Last night, the Citizens Association of Georgetown hosted a debate between the Office of Planning’s Travis Parker and the Committee of 100’s Nancy MacWood over the proposed zoning code rewrite. While GM billed the affair as a potential fight between two rival ideologies, what actually took place was a very respectful, high-minded, and detailed discussion. The event performed a great service for the neighborhood, even if it didn’t provide the fireworks that GM was expecting.
Up first for the evening was Travis Parker. He had the task of explaining what this was all about in the first place and what his office was setting out to do:
What is Zoning?
As explained by Parker, zoning represents the rules and regulations that govern building form and building use. They concern, for instance, what the height of a building is or how large its massing can be. They also determine what you can do with the building, such as open a shop or build a home. They don’t, however, govern design review, construction standards, or specific commercial guidelines (like whether you can have a take-out restaurant or just a sit-down one).
Why the Change?
DC’s zoning code was last rewritten in 1958. Since then, a host of exceptions, overlays, and planned-unit developments have turned the code inside-out. The code is now complex and unreadable by anyone but a land-use lawyer. So the first objective for the change, according to Parker, is to make the code simpler and easier to understand.
The more sticky reason why the Office of Planning wants to update the code is that it wants the code to better reflect our goals. If GM were not so in favor of the changes, he’d probably write “our goals” with scare quotes. What goals are our goals is the heart of the dispute. Except last night, when everyone was so agreeable that to call it a dispute just seems rude.
But really, from the Office of Planning’s perspective our goal as a city in the 21st century is to continue to add population to the District without adding cars. Parker repeatedly emphasized that to do this, the rewritten zoning code would in many ways take what works in Georgetown (dense, mixed-use, walkable, etc.) and try to enable other neighborhoods in the city to become more like that.
According to Parker, one of the main reasons for the rewrite is that the code as it currently stands views neighborhoods like Georgetown as almost entirely non-conforming. Parker put it in stark terms when he stated that if an earthquake leveled Georgetown, it would be illegal to rebuild it as it currently stands.
He emphasized that with the rewrite, the Office of Planning is trying to move away from the rigid zones like R-3 or R-4 and toward a neighborhood-by-neighborhood and block-by-block code that reflects what is already there and encourages complimentary growth.
On the tricky area of adding commercial space in residential areas, Parker wisely put a local face on the issue. He showed pictures of Sara’s Market, Georgetown Wine and Spirits, Schelee’s, and Greenworks. Parker won a lot of encouraging nods when he pointed out that if these stores burned down they couldn’t be rebuilt under existing code. The new code, he promised, would be more flexible about allowing stores like these to open up and stay open across the city. He addressed concerns over too much commercial development by stating that the Office of Planning would set caps on the amount of commercial space in any particular residential area.
What’s the Problem?
MacWood took the mic after Parker had made his case. Rather than go straight for possible easy points, MacWood walked through the issues that organizations like the Committee of 100 (of which she is the Vice-Chair) has with the proposal:
- Set backs- the proposed changes could make it a lot easier to build a new building much closer to the street than the others on the block. MacWood brought up the modern house on R St. in Burleith that most people agree is totally out of place and comes way too close to the curb as compared with its neighbors. This, however is not likely to be a problem in Georgetown where the OGB would never allow something like that.
- Side yards – MacWood then brought up that the proposed regulations are too loose on side lot construction. The idea is that so long as a minimum distance is maintained, a building owner is given a lot of discretion where to build the house up to. This could be an occasional problem in Georgetown, but again the OGB would still have a say in most of these projects. So really, this is probably more of a concern to a neighborhood like MacWood’s Cleveland Park.
- Lot area/footprint – MacWood discussed proposed changes to the restrictions on lot area. Right now it is driven by the ratio of the floor area of the home and the lot area. The proposals would allow a homeowner to choose between the ratio and a newly prescribed “foot print”, which is an absolute number that would be determined for each block. Thus a smaller lot could build more house than the ratio allows since the allowed footprint for the block is higher. More than anything, MacWood stressed that proposals like this still lack specifics and encouraged the crowd to keep questioning the Office of Planning for those specifics.
- Commerical uses – Probably because she ran out of time, but MacWood held back from criticizing Parker too much of the commercial uses in residential zones issue. She seemed encouraged when Parker said they would consider “saturation” limits. Again, though, she stressed the risk in the fact much of the plan is still TBD.
The big criticism that MacWood didn’t make, but GM would (if he were the one criticizing the plan) is this: who exactly is going to be making these block-by-block determinations? The neighbors? The ANC? CAG? When? We have very formalized overlay and zoning waiver procedures, will it look like those? Those issues weren’t really discussed.
That’s Not All
But it’s about all that GM can remember. The only real agitation from the audience surrounded the issue of Georgetown University. Essentially, many residents came to the meeting hoping to find out how the changes could be used to reduce Georgetown University’s impact on the neighborhood. On that account, they probably left disappointed. Parker and MacWood spoke a bit about regulations that affect GU’s ability to build on campus, but didn’t seem to realize that from the neighbor’s perspective, building on the campus isn’t a problem, so long as they’re building dorms.
All in all, it was a fantastically informative and respectful debate, which if anything proved there’s a lot more common ground here than some would expect.