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Nine years and more than 350 meetings later, D.C.’s updated zoning rules take effect today—the first time they’ve gotten a top-to-bottom revision since 1958.
The result of a process that began in 2007, the new regulations were officially approved by the District’s Zoning Commission earlier this year, with an effective date of Sept. 6. While the changes won’t dramatically affect the physical character of D.C., much less overnight, they do update codes so that policies reflect current practice. For example, the old 1958 statutes didn’t allow specific business types to be built in a zone if those types weren’t listed in the codes. That has held up yoga studios from locating in commercial zones, whereas vestiges like “telegraph offices” and “penny arcades” were OK.
Edward Giefer, associate director of the D.C. Office of Planning, says the new regulations constitute a “historic moment” for the District. That’s because they’re better aligned with a “modern and growing city” overall and D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan specifically, which outlines future growth.
“While the new regulations do not constitute an overhaul of the way the District reviews development proposals, they include important adjustments to the fine-grained rules that shape how our city looks and feels to our residents, workers, business owners, and visitors,” Giefer explains in a statement.
Here are some of the main takeaways from the new regulations, per the D.C. Office of Zoning and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs:
- Relaxed restrictions on dwelling units (accessory apartments) not directly attached to homes to incentivize the adaptive reuse of structures like garages and historic carriage houses. If a detached building is on the same lot as a house, is accessible through a yard or an alley of a certain size, and is within 300 feet of a street, then an owner can permit an extra residential unit there. The owner must live on site.
- Residential uses are now allowed in alley lots of some sizes provided that safety codes are met. The majority are in Wards 2 and 6.
- Corner stores in more rowhouse zones than before: Stores must be smaller than 1,200 square feet and have limited hours (7 a.m. to 9 p.m.). Can’t be within 500 feet of a mixed-use zone, on an alley lot, or in an accessory building as well.
- A new definition of “fast food” that could facilitate more efficient permitting of fast-casual restaurants. In the past, prospective fast-casual owners have been lumped with more traditional fast-food joints like McDonald’s and Popeye’s because regulations had one-strike criteria: For example, if an establishment used disposable plates, then it was a fast food restaurant, which requires a special exemption from the Board of Zoning Adjustment. The new rules contain five criteria for what determines a fast food eatery, but no single one is dispositive.
- New regulations create a standard for the amount of parking space required for multi-family dwellings of larger than four units: one parking space for every three units. They also get rid of parking requirements for buildings downtown. Additionally, the regulations fix a maximum size for by-right surface parking lots—100,000 square feet (which contain a ballpark range of 350 spots).