Late last year, Douglas Development Corporation presented Tenleytown residents with two options. The ground floor of an apartment building it was planning for the site of the defunct Babe’s Billiards on Wisconsin Avenue NW could either become a parking garage—or it could be devoted to retail. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission deliberated, and at its Jan. 12 meeting, it delivered a unanimous verdict: shopping.
The decision might not seem all that surprising, since the site is a block from the Tenleytown Metro station, served by a half-dozen bus lines, and in an area that’s woefully underserved by retail (unless you’re in the market for a mattress or a container). But Tenleytowners are notoriously skeptical of development, particularly development that threatens to worsen the on-street parking situation. Now, a building with five new stories of residential units is set to have no off-street parking at all, and the local ANC gave its stamp of approval.
There’s a green-tinted reason. “The idea is, when you’ve got scarce land and you’ve invested a lot of money in public transit, you ought to take advantage of the fact that there’s this good transportation system,” says Tom Hier, the chairman of neighborhood smart-growth advocacy group Ward 3 Vision. “There are lot of younger people around who wouldn’t have a car if you paid them. So why not take advantage of that?”
The matter is far from settled. Despite the ANC’s initial support for the plan, the body won’t vote formally on it until Oct. 11, and its commissioners are still hammering out the community amenities package they’ll require from Douglas in exchange for the parking-free development. Between now and then, they’re sure to hear from the neighborhood’s very vocal NIMBY contingent, which is normally critical of development but in a particular tizzy over the parking-free plan. Douglas has already made one concession, sacrificing on-street parking permits for the building’s residents.
If the ANC gives the project the go-ahead, there’s still one more hurdle: According to the city’s zoning laws, Douglas is actually required to provide 30 off-street parking spaces for residents of the new building.
The city’s zoning code was adopted in 1958, a time when cars were ascendant, public transit was down and out, and parking seemed like a God-given right to a community of commuters. It mandated a minimum of one parking space for every one to four dwelling units, depending on the building’s zone.
“In 1958, they thought everyone would abandon transit and use their car,” says Cheryl Cort, policy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “We built cities for people and we built suburbs for cars. The 1958 zoning law tried to remake cities for cars.”
The zoning code is in the process of an update that will likely see the minimum parking requirement eased. But in the meantime, an increasing number of developers are doing what Douglas has done with the Babe’s site: requesting, with some degree of community backing, so-called variances to exempt their project from the parking requirement.
According to figures supplied by the Office of Planning, there have been 67 requests since 2003 for exemption from the parking requirements in commercial and commercial-residential zones, 65 of which the Zoning Commission approved. Twenty-nine of those 65 cases, or 45 percent of the total, have been since 2010. In other words, the average number of annual requests in the past two years is about double the average number in the previous seven years.
This isn’t the “war on cars” some armchair critics of urbanism have alleged: Plenty of new buildings have as much parking as ever. But it’s clear that D.C. residents don’t need cars like they once did, and some developers don’t want to be stuck with more parking spaces than they can fill.
If you want to understand whydevelopers are increasingly reluctant to incorporate off-street parking into their new buildings, Harriet Tregoning says you should look no further than car-sharing programs like Zipcar and Car2Go.
Where car ownership was once the key to flexible mobility, the director of the city’s Office of Planning explains, that’s no longer the case. Rather than pay thousands of dollars a year for a car that sits idle most of the time—as Tregoning does—D.C. residents are increasingly employing an all-of-the-above approach to getting around town: take the Metro when it’s raining, hop on a Capital Bikeshare bike when it’s sunny, and grab a Zipcar when you need to haul a dresser.
“It’s kind of a 20th-century question to ask, ‘How do you get around?’ or, ‘What is your mode of travel?’” she says. “Because, oh my gosh, in Washington, it depends on the day, it depends on the hour, it depends what plans I have in the evening.”
In that kind of future, mandating a certain number of parking spaces in a new residential building makes no sense. That’s why Tregoning is working to rewrite the parking regulations in the zoning-code update, which she expects will be released in sections over the course of 2013. The changes, as currently laid out, will see the end of the minimum parking requirement within “transit zones”—areas near Metro stations, high-frequency bus routes, or planned streetcar lines—and may reduce the requirements for other buildings of 10 or fewer residential units.
“This is a code that will be in place for decades,” Tregoning says. “So we want to acknowledge that whether or not we regulate parking, it’s a fact that we’re driving less, we’re parking less. And to require someone to invest in something that costs $50,000 to 75,000 per structured underground parking space, and then know that that asset is likely to be stranded, seems a ridiculous way to plan.”
Before the update, as more developers are requesting variances to get out of the parking requirements that are still in place, city officials have grown more open to granting exemptions from the zoning code.
North Capitol Commons, a planned 124-unit building at North Capitol and K Streets NE, is the latest example, having received a variance from the Board of Zoning Adjustment on Tuesday. The application that Be the Change, the developer, submitted for the variance demonstrates the lengths to which developers must go to receive an exemption from the parking minimum. It included a check for $8,320 to cover the application fee (not to mention the sums that Be the Change paid its law firm, Holland & Knight, to prepare the application) and a detailed explanation of why the variance was necessary and would “not cause substantial detriment to the public good.” Holland & Knight laid out the difficulty of constructing parking on the lot, and pointed to the site’s 92/100 rating on Walkscore.com as evidence that parking is not needed.
“We realized even going into this that the expected car ownership was going to be extremely low,” says Chapman Todd, a consultant on the project. “We are less than half a mile from two Metro stations. A bus stop is literally directly in front of our site. It’s about as transit-accessible as you can get.”
But it seems more than a little excessive that Be the Change was forced to fight for a parking exemption, given that all 124 units in the building will be dedicated to affordable housing, and 60 of them will be set aside for people exiting homelessness. The zoning code requires the building to include 31 off-street parking spaces, for a population that has very few cars.
According to Sam Zimbabwe, the associate director of planning, policy, and sustainability at the District Department of Transportation, the zoning update is necessary not only to respond to the city’s changing mobility, but also to spur it along.
“If we provide too much parking off-street, then we end up impacting the decisions people make and the ways people use the transportation system overall,” says Zimbabwe. “For many people, if you own a car, you’re more likely to use it. And so we want to help facilitate people not to own cars if they so choose. And so in some ways providing parking off-street is encouraging them to make a decision in one direction.”
Yet local opposition can force developers to abandon their quests for parking-free buildings. Take the Douglas Tenleytown project.
“In Ward 3, there’s never going to be a unanimity of opinion, and there are some very vocal folks out there who think they need to provide much more parking,” says Tregoning. “So it’s not clear if this project’s going to go forward if there can’t be more evidence of community support for the parking solution they’ve proposed. It’s still up in the air.”
Tregoning worries that if Douglas is discouraged, the company could abandon its plans and simply build a one-story commercial building as a so-called “matter of right,” in conformity with existing zoning regulations. Paul Millstein, the Douglas vice president in charge of the project, confirms her fears.
“If the ANC doesn’t vote to support, I don’t believe we’d go forward. We’d do something minimalistic,” he says. “I’ve gotta shit or get off the pot. I’ve gotta get it done or punt and go matter of right.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery