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Zoning Into a New D.C.

Parking Space Rule Targeted

Walkability, transit-oriented development and smart growth are buzz words of modern urban development.

But for more than half a century, D.C. zoning rules have supported automobiles as the main method of transportation in the city.

This week, the D.C. Zoning Commission will hold a public hearing on the Office of Planning’s proposed new zoning regulations for parking spaces, including the number of of spots required at new residential and commercial buildings.

By overhauling outdated parking regulations, Washington is taking its first step away from reliance on cars and off-street parking and toward alternate forms of transportation such as bicycles, public transit and vehicle-sharing.

Current parking rules — part of a zoning code drafted in 1958 — represent an automobile-centric mentality, a time when urban planners tried to make cities more like suburbs by providing off-street parking and driveways to counter the diminishing appeal of cities.

“This country in the ’50s and ’60s was a very auto-oriented culture, and zoning really reflects that,” said Travis Parker of the Office of Planning, who is overseeing the zoning re-write process.

Under the proposal, the biggest change in new parking rules will be the removal of a minimum number of parking spaces that must be set aside in new residential developments and, in some areas, nonresidential development as well.

Currently, depending on the type of building — a residence, school, church or grocery store, for example — developers must allow for a certain number of parking spots. The number is often an arbitrary one and sometimes exceeds the real need, resulting in half-empty parking lots or inefficient use of highly valuable space.

The dense neighborhoods of Capitol Hill, Georgetown and U Street are some of the most desirable areas to live in the district, yet under today’s zoning rules requiring off-street parking and curb-cut driveways, a modern-day series of row houses like those found in these areas could not be constructed.

“Our wonderful, walkable neighborhoods couldn’t be built today because of parking requirements,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “The zoning code should respect and affirm what’s best about our neighborhoods.”

Even with current automobile-centric zoning rules, D.C. residents have sought ways to avoid using cars as their primary means of transportation, placing a high value on residential areas with easy access to public transportation.

“Clearly, people have found other ways to get around zoning rules,” Cort said, despite a “1958 zoning code that had a very different vision of where our cities were headed.”

In fact, Washington enjoys the second-highest percentage in large cities nationwide of non-car commuters, according to the Carfree Census Database. In 2000, 37 percent of residents did not own a car, according to the data.

“People want to live in a vibrant area that’s accessible to transit,” Cort said. The proposed zoning code supports “people’s choices not to have to drive [and] not to have a car.”

The proposed regulations are the result of a public effort for a rewrite of zoning regulations that began in earnest this January by the Office of Planning in conjunction with the Office of Zoning.

The rewrite will update the current zoning code to meet the objectives and policies of the Comprehensive Plan, which the D.C. City Council unanimously approved in 2006 to guide future development and planning in the city.

Special attention has also been given to make the new zoning proposal more accessible, readable and easy to use.

Current zoning code is “a mish-mash that even lawyers have trouble charting a course through,” said Gary Peterson, who represents Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D) on the Zoning Review Taskforce. “An average citizen shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to put an addition on the back of a house.”

Parking is the first topic to reach a hearing before the five-member Zoning Commission, and it’s the most controversial of 20 areas subject to zoning requirements —from arts and culture to the flood plain — that are in need of revision.

Supporters of the new parking plan believe that rejecting 1950s zoning rules is a return to the thinking of Washington’s original city planner, Pierre L’Enfant.

The proposal, Cort said, is “with the great tradition of the L’Enfant plan — revolving around walkability and streetcars.”

Removing parking minimums isn’t the only way the new parking regulations would directly discourage automobile transportation. Most large buildings will need to offer adequate bicycle parking, and developments with large parking lots will be required to devote a small number of spaces to car-sharing services such as Zipcar.

Under the proposal, developers would be able to build more or less parking than parking rules call for in exchange for a hefty fee to the Department of Transportation.

The fees would support local transit, bicycling and pedestrian facilities.

At the hearing, members of the Office of Planning and those on the Zoning Review Taskforce expect to receive practical suggestions from the Zoning Commission, advisory neighborhood commissions and members of the public that they can implement in the new parking zoning code.

The new parking zoning rules will not be introduced separately but as part of an entirely new zoning code. After the hearing, the Office of Planning will revise its proposal to include the commission’s suggestions before submitting it to the Office of the Attorney General. Parker said he does not expect the new zoning code to be finished until 2010.

The Office of Zoning will hold its public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at 1 Judiciary Square, 441 Fourth Street NW, in Room 220. For more information, call the Office of Zoning at 202-727-6311.

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