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

Stephen Hansen & Meg Maguire

Stephen Hansen and Meg Maguire 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.

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