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Mayor’s Comprehensive Plan Amendments Denounced by Non-Government Witnesses at Hearing; Council Members Also Skeptical

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the March 2018 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz*

The increasingly scandal-plagued administration of DC Mayor Muriel Bowser– in a bitter scrap with historic preservation groups, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and many individual DC residents concerned about the quantity, scale, and pace of redevelopment in the city — now stands accused of launching a cynical, legislative coup attempt that would favor deep-pocketed real estate developers and investors in all zoning decisions and subsequent court challenges.

The proposed legislation, sent to the City Council in early February, would amend the Comprehensive Plan, the District’s master planning document that is a block-by-block guide to zoning and redevelopment in every ward of the city

Opponents say that the Mayor has already skirted due process with her proposed amendments to the Plan by skipping a 60-day public comment period required by law, and instead sending the bill directly to the Council. The bill, they say, aims to curtail the power and legal rights of any DC stakeholders who dare to oppose development projects anywhere in the city.

If the Mayor’s legislation is enacted, opponents add, bulldozers will get moving again on projects like the hotly contested McMillan Park Reservoir development by Vision McMillan Partners. That project is now under remand to the Zoning Commission and the Mayor’s Agent because of a harshly critical ruling in a lawsuit filed by Friends of McMillan Park with the DC Court of Appeals.

The Administration says the proposed legislation provides a needed update and clarification to the Comprehensive Plan that will give developers the assurances they need to move projects forward and to attract and keep investors. What’s more, Administration officials say, development brings new, affordable housing online because it is a requirement that every project include affordable housing units in its design. To date, Mayor Bowser’s staff says she can be credited with bringing more than 2,000 new units of affordable housing online in DC through these efforts with developers.

Months in the drafting by Bowser’s staff in the Office of Planning, however, the proposed amendments are now under fire from seemingly everywhere — including most of the city’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. The ANCs, including Dupont Circle’s ANC 2B, say they are outraged that they were not presented with any opportunity to weigh in on the Plan amendments before they were submitted to the Council.

At best, skipping the comment period is viewed by Administration critics as callous disregard for a citizenry already heavily impacted by the billions of dollars being poured into redevelopment projects citywide. At worst, many DC residents view the Mayor’s bill as yet one more sign of what they suspect is a deeply corrupt city hall filled with politicians more interested in campaign dollars from wealthy developers than well-thought-out development projects whose burdens and benefits are shared equally across the city’s wide-ranging income spectrum.

At a day-long February 28th City Council subcommittee hearing on the proposed legislation, presided over by Council Chair Phil Mendelson, one DC resident said, for example, that the Comprehensive Plan amendments and the Mayor’s actions have led to a “high level of public cynicism that is poisoning our public life — most of it due to a low-level of accountability for developers in the city.”

“The Office of Planning? It’s the Office of Plotting Against the People,” well-known development skeptic and activist Chris Otten said at the hearing. Otten heads up DC for Reasonable Development, which has organized many campaigns opposing developers’ projects.

Ordinarily inclined to disrupt and antagonize city officials at public hearings, Otten, this time, spoke eloquently of the price he says DC is paying for its breakneck pace of redevelopment and the big bucks that flow from gold rush-style gentrification which is undermining: DC’s rich history as a majority black city. The district is losing black citizens, many of them elderly, life-long residents, he said, because city leaders appear hell-bent to “never deal with the issue of displacement.”

Unfortunately for the Mayor, her apparent disregard for the law regarding the public comment period and her overall tone-deafness regarding citizen’s concerns about what many see as the spreading wildfire of development projects across DC, could prove damaging, if not fatal, for her proposed bill.

Indeed, council members at last month’s hearing noted opposition to the proposed bill at every turn, including every witness — outside of Office of Planning staffers — who testified.

“The bill strips citizens and their elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) from effectively challenging development projects,” says the influential Committee of 100 on the Federal City in a harshly worded statement opposing the Mayor’s proposed bill. In fact, the committee refers to the proposed legislation as “The Developers Wish List Act.”

The Committee, joined by a long list of prestigious historic preservation and controlled development advocates, say that the Mayor’s proposed amendments would:

  • Permit more density and greater commercial development in residential neighborhoods. Current definitions of building height and allowable density would be redefined to permit unpredictable higher height and density.
  • Replace definitions in the current plan with fuzzy descriptions and loose terms that developers and the [Zoning Commission] could interpret freely.
  • Would no longer provide the predictability or clarity, via the plan’s Generalized Policy Map and the Future Land Use Map (FLUM), that residents rely on to make decisions.
  • Fail to force land use decisions that will address the city’s serious income divide, unemployment, displacement and lack of affordable housing. Instead, it focuses on preventing residents from meaningful participation in land use decisions.”

Worse, say opponents of the Mayor’s proposed bill, the fuzzy language surrounding such critical zoning issues like density, building heights, and so on, leaves loopholes for developers large enough that lawsuits from concerned citizens would be all but impossible.

ANC 2B Commissioner Nick Delledonne testified at the hearing that one proposed change would be “that the intent of the Comprehensive Plan is not to be strictly followed. So, what would it all mean if it’s not to be strictly followed?”

Asked by Mendelson about what happened to the 60-day comment period for the proposed bill, Office of Planning Director Eric Shaw seemed a flustered but quick thinker. He said that in his view, the Bowser Administration did not actually skip the 60-day comment period, rather, was waiting to have the entire two-part “Framework” and “Elements” sections of the Comprehensive Plan in place first. The voluminous elements section contains maps and all earlier Plan amendments — numbering more than 2,000 — that are not being modified at this time.

But Mendelson and other council members expressed skepticism with that answer.

“I see that the Office of Planning has a problem,” Mendelson told Shaw bluntly. “You got the bill introduced but the public did not get a 60-day comment period for response.” He also noted that council members, himself included, could rewrite the legislation entirely.

Mendelson has scheduled a full City Council hearing on the proposed bill for March 20th.

*Associate Editor William G. Schulz, a resident of Dupont Circle since the 1980s, has been a journalist specializing in science and investigative reporting for over 30 years.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.

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Additional Perspective Shared with our Readers

Development That’s Right for DC Will Suffer if  Council Adopts the Mayor’s Comp Plan Change

By Stephen Hansen & Meg Maguire

The writers are chair and vice-chair, respectively, of The Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

DC needs more developers to accomplish our city’s long-standing goals of an economically and racially inclusive city. Renovating worn out buildings and constructing new housing for families requires developers who are skilled in navigating the financial, bureaucratic and design hurdles every project faces.

But we do not need more developers who want to build projects well-beyond the limits established in the Comprehensive Plan, which is the legal framework for city planning and development. In virtually every neighborhood, the effects of this pressure are apparent: pop-ups; oversized projects that overwhelm single family homes in Neighborhood Conservation Areas; and rapidly rising land values that incentivize teardowns and jack up property taxes, accelerating displacement of many long-time residents. Such developers and their allies, particularly the Mayor, now want to make it impossible for citizens to challenge developer overreach in the courts. Stung by several Court of Appeals decisions remanding projects back to the Zoning Commission because the judges found that they were far out of compliance with the Comprehensive Plan, the Mayor has submitted legislation to Council that robs citizens of their ability to contest them.

How does the Mayor propose to inhibit residents from contesting projects that do not conform to the Plan?

First, under the guise of “clarifying” the Zoning Commission’s authority, the Mayor’s bill would substitute vague language and qualifiers into a revised Comprehensive Plan that developers and the ZC could interpret freely and that would virtually justify any proposed project.

The Comprehensive Plan’s Generalized Policy Map and the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) would be simply “broad guidelines  . . . not intended to be strictly followed” and “intended to be ‘soft edged.’” These maps would no longer provide the predictability or clarity that residents rely on to guide Zoning Commission decisions.

The Mayor’s bill would also result in a radical increase in the power of the unelected Zoning Commission that would, in effect, significantly diminish the ability of citizens, their elected ANCs and Council to shape the city’s growth. With no clear standards, appeals would be fruitless.

Supporters of these changes argue that affordable housing will trickle down from a large supply of market-rate housing achievable only through much denser development citywide. This is simply a thinly-veiled repackaging of failed 1980’s trickle-down economic policy, and housing prices in other cities –- New York City and San Francisco to name but two — do not support this claim.

Building more market-rate housing will yield relatively little new family housing because, through DC’s Inclusionary Zoning program, developers must provide only 8to10% of the square footage for those earning 60% of the region’s Area Median Income of $109,000. Developer applicants decide the size of these units — mostly studios or one-bedroom apartments — rather than building two or three-bedroom units.

To meet the needs of middle and lower income families who live here now, or want to move to this great city in the future, we must retain and improve existing affordable housing, invest greater public subsidies in lower-income housing, and require developers to go well beyond current affordability and community benefit requirements before being granted any bonus density.

The current Comprehensive Plan has many excellent goals for affordable housing. Strengthening the Plan’s language from “should” to “shall,” and then holding city officials accountable, would go a long way to achieving a more inclusive future for our city.

To build and rebuild wisely in our largely built-out historic city is a challenge. To achieve first-rate, economically viable projects requires robust neighborhood debate, topnotch planning, sensitive developers and architects, and a discerning Zoning Commission. The Mayor’s legislation takes a sledge hammer to public confidence in this process and stacks the rules of the game entirely in the developers’ favor.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & The Committee of 100 on the Federal City.. All rights reserved.