Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Why Downzoning is a Good Idea

At the most recent CDC meeting (of which I happen to be a member), there was a request for support brought to us regarding a particular chunk of Dupont/Logan where they are looking to down-zone the area to match the homes that are already there. During the discussion, the question was brought up: Why are you doing this? Doesn't the Historic Preservation District already prevent this?

Well, I think we have our answer. Anything done to throw up more walls against that kind of monstrosity can only be a good thing.


14th & You said...

"More walls" only means more bureaucracy.

From your link, I presume that the issue is primarily one of ugly "pop up" additions to homes, particularly One of the advantages of being a homeowner in DC is that we don't live under ridiculous HOA covenants. If you wanted to build an attractive one story addition to your home consistent with its historical character, you might not be able to under this proposed down-zoning.

Homeowners already have to go through permitting, numerous inspections (up to 6 per project), and sometimes HPRB approval and the blessing of the CDC. I recall one such experience from the October CDC meeting for a couple seeking to build a carport in their back yard -- when most homes on the block already had enclosed yards and/or carports. I's hate to see BZA come into the equation as well.

DC's regs add so much time and expense to home renovations and improvements. We also use government resources unnecessarily both in the rule-making and hearing processes.

Brian said...

The point is preventing people from building buildings that are out of character/inconsistent with the rest of the neighborhood. That's (partially) the purpose of the zone in the first place. If the down-zone is consistent with the homes already there, and there aren't city-wide goals or plans to increase the density of the area with a higher zone, then it's a fine idea. In fact, in this case, the comprehensive plan specifically mentions that maintaining the integrity of these row houses and neighborhoods is a high priority. Having them zoned so high is in direct contradiction to that plan.

I am on the CDC, and was also at the meeting about the carport, to which you were referring. Despite the fact that everyone else already had garage or carport, what they were doing was still against the zoning regulations. In order to do what they wanted, they needed approval of the BZA, which in turn seeks input from the ANCs, which (in the case of 2F) delegates that approval to the CDC. You forgot to add that we voted to recommend to the full ANC to send a letter of support for their request, and the fact that everybody else on the block already had one was a strong factor in their favor.

It seems people hate rules and regulations, until somebody does something they don't like, and then you'd better believe they want that issue taken care of right now; and they start asking why there isn't a law, or a committee, or an agency that should have stepped in to prevent this sort of travesty!

If that means "more bureaucracy", then so be it.

Mr. 14th & You said...

Yes, the CDC sent a letter of approval to support the construction of the carport, but I believe the larger issue remains that a property owner seeking to build an addition *behind* their property, and matching every other unit on his block, had to go through such bureaucratic hoops in order to do so. This downzoning proposal is only more of the same. Sure, I don't like seeing ugly "pop-ups" that don't match the historical integrity of the property or neighborhood, but I'm also not a fan of seemingly needless beauracracy interjecting itself into the lives of DC citizenry.

If the point is merely to prevent the construction of out-of-character pop-ups, then the HPRB process ought to be sufficient. In the case of the construction of the above-referenced carport, it seems that four separate District agencies/organizations were involved in that process. As a property owner seeking to enhance my property, I would find that process maddening. As a District taxpayer, I find it to be a waste of resources.

Brian said...

Down-zoning is a much more efficient process than an review by the HPRB. It's simply a matter of code: You cannot build that high. Historic preservation requires review by the board, but if it's down-zoned, you don't even have to ask - just check the zoning map. By your measure of avoiding hurdles and bureaucracy, this is a big win!

Back to the carport question, which is a separate matter from the down-zoning: There are regulations in place (for very good reasons) to place reasonable limits on how people use their property. However, exceptions are often necessary, and granted, where appropriate. In this case, the exception was appropriate because - yes! - the rest of the block was all the same, so it didn't really make any difference. How do you propose determining when variances should or shouldn't be allowed unless somebody reviews it?

Let's see if I can name the different groups to which the homeowner would have had to go: The BZA, to determine whether the zoning rules should be bent, who seeks input from the neighborhood ANC, which delegated to the CDC (hence the presentation you saw); DCRA, for permits to ensure safe construction; HPRB, to make sure the changes don't materially impact the historic nature of the building; and who else? I can't think of the fourth.

Do you think that we should abandon zoning rules, or not seek community input on whether they should be bent? Do we not bother checking for unsafe construction? Do we simply make adherence to the historic district a matter of trust? Yes, it can be maddening for the person going through the process. But what alternative do you propose? Who do we cut out here?

Look, I agree with you that there can be a lot of red tape - an excessive amount, in many cases. But I think this is an example where things are actually working right, for a change!

Mr. 14th & You said...

I don't know if I can agree that it's an improvement, Brian. Like I said--I'm not a fan of unsightly and cheaply done additions to historic structures. But by the same token, I also believe that a property owner should have the right to build additions to his or her property within certain amounts of reasonableness. A ten story unti on a block with three story townhouses is probably not a great idea. But if someone wishes to contruct a fourth level onto their structure, barring some affront to the HPRB guidelines, I'm of the belief that they should be able to do so absent significant interference from the CDC.

Brian said...

I think you misunderstand the role of the CDC. We can't just interfere willy-nilly with a project. In the cases we've been talking about, if it doesn't conform to regulations, they need a variance. We're there to review the plans, as representatives of the community at large, and provide a recommendation to the ANC as to whether they should support the variance. We're limited to the variance.

In the case of pop-up row houses, the question is: Where do you draw the line? Okay, so ten stories is unacceptable, but a fourth story is fine. What about a fifth? A sixth? How do you judge that, and what if not everybody agrees with your judgment? In fact, it has already been judged, through the legislative processes that represent the people as a whole, and that judgment codified as the zoning regulations. Unless they seek to build outside those regulations, the CDC has nothing to do with it.

IMGoph said...

go here if you want to see what can happen if you have no check on additions to rowhouses in the district.