Monday, March 17, 2014

Downtown: That's Where the Action Is

As I said in a previous post, I think that the most publicized aspects of the ZRR (accessory apartments and corner stores) are basically sideshows.  Accessory apartments and corner stores aren’t going to transform DC – we’ve already got thousands of the former and hundreds of the latter.  These aren't changes that are being pushed for by the building industry.  DC's developers aren't really interested in converting your garage into an apartment or building out the ground floor of your rowhouse for a retail tenant.  Nor does it take 7 years or 980 pages of text to loosen the restrictions on accessory apartments or corner stores.  OP could get that job done simply by amending a few sentences in the existing code.

So what’s really going on?  While the small minority of DC residents who are tuned into the ZRR are, understandably, focused on how it will affect their neighborhoods, major giveaways are in the works downtown.

First, the area treated as downtown is being significantly expanded. As the graphic below indicates, it will triple in size.

         [Source:  Office of Planning Setdown Report on Subtitle I]

Secondly, a number of the areas newly incorporated into downtown would undergo significant upzoning.  Limits on FAR are being removed for residential projects and height limits are being raised (e.g. from 90 feet to 130 feet).  This effectively doubles the matter-of-right development capacity of some parcels.

Meanwhile, nine of the eleven downtown zones are exempted from inclusionary zoning requirements and all downtown zones will be exempted from parking minimums.  I'll also throw in the mix the fact that the Zoning Commission agreed to eliminate recreational space requirements a few years ago on the grounds that it would be unduly burdensome on developers to require them to provide both affordable housing and recreational space for tenants.  Of course the end result downtown is that developers aren't required to provide either.

No wonder developers and the people who work for them (consultants, architects, RE lawyers) support the ZRR.  It's a windfall for downtown developers.  But "allow more, require less" is a short-sighted and expensive strategy from a public policy standpoint.  If we want to create livable downtown neighborhoods, then we need to add infrastructure and amenities as we add density. And the people who profit from increased density should be required to internalize a significant share of these infrastructural costs.