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Office of Planning Set to Rollout Controversial Comp  Plan Update; Affordable Housing Advocates Wary

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the October 2019 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz

DC Council has set the stage for the rollout on October 15th of the bulk of the updated Comprehensive Plan to guide future development in the District of Columbia. It promises to be a policy wonk’s wet dream of urban planning — expected to clock in at some 1,200 pages of text and color-coded maps — meant to smooth the path of decision-making for a continued, high-intensity overhaul of the city’s built environment.

The stage-setting was Council’s unanimous October 8th vote to enact amendments to the approximately 60-page “Framework Element,” of the “Comp Plan,” essentially an introduction meant to set the context and tone for the rest of the document to follow. The Plan describes the forces driving change in DC, including a description of D’s growth forecasts, identifies 36 principles for DC’s future that guide the Plan’s policies and actions, and describes the Plan’s Generalized Policy Map and Future Land Use Map.

But the Comp Plan is also laying out battle lines for community activists who seek to slow the city’s intense redevelopment and prod city officials to better address the impacts of gentrification, such as rising property taxes and utility bills, a shortage of affordable housing, loss of cultural diversity, racial equity in the benefits of redevelopment, and more. They see in the Comp Plan’s complexity a document that most city employees, aside from members of the Zoning Commission, have read or truly understand in terms of its widespread impacts. They believe it favors developers with deep pockets who have undue sway over DC’s elected officials.

“People who have contributed to the city are now being priced out,” says Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC, a community organizing group focused on the needs of low- and moderate-income DC residents. For example, “Why are we supporting market-rate housing and not deeply affordable housing,” she asks. She says Mayor Bowser and other elected officials want development to happen almost as a matter of right with neighborhood negotiation with developers for community benefits as the main avenue of recourse for existing residents, not mediation and redress in court.

Empower DC is conducting a series of study sessions across the city to help residents understand the Comp Plan and have a voice in its updating. Norouzi says she hopes that by educating people about the Plan and its impacts, they can begin to demand alternatives to affordable housing controlled by developers. She sees, for example, the possibility for creating deeply affordable housing by taking underused or unused city-owned properties out of the market to be held in deed restriction and then re-developed as affordable housing communities governed by low-income buyers and residents.

“Developers don’t want 30 percent AMI [average median income]” in their development projects, Norouzi said, referencing a figure that she believes more accurately fits the deeply affordable category most low- and moderate-income residents need to stay in the city. “They say they can’t get it financed.”

And the need for affordable housing in DC is very real. Dupont Circle businesses, like Dupont Italian Kitchen, are facing difficulties attracting waitstaff and other employees, according to restaurant managers. That’s because workers can’t afford to live in the neighborhood and places they can afford to live are now simply too far away –- not a good outcome for the workers nor good for the businesses either.

Norouzi said city officials likewise are giving too little thought to other essential but moderate-income workers such as teachers, police officers, and retail workers.

The Reverend Gail Fisher-Stewart, pastor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church at 15th and P Streets, NW, said many churches like hers have elderly parishioners who may have affordable housing for now, “but everything else is unaffordable.” She asked at an Empower DC study session, “How do we serve those we are called to serve when there’s not a whole lot we can do? You ought to be able to afford to live somewhere.”

Updating the Comp Plan Framework took about two years, including extensive revision by Council Chair Phil  Mendelson, in a back and forth with DC Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood, and after hearing the concerns of individual council members.  The result, said  Mendelson, in a press conference preceding the vote, is an update that he and many others hope will reduce the rounds of litigation that have stalled some high-profile development projects — the McMillan Park redevelopment in Northwest DC being a prime example. He says the revised Framework amplifies the importance of adding much-needed affordable housing to the city’s housing stock while also mitigating negative impacts of gentrification, particularly for the poor and elderly.

Trueblood, who reports to Mayor Bowser and holds chief responsibility for the Comprehensive Plan, on October 7th told an audience of the Dupont Circle Citizen’s Association that the Plan has, since its beginnings in 2000, charted a course for redevelopment of DC. At that time, he said the city’s population had bottomed out as it emerged from oversight of the federally appointed Financial Control Board.

From the beginning, Trueblood said, the Comp Plan has been a vision for an inclusive city that would grow wherever there was growth potential. He says the updated Plan will further ensure that zoning decisions are not inconsistent with the Plan’s guidance for various sectors of the city. He says it will focus on housing, including housing equity and affordability, cultural diversity, resilience of the city in terms of natural disasters and climate change, a re-imagination of DC’s transportation infrastructure, as well as the need for public space and public life.

When this update of the Comp Plan rolls out on October 15th, Trueblood said, it will be open for comment by the general public and there will be outreach by his office to Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

It’s probably anyone’s guess how long it will be before the Council votes to enact the rest of the Comp Plan. Activists are already promising legal challenges. A full rewrite of the Comprehensive Plan for the vision of an inclusive city is slated to take place in 2025.

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.

Reader Comment

Your article highlights a major issue that will permeate public discussion in coming weeks of the 1,200 pages of proposed amendments of the Comprehensive Plan released by the Mayor on October 15.  That issue is the balance between market-rate and affordable housing development, and the extent of citizens’ ability to influence, by judicial action if necessary, how that balance is struck.  So it is noteworthy that the most important measure affecting citizen participation in future land use decision-making had already been passed by the Council, on October 8, when it adopted the Plan’s Framework Element — and in so doing ceded a major part of its prerogatives under the Home Rule Act to the Zoning Commission.

Home Rule, in one of its compromises on democracy for the District, gave the authority to write and administer zoning regulations to a five-member unelected agency, of which two members were to be federal officials. As a counterweight, the democratically-elected Council was given the power to establish, in a comprehensive plan, the basic ground-rules within which zoning must be applied — putting the Council in a position to say which of the various zones created by the Commission could apply in what parts of the city.

This is the critical power that the Council, at the insistence of the Mayor, largely turned over to the Commission, in an effort to insulate the Commission against claims by unhappy citizens that it has exceeded its authority under the Comprehensive Plan in “up-zoning” a site to accommodate a developer.  Within very broad limits, the Commission was awarded the power to re-write its own ground-rules case-by-case.

For more information see the report issued last month by the Committee of 100.

Larry hargrove
Adams Morgan
[Ed. Note: The writer is a trustee of the Committee of 100.]