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Zoning laws are frequently abused. Here’s what they’re supposed to do.

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As I discussed yesterday, zoning is a powerful tool but it can’t do everything — and it’s misused far too often. When used properly, zoning controls how land is used and guides the pattern and shape of development within a jurisdiction.

Unfortunately, since zoning is ubiquitous throughout the development process, elected officials often try to use zoning legislation to coax developers in a different direction and to address community complaints — regardless of whether it's really the best mechanism to do so. Here's a breakdown of what zoning can actually do well:

Zoning can regulate how land is used

Zoning is most often used to separate different types of uses (e.g. residential, commercial, industrial) to limit the negative impacts of one use on the surrounding properties. For example, a residential zone would prohibit a landfill from being built because the landfill would likely smell, there would be increased truck traffic, garbage could spill over into nearby natural resources, etc. All of this would be detrimental to the health safety and welfare of the residents in the area. When zones are separated by their basic use, this is known as Euclidean Zoning.

Zoning can effectively control uses, because once a zone is established the elected officials can easily determine which specific uses can be permitted and which should be prohibited. For example, in Montgomery County, Major Vehicle Repair (an industrial use) is permitted in the three different industrial zones, but it is prohibited in all the residential zones. Conversely, Single-Unit Living (a residential use) is permitted in all the residential zones, but none of the industrial zones.

Residences next to an industrial plant in southeast DC. Image by JY O’Reilly used with permission.

However, local governments are not required to strictly separate uses. It is very common for communities to have zones that allow for multiple uses. In addition to the Euclidean Zones, Montgomery County also has “Commercial/Residential” zones, where like the name suggests, commercial and residential uses are permitted.

For example, in the Commercial/Residential zone, both Multi-Unit Living (a residential use) and  Retail Service Establishment (a commercial use) are permitted. These types of zones are valuable because property owners are not limited to one type of use and can figure out what’s best for their land. Multiple-use zoning is beneficial for communities because it reduces the distance between destinations, such as housing, offices, retail, and parks.

Zoning can regulate the general form of buildings

Zoning can effectively regulate a building’s size in relation to the lot it is located on, often referred to as the building’s massing. Three dimensional standards are used to regulate this.

First, a “set-back” determines the distance between the building’s front, rear, or side and the edge of the property line. If a zoning district has a large front set-back, the building will have a large front yard. If the zone has a zero side set-back, it means that two buildings can be built right up against each other, like rowhomes in DC.

Second, the zoning ordinance can regulate the height of a building. This was designed to help keep sunlight at the street level and stops skyscrapers from being built next to bungalows.

DC is notorious for its height limits. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Lastly, zoning ordinances regulate the lot coverage, which is the percentage of a lot that is covered by the development. This differs between places, but generally includes the building, parking lot, and driveways. A lower lot coverage percentage means there will be more open space in a neighborhood.

For example, Arlington’s R-20 zone, which is for one-family dwellings and can be found in the County’s northwestern tip, has lot coverage of 25 percent. That means a quarter of the property can be covered by the house, leaving lots space between buildings. Arlington’s RA7-16 zone, used for multi-family dwellings and found in between Metrorail stations along Wilson Blvd, does not have a lot coverage maximum so development can cover the entire lot.

Zoning can regulate the intensity of a use

Zoning ordinances can also effectively control a development’s intensity. Intensity refers to how much of a use is allowed in the zone. Intensity is generally controlled by the building density or the Floor Area Ratio. Building density generally refers to the number of residential dwelling units in an acre.

In Alexandria, the R-20 residential zone permits single-family homes on 20,000 square foot lots, or roughly two dwelling units per acre. In the RA/Multifamily zone, a multifamily building can have up to 27 dwelling units per acre. That means the RA/Multifamily zone has a higher intensity than the R-20 zone.

In addition to building density, the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is used to measure the level of non-residential intensity of a development. The FAR is computed by comparing the square footage of the lot and the total square footage of the building. If a development’s FAR is one, it means the square footage of the building is equal to the square footage of the lot the building sits on.

Open space in Alexandria, Virginia. Image by airbus777 licensed under Creative Commons.

It is important to note that the FAR is not equal to lot coverage, because the building’s square footage can come from multiple floors. In Alexandria, the FAR in the Commercial Service Low zone is 0.5, meaning a one-story commercial building can be half the size of the property. In the Commercial Downtown zone, the FAR is 2.5, meaning a commercial building can cover the entire property and be 2.5 stories, or more likely would not cover the entire property, but be multiple stories high (such as cover half the lot and be five stories tall).

Zoning can guide the environment surrounding a building

Lastly, zoning is effective to regulate the built environment on scale that is beyond an individual building. For example, zoning regulations can be designed to create a walkable streetscape. Zoning can do this by regulating specific features of the individual properties. Zoning can regulate buildings and properties to have shorter lot widths, a minimum percentage of windows on a building’s front, a maximum distance between building entrances, and small building features such as recessed entrances or second floor balconies.

These regulations contribute to creating a pedestrian environment that is visually compelling to someone walking by. It creates something new to look at from building to building and opportunities to linger in an area.

Prince George’s County is currently rewriting their zoning ordinance, and is including new zones that specifically encourage walkable development. The Transit-Oriented and Activity-Center zones are designed to serve as accessible focal points for neighborhoods and encourage walkability to support a mix of uses — an example of zoning used right.


 

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birdbone
14 days ago
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A plan for Commonwealth Park

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The story of "the little park that could" at the corner of Reed & Commonwealth Avenues continues to unfold. 

The 0.58 acre site had previously been a dormant substation. The City’s purchase of the property in 2009 required that Virginia Electric Power Company demolish and remove the substation and complete all necessary environmental remediation. In October 2011, neighborhood volunteers used donated plants and mulch to install two gardens, a walking path, shade trees and park benches. In 2016, the City completed the Neighborhood Parks Improvement Plan that included a concept for the park, building upon the volunteer efforts, with a plaza and game tables, a tricycle track and picnic area. 

Last September, Rebuilding Together Alexandria hired Landscape Architecture firm Rhodeside and Harwell to develop a design for the site, based on the Neighborhood Parks Improvement Plan. Rhodeside and Harwell, RPCA, and Rebuilding Together Alexandria held a community meeting on October 11, 2017 to present a draft concept for the park, as shown in this presentation. The project team will present the final site design at the Park and Recreation Commission meeting on January 18, 2018.

The former electrical substation before Stormaggedon.
When the City of Alexandria purchased "3550 Commonwealth Avenue" from Dominion Power, they had Open Space funding and a goal of expanding park space, but they didn't really have a plan for it. What happened next though was something really magical.

Neighborhood volunteers teamed with City staff to forge ahead even in the face of economic troubles and budget crises. For just $200 it started to resemble a park, using only cast-off garden plants donated by neighbors and mulch ground up from cut-down, unhealthy, storm-battered trees formerly used to screen the old substation. For regular readers of The Arlandrian this is not news. We documented the progress along the way with our stories: "Where Did THAT Garden Come From?", "New Park Uncovered At Spring for Alexandria"and "How does our garden grow?". The tale of a community coming together is something that we are really amazed by and, frankly, more than a little proud.

And that gamble by citizens, that investment out of pocket and in blood, sweat and tears, didn't go unrewarded. Last year, Dominion Power, already supporters of the Four Mile Run Farmers & Artisans Market through their Dominion Green outreach program, stepped up to assist at the Reed Avenue Park as well.

2011's work by Dominion Power crews.
The City also matched the Dominion dollar contribution with additional plantings. All in all, 4 new maples, 3 crepe myrtles, and 12 arborvitae have now made the community gardening project into a bona fide pocket park. 

Work by the Cora Kelly students and City staff continued this in the spirit of community pride that has built this park. In  June 2012, Students from the Cora Kelly School for Math Science & Technology spent a Wednesday morning fixing up the gardens planted over the past several years. Three new trees were added as well.


The park today with new plantings and work by Cora Kelly students
 The results were spectacular.

Still a work in progress, a story that is still unfolding, the Reed Avenue Park at 3550 Commonwealth Avenue is an incredible neighborhood accomplishment that continues to grow.

Thanks to diligent work by City staff and the help of Rebuilding Together Alexandria, the next step in the journey of this little park from substation to open space continues; a community effort on Commonwealth Avenue for the common good. 



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jbasirico
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birdbone
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Given an early taste of 'workforce reshaping,' how HUD is retraining its employees for the future

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As many agencies are thinking now about how they’ll streamline operations, cut unnecessary programs and people and retrain remaining staff to handle new work, the Housing and Urban Development has been an early adopter of “workforce reshaping.”

The agency’s lost more than 2,000 employees over the past few years — shrinking from a workforce of roughly 9,600 to 7,400. And HUD’s move to a human resources shared services provider is a large part of those cuts.

The challenges HUD had will sound familiar to many agencies. In fact, many departments are facing the same challenges, and the Trump administration’s reorganization initiatives are pushing agencies to streamline and reshape their workforces for the future.

“We didn’t have an opportunity to do the succession planning, the workforce planning, [or] any of the planning things we needed to do,” HUD Chief Human Capital Officer Towanda Brooks said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “We didn’t really have an eye into what the organization needed. I couldn’t tell you immediately what our retirement eligibility is for the agency as a whole, or for Public and Indian Housing or how many hires I did over a quarter. I couldn’t give you that information because we weren’t strategic enough, and we didn’t have the ability to pull the data quick[ly] enough, because we spent all of our time on the transactional work.”

Brooks, who began her professional career as a student trainee at the Defense Department and then joined the Agriculture Department as a GS-5 before working in nearly every area of human resources at a handful of agencies, recently won a prestigious Presidential Meritorious Rank Award for her work on streamlining HUD’s hiring process and moving the agency to an HR shared services provider.

The department’s HR shop had too much of that transactional work on its plate. It made too many mistakes, and those mistakes led to too many audit reports and citations from the Office of Personnel Management, Brooks said.

The move to a shared services provider meant that HUD lost more than 50 people from its human resources office, and Brooks hasn’t been able to hire those spots back. She said she’s filled a few key positions and brought on a new data scientist, statistician and wellness expert.

But the transition hasn’t always been easy.

“We had to go through a lot of workforce reshaping and restructuring,” she said. “We lost a lot of people, to be totally honest. We lost a lot of people through VERA/VSIP, through retirements [and] through transfers to other agencies because they weren’t quite sure what the work would look like. [For] those that stayed, we re-trained them.”

With much of the transactional HR work off the table, Brooks said her employees needed to learn different skills. Their work became more strategic, and employees needed to learn how to communicate more effectively with their customers.

“We spent a lot of time on data and how to analyze data and present the data,” she said. “[We taught them] how to be that person that’s in between the shared services provider and the program office and how to make that relationship work. … When you’re doing staffing or classification position management, a lot of times you’re not thinking about what accountability really means. You’re thinking about do I get my job done. We had to help them think about accountability in a different way.”

Brooks said she realized her employees performed better at their training classes as a cohort, so the department brought instructors to HUD to teach appropriations, strategic thinking and project management.

For many HUD employees, retirement is looming in the next two-to-three years. Brooks said she’s developing a corporate learning plan that identifies skills gaps among current HUD employees.

“We have an aging workforce, so our goal is to create a pipeline of applicants into HUD, into entry-level and mid-career and senior level positions and within HUD, to make sure that our workforce here has the same type of opportunities so that we’re developing our employees at all levels,” she said. “We’re identifying and growing and supporting our leaders, our technical experts and then our essential employees so they can do the work and our total workforce is able to accomplish the mission.”

Brooks said she’s noticed the impact these changes have left on her remaining employees.

“Going through so much change has impacted our employees too,” Brooks said. “I want to make sure that I’m taking care of our employees and making sure that they’re being developed. We’ve been very innovative in how we accomplish work.”

For example, six employees from Brooks’ office built the curriculum for and planned an exceptional leaders conference for federal employees both in and outside of HUD. More than 500 people attended the conference in person or via webcast.

“We never would have been able to put on a conference like that if we had not been training our people on project management and allowing them to work across our organization and be innovative,” Brooks said.

Now, she’s trying to push that mentality past the Office of the Chief Human Capital Office and to other HUD program offices. The ultimate goal, Brooks said, is to help the department be more productive with a smaller workforce.

And that innovation is making a difference in how HUD employees perceive their experiences at work, she added.

The department has slowly improved its employee engagement scores on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey over the past few years. HUD’s overall score sat at 57 percent in 2014, but in 2017, engagement rose to 69 percent.

“For some agencies, 69 [percent] might not seem that great, but for us to see the continual improvement shows that we’re dedicated to making the agency a great place for our employees, and that’s because we’re trying to engage at every level,” Brooks said.

The department is also continuing to make improvements to its hiring process.

“This has been an agency priority,” Brooks said. “We’re continuing to do it, so it’s not a one-and-done.”

After working through a backlog of new hires, Brooks worked with the agency’s program offices to reduce the time HUD spent planning for hiring from 112 days to 12.

HUD’s Office of Chief Human Capital Officer released new hiring guidance a few weeks ago, which documents the improvements the agency’s been making, Brooks said.

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birdbone
17 days ago
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Man Shot Multiple Times in the 600 Block of Newton St, NW 7:50pm Sunday Night

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via google maps

From MPD:

“On December 31, 2017, at approximately 7:50 pm 4D units responded to sounds of gunshots in the 600 block of Newton Place NW. An adult male was located suffering from multiple gunshots wounds and transported to local Hospital in serious condition. We have no usable look out at this time. Anyone with information is asked to call 202.727.9099″

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birdbone
19 days ago
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The Block in Annandale: Washington’s coolest suburban dining destination

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birdbone
45 days ago
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Silicon Valley Is Sneaking Models Into This Year’s Holiday Parties

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Along with a seemingly endless string of harassment and discrimination scandals, Silicon Valley’s homogeneity has a more trivial side effect: boring holiday parties. A fete meant to retain all your talented engineers is almost certain to wind up with a rather same-y crowd, made up mostly of guys. At this year’s holiday parties, however, there’ll be a surprising influx of attractive women, and a few pretty men, mingling with the engineers. They’re being paid to.

Local modeling agencies, which work with Facebook- and Google-size companies as well as much smaller businesses and the occasional wealthy individual, say a record number of tech companies are quietly paying $50 to $200 an hour for each model hired solely to chat up attendees. For a typical party, scheduled for the weekend of Dec. 8, Cre8 Agency LLC is sending 25 women and 5 men, all good-looking, to hang out with “pretty much all men” who work for a large gaming company in San Francisco, says Cre8 President Farnaz Kermaani. The company, which she wouldn’t name, has handpicked the models based on photos, made them sign nondisclosure agreements, and given them names of employees to pretend they’re friends with, in case anyone asks why he’s never seen them around the foosball table.

“The companies don’t want their staff to be talking to someone and think, Oh, this person was hired to socialize with me,” says Kermaani, who’s sending models to seven tech parties in the same weekend.

While this sounds crazy after a year packed with harrowing stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination—a tidal wave that started in San Francisco, with Uber Technologies Inc.—it’s part of an older trend. Tech companies have long used models to run their booths at trade shows such as CES in Las Vegas, hype up crowds at product launches, and direct foot traffic at conferences. That said, this year’s record-setting requests for the minglers, known as “ambiance and atmosphere models,” are a step beyond what the industry has seen before, says Chris Hanna, who’s run TSM Agency since 2004 and counts among his clients “one of the largest search engines in the world.”

“Traditionally, if I go back, say, over the last five years, if people requested these types of models, it was more for specific responsibilities,” Hanna says. “ ‘Be a hostess.’ ‘Show them the elevator.’ Now they’re trending more toward the fun, the atmosphere.” That includes costume parties, he says. So far this year, his models have been asked to dress up in outfits based on The Price Is Right and like Elizabethan nobles or forest nymphs to accommodate a slightly confused medieval theme.

The agencies say clothing stipulations help them screen for ulterior motives. Olya Ishchukova, chief executive officer of Models in Tech, says she frequently rejects company requests for cleavage and short-shorts. When a client recently asked for Pink Panther-themed latex bodysuits, “I pretty much explained to him that this is not what we do—and that could actually hurt his business” if the public found out, she says. She turned down the gig.

Ishchukova says she prefers not to send models on atmosphere jobs without specific tasks such as checking coats or serving food. Such tasks help remind everyone “they’re there for work, and nothing extra is going to happen,” she says. Hanna’s agency is among those with a zero-drinks rule for models on the job. Most models’ contracts say they won’t exchange contact information with party guests, and that gets tougher to handle with grace when they’re legally bound to pretend they’re guests, too.

The guests, of course, are generally less restrained. Holiday parties have featured prominently in several harassment stories in recent months. As Bloomberg reported in November, prominent venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar allegedly slipped his hand up the leg of Austin Geidt, Uber’s then-head of global expansion, at the company’s 2014 holiday party. (He’s denied the allegations, and Geidt didn’t comment on them.)

Vox Media Inc. is limiting employees to two drinks apiece at its Dec. 12 holiday party to curb “unprofessional behavior,” but so far it’s the exception. Cre8’s Kermaani visits the startups herself to get a read on the environment and her models’ safety. “If somebody is creepy toward me, and I’m the owner of the company, I can guarantee they’ll be creepy to the models,” she says. “Silicon Valley doesn’t have the best reputation.”

For more, check out the Decrypted  podcast:

BOTTOM LINE - Valley modeling agencies are seeing record numbers of requests for beautiful “guests” at tech holiday parties, in case you were wondering if anyone had learned his lesson.

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birdbone
45 days ago
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