On September 6th, Washington, D.C.’s Zoning Resolution Revision (ZRR) of 2016 became law, marking the end of a nine-year process of analysis and implementation and instituting the first major revision to the city’s Zoning Regulations and Zoning Map since 1958. The revisions aren’t revolutionary — they focus on a few key points (parking, green areas, front yards, etc.), but as a whole they offer insight into the ideology of the city. D.C.’s ideology is uniquely self-referential; compared with Detroit, with an ideology originating in production, and New York, with origins in trade, the ideology of Washington, D.C. is rooted in ideology itself.
The District, defined conceptually by its theoretical origins, ideological stability, and bipartisan nature, is zoned to reflect a set of ideals fixed at its creation and reinforced by the enactment of the 2016 ZRR. In his work Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, architect and historian Manfredo Tafuri references Thomas Jefferson, whose ideological position of “radical America” in the 18th century is embedded in the design of D.C.; he writes of how Jefferson intended to produce a “reconciliation of the mobility of values with the stability of principals [sic].” Centuries later, the 2016 Zoning Resolution Revision still embodies this Jeffersonian mantra.
“It is not by mere chance that the least economically necessary city in America is also the most configured,” Tafuri writes about the District. The task of Washington was to give physical form to the “foundation of the new world,” building a city based not on industry or agriculture, but on an abstract set of national principles set at the birth of the capital. At the outset, D.C. is tasked not with being the ideal American city, but rather the city of American ideals. Thus, the design of the city is actually the translation of an ideology rather than a design process or experiment. This approach, one of translation over interpretation and formal abstraction over economic necessity, imparts on the zoning a strict formal configuration absent in layer-based methodologies of zoning like New York City in 1916, which works essentially like a design prompt.
Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for D.C. was influenced by European classicism—particularly the radial grid, derived from the diagonal boulevards of Paris. It serves as a visual key for what the founders of the United States hoped to embody and forecast as the stable principles of the nation. Tafuri writes “the broad openness of the plan is balanced by firmly defined points which structure its image.” This reconciliation, one of openness and firm definition, might be read as a formal abstraction of the conflicting attitudes of the country’s founders. Jefferson advocated for an agrarian society, while Alexander Hamilton was a proponent of American financial and industrial capital. Tafuri even points out the shape of the National Mall as a reconciliation of governance, noting that “the division between legislative and executive power is given concrete expression in the ‘L’ structure of the two main axes leading out from the White House and the Capitol and intersecting at the Washington Monument.” Various instances of these situations, rooted in ideological difference and imparted through urban form, began at the outset of the design of the city and have lasted throughout history, continuing through the present.
Tafuri’s analysis of Washington as a reconciliation of mobile principles and stable values holds true when looking at the L’Enfant plan and the National Mall, but is evident even in the city’s skyline. Though he argues that through Washington’s geometric character of the plan, “absolute liberty is granted to the single architectural fragment,” and “architecture is free to explore the most diverse expressions,” Tafuri fails to recognize how this reconciliation has manifest itself in the heights of buildings. In order to preserve the stable principles of the city set at its birth, the formal abstraction of the L’Enfant plan had to be preserved.
The Heights of Buildings Act of 1910, which mandated a height limit on all new buildings, ensured the L’Enfant Plan would remain legible as the city developed. The height limit has come to define the character of the city today, much like the earliest zoning of New York City came to define its own variegated contemporary skyline. In D.C., the architecture was not actually granted liberty to explore the most diverse expressions, though Manhattan was. In this way, D.C. might be read as prioritizing stable principles over mobile values, while New York prioritizes the mobility of values over the stability of principles. The skyline of Manhattan exhibits this inversion; the rigidity of the grid is relieved by the variety in the heights of buildings. If L’Enfant’s plan were to take on the variegated skyline of Manhattan, the formal nature of the plan would be lost, and likewise, if the Manhattan skyline were to take on the rigidity of the D.C. skyline, the grid would need some sort of relief.
New York City’s skyline is largely the result of the first instance of modern zoning in the United States, enacted in New York in 1916. The complexities of the ordinance are the result of careful planning and reactions to existing conditions. Rather than delineating specific requirements for each individual lot, New York’s zoning established a set of rules to dictate height, use, and bulk of buildings. The rule system was overlaid onto a street map, such that each individual block exhibited a unique set of characteristics resultant of the combination of these restraints.
In this way, New York’s zoning can be read essentially as a design prompt, in which individual lots are given a variable set of constraints based on their adjacencies and relationship to one another. Use, height, and area often do not share borders, and are characterized by constant overlapping. To know the requirements for a single lot requires a deep dive into the ordinance, and the strategies behind the requirements are apparent throughout the borough maps.
New York’s layers of height, use, and bulk over the city as a whole offer a zoning strategy heavily based on relationships between things among reference to an exterior unit (the city as a whole), and as Michel Foucault writes in The Order of Things, act as a strategy of measurement rather than order. In the zoning of the city, each building derives its characteristics from its neighbor; the analysis depends on the “calculable form of identity and difference” of height, use, and bulk of the surrounding buildings. This puts forth the notion of zoning in New York as a clearly articulated design process rather than the articulation of order-based zonings like D.C., which rely on the use of taxonomies and tables, laying out a successive gradation of zoning subgroups. D.C. zoning is essentially a table of uses, with 16 subtitles, each containing multiple chapters and sections.
Independent of the notion of reading the city through its relationships, the zoning of D.C., specific and rather strict, exists primarily to support the overarching ideology of the United States in general. D.C.’s ideological approach contrasts with New York’s, evident even in the way the zoning maps are distributed among the pages of the zoning text. New York’s first zoning code consisted of a published booklet in which maps are broken up into smaller pages, privileging in scale the proximity of one lot to the next. Early zoning maps of D.C. are nearly always drawn in full, with the L’Enfant plan prevalent throughout each map.
Throughout the rezoning process of 2016, the District of Columbia kept an official blog called Zoning DC (zoningdc.org) outlining the updates and revisions. The blog served as an interface between the Zoning Commission and the public, and shares insight into the ways the revisions reflect the goals of the update. In a series of separate posts, the blog breaks down how the revision affects the city in a few different categories: parking, industrial, downtown, corner stores, loading trucks, alley dwellings, and accessory apartments. These disparate instances are evidence of a piecemeal approach to the overall plan, lacking any explicitly stated ideological definition.
This lack of explicit definition reveals the subtext of the revision, grounded in the Jeffersonian mobility of values reconciled with stability of principles. Attitudes towards parking, corner stores, alley dwellings; these are all mobile, changeable values, each with their profusion in conversations surrounding city transformations across the country, not unique to the needs of DC. The project of zoning for a national ideology with stable principles is inherently bipartisan, and the zoning text reflects a palatable middle ground in these mobile values. This bipartisan tendency to compromise is most evident in the text under Subtitle C, Chapter 7: Parking.
At first glance, Chapter 7 reads like a typical zoning text or building code, establishing minimum parking requirements for various uses. The blog points out that the District reduced parking requirements to reflect a focus on public transit. But Section 707 is an outlier of traditional zoning parking requirements, in that it establishes a set of rules for situations in which parking exceeds the minimum requirements. The subtext is that excess parking is undesirable — in the instance of excess parking, the text mandates significant concessions like extra bicycle parking, tree planting, and electric charging stations. If the Zoning Commission wanted to reduce surface parking in the city, they could have simply set zoning rules prohibiting excess parking. However, such an act would be inherently political, insinuating an ideological shift privileging transit — far too political a statement to make as transit debates loom on. Parking is a prime example, but the passive tendency to impart bipartisan solutions is also evident when looking at the city’s new requirements for green area.
DC’s new Green Area Ratio is a variable figure attached to each district, derived from the “weighted value of landscape elements to land area.” Per Subtitle C, Chapter 6, the purpose of the variable is to “promote attractive and environmentally functional landscapes.” Though the actual zoning text is written in this neutral legal language, Zoning DC admits that “what we are hoping is that in the open space around developments there will be less concrete and more green space.”
The writers of the blog, agents of the District working to provide a clear line of communication to the residents of D.C., have made an almost partisan claim for their vision of how the new zoning will affect the landscape of the city: they’re privileging green space for the open space around developments. But rather than wholly commit to this mobile value, the bipartisan politics of the city offer relief, lest any developers be offended by the new requirements for their private space. In the same paragraph, the writers undermine their own hopes for green space by reassuring developers that “And it’s important to point out that a property may be able to meet its GAR requirement — even with a building covering 100% of the lot — if it simply installed a green roof.” Though the Zoning Commission is hoping for more green space in the open space around developments, the need for bipartisan appeal negated the possibility of the zoning text to translate the GAR to regulate what might have turned out to be privately owned public space in the city.
The ZRR delineates what we might see as a shifting of values in the contemporary American city, and tackles a few discrete issues rather than enacting a plan for future change or growth. Though the revisions may improve the lives of D.C. residents, this is not the primary goal of the Zoning Commission. More important is the preservation and reflection of the national ideology and stable principles over the internal well-being and mobile values of the city, evident even in the legal relationship of D.C. residents to the federal government. All local legislation passed by DC City Council has to be approved by Congress to pass into law, and the Zoning Commission was not required to consist of any actual D.C. residents until the Home Rule Act of 1973.
Traditionally, with these frustrations come a certain stability, backed by the federal presence in the District and reinforced by the values set in motion at the city’s birth. The enactment of the 2016 Zoning Resolution Revision, coincident with the final months of the Obama administration, mark another moment of fixity in the reinforcing of American ideals. But the emerging political climate has seemingly restated the mobility of the nation’s values, and, pitted against the stable principles defined at the conception of the country, could reopen another partisan battleground, with D.C. zoning in the crosshairs.
Scott Deisher is a Master of Architecture candidate at Taubman College, where he serves as an editor of the annual student-produced journal of architecture, Dimensions. Prior to enrolling at the University of Michigan, Scott worked in residential architecture in and around Washington, D.C.