Most development in New York City is done as-of-right. That means that, for any given piece of land, you can pick up a copy of the zoning declaration and figure out what you will be able to build: how many square feet of building area, how far it has to be set back from the street, how much parking, what kinds of uses, and so on. The incentive programs are also formulaic. For example, you get density bonuses in exchange for building public plazas.
There are exceptions to this rule. Most importantly, Manhattan has seen an unfortunate proliferation of "historic districts," where designs must be approved by a board of busybodies who will decide whether your plans for your property fit the neighborhood's character. Increasingly, these districts are being expanded to include vacant lots, and even a BP gas station on Houston Street, which recently needed historic district approval to change the doors on a storage shed.
But New York's historic districts, and the discretionary approvals they necessitate, are an exception to the usual development process. In D.C., a discretionary and arbitrary approval process is the norm for developments of any significant size.
WHAT D.C. GETS WRONG
It is normal for development projects in Washington, D.C. to obtain zoning variances or to go through a Planned Unit Development process, in which normal zoning rules are overridden. Officials in Washington tend to think of this as a strength of their planning process. The city shows "flexibility," approving extra development where the developer can demonstrate benefits to the community.
But "flexible" is just another way of saying the rules are arbitrary, and the process of getting zoning variances in D.C. can be Kafkaesque.
Take, for example, the tale of the Wisconsin Avenue Giant, a single-story '50s-vinage supermarket in Cathedral Heights. Its owners want to tear it down and build a mixed-use complex with a modern supermarket and apartments above it. As Emily Washington describes, this project just last month got approval to proceed, having first applied for special zoning approval in 2005.
The proposed project is not out-of-character for its surroundings. But even though Wisconsin Avenue in the area is characterized by six- and eight-story apartment buildings, this parcel happened to be zoned for a "floor-area ratio" of 1.0. That mans only one square foot of building area per square foot of lot area.
So, the owners of the property filed a Planned Unit Development application that would have allowed a FAR of 2.0. This was hardly an earth-shattering level of density. Permitted FARs in D.C.'s main business district go as high as 12.0. Yet the neighbors fought the project tooth and nail, suing to block Zoning Commission decisions and even trying to get the old supermarket named a historic landmark. Don't laugh. The "Park and Stop" strip mall on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, right next to a subway station, is a protected historic landmark, on the grounds that it is one of the oldest strip malls in the country.