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It’s not really news that lots of people are vocally unhappy about the update to the city’s zoning code drafted by the Office of Planning. But it sure makes for good entertainment.

The D.C. Council is wrapping up a hearing right now on the update, which will finally replace the woefully outdated 1958 code that’s older than 78 percent of the city’s residents, according to the Office of Planning. OP Director Harriet Tregoning opened the hearing with an explanation of the changes to the code and the reasons behind them. Then it was the public’s turn to speak.

And did they ever speak. OP “has the least respect for public comments I’ve ever seen,” said Barbara Kahlow of the West End Citizens Association. “OP has gone well beyond its mandate,” said George Clark, chairman of the development-skeptical Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and it’s turned the zoning update into a game of “whack-a-mole.” The proposed update’s logic “has been ‘build as much as possible—-whatever you want and wherever you want it—-and we’ll do our best to minimize any restrictions, requirements, or opportunities for public input that might get in your way,'” charged Ward 3 resident and perpetual development critic Sue Hemberger. “They went at this bass-ackwards*,” said Ward 3 resident George Idelson. Car-sharing programs like Car2Go are making it impossible to find a parking space, alleged Tenleytown Neighbor Association President Juliet Six.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, no great friend of development, had fun batting back some of the accusations.

“OK…..,” he replied to Six’s Car2Go charge, mystified. “Why is that a problem? They aren’t very large cars and there aren’t very many of them.”

But parking is at the heart of the zoning update controversy, and it’s got people seriously riled up. As I laid out in my column yesterday, the existing zoning code requires new apartment buildings to include a certain number of parking spaces, whether or not the developer thinks it’s necessary and economically wise. The proposed update would eliminate the minimum requirement for buildings in the downtown area and near metro and high-frequency bus lines—-although developers would still be free to construct as much parking as they thought wise.

But some critics have treated the proposed change as a war on cars. Hemberger, at today’s hearing, made the novel case that reducing parking requirements would risk “replicating an essentially suburban pattern of development” by forcing drivers out of the city.

Of course, it’s the current zoning code that was inspired by, and promoted, the suburban model. It initially envisioned a ring of parking garages around downtown D.C.; people would live on the outside and work on the inside. As Tregoning’s predecessor Ellen McCarthy pointed out at today’s hearing, Harold Lewis, who brought us the 1958 zoning code, laid out his philosophy as follows:

Life in a metropolitan city has come to be dominated by the ownership of an automobile and a detached house by the wealthier half of the population. Optimists believe that by the end of this century the other half of the population will share the ownership of homes, while the automobile is already almost universal. Separate houses and automobiles are all necessarily linked together, for detached houses on large plots of land for all would be impossible to reach and live in without the family car, and the car is a useless excrescence unless one has a home with space around it. Together the two demand, and make possible, the use of a much larger unit of space per family in the city than was formerly the case with streetcars and row houses.

Right, and the update to the code is what’s going to lead to suburbanization.

But Idelson did make one point that Housing Complex took to heart. The zoning update, he said, “might be the most under-covered story in Washington.”

Mr. Idelson, I’ll take that as a challenge.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

* CORRECTION, October 6: George Idelson emailed to inform me that he said “bass-ackwards,” not “ass-backwards,” as originally reported. We regret any insinuation of verbal impropriety on Mr. Idelson’s part.