The planner who led the effort, Harold MacLean Lewis, declared in a 1956 report that the zoning code then was “incapable of adapting the physical structure of the city to new forms of urban living.” Those new forms, he believed, would revolve around the car’s “universal use as the principal means of transportation will continue.”
But it did not.
“We thought public transit would become a thing of the past, that everyone would have their own private automobiles,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supports the zoning changes. “We’ve certainly rethought that attitude over the years. . . . It’s not compatible with the historic fabric of our neighborhoods, which we realized that we loved.”