Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Z is for Zoning, F is for FAR

There’s been a growing chorus of concern about the Monarch development underway at Oronoco and N. Henry Street. Many folks are alarmed to see how the building dwarfs the neighboring historic district and looms up abruptly from the sidewalk without any softening effect or buffers.

Unfortunately, it’s likely the whole area north of Oronoco Street will rapidly fill with buildings just as monolithic, creating an urban canyon that overpowers Parker-Gray. The seeds of this mess were sown in the 1992 Braddock Road Metro Small Area Plan but the new plan is going to make it even worse.

Before we get started, a word about FAR or floor area ratio. It’s a measurement of development density calculated by comparing a building’s volume to the size of its lot. Crudely put, the higher the FAR, the bigger the building and the denser the development. The bigger the building, the greater the number of houses or condos within to be sold for profit.

To give you an idea of relative FAR, the Braddock Road Metro parking lot currently has a FAR of .30 while the residential area of Parker-Gray has a FAR of .75. This is considered low density.

In 1992, the land immediately south of the Monroe Street Bridge was rezoned from light industrial and warehousing to Commercial Residential Mixed Use High (CRMU-H) or Medium (CRMU-M). But only now are landowners preparing to take advantage of this opportunity.

Under CRMU-H zoning, developers can dedicate the property to one use like single family homes, townhouses, or condos built at a modest FAR of up to 1.25. If they decide to do commercial or a mix of uses, they can go up to 1.5 FAR. This is considered “by-right development.”

But the CRMU-H designation also allows a developer to get FAR as high as 2.5 with a special use permit (SUP), which must be negotiated with the Planning and Zoning Department, reviewed by Planning Commission, and finally approved by City Council.

That’s exactly the path taken by Diamond Properties. They successfully persuaded the City to permit the FAR for the Monarch site be increased from 1.5 to 2.33, a whopping three times the density of the surrounding neighborhood.

Other landowners and developers will soon follow. The draft plan mentions only a few upcoming projects. But expect to see the Yates family (owners of the car wash and McDonald’s) as well as Tony’s Auto and perhaps the Madison come cap in hand to Council soon.

What is most alarming is that the draft Plan suggests even more density for parcels that are already zoned for lower maximum FAR. The plan anticipates FAR of 2.0 for the Metro parking lot (Del Pepper eagerly suggested 2.5 at the recent Council work session) and FAR of 2.5 for the Jaguar properties at the tip of the Gateway area. There’s also a scheme to raise FAR along Wythe Street from .75 to 2.0.

So prepare for a vista of Monarchs marching up and down our modest little streets until the horizon merges with the sky.

If you can see the horizon. Or even the sky.