A zoning rewrite seven years in the making is nearing completion, as District officials are moving forward on changes that may dramatically alter the parking landscape in certain parts of a city where two out of every five households are car-free.
The D.C. Office of Zoning has given preliminary approval to new rules that will allow developers more leeway in deciding how much parking to build along with new residential and office space, a significant step toward drafting the District’s first new zoning code since 1958 after years of intense public debate and scrutiny.
In downtown D.C., the mandatory minimum for parking spaces would be eliminated. Decisions on building underground parking under new residential buildings would be left entirely to developers responding to demand in the marketplace.
Elsewhere, the mandatory minimum number of spaces would be cut by 50 percent if the development is close to Metrorail, a major bus corridor, or streetcar line.
To transit advocates who have argued that the mandatory minimums have forced developers to grossly overbuild parking in transit-rich, walkable, and bike-friendly parts of the city, the new parking rules represent a sea change in planning.
“It is a really important step forward for the city,” said Cheryl Cort, the policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, who detailed her position on the zoning rewrite, which covers more than parking requirements, in a blog post at Greater Greater Washington.
“Everything tells us that people are driving less and are owning fewer cars. Every day we have another transportation option and there are all these new ways for people to get around,” Cort said.
Cort was interviewed at the intersection of 14th and U Streets Northwest, one of the District’s fastest gentrifying neighborhoods. A new residential building, the Harper, is fully leased after attracting tenants apparently interested in car-free or car-light living.
Because of the Harper’s proximity near Metro rail, the 14th St. bus lines, and Capital Bikeshare stations, the developer requested a zoning variance so it could build one parking space for every three housing units instead of the required one space for every two units. The variance was granted, and Cort said developers who own a neighboring building are requesting a similar variance to avoid digging multiple, below ground parking decks at enormous expense.
“They calculated it would cost them more than $100,000 per space because of the constrained site,” Cort said. “They were going to do it until they find out they couldn’t engineer the ramps for the parking garage.”
Reducing the mandatory minimum number of parking spaces in new development downtown or near public transit has been vehemently opposed by AAA MidAtlantic, whose officials contend the District is already facing a shortage of parking spaces.
“The city is giving out a couple hundred thousand parking tickets a year,” said AAA’s Lon Anderson. “We believe that is strong evidence of an inadequate supply of parking.”
It appears AAA is losing its battle to roll back the proposed changes. The Zoning Commission is expected to move forward on a draft zoning code that will be subject to another round of public comment. Cort anticipates a new zoning map could be ready by 2016.
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