I usually associate NIMBYism with people like the woman behind the failed push to ban booze on U Street or the guy fighting to keep 7-Eleven off 14th Street NW. But fighting every individual bar, building, or business near you is a fool’s errand unless you’re in it for the schadenfreude. That brand of piecemeal NIMBYism, while sometimes effective, is for amateurs. The pros use something much stronger: zoning. The listserv warriors and ANC gadflies have to attend a nearly-endless string of meetings, hearings, and public comment sessions to keep development away. But once you get your neighborhood zoned for single-family homes on large lots, no one is allowed to build anything near anyone, and development only happens downtown or where poor people used to live.
The Zoning Commission has spent the last few years working through what it called the Zoning Regulations Review. It was originally billed as a “comprehensive overhaul” of the zoning code, but it really makes a few minor revisions around the edges. While the proposed changes are technically open to public comment, I suspect all the important decisions have already been made. Regardless, here are a few changes I would make if I were the zoning czar:
1. Eliminate Residential House (R) Zones
There’s no need for single-family zoning in a major city like the District of Columbia. Rather than protecting incumbent homeowners from having to look at buildings they don’t like, zoning regulations should allow large lot suburbs to give way to denser development. While this would likely increase land values, it would also decrease per-unit housing costs. This of course doesn’t mean that single-family homes would be illegal. DC residents would simply be able to convert their detached, single-family homes into row-houses or small apartment buildings where it makes economic sense. Homeowners could cash out on their newly-valuable land and renters would have more options. Much of Ward 3, a paragon of exclusionary zoning, would be opened to development under this change.
2. Allow unlimited density, mixed-use development, and no parking minimums within a quarter mile of any Metro station entrance
Areas surrounding Metro stations are prime locations for building transit-oriented development with the least impact on parking availability and traffic. Too many Metro stations are surrounded by sleepy neighborhoods despite the multi-billion dollar public infrastructure located just steps away. Let’s make full use of the transit investments we have by allowing dense development nearby Metro stations. The federally-imposed Height Act will cap what can be built, so there isn’t much need to control development near the stations.
3. Automatic price-based upzoning
High per-unit prices well above construction cost can be an indicator that zoning is too strict, but it can take the zoning code decades to catch up to reality. One way to get around this is by allowing automatic upzoning when per-unit sale prices hit a certain price–say, $400 per square foot–in a neighborhood.
4. Cap the number of buildings protected under historical preservation laws
There are literally thousands of buildings in DC that can’t be torn down or greatly altered. Some are architectural or historical gems that will be cherished for generations. Others are run-of-the-mill rowhouses that really don’t merit permanent protection from development pressures. As more and more structures and neighborhoods are nominated for historic status, we should look back at what’s currently protected and consider what is really important.