Planners, advocates seek to change troubling provision in DC Comprehensive Plan bill

DC Office of Planning and advocates seek to change troubling provision in DC Comprehensive Plan bill

by Cheryl Cort & Stewart Schwartz, Coalition for Smarter Growth

On October 8 (postponed from September 17), after three years of discussion, the DC Council is poised to adopt a bill that sets the framework for the rest of the Comprehensive Plan. However, language inserted into the bill in July by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson would impose standards for the Zoning Commission’s review of Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) that would both block new affordable housing and increase displacement.

Housing advocates in the Housing Priorities Coalition have expressing alarm over the provision, while seeking to strengthen the plan’s commitments to affordable housing and displacement prevention. And this week, in a September 11 letter from the DC Office of Planning, Director Andrew Trueblood expressed concern that the Council bill’s language would create “a novel and ambiguous review standard,” that would lead to even more litigation.

Planned Unit Development is a flexible, participatory review process which has been all but halted in the District as a means for building new housing due to lawsuits. Clarifying the PUD approval process has been a goal of both affordable housing advocates and developers in the wake of thousands of housing units being stalled in lawsuits in the last few years. PUDs have been largely abandoned in favor of “by-right” development, meaning loss of opportunities to exchange flexibility and increased density for more affordable housing and other community benefits. Only three PUDs have been proposed in 2019, down from dozens per year in recent history.

The Office of Planning raised concerns about the previous PUD guidance in the Council’s version of bill before the first vote on July 10, 2019. At the same time, affordable housing and smart growth advocates have been urging for clarification of the PUD process so that we can create more housing and give high priority in PUDs to building and preserving more affordable housing, and preventing displacement.

Advocates cite the Bruce Monroe plan (now stalled in litigation) as an example of the benefits of PUDs where affordable housing is made a high priority in review and approval. At the core of the plan to replace all 174 homes for the deteriorating Park Morton public housing complex, is the nearby mixed income PUD for the Bruce Monroe site.

In July, Chairman Mendelson changed the guidance language, adding new standards, including requiring the Zoning Commission to determine if a PUD or Zoning Map Amendment “is generally compatible with the physical and visual character of the surrounding neighborhood.” As noted in previous posts, prioritizing physical form of neighborhoods — rather than its activity or its people — suggests that this factor is more important than other goals in the plan, like preserving and building more affordable housing, and preventing displacement of long-time residents.

This “physical and visual character” language raises the specter of exclusionary zoning according to affordable housing advocates, who note that this language is similar to planning language that has historically perpetuated housing segregation. Office of Planning’s September 11 letter recommends removing the exclusionary language and the other new standards created by Mendelson in the July version of the bill.

Affordable housing advocates are alerting their supporters to the potential exclusionary impact of the language. In addition to recommending adoption of the Office of Planning’s recommended language or its outright removal, the groups are also supporting Councilmember Brianne Nadeau’s proposed amendment for another section of the bill – which would make affordable housing and displacement prevention priorities in PUDs.

Andrew Trueblood’s letter says the Office of Planning looks forward to working with the Council committee to “make sure we get it right and avoid unintended consequences that would undermine the District’s ability to meet the needs of its residents, especially the need for affordable housing.”

On October 8, we’ll see if the DC Council adopts language to make the city more inclusive or more exclusive, and if they will adopt a predictable Planned Unit Development Process that places a priority on affordable housing as part of PUD approvals.

Click here for CSG’s action alert.

Photo credit: Ted Eytan, Flickr