As reported in the Current this week, the DC Office of Planning has issued the latest draft for the zoning code rewrite. It contains rules specifically tailored for Georgetown. While the changes are modest in scope, they have the potential to change a lot of things in Georgetown for the better, or at the very least keep around much of what we love about Georgetown.
Full disclosure, GM in his capacity as member of the CAG board participated in the discussions that went into the proposed draft. This gave him a close up view to see how much the end product was a result of genuine and open discussion between different viewpoints. It is a true compromise that everyone involved felt comfortable getting behind, whether they are radical urbanists like GM, or more conservative.
The most important changes, at least in GM’s opinion, relate to corner stores and accessory dwellings (i.e. apartments).
Corner stores like Scheele’s and Sara’s are a critical part of the appeal of living in Georgetown. But the thing is, they only exist where they are due to grandfathering. The current zoning code would consider them illegal if they hadn’t existed for as long as they have. And consequently, if any of them closed, unless a new store were opened there shortly after, the grandfathering would expire and no new store would be allowed.
This potentially has real consequences. When the future of Scheele’s was in doubt due to the Scheele family putting the building up for sale, it was never an option for the store to simply pick up and move across the street. The grandfathering isn’t portable. So if a store loses its lease, it cannot simply move to another building unless that building is already zoned commercial. There are only a few small pockets in the side streets of Georgetown that are zoned commercial.
The new rules would loosen the general prohibition on commercial activity in residential zones. You could open a corner store in any property literally on a corner. Some conditions apply, but the main one is that there cannot be more than three other corner stores within 500 feet and it cannot be within 750 feet of M and Wisconsin.
That last condition is a little odd, but the idea is that corner stores are supposed to be neighborhood serving and not simply be an extension of the existing commercial areas.
Admittedly, these rules would not allow for many new stores popping up in the side streets of Georgetown. But the idea isn’t necessarily to add more corner stores (the demand probably couldn’t support it anyway) as it is to make it easier for new stores to open should the existing ones ever close.
Right now throughout Georgetown there are scores of “English Basement” apartments, and the like. They provide extra income for the homeowners and provide more affordable housing for the tenants.
But most of them are illegal.
In Georgetown, the only way to have a legal basement apartment is to have had the apartment continuously since the 50s. Few qualify. Technically you could get a variance to get an apartment approved, but variances are nearly impossible to obtain. So most don’t bother and just rent out illegally.
This is bad for several reasons. Most of all it means tenants living in apartments that have not necessarily been brought up to code. They could be living in death traps.
By providing an avenue for landlords to come in to compliance and still keep the apartment, the new rules would hopefully result in more apartments being inspected and improved.
There are some conditions to obtaining the approval. The most important one from Georgetown’s perspective is that the homeowner needs to live in the house. This is designed to prevent houses from getting turned into mini apartment buildings, which some fear would bring unwanted noise and disruption. The idea is that a homeowner living in the house will not tolerate a noisy tenant, so the neighbors won’t have to tolerate it either.
Some object to these conditions. Some think any of these liberalizations are too much. That’s why the end result is truly a compromise designed to address the strongest concerns of the various viewpoints.
The language is a bit dense, but feel free to browse through it yourself.