Reader Comments & Opinions
Zoning Regulations Review (ZRR): Implications for Adams Morgan in the final OP draft
Published: November 4th, 2013
1. ZRR: Present status and overall outlook for Adams Morgan
On July 29 the Office of Planning (OP) submitted its “final” draft of the proposed revised DC Zoning Regulations to the Zoning Commission (ZC). Thereafter OP continued to comb through it for errors and to issue corrections but also to make changes of format and substance, and last month issued a substantially changed revised draft. The Commission has set down the draft for consideration in a series of hearings from November through November 20, for which the Office of Zoning asks that written testimony be submitted by October 28.
As we indicated in memos to you in March and April of this year, the tendency of OP’s proposals, for areas zoned like Adams Morgan, had been toward greater commercialization of residential areas, diminution of the required residential component in mixed-use (combined residential and commercial) zones, elimination or reduction of minimum parking requirements, and possibly some increase in density. The drafts had made little if any effort specifically aimed at helping neighborhoods like ours — which have seen sometimes grotesque over-redevelopment of row houses — preserve the physical character and general ambiance of their neighborhoods. This, despite numerous provisions in the Comprehensive Plan calling for such measures.
Some of these positions had been expressly motivated by the laudable desire to promote environmental sustainability by encouraging “walkable neighborhoods” and diminished automobile use, but had sometimes, as in the case of Adams Morgan, ignored the special characteristics of the existing neighborhoods potentially affected.
In our view the current “final” draft is a notable improvement from the point of view of problems posed by earlier drafts for Adams Morgan. Some of these have been eliminated altogether, although much remains unchanged. Moreover, for the first time the draft includes two new zones that answer to a longstanding demand in the Comprehensive Plan to bring the zoning in row house districts such as ours into greater conformity with the existing built character of our neighborhoods.
In this paper we try to identify the effects of the proposed regulations specifically on Adams Morgan, noting how the final draft differs from earlier drafts, noting the more significant ways in which the final draft differs from our current zoning, assessing these changes and making recommendations as to the positions that Adams Morgan folks might want to convey to the Zoning Commission. The paper does not deal with issues raised by the OP draft that are not fairly specific to Adams Morgan – of which there are many, and which the ANC and others in Adams Morgan may want to address. Two that have been discussed concern inclusionary zoning and BZA procedures.
A note about special, neighborhood specific, zones: Some of the recommendations below envisage the possibility of the creation of special Adams Morgan residential and mixed-use districts. Such zones are already common in the existing regulations — Reed-Cooke, which has special C-2-A and – B and R-5-B districts, is an example. In all, there are seven existing special C-2-A zones, four C-2-B, three R-5-B, and one R-5-D, all sharing basic features of the zone but each tailored to the special conditions and preferences of a particular neighborhood. In addition, there is a general zone for each of these classifications, applicable to all other areas where the zone is mapped, including all of Adams Morgan other than Reed=Cooke. OP has repeatedly stated its willingness to work with neighborhoods on such zones. So if Adams Morgan wants a change in the regulations proposed for any of the existing general zones, it can propose either a change in those regulations, or failing that, the creation of a special Adams Morgan zone. It is not clear at present, however, whether the Zoning Commission would contemplate creation of such new special zones as a part of its action on the ZRR, or whether it would require that this be done only by a map case initiated after the new regulations have been adopted. OP will probably argue for the latter, which would mean that the process of correcting any objectionable features that end up in the new regulations as eventually adopted will be substantially dragged out.
2. Our residential areas: ZRR’s effects on existing zoning
Our current residential zoning is mainly R-5-B, with a few of blocks of R-5-D, intended to be “moderate to medium” density. The new regulations, in Subtitle F, would change the designation of current R-5 zones from “R” for “residential” to “A” for “apartment.” R-5-B and R-5-D would become A-2 and A-4 respectively, and the special R-5-B zone for Reed-Cooke (R-5-B/RC) would become A-8.
A. Earlier proposal by OP to allow extensive new non-residential uses in our residential areas now dropped.
The most significant change from earlier drafts of the new “A” zones is that OP’s longstanding proposal to allow a wide variety of commercial and other non-residential uses in Adams Morgan residential neighborhoods has been dropped. There are apparently no new uses proposed for these zones. As of the fall of 2012, the ZRR draft would have allowed broad categories of these non-residential uses in residential zones, by the relatively easily available device of obtaining a “special exception” from the BZA. These included “eating and drinking establishments”, “retail,” “service,” and “arts design and creation,” each of which in turn included a list of specific uses ranging from pawn shops to beer and wine carryouts to metal working shops to fast food joints to real estate offices. Additionally, an old provision allowing any big (10,000 SF or more), historically designated building to be converted to office use was carried forward. It would have allowed any medium-sized or larger apartment buildings in our historic districts to be turned over to office use.
These proposals had drawn a series of strong objections from Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle over several years, as unnecessary in our already eminently walkable neighborhoods, a needless loss of residential space and threat to the integrity of our residential areas, and a needless source of competition for businesses in our commercial strips. Fortunately, they have now been dropped. Because of this, however, and because similar provisions applicable to other neighborhoods have been somewhat scaled back, demands by “smart growth” advocates for the Zoning Commission to restore provisions for commercial development in residential neighborhoods are already being heard.
Recommendation: Commend OP for eliminating these provisions from proposals for the current R-5-B and higher residential zones, and urge the Commission to resist any suggestion that they be restored for these zones.
B. Proposed development standards for Adams Morgan residential districts largely unchanged
For the most part, development standards, such as FAR, lot occupancy, height and rear yard requirements for our existing residential zones have not been changed in the proposed “A” zones. i.e., while they have by and large not gotten worse from the point of view of safeguarding the character of our residential neighborhoods, they have not gotten any better. This leaves these neighborhoods vulnerable to the sort of extreme over-redevelopment of row house structures that we have seen in increasing numbers in recent years.
Importantly, however, the proposed regulations contain two new zones specifically designed to deal with this problem; these are discussed below.
3. The proposed new rowhouse zones – good news and bad news
OP has included these proposed new zones in the ZRR draft in direct response to a mandate in the 2006 Comprehensive Plan, which itself was generated by concerns about Adams Morgan: specifically, the mismatch between residential Adams Morgan as it actually exists and the overly dense zoning that was imposed on it in 1958. That zoning occurred as a result of a prevailing supposition that this whole area was blighted and ripe for redevelopment, and indeed an urban renewal plan and plans for the Inner Loop freeway, which would have demolished large portions of it, were only narrowly defeated.
The good news is that, by revising the development standards, including those regarding allowable floor area ratio (FAR), height and lot occupancy, limiting the height of roof structures and imposing a limit on the number of units that a building may contain, the new zones would go a long way toward eliminating the unsightly pop-ups, ruined facades and bulging rear additions that have resulted when developers cram six or eight or more units into a modestly sized row house.
The two zones differ essentially as to the size of the row houses in a particular block to which they would be applied; among other differences, there would be a limit of three units for smaller houses, and for larger houses, a limit of four. Note that these new zones must first be adopted by the Zoning Commission before they can be enacted (“mapped”) for any specific area. After adoption, Adams Morgan or other areas would need to go to the Commission with a request, for which support would have been sought from the Office of Planning, that they be mapped for appropriate portions of those areas. There appears already to be strong support on the part of some Adams Morgan homeowners for such a down-zoning proposal.
But the first priority would be to ensure that the new zones as adopted would be, or could be made, suitable for our neighborhood, and here there is bad news. The new zones would allow, in residential neighborhoods, the whole range of commercial and other non-residential operations –mentioned at the outset of this paper – that have been successfully stricken from the proposed revisions of our existing R-5 zoning. And then some: for the door is left for the Zoning Administrator – a DCRA official – to determine that any other proposed use is acceptable if it meets an essentially vacuous stated criterion of “compatibility.” All of these uses (other than “office”) are now somewhat misleadingly lumped together under the rubric “corner store.”
Recommendation: Commend OP for including the new zones and generally support them as written, except for the inclusion of the new provisions allowing commercial and other non-residential uses to intrude into residential neighborhoods. Indicate an intention to explore the possibility of applying to have the new zones, without these objectionable provisions, mapped in appropriate areas of Adams Morgan as a special Adams Morgan zone district. In advance, secure OP’s commitment to support such an application should it materialize.
4. Special problem for row house neighborhoods: height and setback of roof structure
In the Zoning Regulations, “roof structures” are portions of a building that, if they serve any of a variety of specified purposes, may be located on the roof and exceed the maximum height allowable for the building proper. Depending on their size and location, they can have a major impact on the appearance of a building or an entire streetscape. In an attempt to ameliorate that visual impact, the regulations specify the maximum allowable height of the roof structure above the roof, and also the distances by which it must be set back from existing walls.
Height of roof structures. For most zone districts, including the revised R-5-B and –D, the maximum height of a roof structure under the proposed regulations is 18.5 feet. For a large eight or 10 story building, this constitutes a small proportion of the overall height and may well be hardly noticeable. But in a neighborhood of row houses 40 feet or less in height such as Adams Morgan, an 18.5 foot high box looming over the building is proportionately a very big and visually intrusive increase in the building’s height (and mass) — even for a three- or four-story row house and certainly for a two-story one. Presumably recognizing this, OP reduced the roof structure maximum height to 10 feet in the special Capitol Hill R-5-B district. There is no reason that should not be done for Adams Morgan.
Recommendation: Request that roof structure maximum height be 10 feet in special Adams Morgan residential and mixed-use zones, as part of the existing special Reed-Cooke zones and, if necessary, newly created special Adams Morgan zones.
Roof structure setback. To reduce their visual impact, in both the revised R-5-B and -D zones and the revised Adams Morgan mixed-use zones (including the Reed-Cooke zones), roof structures must be set back from the front wall by a distance equal to their height and from a side wall by a distance equal to half their height. The problem is that no setback is required form a side wall adjoining another building, on the theory that in this situation the roof structure would be substantially shielded from view by the adjacent building. But as can be seen in Adams Morgan, this theory does not hold where the adjacent building is significantly lower than that on which the roof structure is located – in this situation a roof structure flush with the side of such a building can be quite intrusive visually. The Comp Plan contains a provision specifically intended to deal with this problem, but it was ignored.
This problem would be solved by a provision in the “general rules” subtitle that requires a setback from an adjoining wall if the building on which the roof structure is located is higher than the adjacent property’s by-right or actual height. But the specific rule applicable to Adams Morgan zones about setback from an adjoining wall presumably overrides this general rule.
Recommendation: Request that roof structure setback from adjoining walls in Adams Morgan zones be governed by this general rule, as part of the existing special Reed-Cooke zones and, if necessary, newly created special Adams Morgan zones.
5. Parking minimums: substantially reduced for Adams Morgan
We believe there has been widespread opposition in Adams Morgan to the proposed elimination, in our area, of regulations setting requirements for the minimum number of parking spaces that must be provided by buildings used for various specified purposes (such as multifamily residential). This was to be done for areas located within specified distances of Metro stops or major bus routes. The draft regulations now before the Commission retain, but substantially reduce, the minimums that would apply in Adams Morgan.
The existing regulations set out minimum parking requirements for each use and for each zone within which the use occurs. They apply to new (post-1958) construction and to buildings converted to a different use with different parking requirements.
The new regulations set out minimum parking requirements for all use categories for all zones that prescribe development standards (thus covering Adams Morgan as presently zoned or as it would be zoned if the new RF 4 and RF 5 zones should be mapped on portions of Adams Morgan). They also contain a long list of exemptions from parking minimums, including a 50 percent reduction of the minimum requirements for be called “transit zones” – thus covering probably all of Adams Morgan. To discourage developers from providing parking, they also contain provisions requiring developers to provide various amenities (a long list is set out) if they exceed the minimum parking requirements. The new regulations appear to apply only to new construction.
It is difficult to compare the requirements in the proposed and the existing regulations, because of changes in the use categories and changes in the method of calculation of the minimums. Nevertheless it appears that for multifamily residential use, retail, and hotel and other lodging uses, for example, the new base requirements would be significantly less stringent that the existing ones even before the 50% reduction for transit areas.
Recommendation: Oppose the relaxation of parking minimums for Adams Morgan, and request that, at least, the 50 percent exemption for transit areas be eliminated for Adams Morgan in both residential and mixed-use zones, as part of the existing special Reed-Cooke zones and, if necessary, newly created special Adams Morgan zones.
6. Our mixed residential/commercial zones
Our commercial strips are zoned for mixed residential and non-residential use – C2-A and C2-B, which prescribe a stated limit on the floor area that can be devoted to commercial or non-residential use. For C2-A the total allowable FAR is 2.5 (i.e., floor area equal to 2.5 times the area of the lot), of which the maximum permitted non-residential FAR is 1.5. For C2-B the figures are 3.5 and 1.5.
In the proposed new regulations, C2A becomes M-4 and C2 B becomes M5. The special Reed-Cooke mixed use zones, C2-A/RC and C2-B/RC become M-33 and M-34 respectively. It appears that the new regulations by and large continue the existing development standards and use permissions in these zones, with at least two significant exceptions that seem designed to downgrade or diminish the residential component of these mixed use areas:
First, they do away with the existing 60 percent maximum lot occupancy limitation in both zones, a principal function of which is to ensure light and air to residential apartments located on upper floors. We see no good reason for this shift, which would mean that a building could occupy the entire lot except for a narrow setback at the rear.
Second, the new regulations would give an automatic increase of permitted non-residential FAR, from 1.5 to 2, based on lot size of 10,000 square feet or less, to the great majority of mixed-use buildings in Adams Morgan. This again is a gratuitous creep toward straight commercialization of our mixed-use areas, which we believe is unwarranted and harmful to Adams Morgan’s special diverse character.
Recommendation: Oppose the inclusion of these two changes in mixed-use zones applicable to Adams Morgan, including if necessary a newly created special Adams Morgan mixed-use zone.
A caveat: ZRR is a moving target. OP characterized the draft submitted to the ZC in July as still a work in progress, and in September issued a substantially changed “marked-up” draft along with numerous errata sheets and other materials totaling 1067 pages. The mark-up draft does not always identify or explain changes from previous drafts, and deletes provisions with no explanation as to whether they have been stricken altogether or merely moved, and if moved, where they appear and whether they have been modified. OP also published this month a 967-page draft for set-down by the ZC, which is presumably the authoritative final text to be addressed by the Commission and which one can only presume comports with the mark-up text. Some apparent garbles and glitches remain in the set-down text. None of these materials are keyed to the existing regulations, so one must ferret out for oneself which existing provisions have been retained, modified or deleted. Finally, regulations interpreting the Height Act, which were to be drafted by DCRA and included as a separate subtitle in the revised zoning Regulations, are apparently not finished and are not included.
Consequently, any purportedly definitive conclusions about how OP’s proposals will change DC zoning regulations must be accompanied by a note of caution. We will try to stay abreast of developments and tweak or update this paper as necessary.
A possible exception is a new provision applicable to Reed-Cooke that limits Planned Unit Development (PUD) projects to the height, FAR and lot occupancy standards applicable to non-PUD development in the R-5-B (A-8) zone. A separate provision appears to have been intended to do the analogous thing for Reed-Cooke’s mixed-use zones, but seems to contain a drafting error. At the same time the proposed mixed-use regulations carve out a specific authorization for the current church-hotel project up to a height of 72 feet and 3.99 FAR.
Both the “A” zone regulations and the new row house zones include provisions allowing “accessory buildings” – separate buildings erected on the same lot as the principal building, and included in the calculation of FAR and lot occupancy, and limited in height to twenty feet (i.e., two stories). They may be used for any purpose “incidental to the use of the main building,” which apparently would include at least a garage or a dwelling unit. In the proposed new zones, an accessory building could be used for residential purposes only if it existed on January 1, 2013.
The existing regulations exempt historic landmarks and contributing historic district buildings from any requirement to provide “additional” parking spaces. The proposed regulations appear not to have carried this provision forward. They would, however, exempt “historic resources” from the requirement to add parking when that would be required by reason of a change in use of the building, provided that there has been no expansion of the building.