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Traditional zoning ordinances took hold a century ago to control what was built where, how densely and how tall. Those rules determine how land is used — preventing, for example, a company from building a factory in the middle of a residential neighborhood, or someone turning their home into a retail shop. But as more cities and suburbs shift to denser, mixed-use development, they’re bumping up against zoning regulations that may no longer make sense. We explore how different jurisdictions are rethinking the rules.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
“Shaping the City” columnist Roger Lewis draws humor from height limits, zoning regulations and the “new rules” of urban design.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Traditional zoning ordinances took hold a century ago. The idea was to regulate what was built where. It meant that you couldn't build a factory in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and a residential homeowner wouldn't be allowed to open his doors as a retail shop.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut as more cities and suburbs try to move from sprawl to more compact and walkable designs, they're bumping up against regulations that may no longer make sense. Residential and commercial designations are often no longer in compatible, and a number of jurisdictions in our region are rethinking and in some cases bending the rules. Joining us to discuss this is Roger Lewis. He's an architect. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. Roger, good to see you.
MR. ROGER LEWISThank you for inviting me once again.
NNAMDIAlways a pleasure. As we mentioned, we've been regulating where and what developers can build for a long time. Early on, what was regulated, and what was the purpose of it?
LEWISWell, first of all, zoning was something that didn't really exist in the 19th century. It's a 20th century phenomenon, and it was brought into being in order, as you've said at the -- in the introduction, it was brought into being to primarily ensure, if you will, house safety for people who own property and live in communities whether they were urban or suburban and to protect property values.
LEWISThat was another motivation. The notion being that in the -- 100 years ago, that if you -- there are certain uses that are just incompatible. It shouldn't be mixed. And that is still an issue today, but it's -- it really started when -- actually following the industrial revolution, I think Americans in particular saw places like London in the 19th century a pretty dreadful place with coal-burning heating and pollution and so forth. I think that was part of the motivation. There are other factors.
NNAMDII was about to say, was there any thought of aesthetics? These regulations generally don't seem to have been about aesthetics.
LEWISNo. I mean I don't think zoning was ever conceived to be a way of effectuating specific design results or urban design results, architectural results. The notion was we need regulations to protect the public interest. These are health and safety. That really was -- and that somewhat pertains to the language in the Constitution about the willingness and the ability of the government to in fact regulate in the interest of protecting public health safety and welfare.
NNAMDIAs an architect, you encounter this frequently. What kind of zoning ordinances are there today in Washington and in the region generally?
LEWISWell, first of all, every jurisdiction, zoning is a local power of -- it's a police power according to the lawyers. It's -- zone -- every jurisdiction has its own zoning, although there are state -- some state zoning criteria. Every county and every municipality has its own zoning ordinance, so Alexandria has a zoning ordinance which is different than Arlington's, which is different from Montgomery County's, which is different from Prince George's County, which is different from the District of Columbia and on and on.
LEWISYou can imagine, by the way, for those of us who are architects who have to build and develop real property, this can be a nightmare just figuring out what the regulations say. But -- so every jurisdiction adopts its own zoning ordinance. There are certainly a lot of overlaps. I mean, there are many things in common.
LEWISBut generally, they are unique to each jurisdiction. And those zoning ordinances are -- many of them go back a number of decades. I mean, they've -- just like our I.R. -- our tax code, they have been built up layer by layer, so maybe in 1920, you might had a 10-page ordinance, and now, you have a 1,010-page ordinance.
NNAMDII remember when I lived in Shaw, and we used to try to get zoning changed because we thought they were too many liquor stores in the neighborhood in which we lived, and you'd go to these hearings, and they would go on and on and on. If you have questions or comments about our discussion on rethinking zoning, give us a call, at 800-433-8850. What does your neighborhood look like, and do you think it should stay that way?
NNAMDIYou can send email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Would you be happy to see taller buildings, more shops and a more urban feel in your area? 800-433-8850 or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversations there. But, Roger, ideas about what we want our cities and suburbs to look like are not the same as they were just a few decades ago. What's changed?
LEWISWell, that's really the -- one of the drivers of the movement to reform or even change substantially regulations, or as I said in the article in The Post in February, I think one of our problems is vocabulary. I think the word zoning we should maybe talk about that for a second.
LEWISThe notion, the thing that -- or the strategy of zoning was to create a map of a jurisdiction, county or city and draw lines around areas in which you then designate it for specific uses. So if we're going to have low-density single-family housing in this zone and we're going to have multifamily housing allowed in this zone and over in this zone, we can put commercial structures, et cetera. It was about separating uses and creating very large zones, often very large zones for these uses, which, of course, separates the uses, and it -- and this was thought to be the right thing to do.
LEWISYou want people to live over here and work over here, and you want the factories way over there, et cetera. I think some of that has still validity. It's not that there aren't -- there isn't a need to separate certain things but -- and it was also based on a different demographic picture of the United States. So what has changed is demographics, the nature of our population.
LEWISWe know, for example, that whereas the assumption 50, 60 years ago was most people who want a house are nuclear families, traditional families, that's less than half the population now. There was -- the notion was that you just -- you'd never put industry anywhere near where people live. Well, now, a lot of industry is not dirty industry. A lot of business and industry or not necessarily always making things, but there's a lot of...
LEWISNon-smokestack industry that is actually quite compatible with other uses. So I think we've -- we have -- and plus, we have a better handle on the advantages of in fact mixing uses, intermixing uses, having people closer to where they shop, for example, or they work so they might actually be able to commute on foot or by transit or by -- excuse me, by bicycle, instead of always relying on the automobile. This is the other thing. Zoning was always predicated -- when you go in the 20th century history of zoning, on the automobile as the predominant mode of travel.
NNAMDIAnd that's not necessarily the case for a lot of people anymore. As a result, however, of those changes, you suggest perhaps a different vocabulary would help, rather than talking about zoning all the time. What words would be used in this vocabulary?
LEWISWell, there are lots...
LEWISI don't have the solution to that. I think that -- I know one of the -- there are a lot of people who are vested, have great stake in keeping the word zoning. There's zoning attorneys and zoning consultants and so forth. But I think -- the reason I suggested that we need to change the vocabulary is that I think currently we planners and architects and people in government who deal with this stuff aren't any longer thinking about this single-use separated zones.
LEWISWe're just not thinking that way. We're thinking much more about creating a more complex, a more poly-functional environment in which we're thinking about the zone as no longer the way they think. And so I think I suggested in the article that we could talk about perhaps urban planning regulations or...
NNAMDIYou can find a link to that article at our website, of course, at kojoshow.org, but I interrupted you.
LEWISYou know, I think it's -- I think there is -- I think we need to just rethink the vocabulary in part because I think zoning delivers the wrong message now. It's -- we're just -- we're thinking about creating a much more -- a much richer environment, especially in urban areas but also in suburban areas where we are -- for example, the notion that there could be a convenience store in a residential neighborhood has become more appealing to a lot of people.
NNAMDIEight -- go ahead.
LEWISAnd that --there are still people who think that -- who are worried about that because, oh, my gosh, someone is going to drive here who doesn't belong here. That's another issue.
NNAMDIHere is Mike in Charlestown, W.Va. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHello. Greatly enjoy your guest's appearances and always think his comments are valuable. My question goes to the discretion granted to zoning regulators. We call them land use regulators. How do we strike the balance between limiting that discretion so people don't play personalities? And that happens a lot in these matters. And giving enough flexibility so that the regulations can be applied, you know, in some reasonable fashion. How do we strike that balance? That seems to me to be a tough problem.
LEWISYeah. That's a great observation and great question. The -- and it's one of the things that worries people who are antsy about the notion of changing the rules because zoning being a police power does mean that government has a big role to play in determining, first of all, whether something complies with zoning and then, secondly, whether exceptions or variances should be made.
LEWISWe -- almost all zoning ordinances have provisions in them for the granting of exceptions, and this is always based on some extraordinary circumstance that -- one of the problems with zoning is it is based on a one-size-fits-all belief. And that's a problem because no longer does one size fits all. If you just think about where people live, you know, every site is unique and different depending on so many circumstances.
LEWISSo what we've been pursuing -- and I'm going to come back to answer your question after I make this additional comment. What we think we need are what we've been calling form-based zoning codes or ordinances, form-based regulations that are written not to separate things and prevent things and keep things from happening but also to achieve desired results, particularly with respect to form, the shape of the environment.
LEWISNow, that does mean that that somebody has to be looking at this and making judgments. One of the things we've been doing -- and I say I've worked on this myself is creating urban design and architectural guidelines which are overlays, if you will, of existing zoning that are much more about what I've been talking about. They intend to shape the three-dimensional and even multidimensional development of a place in a way very different from zoning.
LEWISZoning tends to either supply a minimum requirement. You got to have so many cars or you have to have -- you can't have so -- anymore than so many stories of building, but that -- they don't really aspire in any way to create a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing environment. They just want to keep things healthy, which is laudable goal, but it shouldn't be the only goal. So I think...
NNAMDIWhich brings us to Mike's issue of flexibility.
LEWISSo -- yeah, so the question is -- he's raising is, how do you ensure that the people who are making the judgments know what they're doing and do the right thing? Alexandria, where I'm on the design review board for part of that city, they've done something which I think has been very -- worked very well. We have this design review board which is -- its mission is simply to review every single project proposal and make suggestions, pass judgment that -- and this -- we look at things that are not in the zoning ordinance, that are not in the law.
LEWISWe're making judgments, and there are several of us on this board who presumably are kept on the board because they think the judgments we're making are reasonable. But that -- if you don't have a good -- if you don't have people who have good judgment and are informed, you can end up having a mess even with the best writing of guidelines and zoning regulations or other regulations.
NNAMDIMike, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think an apartment building or shopping center should be required to include parking? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. We're talking with Roger Lewis and taking your calls. Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're rethinking zoning with Roger Lewis. He's an architect. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post and is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850, or you can send email to email@example.com. Before I go back to the phones, Roger, I mentioned parking just before we got to the break.
NNAMDIParking is another big piece of this. Strip malls and suburban shopping centers are all about convenient parking. Even if a city like Bethesda manages to develop a walkable urban center, is it realistic to expect people living outside that center to get around without a car given the distances involved?
LEWISNo, no. I think that cars are not going to go away. We will always automobiles. I mean, the question is whether you can, through good planning, somewhat reduce the dependency on automobiles and make it possible for someone to actually have a choice to travel by transit or bike or walking as an alternative to using the car. I think that's a realistic goal, and I think it's achievable, but it also points to the need for some flexibility.
LEWISThat is, there are sites, there are places that may have very little to do with the traditional or the conventional zoning maps. There are places where allowing or asking for less parking would make sense because the ability to travel other than by car is more convenient or is more feasible. On the other hand, there are places where you can't get around without a car. I was just in Salt Lake City, Utah. And if you don't have a car, you don't -- you're lost.
LEWISYou can't -- Houston, Texas is my hometown. You have to have a car. I mean, there is transit. But it's -- it covers, you know, 5 percent of the city. I think that what, again, we're trying to do -- what the District of Columbia is trying to do with its makeover of the zoning ordinance is recognize that there are places in the city where it's feasible to have less parking for development than in other places where you need the parking simply because there is less availability of transit and other modes of travel.
NNAMDISo there are reasons that the parking requirements can be eased and a possible reason is proximity to transit.
NNAMDIThey are building a 60-unit building right here across the street in Tenleytown that is only going to have one parking space. Apart from my question about who would that one parking space be for, I guess the question a lot of people have is, sure, you can ease requirements, but buildings with no parking whatsoever?
LEWISWell, this is very -- this is a very hot-button issue. I think Doug Jemal is the developer of that project, and the notion is that this is a building which will be exclusively for tenants who don't -- who are willing not to own and park a car. How you ensure that that happens -- I mean, presumably, the -- I think it's going to be a rental apartment, and the leases could have that stipulation. But who's going to enforce that? I mean, it is a concern.
LEWISThe neighbors are concerned about it because if people do start acquiring cars, then it means they're taking up curb space. I mean, this is always the anxiety when things like this are proposed that it'll have an adverse impact on the existing neighborhood and the neighbors' properties. I think the notion is in this project, just a few hundred meters from where we're sitting, is that that it is in an area with a lot of services, a lot of stores, a lot of -- the things you need to exist in a city. And from there, you can get to a Metro station pretty easily, not to mention...
NNAMDIBuses up and down.
LEWISBuses, yeah. And if you're willing to ride back uphill, biking is a -- so that's the notion. We'll have to see.
NNAMDIWell, Tom in Odenton, Md., would like to comment on that. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMHi, Kojo. I just wanted to comment that plenty -- there's housing developments and buildings all over that don't require parking spaces. And people live in places that don't require parking, and they can easily live in those locations. So why should an apartment building be any different? If you need a car, live somewhere else.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Roger? That's cold, Tom.
LEWISWell, this is -- my wife and I talk about this all the time. I mean, we're just far enough away from Tenleytown that we come here. If I'm going to go downtown on the Metro, I actually drive over and park somewhere near the Metro station. I mean, I think we have -- I think this is a work in progress. That's what I want to say. I think it's a work in progress.
LEWISThere had been some great examples that we ought to learn from -- for example, the city of Annapolis, many years ago, decided to build a very large parking garage. They embedded it in the middle of a block. You don't see it from the street. But what it means is when you go -- if you drive to Annapolis, there is, A, place to put your car, but you get out of that car and the rest of your visit in Annapolis is on foot.
LEWISBethesda is trying to do that and has been doing -- Montgomery Country building their public parking structures, again, trying to embed them within the urban fabric of Bethesda, so they're not street killers. A parking garage on a street is -- it kills the streetscape. I think it does work. I've found myself walking around Bethesda after I get rid of my car.
LEWISBut I can't get to Bethesda. If I want to go to the movie there, I have to drive. I can't get there on transit. I can get there on a bike, but again, the weather might be in the way. We're going to have cars. So the question is, how we manage parking in a way that's a little more rational and a little less one-size-fits-all in a place like Washington?
NNAMDII know if I'm going downtown any place, I find some place to park that's a near a Metro because I know that I'm not going to find or the likelihood of finding parking downtown is fairly remote. Here's Travis in Reston, Va. Travis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TRAVISHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. A question for the architect: In Western Virginia, right now, the residents are going through some of an upheaval with the entry of the Metro, and they're liking all the development that's going on. But some of the developers have ideas that had clash with long-time citizens, specifically south of the Metro. They want to level the golf course and build condos on it.
TRAVISResidents believe that when they move there a long time ago, they traded density for open space and that these developers are now coming in claiming the open space. As a person that probably worked with many developers in topics like this, what are your views on developers' views of open space, and do they want that, or did they simply want to pave everything?
LEWISNo, no, no. Let's no demonize developers. I don't know the specifics of what going on in Reston. But I've -- most of the planning that's done today and much of it, of course, in the past very specifically sets aside a space in cities and suburbs for parkland and other kinds of uses that are -- that we would call open space.
LEWISAs to -- I have no idea why a golf course is suddenly a candidate for development. Presumably, the golf course is either obsolete or surplus or something of that sort. Developers -- let me just make this point. I've made it many times with Kojo on this show. Most developers are just following the rules that they're given by the jurisdiction. You know, the -- they, in fact, are happiest when the rules are clear and as suppose to being soft and ambiguous.
LEWISSo if the developer is developing a property and a jurisdiction like Fairfax County that's many acres, there's probably a very specific plan and zoning regulations that say how much he or she can put on the property, how much of it has to be left as open space, how many cars have to be parked, what the density has to be.
LEWISAll of that is generally prescribed, and the developers -- if they think that's a mistake, they can go and try and amend the zoning ordinance. I mean, they often, of course, try and get the jurisdictional authorities, boards or commissions to change the rules. But again, that gets back to the earliest -- the caller earlier in that when that happens, it requires some wise and prudent judgment on the part of the authorities to make those exceptions.
NNAMDITravis, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Jonathan, who said, "Are district zoning laws up to date with the concept of walkability and smart growth, or are we generally in need of a zoning overhaul?"
LEWISI think when you refer to the District, I mean, I think that there's -- I think they do need to be overhauled. In fact, I think there are a lot of jurisdictions, not just Washington, D.C., where the zoning ordinances are not up to date, are not reflecting the realities of the 21st century having to do with things we touch on at the top of the hour, changes in demographics, technological changes.
LEWISI think there -- I think that what is happening in D.C. and I think in some other jurisdictions is that they are looking at the reality of today and saying, well, let's go back and take at the look at the zoning ordinance, this land use regulations and make them reflect what the needs are today. And also how do we make them really achieve what we think we want tomorrow? How do we shape the future as opposed to simply going along with the conventional guidelines of the past which are no longer valid?
NNAMDII think Joyce in Springfield, Va. would like to take us to another extreme. Joyce, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOYCEThank you, Kojo. I just want to say that I have just been visiting in my sister's new home state of Texas. In this county, there are no zoning laws. If you have a piece of property, you can do what you want to with it. That means that if you build a home, if somebody beside you owns that land and decides that they want a used car lot or whatever, they can do that.
JOYCESupposedly, this is -- I heard this several times, well, this is the Texas spirit of being one and to be left alone. I'm not sure if that's the case. I think it's poor zoning laws. But thank God for zoning laws in the area that I live because I don't want a used car lot right beside my home.
NNAMDICurrently, how -- Joyce, currently, how does the area where your sister lives in Texas look to you?
JOYCEI'm sorry. I can't hear you.
NNAMDIHow does the area where your sister lives in Texas, how does that area look to you aesthetically?
JOYCEHorrible. It's absolutely horrible. It's just a great hodge-podge. There's a home, and then there's -- right behind it, a group of smaller homes that don't fit the environment of that or don't fit the current situation.
NNAMDIWell, I have a Texan who can comment on that. Roger.
LEWISWell, let me -- yes, this is -- Joyce, thanks for your call. I was born and raised in Houston, a city with no zoning. And I was -- so I know Houston very well. And I was recently in Dallas, Texas where they do have zoning. And at first glance, you can't really tell much difference, which only illustrates that while zoning has -- in the case of Houston zoning -- that without zoning, what they have done or what they have used as a way of sort of protecting property rights is the use of covenants.
LEWISSo the city -- and the city does have some other regulations that apply, that make sure that you don't -- someone can't build a used car lot or a junkyard next to your house. You won't see that in Houston. You will see some bizarre juxtapositions. But they're not -- and they're ugly. But they're not necessarily unsafe. The -- because there are some regulations that govern that.
LEWISWell, the point I'm making is that when you look at Dallas and Houston, they look a lot alike because, again, zoning in Dallas, while it has separated uses and done the things we've talked about, hasn't necessarily produced a beautiful environment. You know, it's -- again, most zoning ordinances are just simply setting limits on things -- the minimum number of cars, the maximum height, you know, the overall density. They say nothing about urban design, generally.
LEWISSo that's -- so when you go look at Houston and Dallas, I mean, I think that's a very good case to point out. You -- one city zoned, one not zoned, you see -- the differences are really not extreme. That's why I talked about the now for what we call form-based regulations or form based codes that actually are aspiration about as to -- about how things should look.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from someone who says that Houston is the number one reason that zoning-like regulations are, in fact, necessary. Another factor, Roger, in how densely built an area can be involves building height limits, something that's been much debated here in the District of Columbia. Remind us about the rules here.
LEWISWell, the -- in 1910, the Congress passed the Height of Buildings Act for the District of Columbia. This was motivated by both concerned for safety fire trucks couldn't fight fires above a certain number of stories. The Cairo apartment building on Q Street was built. Everybody was in such as this very, very tall building. Height of Buildings Act said look, we're going to set a ceiling for buildings in the city. Nothing's going to be over 130 feet. In commercial zones, you're allowed to go the width of the street plus 20 feet.
LEWISThat set a cap. And the city itself has come along, in fact, and through its zoning policies over the years has set height limits that are less that 130 feet. And now, there is -- I and a number of us who have said that, again, this is something that we need to revisit because there are parts of the city, parts of the District of Columbia where this one size fits all or the zoning approach may not always be appropriate.
LEWISSo what's happening right now is that the National Capital Planning Commission, which is the -- represents the federal interest in the city of Washington, and the Office of Planning, which is the municipal office of planning representing the city and the citizens of Washington who live here, they are doing a study which would be completed, as I understand it, in the fall where they're looking at this 1910 Height of Buildings Act, looking at what the federal interest is particularly with regard to protecting views of the monuments and the historic, the very important buildings, and making sure that we don't change, at least in the core of the city, the historic part of the city, this very, very much beloved image of a low profile city.
LEWISBut Washington, there -- it's very controversial. There are people who don't want anything touched, don't think there should be any change in the height limits, and others who think there are places generally beyond the center of the city where higher buildings would be appropriate, and I don't mean skyscrapers.
NNAMDIWell, D.C.'s case is somewhat unique because of the federal presence here especially. But in general, why do cities and towns restrict building heights?
LEWISA good question. Preface to answer that by saying height limits are always arbitrary. You know, why should the height limit be 130 feet in D.C.? Or why should the height limit in Montgomery County be 60 feet? Why isn't it 62 feet or 75 feet? These numbers are -- or these limits are arrived at through all kinds of negotiation and rolling dice and gosh knows what else. The -- generally, there's a relationship between height and density, and, of course, higher buildings generally mean higher density.
LEWISAnd then you -- if you -- once you start talking about higher density, then you have to worry about the infrastructure capacity to support that, as well as safety issues. The -- I think that we -- I think, generally speaking, there are very -- there are economic as well as aesthetic benefits to being able to design buildings perhaps higher than we are used to seeing them. But there's also limits to how -- at some point, buildings get to be so high that you cut out light and sunshine, and you get wind disruptions.
LEWISSome people, I'm sure, have experienced standing not so much in Washington, but in -- next to very tall buildings, and you get tremendous blasts of wind because tall buildings change airflow patterns. There are a whole lot of considerations that might determine what -- how high buildings should be, including the pattern of streets and blocks in an area. So I think that -- there's no one answer. This is another example of where you need to be very site-specific when you set the rules.
NNAMDIHere's Jack in Pasadena, Md. Jack, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JACKHi, Kojo, great show. Anyway, my comment is that, you know, we're tending in this conversation to say, well, places that don't have tight zoning, you know, have junkyards next to residential areas and so forth, yet in the city of San Francisco, for the -- certainly for the larger part of its history, had no zoning at all. And yet for many, many years, it's been regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the country.
NNAMDIHow does one explain that, Roger Lewis?
LEWISWell, first of all, you start with a incredible topography, and, you know, the setting, the landscape in San Francisco, landscape/seascape, is unique. I've spent a lot of time in San Francisco. I'm going to be there next month. It's -- you'd have to be really inept to screw that up. I mean, San Francisco is just an extraordinary setting.
LEWISAnd even though there was not necessarily zoning, I think there's always been -- probably going back to the first settlers of this country, there's probably always been some discussion and serious conversation about how we should develop the land that we're going to develop for our town or our settlement. And the -- I don't know enough about the history of the planning of San Francisco.
LEWISBut their -- even though they may not have had a zoning ordinance -- I don't know the history of their specific zoning rules, but I suspect there were agreements or understandings or some kind of mutual cultural conception of how the city should develop, not to mention the fact that there are, again, some topographic constraints that drove how things should be.
LEWISAnd, you know, if you look here in the east, you have these amazing places like Savannah, Ga., which was planned brilliantly by Oglethorpe with this wonderful grid of streets and parks. We have a -- if you really study all of America's townscapes and cityscapes, you find -- you actually do find that -- this idea of having a plan that is design-oriented. That is not a new idea. That's been around for a long time.
NNAMDIJack, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you think of our region's newer walkable areas like Clarendon, Bethesda, Silver Spring? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Roger Lewis about rethinking zoning. Roger is an architect. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post and is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. There is one exception, Roger, to D.C.'s building height limit on Pennsylvania Avenue. What's that?
LEWISYes. The north side of Pennsylvania Avenue is -- buildings are allowed to go 160 feet, whereas everywhere else, nothing can be more than 130 feet. And that was the result of the -- of Congress. When the development -- the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue was being contemplated and -- Congress looked around and -- they didn't do this on their own. I mean, the city had a big part in this, the city officials.
LEWISAnd they saw that the Willard Hotel was more than 130 feet high. Willard Hotel obviously predated zoning. And because of that, because the Willard sits -- is such a prominent landmark, iconic building and sits on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, they decided that in establishing the criteria for the redevelopment of the avenue, they would allow buildings on the north side only to go 160 feet, which, of course, includes the FBI building, which everybody would probably just assume have -- had only 30 feet high.
NNAMDIThat had to do with my next question. The FBI headquarters is relocating. Many people are familiar with the building, a large Brutalist-style concrete building. It is perhaps, if one took a poll, the most hated building here in the District. Do you know what will happen to that building once the FBI moves out?
LEWISWell, there are two options. I mean, one would be to demolish it, and that's -- that in itself is a multimillion-dollar enterprise to take down that building because there's as much underground as there is almost aboveground. There's many, many, many levels below grid. And, of course, it's, you know, it's a very robust reinforced concrete skeleton. The other option, which I and some others have suggested, is that maybe there is a way to keep the structure, the skeleton, and then retrofit it extensively both outside and inside.
LEWISI mean, you know, it -- treating it just as that, a skeleton, and rather than throwing away all the invested energy and materials that exist inside, within the structure as it exists today. I don't know what's going to happen. I mean, it's -- GSA will be struggling with this since it's a federal property. Along with parallel will be the struggle between jurisdictions as to who gets the FBI building because, as was just reported, there are -- I think there -- how many proposals, people trying to get the...
NNAMDI...in Maryland, District and Virginia is involved in this.
NNAMDIBut is there a preservationist aspect to this? If the decision is made to tear it down, will there be any protest, any efforts to preserve it because it's an example of the aforementioned Brutalist style?
LEWISWell, there might be. I -- I'm not sure how vigorous a move to preserve it will be. I think that -- that remains to be seen. But I -- there -- surely there will be some people who will want to keep it just as they were with the Third Church of Christ on 16th and I Street, the octagonal building there that was done by the I.M. Pei firm back in the -- about 1970.
LEWISThat actually was a building that was landmarked, that was put on the register of historic buildings because, again, it represented a certain moment in architecture in the 20th century history of architecture that the preservationists thought -- and I agree with them on this one -- it was worth preserving at least partially. With the FBI building, I'm not so sure that the same support will be -- will appear for its preservation.
NNAMDIWe got a comment posted on our website by Erika: "Are any of these new zoning reconfigurations and mixed uses being driven by the Clean Air Act and CO hotspots? When I was a planner on staff in Alexandria, I was shocked to see that parking at peripheral stations like Van Dorn was being greatly reduced. The Clean Air Act specifically states that there should be provisions for parking at public transportation nexus."
LEWISWell, I think there's no question about the relationship between creating walkable environments and transit-oriented environments reducing dependence on automobiles, which means less carbon being put in the environment. So there is a very direct link there. I think that's where we're headed along with the fact that we're making cars that are -- engines that are more -- that are cleaner. I think we're heading in the right direction. I wouldn't be surprised if in 10 years half of us are driving cars that are operating on natural gas.
NNAMDIMe either. Here is Nan in Washington. Nan, your turn.
NANHello. Kojo, thank you so much. I love your show.
NANI think what concerns me about what Roger proposes is that he seems to want change everywhere. And I think D.C. needs to continue different areas for different people. I personally, and most of my neighbors, prefer open space, trees versus groceries, gas stations and bars. And I'm afraid what you're talking about would make D.C. look like New York with tall, tall buildings. And, by the way, I love New York. But in the 1960s, I made a decision to stay in D.C., not to go to New York, because D.C. has wonderful living spaces inside the city.
NANAnd zoning helps set rules for size of houses, and for proximity and that sort of thing. And the idea that suddenly, you know, people may buy in an area they love and invest, you know, a lot of money and then suddenly it's going to be turned over and anybody can do anything with the land next door, it really concerns me. And I think it concerns a lot of the people in this area.
NNAMDIZoning regulations, Roger, do exist for a reason. Presumably there are some rules worth keeping.
LEWISYeah. Well, Nan is expressing what I think is a very commonly held view. I think it's an erroneous view, which is that somehow what we're talking about is change everywhere. That's the fallacy. And the assumption -- for example, the high limit, there are lot of people in Washington, D.C., who fear that what is being proposed or think what's being proposed is to just lift the whole city, the ceiling across the city.
LEWISThat is not what's being proposed. And, in fact, what I'm -- one of the problems with the existing zoning is that it is -- that it tends to be broad brushed. It takes in too much of the urban and suburban landscape. Now, what I and many of my fellow professionals are suggesting is that -- is the opposite of change everywhere.
LEWISWhat we're proposing is that we need to do much more what I call fine-grain planning, focused on very specific areas, sub-areas of the physical environment and ascertaining whether the rules that have governed them in the past should be the rules that govern them in the future. I live in a neighborhood -- I live in the Palisades area of Washington.
LEWISThere is no way that I'm going to support much change over there. Although on Macarthur Boulevard, there is some one-story retail in an area that would allow two-story buildings, for example. I would have no problem if the Safeway in my neighborhood, which is pitifully small, was a two-story grocery store instead of a one-story grocery store.
LEWISI mean, I think that there are -- that's what we're advocating. We are not advocating change everywhere. And I think that through the power that government can exert in making plans and enforcing them, you know, we can implement a plan that's a fine-grain plan or plans that are fine-grain plans.
NANWell, I think this is where -- I'm an elected ANC commissioner. And I talk to people all the time. And a number of people are very concerned about the kinds of things you've been proposing even for the Palisades, the tall apartment buildings and what not. And, I guess, how do you see getting the opinions and comments of the residents? And how do they control the process? Because that's what, I think, matters in all of this.
NANI mean, I think as I said, there should be very neighborhoods for different neighborhood for different people, and they should choose to live there. But you're talking about a transition period that seems kind of ill-defined, and there is great concern about the Office of Planning's rewrite of the zoning reg among everyone in my neighborhood.
NNAMDIThe Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission. Roger, care to comment?
LEWISWell, my wife was ANC commissioner for 10 years in the Palisades. I should -- Nan and she should get together. No, I mean, I think there is -- I think it's very important to undertake these kinds of studies and these kinds of changes wherever they're going to be with the very active collaboration of the public. I'm not going to defend or attack the Office of Planning, and I think they have -- they've made some mistakes. We -- I think they -- I should say the city has made mistakes. That is a risk. There's no question that is a risk.
LEWISAnd, in fact, the way to ensure the risk is minimize is to make sure that we do get a lot of public input on these things. I think part of this is a challenge. Educationally, I think that getting people to actually show up at some of these meetings or hearings and really learn what's being proposed and what's not being proposed is part of the secret to making it work. It can be messed up. We have very -- again, near we're where seating, there's a library at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle that is a mistake.
LEWISIt should have been a multi-story building, you know, 50 feet from a subway entrance in which there was a library at the bottom and some housing above it. That was in the original intention, and somehow the city fumbled the ball on that.
NNAMDIFinally, there's Allan in Northwest Washington. Allan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALLANOh, yes. Thanks, Kojo. I enjoy your Roger Lewis' programs a lot. I'm from Chicago, which is a much higher density area at least from the north side. And I wanted to mention that I go out to areas from my work out in Montgomery County, and I see farmland being developed. And I just feel that it's so important to develop in infill areas like that Capretz-owned property in Connecticut Avenue, that there's so much contention about, but it's surrounded on both sides, north and south, by other apartment buildings.
ALLANSo apartment buildings are definitely part of that. I mean, maybe the fine tuning would be that the residents want would make it a more atheistically pleasing building. I understand there is traffic concerns, but if we don't infill areas and build more densely near Metro and near bus lines, then we're going to have to -- we're going to be destroying farmland out in the hinterlands. And I wanted to mention one other...
NNAMDIWell, you don't have time because we only have about 30 seconds for Roger to respond to your last comment.
LEWISWell, infill is certainly one of the things that is necessary. Cities are living organisms, and they, you know, there -- moments arrive when you to either to take something down or fill something in. I think that's part of the natural growth in the evolution of a city. The Capretz, my understanding of that property is that most of the fussing has to do with the aesthetics of the building is more than the fact that's in an apartment building.
NNAMDIAllan, thank you very much for your call. Roger Lewis is an architect. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post and is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, thank you for joining us.
LEWISThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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