Wednesday, January 30, 2008

1100 DC Homeowners to Get 'Downzoned'

More than 1100 homeowners in southeast DC will have zoning on their property downgraded to discourage multi-family development, if the Office of Planning gets its way. Since this past summer,the Office of Planning has been conducting a comprehensive study of properties and their respective zoning in both Wards 7 and 8. Now that the study is complete, the results can be summed up with a quote from Jennifer Steingasser's OP memo to the Zoning Commission - "There [are] many many areas in the community where the existing zoning is not consistent with the existing housing type." This simple fact is going to change the landscape of possibilities for property owners and potential developers in Marshall Heights SE.

With their study results in hand, the Office of Planning is petitioning the Zoning Commission to rezone roughly 1,100 properties within an area bounded by East Capitol to the north, Southern Ave to the south, Central Ave to the east and Benning Road to the west. The land mass, which incorporates part of the Marshall Heights community, will be rezoned from the R-5-A Zone District to R-2 or R-3 districts. 'Downzoning,' in official parlance, reduces the size and type of building that can erected without a zoning exemption.

The reason is simple: with the current R-5-A zoning, the number of housing types that can be built is less restrictive, and includes single-family houses and (more significantly) multi-family apartment buildings - the only requirement is that to build the latter, a developer must receive Board of Zoning Adjustment approval. Now however, OP is proposing to restrict potential development in these areas to only single-family detached and semi-detached houses, row houses, churches and public schools.

On November 19, 2007 the Zoning Commission "set the case down" for a public assay; now, zoning has issued a Notice to the Public to attend a hearing on March 3, 2008, where the proposed text amendment will be reviewed. In the arcane mysticism of zoning, once the case is set down, the 'set down' rule goes into effect, forcing developers to act as if the zoning amendment has already taken place.

The reasoning behind this zoning strategy is to restrict future developments in the area to buildings with 'low density character.' Because the area under the study's scope contains many vacant lots, there exists the potential for 'infill development' where developers can squeeze as much square footage out of a given site with the use of multi-family projects. Steingasser's memo cited the District's Comprehensive Plan to sum up OP's point: "Infill development of vacant lots is strongly supported in the District...provided that such development is compatible in scale with its surroundings." Apparently, OP believes that the Marshall Heights area is not compatible with multi-family housing.

In the November 19 hearing, John Moore with the Office of Planning gave this postscript: "There are many, many, many small lots in the Marshall Heights community...where developers are proposing to put four to 12 unit apartment buildings. Often times those sites sit right in the middle of where there are single-family detached houses on most of the block. Obviously that increased density will have an effect on that existing character of the neighborhood." Chairman of the Zoning Commission Anthony Hood responded succinctly, "I think this is a long time coming."

And though lower density housing may seem counter-intuitive, OP begs to differ in this case. Because the District lost many residents due to a mass exodus to Prince George's County in search of a lower cost of living, DC planners see the current rezoning strategy as a way to maintain property values and uphold single-family neighborhoods. Steingasser's memo highlights this point: "Whereas the neighborhood lost families to Prince George's County and elsewhere in the past, it may gain families from these areas in the future if it builds appropriately designed housing, provides quality schools and improves public services." One down, two to go.


Anonymous said...

i live just west of southern ave, and when i read this i checked with the neighbors it looks as if your right on target. i asked the couple next door and some people a few houses down, and we're all worried now that our property values are gonna go down.

thx for the shitty news


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