It turns out, like many other places in the United States, the DC Zoning Code has not been updated since 1958, a time when the US Government actively supported suburban sprawl, car-centered development, and white flight from urban centers. It was assumed, then and often now, that every American would have a car, and would be happy to use it for just about everything – going to school, buying a carton of milk, or seeing a friend. However, this trend is reversing, and many Americans are now demanding walkability (a few reasons include saving money, the popularity of car sharing services, losing weight, spending more time at home, helping the environment, supporting local businesses…). We still drive cars, we just choose to do so a lot less, if at all possible – and often it’s not possible, due to outdated zoning codes across the country. (This paragraph is basically a summary from some of my personal favorite books on the subject: Walkable City by Jeff Speck, Happy City by Charles Montgomery, and Arrival City by Doug Sanders.)
As many of my friends know by now, I’m increasingly interested in how the design of the places where we live effects our health, happiness, and ability to integrate different types of people into a community. While I think a lot about what these issues mean for the places where I work (see blog post here), I found that they are just as pertinent, and debated, here in my home of Washington, DC, where the Coalition for Smarter Growth, among many others, is fighting for 3 key changes to the zoning code: lowering minimum parking requirements for new stores and apartments (since 40% of DC households do not own a car), allowing for corner stores (since it’s technical not legal to build a store in a residential neighborhood), and allowing for accessory apartments – which basically means that homeowners would be allowed to rent out a basement or garage that they aren’t using, which would increase the stock of affordable housing. I was scheduled to speak at the Zoning Commission hearing for Wards 1 and 2 on February 13, which was cancelled due to inclement weather. As I am unable to make the hearing rescheduled for February 26, I sent in a written testimony, copied below. I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues and how they resonate with your hometown.
I’m 30 years old and I’ve lived here in DC with my husband in Lanier Heights/Mount Pleasant for 3 years now. I’ve never testified or even participated in an ANC or Zoning Commission meeting before. However, I am here today in support of the proposed update to the DC zoning code, especially the revised parking minimums and the allowance of more corner stores, because I truly love my neighborhood. I love my neighborhood because my husband and I, like 40% of the households in DC, don’t own a car, and have never felt the need to purchase one. We can walk to buy groceries, go out to eat, or shop locally, and when we need to go farther we have easy access to two bus routes and to the metro. We both have annual Capital BikeShare memberships, often use DC taxis, and use the Zipcar that is just steps away from our front door whenever we need to drive out of town.
I love my neighborhood because it is dense, walkable, and diverse, and because of that, I choose to pay higher rent then I would elsewhere. As my husband and I look to put down roots and to buy a home, we understand that to stay in the District of Columbia we will be choosing to take on a higher mortgage. Sadly, after of months of searching, many of my friends, married couples with two middle- to high-income jobs, have already given up the idea of purchasing a home with the District, and either continue to rent or have moved to a suburb. As for my husband and I, simply put, we cannot take on the higher cost of a mortgage here in DC and own a car, which entails gas, insurance, and host of other costs. I have seen signs in my neighborhood protesting pop-ups (new condominiums build within old rowhouses); I too would like to maintain the old character of the neighborhood. However, I hope that this can be done through other mechanisms besides parking minimums, which ignore that many residents in our neighborhood choose to, or cannot afford to, own a car. I want to stay here, but without affordable family housing I won’t be able to – and since the cost of building parking dramatically drives up the cost of housing (it costs about $50,000 to build one parking space in DC), I urge you to re-consider parking minimums.
I also urge to consider that as more young families choose to take advantage of the incredible public transit along with bike and car sharing options available in this city, corner stores will be vital to ensuring that we all can walk to get a carton of milk. This walkability is why I love my neighborhood, and why I recognize my neighbors who shop at the same local stores and frequent the same bus routes, a familiarity that simply would not exist if I always traveled in my own vehicle. This walkability is why I choose DC over my home state of Virginia, where I feel that I spent too much of childhood sitting in traffic. And it’s why ask you to consider the changes to the Zoning Code today.