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Don't Build Parking, And They'll Come--Without Cars

For decades, the District and residents wary of overdevelopment have used the city's parking regulations as one of their main weapons in the war against congestion. Complex formulas require a certain number of parking spots for each chunk of new residential or office space.

But now D.C. planners and a growing number of urbanists are proposing to scrap those minimum parking requirements on the theory that big urban parking garages are a destructive and unnecessary public subsidy for car owners. The argument is that building garages in densely populated urban neighborhoods undermines public transit, wastes space that could be used for affordable housing and more attractive retail, and pushes up the cost of housing, guaranteeing lower-quality development.

The city's proposal notes "a growing shift across the nation away from parking minimums as cities realize the hidden costs of over-parking."

The District's planning commission will meet Oct. 16 to consider reducing or eliminating minimum parking requirements, and generally making the city's parking rules more flexible--letting developers use nearby parking spaces rather than building their own, and encouraging builders to provide space instead for car-sharing services and bicycles.

David Alpert, the Greater Greater Washington blogger and urban advocate, has been pushing hard for this relaxation of parking rules, and planning director Harriet Tregoning says she will hold hearings all around the city before any changes are made.

Tregoning argues that the city has diminished its own ability to foster a car-free environment by forcing developers to build enormous numbers of parking spaces that then sit unused. Cases in point: The new DC USA shopping mall in Columbia Heights (Target, Marshalls, etc.) has a huge indoor lot that remains mainly empty, as most customers arrive by Metro or on foot. In Adams Morgan, the new Harris Teeter supermarket similarly has far more parking than it needs.

"I use a granny cart and we walk to the store," says Tregoning, who lives not far from the new market. The new Giant in Columbia Heights has also found itself with more parking spaces than it knows what to do with; I've repeatedly been startled to find that I can park within three or four spaces of the store's doorway, even when the shop is teeming with customers.

"People come from all over the city to Target," the planning director says, "but the parking is hardly used." Similarly, at many new apartment buildings in close-in neighborhoods, the parking spaces required by the city are going unsold--some buildings report selling garage space to only one of every 10 apartment buyers.

Free or nearly free parking induces car usage, the planners say. And in a city with 140,000 parking spaces in garages or other off-street parking, there's a strong case to be made that in some places, there is plenty of parking already. Indeed, if you think about it, the city's most walkable and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods tend to be those with the least parking--Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Capitol Hill. That doesn't mean there aren't tremendously frustrating experiences searching for parking in those neighborhoods, but it does mean that people find ways around that problem.

"Since alternatives to driving are abundant on transit-available streets in the District," the city's proposal says, "dedicated off-street parking for housing should not be required but can be permitted as an option for developers."

Don't build the parking, and residents will be more likely to buy into a transit- and walking-based urban life. That pretty well sums up my experience living in neighborhoods that had very difficult parking vs. those where parking is plentiful. If you know you're going to have to spend an hour roaming around searching for a space, you are dramatically less likely to take the car out on the next shopping or leisure venture.

Do you buy the theory? And do you think the city can get this idea past the neighborhood activists who have long clung to parking minimums as a tool to wield against developers?

By Marc Fisher |  October 1, 2008; 12:16 PM ET
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I suspect it depends on the development.
If you get a good mix of retailers then people will consolidate trips to one place and if they aren't buying bulky things taking transit is a good option.

But if you have a stop with a lone outlet you're almost forced into your car as you still need to go half a dozen other places.

Malls tend to evolve. Wait 5-10 years and see who is still open in Columbia Heights. If some of the initial places have closed up you might find that people are driving to the big retailers and then heading out to other spots to finish up their shopping.

Posted by: rose | October 1, 2008 12:46 PM

I absolutely buy it. It's not just parking, however - this is what urban life is all about. Removing parking requirements makes it easier to add density, which makes it easier to diversify land uses, which makes it easier to have a variety of retail options, etc.

It's somewhat counter-intuitive, but when you provide good transit, adding density and providing a decently designed pedestrian environment actually decreases the impact of traffic, not the other way around.

Posted by: Alex B. | October 1, 2008 1:10 PM

And look at the proposal in Friendship Heights where a developer is considering adding spaces in a residential development because of neighbors concerns (eventhough the proposal is well within zoning requirements).

These are the same neighbors who are claiming there are too many cars on the road and in their neighborhood.

Posted by: Lukas | October 1, 2008 2:00 PM

Reducing parking restrictions, along with other building requirments unrelated to health or safety, makes sense. Most developers are not entirely stupid. They know their target market and will build to suit it. Some areas will end up with a great deal of parking because they need it and others have very little because they don't.

BTW, what the city really needs are a few easily accessable and very large garages strategicly located to allow people to drive in, leave their cars, and transfer to metro. A ten level garage near the Penatgon would fill the bill nicely.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | October 1, 2008 2:44 PM

I guess we'll find out if Target/Giant/Marshalls decide that the stores are profitable enough to keep open. When I go to Target I buy big. There is no way to take home 2 20-packs of paper towels and TP on the bus. There may be lots of shoppers at these outlets, but are they buying enough?

Posted by: metwo | October 1, 2008 2:48 PM

They should keep the parking spots but make them underground garages rather than surface parking.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | October 1, 2008 2:57 PM

The stores at DC USA are always poppin' when I've been there. Even though I hate those chain stores as much as anyone, they are necessary for some shopping needs. And I go to DC USA about once a month. AND I live in Silver Spring. Beats driving to Wheaton and then Rockville...

Posted by: JBE | October 1, 2008 4:27 PM

"They should keep the parking spots but make them underground garages rather than surface parking."

That would kill almost every development proposal; above-ground commercial parking in a successful downtown is usually a relatively unprofitable business to begin with (often, parking is a loss-leader), and large-scale underground construction is very expensive.

A similar problem hamstrings most proposals to place collector garages next to inner suburb Metro stations; Metro-adjacent land in Arlington or Alexandria or southern Montgomery is hugely desirable, and almost any use other than a commercial garage would generate higher rents for the property owner and higher property taxes for the county. You might be able to make it work in Prince George's -- nobody's found a good commercial use for the area around the Cheverly station, for example, even though it's right off US50 -- but not only is that direction less congested to begin with, but building a garage there would close off any more valuable future proposals for the long term.

Posted by: cminus | October 1, 2008 4:40 PM

Individual requirements, rather than a tax for city-provided parking, mean that the city is forcing you to use your land for wasteful single-level, single-use parking lots. They were bought at the behest of neighborhoods who consider themselves to own what is inherently a public good - the side of the street. "Their" spots are not to be tarnished with commercial spillover, so evil corporations and developers (which the neighborhood of landowners see only as competition) have to be forced to pay for spots that stay empty most of the time. It gets passed on to the rest of us, of course.

In many cases, their homes couldn't be built (or even renovated) today because of the parking requirements. They got theirs, and they're going to fiercely defend it. Eliminate the restrictions, and the city's population as a whole wins over the city's single-family homeowners in wealthu neighborhoods.

To see how it should be done, in a situation that has both commuters and residents - look at Bethesda. A parking garage every two blocks paid for by taxation of a special tax district means it can be as densely populated as required and form a shopping venue that doesn't make you walk past football fields of parking.

On a technological note, automated/robotic parking has about a 4x smaller footprint, isn't much more expensive than garage parking, and can be considerably cheaper in situations where the land or the street-frontage is valuable.

Posted by: John | October 1, 2008 7:51 PM

So Miz Tregoning believes that if you don't built parking, people will simply walk, take Metro, use Zipcar, bike, etc. And residents near proposed condo complexes fear that's naive, that if developers don't build enough parking, more people will simply crowed flood already crowed streets in search of a parking spot. How to test the theory and provide an incentive for residents of new condo developments be as green as Tregoninng threorizes? Simple, the developer covenants that the new project will not participate in the residential parking permit program (RPP). Several projects along Wisconsin Avenue have already accepted that condition. Fewer new cars flood local streets and condo residents can either decide to obtain limited parking in the building or go green.

Posted by: Cleveland Park | October 1, 2008 10:19 PM

It isn't that neighborhood activists wield minimum parking requirements against development- it's that many of them truly can't conceive that people would choose to go carless. This is, simply, because most of the uber-activists are older and their outlook was formed in the 60's and 70's, when cars reigned supreme. Alpert is the exception that proves the rule.
I say, good. The parking minimums are counter to the best interests of the residents and the city. Something like 30% of all downtown surface area is dedicated to roads and parking (according to the past administration's figures in the Comp Plan for the "Near North West" section of the city.)
Given that this is the most expensive real estate in the US outside of Manhattan, it seems to me that this finite amount of space can be better allocated than to to asphalt.

Posted by: Downtown Rez | October 2, 2008 1:29 AM

It's simple, if you want more cars, build more parking. If you want more people, build a nice place. Cars don't spend money, people do.

Posted by: ChrisZ | October 2, 2008 10:27 AM

“it's that many of them truly can't conceive that people would choose to go carless” The developers also acknowledge that residents will have cars, more cars than the number of parking spaces DC requires. In yesterday’s Current, Armond Spikell of Roadside Development was quoted as saying: “We’re well within the zoning, but in a nice neighborhood with nice units people are going to own cars.” Zoning requires 25 spaces for the 49 apartments Roadside is planning for that site. Roadside is considering increasing the parking from the planned 26 spaces to 31 spaces. I am also puzzled about how Alpert is the “exception that proves the rule. In his testimony on this topic, Alpert stated: “I actually own a car myself and I paid quite a bit of money on the townhouse that I built -- that I bought recently in Dupont Circle to have some space to park.”

Posted by: DC Resident | October 2, 2008 12:00 PM

I live in Adams Morgan and go to the movies in Georgetown. It takes me 5 minutes by car by Rock Creek Parkway, and yet I have to pay for parking - there's no good way of taking transit. Otherwise, the closest metro accesible movie theater is at Metro Center, which easily takes 30 minutes to get to, to and fro. If we had movie theaters and other amenities close to our neighborhoods, maybe this anti-car rhetoric would make sense. But if I didn't want a car, I would have lived in Manhattan, because there at least you can do all your tasks within walking distance and transit is much better. But I do agree we need more density around metro stations in general . . .

Posted by: Lee | October 2, 2008 1:44 PM

Alpert is the exception in that he is younger than most neighborhood activists. We might disagree on whether he's an "uber-activist" or not, but I think the obvious thought that goes into his blog and the broad consideration his thoughts get proves that he is.

Roadside isn't the only developer out there, there are obviously far more. And you only relay a Current quote on *one* of Roadside's developments. Again, there are more. But the key point to consider in the context of OP's proposal (and Alpert's and Fischer's posts) is that Roadside did this *by their own choice*, not because they were compelled to by regulation. So the regulations were, in fact, irrelevant in the example you cite.

In my opinion, people who move to the inner neighborhoods don't move there for the parking. They know that traffic and parking are horrible. They move there for the "any and every thing nearby" vibe and, related, for the walkability these older neighborhoods offer. Viewed in that context, parking (and traffic) function as a negative.

Posted by: downtown rez | October 2, 2008 6:49 PM

I think one of the opportunities that's been overlooked in the article is people's propensity to forget the already existing space out there. Couple sites have been tapping into this phenomenon and helping people leverage non-traditional parking that's sitting empty. Take for example www.parkingspots.com a site designed to leverage unused space such as apartment buildings etc. instead of continuing to build new parking facilities. Who'd have thought that empty parking spot in your condo building or the driveway that sits empty all day could actually earn a person money!?

Posted by: ParkingLady | October 2, 2008 6:52 PM

The Current’s quote, Spikell’s statement about car ownership by residents of new condominiums, was accurate, and it was not unique. Developers have frequently made similar statements about the number of cars they expect the residents to own. And the data supports that. On the other hand, the source of the claim that “some buildings report selling garage space to only one of every 10 apartment buyers” is one young blogger working for a building industry organization. This has been the only example cited. Sadly, the Office of Planning cited that blog and did not bother to even confirm the information with the developer or to determine whether the residents of that building own more vehicles, but are not buying more spaces. In addition, it does seem odd that it is a rental building, and yet the developer expects the tenants to buy rather than rent their parking spaces.

Perhaps Alpert is the “exception” because he isn’t actually a neighborhood activist, but a 30-year old blogger who has lived in DC for less than a year. Actual activists tend to have a better knowledge of their city.

While you might have an opinion about car ownership among residents who move to the “inner neighborhoods,” which may or may not be accurate, at issue is the recommendation to change the regulations for the entire city.

Posted by: DC Resident | October 3, 2008 1:49 PM

"Perhaps Alpert is the “exception” because he isn’t actually a neighborhood activist, but a 30-year old blogger who has lived in DC for less than a year. Actual activists tend to have a better knowledge of their city.

While you might have an opinion about car ownership among residents who move to the “inner neighborhoods,” which may or may not be accurate, at issue is the recommendation to change the regulations for the entire city."

I've lived Downtown without a car for something like 20 years. I'm confident of my read on this. And your reply really didn't address the underlying issue which is: Developers will add parking when their read is that it is called for. Even the Roadside example that you cited shows this. Roadside added parking because they chose to, not because they were compelled to by some outdated automobile-centric regulation.

I wonder if the DC USA/Target development chose to build a ghost-town of a parking lot? Do you know? Were they compelled to? Or did they decide to dig themselves into a hole all on their own?

Seriously, eliminating the mandatory won't eliminate parking. But it will lower housing costs and commercial rents by lowering developers' overhead.

Posted by: Downtown Rez | October 3, 2008 8:22 PM

Seriously, someone is attacking Alpert because he has only lived in DC for a year? In reviewing his blog, it is clear he has his finger on the pulse of some very hot button issues in ways that many longtime residents will never get.

I applaud him for making the local issues important quality of life concerns for all of us.

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Anonymous | October 3, 2008 10:51 PM

Actually, in reviewing his blog, it is clear that Alpert includes inaccurate summaries of many of the meetings that he attended since he didn’t understand some of the basic terminology, was unfamiliar with the neighborhoods or regulations being discussed and/or simply ignored or was unaware of critical events that occurred more than a year ago. Basically, in many instances, he attended the meeting but totally missed the point of the discussion. The blog also repeats inaccurate and misleading information that he has seen elsewhere, frequently reposting inaccurate or unconfirmed information from advocacy web-sites, some sponsored by organizations whose members have a financial stake in the outcome. Fact-checking is totally lacking. I admire the time and energy that he puts into this effort, but without fact-checking and making a better effort to educate himself about the basic background and facts before posting on an issue, his blog is more of a disservice than a service.

So, it is admirable for a young, 10-month resident to look at local issues and important quality of life concerns, but it would be more admirable if he used the extra time he has available to be more conscientious about what he posts. Apparently there are readers who believe that his meeting summaries and other posts are accurate. So, rather than asking Alpert to “keep up the good work,” I would ask him cut back on the name-calling, to use his time to do more research and fact checking and to make an effort to understand both sides of each issue before posting. That might mean posting on fewer issues, but it could result in a blog that provides a service, rather than disservice, and one that he won’t be embarrassed to have follow him through life.

Posted by: DC Resident | October 5, 2008 9:50 AM

"Basically, in many instances, he attended the meeting but totally missed the point of the discussion."
Can you cite a single or two or three examples?
And can you cite a better example for you point than the useless Roadside Current quote?
And can you address the difference between "mandatory parking" and market demand" parking"?
If you're seriously trying to make a point, you should do these things. An attack isn't an argument. Unless you set aside the personal opinion and put a few facts front and center, you'll come across (to me, anyway) as being the ignorant agenda driven person you accuse Alpert of being.

Posted by: Downtown Rez | October 5, 2008 5:28 PM

If you want, you can find dozens examples where Alpert missed the point in describing a meeting by reading through the comments sections of his blog. As you do that, you will also find hundreds of examples where he posted misinformation. As a single example, several of his posts repeatedly describe the minimum parking requirement as the source of a nine-month delay for Alice and Jeff Speck’s zoning approval. The following comment was posted on Alpert’s blog: “Let’s get a few of the facts straight. Alice and Jeff Speck’s application was not simply for a variance on the parking requirement. They were also requesting an increase in the lot occupancy (to increase the percentage of the land covered by their house from 60% to 100%) and an increase in the floor area ratio from 1.8 to 3.0 (to be allowed to build a structure that was 66% larger than zoning allows on that property). In addition, they required public space approvals. So, let’s not pretend that their BZA case was only about the parking requirement.” Had Alpert spent a few minutes looking for a copy of their BZA order before posting this story several times, he would have known that the story was false. And, I can assure you that many of the errors have not generated comments, but probably those who attended the same meetings simply rolled their eyes when they saw his summary, and assumed that no one would take that summary seriously.

I am puzzled by your question about the difference between mandatory parking and market demand parking. The basic issue is that the developer doesn’t have the incentive to provide adequate parking for the needs of the tenants, since the tenants have the option of parking for free on the street. So leaving it to the market doesn’t suffice. It is this basic market failure that minimum parking requirements are meant to mitigate. That is why places like Arlington, Virginia have minimum parking requirements that are as much as four times DC’s minimum parking requirement, even near Metro, and that is why neighborhoods like Clarendon can succeed, without harming nearby Lyon Village.

Posted by: DC Resident | October 5, 2008 7:21 PM

I'm not familiar with the Speck's property. Did construction resulting from the mandatory on-site parking requirement trigger the increase in lot occupancy, and hence the increase in FAR? Or were they expected to excavate underneath an existing structure? Like I say, I don't know the site, but excavation, underpinning, and below grade construction is certainly more time consuming and expensive than building an attached garage.

"I am puzzled by your question about the difference between mandatory parking and market demand parking. The basic issue is that the developer doesn’t have the incentive to provide adequate parking for the needs of the tenants, since the tenants have the option of parking for free on the street. So leaving it to the market doesn’t suffice. It is this basic market failure that minimum parking requirements are meant to mitigate."

If there is adequate parking on the streets, as determined by the willingness of purchasers and existing automobilists to park there, why compel more to be built on property? Why compel new buyers to subsidize those additional parking spaces when an available resource exists?

It's not like those new parking spaces are free to the consumer. Any parking spaces, even above ground and uncovered, rent for about $200/month in my neighborhood. Underground parking rents for more, and where I live sells for about $50,000.

Why force that additional cost onto new home prices, rather than making it an option, like a granite counter-top? Even though you were "there first", shouldn't others have the same right to Public Space which, I suppose in your mind, equals public parking?

Posted by: Downtown Rez | October 5, 2008 10:05 PM

Have you looked at the actual case, which is available on-line, and Alpert’s posts describing it? This is just one of the hundreds of examples where Alpert simply gets it wrong. The request that the house occupy 100% of the lot, rather than the 60% maximum and that the house be 66% larger than would normally be allowed on the approximately 500 square foot lot had nothing to do with a parking requirement. If Alpert had done a little fact-checking, he would have realized that their testimony at the parking hearing didn’t hold water.

Posted by: DC Resident | October 6, 2008 7:44 AM

Do you recall the address or bza number?

Posted by: downtown rez | October 6, 2008 12:34 PM

The BZA hearing was July 11, 2006, and the order granting all the requested relief was issued July 13, 2006. The Speck case begins at page 24 of the transcript.

Posted by: DC Resident | October 6, 2008 4:18 PM

I'll read it and post a response- I promise.

Will you answer my questions to you, none of which you've addressed?
A few are copied below, in no particular order:

->"...can you address the difference between "mandatory parking" and market demand" parking"?"

->"Roadside isn't the only developer out there, there are obviously far more. And you only relay a Current quote on *one* of Roadside's developments. Again, there are more. But the key point to consider in the context of OP's proposal (and Alpert's and Fischer's posts) is that Roadside did this *by their own choice*, not because they were compelled to by regulation. So the regulations were, in fact, irrelevant in the example you cite."
->"It's not like those new parking spaces are free to the consumer. Any parking spaces, even above ground and uncovered, rent for about $200/month in my neighborhood. Underground parking rents for more, and where I live sells for about $50,000....If there is adequate parking on the streets, as determined by the willingness of purchasers and existing automobilists to park there, why compel more to be built on property? Why compel new buyers to subsidize those additional parking spaces when an available resource exists?"

Posted by: downtown rez | October 6, 2008 10:58 PM

Responses to your questions:

->"...can you address the difference between "mandatory parking" and market demand" parking"?"
->"Roadside isn't the only developer out there, there are obviously far more. And you only relay a Current quote on *one* of Roadside's developments. Again, there are more. But the key point to consider in the context of OP's proposal (and Alpert's and Fischer's posts) is that Roadside did this *by their own choice*, not because they were compelled to by regulation. So the regulations were, in fact, irrelevant in the example you cite."

These two questions were answered in part earlier: "I am puzzled by your question about the difference between mandatory parking and market demand parking. The basic issue is that the developer doesn’t have the incentive to provide adequate parking for the needs of the tenants, since the tenants have the option of parking for free on the street. So leaving it to the market doesn’t suffice. It is this basic market failure that minimum parking requirements are meant to mitigate."
I see that you assume that the tenants will choose the option of parking for free on the street of a nearby low-density neighborhood only if there is a more than adequate supply of on-street parking in the neighborhood. But, this isn’t the case. The issue is high-rise buildings near low-density residential neighborhoods. Many tenants of high rise buildings will be more than willing to find parking on neighborhood streets to store their cars, even if the parking is scarce in that neighborhood. A distance that might be an acceptable walk for an apartment tenant who uses his or her car infrequently to retrieve a vehicle might not be acceptable to the families with children and groceries and the elderly who live in the low-density neighborhood. The parking requirements are meant to limit the impact of apartment buildings on the stability of nearby low-density neighborhoods based on District policies to protect neighborhoods.

->"It's not like those new parking spaces are free to the consumer. Any parking spaces, even above ground and uncovered, rent for about $200/month in my neighborhood. Underground parking rents for more, and where I live sells for about $50,000....If there is adequate parking on the streets, as determined by the willingness of purchasers and existing automobilists to park there, why compel more to be built on property? Why compel new buyers to subsidize those additional parking spaces when an available resource exists?"
As noted above the adequacy of on-street parking is not properly measured by the willingness of the apartment residents to use it in lieu of paying for parking. So, the question instead is whether it is appropriate to require the developer to provide some of the parking necessary to accommodate the residents and employees of the building. With the requirement, the developer can no longer shift that portion of the cost of parking for his building to the residents of nearby neighborhood. With our very low minimum requirements, the developer still will be able to shift substantial costs to the neighborhood residents. Keep in mind that the parking requirements in DC are very low, a fraction of the number of vehicles that actually will be owned by residents and significantly less than the parking requirements in neighboring jurisdictions.

I would be interested in seeing whether, after reading the Speck case and Alpert’s posts on the topic, you still think that Alpert reported on it accurately.

Posted by: DC Resident | October 7, 2008 2:35 PM

"The issue is high-rise buildings near low-density residential neighborhoods. Many tenants of high rise buildings will be more than willing to find parking on neighborhood streets to store their cars, even if the parking is scarce in that neighborhood. A distance that might be an acceptable walk for an apartment tenant who uses his or her car infrequently to retrieve a vehicle might not be acceptable to the families with children and groceries and the elderly who live in the low-density neighborhood."

First thoughts (more later) You just described me. I'm in a "low" (actually mid, by zoning terms) residential, have a family, no on property parking, and am in close proximity to lots of high-rise residential.

I deal with it by chosing not to own a car. It saves me (by AAA's national stats) something like $.61/mile, or >$9,000 (post tax!) dollars per year, assuming 15,000 miles per year and that car ownership in DC is no more than the national average (yeah, right).

Another question: Why would new construction be required to build parking, but I would not?

Posted by: downtown rez | October 7, 2008 8:46 PM

It is nice, perhaps admirable, that you and your family are able to and choose to live a car-free lifestyle. That is not a real option for many District households. Some have family members whose jobs or schools are not easily accessible by public transportation. Others work hours, such as night shifts in the emergency room, for which public transportation is unreliable, or even unavailable. Some work hours for which the walk to or from public transportation would be unsafe. Some neighborhoods are not as well served by public transportation as your downtown neighborhood. In those neighborhoods, public transportation might be useful for commuting, but it is not adequate for meet other needs. Some families have obligations, such as caring for elderly relatives, which make a car-free lifestyle difficult. In some families, several children have multiple after-school activities which are difficult to reach by public transportation. In addition some residents might be disabled or frail and find it difficult to walk long distances and carry their groceries home, even with a cart. While there will be some individuals and families that can live a car-free lifestyle, I think that we want to District to also be a welcoming place for families whose jobs, obligations or abilities would make such lifestyle difficult.

Another question: Why would new construction be required to build parking, but I would not? Response: Zoning regulations only apply to new construction or additions.

Posted by: DC Resident | October 8, 2008 11:56 AM

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