Author: Erin Phillips

CSG in the news: One-on-One with Aimee Custis of the Coalition for Smarter Growth

1. In terms of livability and mobility, DC has changed dramatically over the past decade. What are the three changes you like?

One of my favorite changes is the emergence of bikeshare—when I moved to DC, SmartBike (the predecessor to Capital Bikeshare) was getting underway, but CaBi itself really opened up so much more of the city to me, as someone living without a car. And in the past year, dockless bikeshare has opened things up even more—to me, and to people who never felt bicycling or Capital Bikeshare was for them. I especially love the e-assist JUMP bikes… so much so, that I’m thinking about buying a pedal-assist bike!

This one is definitely livability not mobility, but it’s still really relevant. The food scene in our region has really exploded in the past ten years. I can’t imagine DC having Michelin-starred restaurants when I moved here in 2008! I go to other cities now, and I’m often underwhelmed by their food scenes, because we’ve gotten so spoiled so fast in DC… not just fine dining, but also great fast casual (with some homegrown DC chains really knocking it out of the park) and everything in between. I try to eat healthy and eat at home as much as I can, but my busy schedule means eating out a few times a week, and in DC it’s always a pleasure.

Over the past ten years, I also think our collective consciousness about DC as a city has changed and matured a bit. Policy-wise, we’ve done a bunch of the low-hanging fruit (installing bike lanes where it’s easy, adopting Vision Zero and Sustainable DC, implemented inclusionary zoning) and it’s had a real impact on my day-to-day life. Now we’re on to much more politically-fraught changes (like taking away parking for bus-only or bike lanes), but even so, general consciousness of transportation and land use among residents is as high as I’ve ever seen it. When I talk to people at parties, they really “get it” how important things like a strong Metro system and bicycle infrastructure are to everyone’s day-to-day life.

2. And three changes you don’t like?

The decline of Metro service and reliability is the biggest one. But honestly, local residents have nobody to blame but ourselves—we as a region have neglected to take care of the system, and now we’re paying the price. It’s really painful, though, that transit-dependent people are the ones most hurt by this.

Because, on the flip side, the rise of TNCs (like Uber and Lyft) has been a boon to personal convenience, but at the cost of public attention to transportation options that actually make our cities cleaner, more livable, and more pleasant, like transit, bicycling, and walking. According to a recent study, something like over 50% of Uber/Lyft trips would NOT have otherwise been in a taxi or private vehicle… in other words, more than half of Uber/Lyft trips are putting people into cars. That’s more congestion on our roads and more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. It’s a real tragedy of the commons situation, in that as an individual it’s often the easiest choice (if you can afford it), but when everybody takes Uber/Lyft, it has real negative consequences for our cities.

Finally, just as our collective consciousness about DC has matured a bit, so have our problems. Affordability of housing is the biggest problem (in my opinion) on the horizon, not just in DC but many cities… and while it’s easy to think of transportation and housing as two totally different realms, in reality they’re so closely intertwined. If you can live close to the things you need, it cuts down on congestion, makes it easy to get where you’re going, and gives you back time in your life you’d have otherwise spent getting from A to B. We must, must, must turn our collective attention to finding solutions that allow everyone to have safe, affordable homes with reasonable access to the jobs, services, and other amenities that we need in our day-to-day lives.

3. What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now?

We just finished up a successful campaign to secure dedicated Metro funding… it’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever worked on. Locals love to hate how Metro service has declined over the past several years. The system definitely needs reforms, but without a long-term funding source, Metro hasn’t been able to plan for long-term preventative maintenance, so it’s really no surprise that things have declined. Imagine if you never did preventative maintenance on your car—never got the oil changed! Things would be pretty messed up after a while. While real changes need to be made, the system also needs enough consistent funding to fix the decay that decades of neglect have caused. As a region, we have nobody to blame but our elected officials (and by extension, ourselves) for letting things get as bad as they have. It’s going to take years of public pressure, reform, and repair to get Metro back to a world-class system.

4. Two recent bicyclist deaths on DC streets highlight the dangers of commuting in the DC area. What’s the most important step the transit community can take in mitigating these dangers?

We have to demand better-designed infrastructure. Most unsafe conditions can be mitigated by design. Paint is not enough—we need dedicated infrastructure for various modes, we need complete streets, we need curb separation where safety calls for it—not just when it’s easy for departments of transportation to build it. And while we keep up and amplify the drumbeat for better infrastructure, we also have to keep up political pressure for enforcement—whether that’s traffic enforcement, ticketing, red light cameras, whatever it takes.

5. How did you get involved in transit?

Cities have been important to me since I first moved to a city—New Orleans, in 2003, for college. I studied political science and architecture, and found (though I couldn’t have described it as such at the time) the urban fabric to really have an impact on my day-to-day life and happiness. I was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and during the aftermath and rebuilding. That’s what got me interested in public policy, and environmental policy seemed a natural fit. When I moved to DC for grad school, I took an entry-level job at a transit-related non-profit because, I reasoned, it was environmentally-friendly. Within a few years, I’d gotten involved in the urbanism/smart growth community in DC, and the rest of my transit advocacy career is history!

6. Tell us about your commute. Metro, bus, walk, bike … or a mixture of everything? How long does it take you to get from door-to-door?

My commute really varies depending on the time of year, and what I have going on that day and after work. I live ~2 miles from my office, and it’s an almost-straight shot through DC from Dupont Circle to the Coalition for Smarter Growth offices just east of Union Station. My favorite way to get to work (and most consistent, recently), is to grab a JUMP e-assist bikeshare, and take the 15th St cycletrack down to Pennsylvania Avenue, then pedal up through the US Capitol grounds to the office (20 minutes).

Depending on how hot it is, sometimes I’ll grab a Capital Bikeshare bike instead (30 minutes)… and other days, I’ll hop on Metro and take the Red Line to Union Station (20-25 min). Finally, when the weather’s perfect, it’s almost exactly an hour to walk straight up Massachusetts Avenue, door-to-door. If I wake up early enough, or don’t have anything going on after work, I love the walk. It’s very zen and a great time to catch up on podcasts.

7. What are your three most essential pieces of commuting gear?

I’m pretty low-maintenance… I don’t own any specialty commuting gear. That said, my three biggest essentials are headphones (podcasts or music!), messenger bag (I almost always have either my laptop or camera with me), and my prescription sunglasses (days that I walk or bike).

8. We hear you’re also a wedding photographer. What are your top 2 transit-related venues to photograph?

Yes, I am! It’s been very fun over the past ~6 years to have photographed many people in the local transit-bicycling-urbanism community. One of my go-to favorite places to photograph couples in our region is Union Station. Both the inside and outside are so beautiful and iconic, and unlike so many places in DC, you don’t need a photography permit! My all-time favorite related photography adventures, though, was photographing a surprise-marriage-proposal-bike-ride-and-party for two members of the DC bike community. You really have to see their crazy-amazing celebration for yourself—there’s no way it won’t make you smile.

Read the full article here.

‘Get out of my bus lane’: Dedicated route for shuttles is welcomed — if not fully enforced

The strange thing about the new bus-only lane along Rhode Island Avenue last Monday morning was that there weren’t any buses in it.

There were plenty of cars — a line of them in the lane the city took the trouble to mark “Bus Only.” The idea was to move Metro’s shuttles and other buses faster during the 45-day shutdown of a portion of the Red Line.

But there were so many cars in the lane that morning that there seemed little reason for the shuttle carrying Teresa Taylor, 23, and about 20 other commuters to try to get over to it. Instead, the shuttle kept going in the left lane behind another line of cars that backed up for a block at every red light.

It’s been this way since the bus-only lane opened on July 21, when Metro began making repairs at the crumbling Rhode Island Avenue station, Taylor and other shuttle bus riders said.

The other strange thing that morning was there were no police around to keep the lane from becoming a joke.

That, too, is the way it’s been, at least every time Taylor has taken the shuttle or express bus during the shutdown. “There’s been no enforcement,” she said.

With a chunk of the Red Line out of commission, Taylor has been walking to the Rhode Island Avenue station at 8 a.m. to get on a shuttle, only to have to get off at NoMa 15 minutes later to wait for a Red Line train to get to her internship at a nonprofit in Dupont Circle.

When she could take the train the whole way, the trip would take 20 to 30 minutes. Now it takes a little more than an hour.

She’s been getting up an hour earlier during the shutdown. “And I like sleep,” she said. “I’m grumpier these days.”

Transit advocacy groups applauded when Metro and the District announced the bus lane. The idea wasn’t groundbreaking — the District lags behind other major cities like Seattle in giving buses their own lanes. But groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth saw hope that the city might try to catch up.

Stewart Schwartz, the coalition’s executive director, said he’s glad the city created the lane. The region can’t keep growing without moving more people around on buses, he said.

“But we’re very disappointed they haven’t been enforcing it.”

Police spokeswoman Karimah Bilal said police have been out there at times. But despite all the cars driving and parking in the lane, only 15 citations and warnings were issued between July 21 and Aug. 8.

“As identified issues are observed, enforcement areas are adjusted based upon available resources and nature of the underlying concern,” Bilal said. She didn’t respond when asked whether police aren’t doing more to enforce the lane because of a lack of resources or because it’s not enough of an “underlying concern.”

Transportation department spokesman Terry Owen, meanwhile, said the agency is monitoring traffic on that stretch of road and is in contact with the police. “Thus far, WMATA has not indicated that violators are delaying buses,” Owen said.

On Monday, traffic did seem to be moving steadily. But other days, Taylor said, the traffic has been “stop and go.” Even so, she said she’s sympathetic to the drivers flouting the law.

“They’re trying to get places, too, and go about their lives, just like we are,” she said. “But there are times I feel like, ‘Get out of my bus lane.’”

Read the full story here.

Stewart Schwartz column: Transparency matters in the Coliseum deal

We all share a passion for this city and we want it to succeed for everyone’s benefit. In fact, our organization, the Partnership for Smarter Growth, fully supports the revitalization of the 10-block area north of Broad, relative to the old Coliseum, into a walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood, with restored street connections. We also support tax increment financing (TIF) districts in principle.

If we want to make smart choices, the best way is through an inclusive and transparent public process. Top business leaders and city staff don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. In fact, the closed-door approach to city public land deals — with a rushed public process after the deal is cooked — doesn’t exactly have a great track record in Richmond.

Our city is blessed with a diverse, smart, and creative population that has spearheaded so much positive change. Why not tap all this talent when making decisions about 10-plus blocks in the heart of our downtown?

We credit Mayor Levar Stoney for insisting that a Request for Proposal (RFP) be issued, that affordable housing be a part of the project, and for saying he won’t take a deal that’s not good for the city. However, a number of things are troubling about the process to date.

In many jurisdictions, the city engages the public and private sectors ahead of time to create a small area plan for such an important part of the community — capturing the vision, ideas, and needs of the community, while also accounting for market-related financing. This didn’t happen in this case, and we are still waiting for such a process for Shockoe Bottom and the Boulevard. With the plan in place, a streamlined rezoning process could be used for private proposals designed in accordance with the community plan.

The city could have consulted with the public prior to drafting the RFP. Subsequently, the city outsourced public outreach entirely to the developer without any involvement or public briefings by city staff. This is very unusual, and particularly so when talking about disposition of publicly owned land.

The Partnership shared the city’s RFP with some of the most successful mixed-use development firms working in Washington, D.C. All declined to bid, citing their assessment that there wasn’t enough economic value in the 10-block area to fund the new Coliseum and other public benefits sought by the city. Not being local, they also may have felt that the odds were against them with such a connected set of local business leaders out of the gate first.

The D.C. firms may also not have known that the city would consider throwing two more very valuable parcels into the mix — the blocks between 6th and 7th at Grace and Franklin, and at Broad. Or that the TIF district might be extended to encompass such a vast area, including Dominion’s two office towers. This calls into question whether there has been a level playing field.

Then of course there are the important questions being raised about the TIF district. In earmarking the increment in tax revenues over today’s baseline, the city will be diverting revenues to this project that would otherwise go to the general fund for schools, public safety, transit, and other infrastructure. This is a pivotal choice and the cost-benefit analysis must be rigorous and transparent. What is the net value of directing Richmond’s tax dollars to the Coliseum versus other investments we could make?

It’s hard to have a public discussion when most of the critical information isn’t public. If it weren’t for the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s intrepid reporter Mark Robinson filing a Freedom of Information Act request, we’d be even more in the dark.

Looking ahead, if we have just one public hearing before the Planning Commission and one before City Council following release of a fully-baked agreement, this won’t cut it. Fortunately, the council is calling for the time it needs and may commission its own consultants. But in the interim, we need public briefings and community input sessions hosted by the city, not the developer, to include review of the financials, the design, the affordable-housing commitments, and alternative approaches to the redevelopment of downtown.

Let’s keep in mind that today’s most successful cities fully engage their residents in planning for the future of their communities, and no longer plan behind closed doors with a small group of business people.

Read the full story here.

Petition calls for DC to expand bike-share program to 20K bikes

Dive Brief:

  • In an open letter, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, DC Sierra Club, DC Sustainable Transportation, Greater Greater Washington and Washington Area Bicyclist Association have called on Washington, DC leaders to bring 20,000 shared bikes and scooters to the city.
  • The local advocacy groups implore Mayor Muriel Bowser and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Director Jeff Marootian to conceive and plan for a 20,000-vehicle system that is safe, equitable and includes “regulations primarily around the future we want to build, and not only short-term administrative considerations.” The letter cites that the city currently permits each dockless company to have 400 vehicles, in addition to approximately 2,500 Capital Bikeshare bikes.
  • The petition comes shortly after two dockless bike-share companies, ofo and Mobike, abandoned operations in the District, citing onerous city regulations.

Dive Insight:

The petition from the advocacy groups to DDOT suggests that Washington, DC follow in Seattle’s footsteps, a city that recently passed legislation to bring 20,000 dockless bikes to the city and add more bike lanes to downtown. The groups also cite the Institute for Development and Transportation’s (ITDP) recommendations for 10-30 bikes per 1,000 citizens, and the city’s goal of 25% of all commutes take place by walking or biking by 2032, as reason enough for DC legislators to take “bold action” and expand the bike and scooter fleets.

However, expansive planning will be required to avoid haphazard placement of more bikes and scooters in the nation’s capital. In DC and around the country the same bike-share concerns continue to arise, which are listed in the open letter: parking, safety and maintenance of bikes, equity, troubleshooting, data sharing, bike and scooter lanes. The groups do not lay out concrete plans for how to deal with these concerns, leaving the DDOT to develop the specifics of any and all policy solutions.

According to Marootian, the District extended its dockless bike-share pilot program through August in the hopes that continued analysis will help find a “sustainable way forward.” Now might be the time to pounce on expansive bike-share planning as ofo and Mobike’s abandonment of operations in DC quells some competition concerns and legislators can look to Seattle for clues on how to regulate the industry.

Read the full story here.

‘Dear DDOT’: We want 20,000 dockless bikes

A week after two dockless bike-share companies abandoned operations in the nation’s capital, citing restrictions on the number of bikes they could operate in the city, advocacy groups are calling on officials to think bigger about bike-share — like 20,000 bikes big.

A city the size of D.C., with its existing bike infrastructure, demands 20,000 shared bikes, the groups said in a petition addressed to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and District Department of Transportation Director Jeff Marootian.

“Dear DDOT: Plan for 20,000 shared bikes, with enough racks and protected lanes for everyone,” the petition says, calling for a sizable expansion as the city transportation agency considers permanent regulations for the bike operators.

The District’s ongoing testing of dockless bike systems allows private companies to deploy a maximum of 400 bikes or scooters or a combination of the two. Operators have complained the number is too small to make their business viable and have asked the city to expand the cap. The dockless pilot program began in September and is set to end next month.

Allowing thousands more bikes in the city’s public spaces would help it reach its goal of having 25 percent of all commutes be via walking or biking by 2032, advocates say.

“Getting there will require bold action,” reads the petition signed by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Greater Greater Washington and DC Sustainable Transportation. “One significant opportunity to reach this goal is through growing our shared bicycle and scooter fleets to 20,000, while setting reasonable rules to keep public space open for everyone.”

Such a sizable expansion, the groups say, would “help the dockless systems flourish and grow into an integral part of this future.”

City transportation officials will soon be making a decision on how the systems will be regulated after the pilot ends next month. However, they have not decided whether they will lift the 400-vehicle cap.

“There is no one right answer to that question about the right number of bikes or scooters that might be out there,” Sam Zimbabwe, a top DDOT official, said Monday on the Kojo Nnamdi Show.

“We want to see alternative modes of transportation — biking, non-auto modes —be more available and more accessible to people across the District,” he said, noting that through the pilot program the city has tried to allow a new type of activity to come into the city and evaluate how often vehicles are being used, who is using them, what they might be replacing in terms of trips.

The advocacy groups concluded 20,000 bikes would be a good balance for D.C based on a recommendation from the Institute for Development and Transportation Policy for cities to have 10 to 30 bikes per 1,000 residents. Other industry leaders have suggested 10,000 to 20,000 would be a good base.

Toby Sun, chief executive of LimeBike, which operates bikes and scooters in the District, said in October that the city would need 20,000 bikes.

“It is a big city. A lot of usage,” said Sun in an interview with the Post. “If we truly want to have a bike-share system that people very conveniently use, and more instead of driving, we need to have the coverage.”

Chinese startups Ofo and Mobike last week said they were abandoning DC in part because of the restriction on 400 bikes on the ground, which they said did not provide the needed density per bike to have a sustainable business in the city. Five other companies remain in the pilot program, but three are primarily providing scooters. Their departure troubled advocates who say this leaves DC commuters with fewer options.

“What DC really needs is not fewer shared bikes, but more — around 20,000,” David Whitehead, a housing program organizer at Greater Greater Washington wrote Monday in a column making the case for more dockless bikes.

“While there are reasonable concerns about how dockless vehicles fit into road and sidewalk space (such as not blocking walkways with parked bikes),” Whitehead said. “dockless bikes and scooters offer space-efficient, green, healthy transportation options that are accessible to many residents.”

Read the full story here.

For upcoming Metro shutdown, dedicated lane spurs rare optimism amid sagging bus ridership

Starting this month, up to 60 buses an hour will zip through a new dedicated bus lane along Rhode Island Avenue, according to the District Department of Transportation, filling a gap in train service prompted by a six-week shutdown of the Red Line’s Brookland and Rhode Island Avenue stations.

The new pop-up lane has transit advocates abuzz about the possibilities for the future of the region’s bus system, which lags behind those in other transit-oriented cities in its lack of an extensive network of bus lanes. Dedicated bus lanes speed travel, making riding the bus amore predictable and reliable experience. Improved service also could help stabilize sagging Metrobus ridership, they say.

To some, DDOT’s experiment hints at larger developments to come — beyond the launch of rush-hour bus lanes along the 16th Street corridor beginning in 2020.

“It shows how quickly you can pop up something like this,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the pro-transit Coalition for Smarter Growth. “Stripe it and paint it, appropriately enforce it.”

The Rhode Island Avenue bus lane will stretch from North Capitol Street to 12th Street NE, and DDOT expects it to carry not only Metro shuttle buses from the shuttered stations to Union Station and downtown, but also the G8 routes and G9 Express buses — normally a rush-hour service — that will run all-day service during the July 21-Sept. 3 shutdown. During the six-week experiment, DDOT says it will gather data to “consider future steps” on bus lanes.

DDOT has not ruled out making the bus lane permanent, though it would not do so immediately in September. For now, it will be the District’s longest and busiest bus lane, the agency says.

“DDOT is actively considering bus priority enhancements up to and including bus lanes in other planning work on major arterials with significant bus routes, too,” DDOT Director Jeff Marootian said.

Schwartz hopes more dedicated lanes are on the way for the District. His group has supported regional bus service initiatives such as Metroway — a bus rapid transit network with dedicated lanes in Arlington and Alexandria — and Richmond Highway Bus Rapid Transit in Fairfax County.

“Hopefully the experience is very successful that we collect a lot of data and then it helps accelerate the study and implementation of dedicated bus lanes and other service enhancements, not just on Rhode Island Avenue but in other corridors as well,” Schwartz said.

Unlike the bright red four-block bus lane along Georgia Avenue, the Rhode Island Avenue bus lane will receive a more modest paint job, DDOT said. There will be posted signage and paint markers, potentially including “Bus Lane” messages on the road.

Marootian said DDOT chose the route along Rhode Island Avenue NE because it will have the highest concentration of buses, compared with the western leg of Rhode Island Avenue where G8 and G9 buses run, but shuttles will not be mixed in. Closer to the Rhode Island Metro station, where the D8 and P6 buses mix with the G9 and shuttles, officials expect as many as 60 buses to squeeze through the corridor per hour. DDOT says the volume of buses dwindles west of 4th Street Northeast, and shuttle buses will turn off the route onto North Capitol Street.

The new project comes as Metro is in the midst of conducting a bus network study, which centers on the role of its bus system and how to best optimize it for riders’ needs. Other cities such as Houston, Baltimore and Richmond have redesigned their bus networks to provide broader coverage than the traditional “hub-and-spoke” systems that typically link residential neighborhoods and central cores. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has said, however, that the Metro study differs because it looks at the business model and role of the existing bus system.

As Metro conducts its study, a coalition of pro-transit and smart growth-oriented policy groups issued a statement of principles outlining what it believes should be the agency’s priorities. The study comes at a critical time for the agency. Average weekday boardings for Metrobus were down more than 10 percent from comparable months last year, according to the agency’s latest quarterly financial report, and the bus ridership declines are “consistent systemwide, across nearly all routes and times of day,” Metro said.

The groups, together known as the “Fund it, Fix it” Coalition, are pushing for more frequent and reliable service and a bevy of initiatives aimed at bolstering efficiency — anchored by dedicated lanes. They say Metro should emphasize service itself before other considerations — and make riding the bus more efficient without sacrificing accessibility.

“Creating a more reliable and frequent bus system must remain at the forefront of the study,” the coalition says in a statement of principles on the study. “In order to achieve a world-class bus system, we must implement improvements like dedicated bus lanes, limited stop service, queue jumps, off-board fare collection, and rush-hour express buses.”

They highlight statistics showing that a dedicated bus lane, for example, has the capacity to ferry three times as many commuters per hour than lanes for solo vehicles.

“No doubt there is great momentum for transit in the region,” Schwartz said. “In addition to fixing Metro, building the Silver Line and building the Purple Line, really the next generation is these bus rapid transit and dedicated bus lane services.”

Read the full story here.

Developers and activists consider change to the Comprehensive Plan

Texas-based developer Trammell Crow intends to break ground on the “Armature Works” project in Northeast D.C. later this year. A 2017 appeal by the grassroots entity H Street Neighbors had challenged the development and stalled work on the project while it moved through the courts. The appeal was dismissed earlier this year. The same group has appealed several other projects in the NoMa area, as have other groups throughout the city. According to a spreadsheet maintained by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, more than 4500 housing units are not being built because they are stalled in an appeals process. Approximately 700 of them would be classified as affordable.

A slew of appeals against “planned unit developments,” which allow developers to exceed zoning limits in exchange for building some affordable housing units or providing other benefits for the community, may hinge on a precedent set by Friends of McMillan Park, which contested 25 acres of fenced-off and unused land at the corner of North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue NW. The historic site is home to ruins of an obsolete water filtration system.

Street Sense Media reported on the long-running grassroots resistance to the redevelopment plans in 2015 and the appeal the group filed in November 2016. One month later, the day after a ceremonial groundbreaking at the McMillan Park site, the D.C. Court of Appeals overruled the Zoning Commission’s approval of the $90 million project. Friends of McMillan had successfully argued to the court that the project did not fall within the guidelines of the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

The 1000-page Comprehensive Plan guides “inclusive” development in the city, aiming to encourage, yet regulate, growth that will attract new residents without pushing away Washingtonians. The McMillan case was the first successful filing of its kind in two decades. Now, to other actors, the Comprehensive Plan suddenly had teeth.

The plan was created with the expectation that it would be updated every five years. It was last overhauled in 2006 and last updated in 2011. Since early 2017, the D.C. Office of Planning has been spearheading revisions.

Commercial real estate developers say that a minority of District residents have prevented thousands of affordable and market-rate housing units from being built by filing appeals that stall projects for months as they work their way through the courts. Developers say that now, when they pitch projects to investors, they must factor in time for lengthy appeals. But the residents filing appeals say this is the only tool they have to demand more affordable housing and combat gentrification.

The Comprehensive Plan update process has been a lightning rod for these tensions.

During the 2006 revision, the Office of Planning received 300 public comments. During the comment period for the current revision, it received more than 3,000. A total of 273 concerned citizens, including lawyers, activists and policy wonks, signed up to testify at the first D.C. Council hearing, which lasted more than 13 hours and stretched well into the morning of March 21.

Despite its length, the hearing was relatively small in scope, only addressing changes to the 60-page “Framework Element” that sets up broad guidelines for the detailed chapters that follow. City government had released a markup of the suggested changes ahead of time.

ANC 2B Commissioner Nicholas DelleDonne sent an email to his constituents highlighting the suggested changes and calling out language on page 54 of the document. “New language there reads that the Plan is ‘not to be strictly followed,’” DelleDonne wrote to his constituents. “That is a massive shift — not an amendment, but a rewrite.” DelleDonne and others fear the plan would become a set of suggestions, not a rulebook.

This change would effectively remove the potential for the U.S. Court of Appeals to interfere with decisions made by local zoning officials based on the language in the plan, as has been done recently. That’s exactly what developers say is needed.

When asked why this portion of the document was updated, the Bowser administration said in a statement provided to Street Sense Media that the language governing enforcement of the Plan is vague. DelleDonne interprets the new language as even more vague, indicating the plan is not to be “strictly followed” – rewriting or removing current guidelines rather than massaging them.

During the hearing, Councilmember-at-Large Robert White Jr. said the amended plan, as written, doesn’t have enough “teeth” to bring needed change. “Long-term residents are being displaced by development,” he said.

“There is a clear misunderstanding of the issues,” said his colleague Trayon White, who added that residents east of the Anacostia River, in Wards 7 and 8, are very much misunderstood.

Councilmember Brianne Nadeau said there is a consistent path of racial and economic discrimination in D.C. “Steer the ship toward more responsible and affordable public housing,” she said.

Activist David Whitehead, representing the Edgewood Community in Ward 5, said the Comprehensive Plan should be a tool to get more affordable housing and prevent displacement.

“We need more housing,” he said to the packed council chamber, adding that the Comprehensive Plan needs stronger language on affordable housing. “The question is whether to water down the Comprehensive Plan or clarify it.”

“We need to emphasize stability,” testified Ms. Greene, a public witness. “Don’t tear down the existing affordable housing.”

Caroline Petty, president of the Brookland Civic Association, favored the plan, though she had concerns. The amendments obscure the clarity of the Comprehensive Plan, she said, opening it more to debate and interpretation.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman commented that “we have lost much affordable housing in our city,” and also emphasized the need for clarity.

“What is a stable neighborhood?” Nadeau asked rhetorically. “It is one where people don’t get displaced.”

There is a lack of “transparency,” testified Dr. Sabiyha Prince, a gentrification expert trained in anthropology and qualitative research.

In response to a complaint by housing advocates that Mayor Bowser’s office bypassed usual procedure, her communications director told Street Sense Media in an email that officials in the mayor’s office held several meetings with assembled members of the public. Bowser’s staff submitted a report to the Office of Planning.

“The problems aren’t solved; they’re getting worse,” said Parisa Norouzi, Executive Director of Empower D.C., the main nonprofit behind the anti-plan protest efforts and “Stop the Comprehensive Scam” stickers worn by many to the hearing. Empower D.C. has been organizing community meetings for the past year to review individual chapters of the 1,000-page plan, generate comments to submit to the Office of Planning, and organize turnout to events such as the evening hearing.

“We keep subsidizing high-cost developers to build a few affordable housing units,” she complained to a recent gathering at one such meeting meeting in a packed church basement in Southeast D.C.. “We have to pick a fight with the status quo.” She argued that there’s still a lot of racism in D.C. driving gentrification, whether people admit it on the surface or not “We need a drastic reassurance to enable uplifting of people starting with affordable housing.”

There is a basic equity gap that is hard to bridge in the current climate, all seemed to agree, whether they supported the proposed changes or stood against them.

“It’s poor to develop this way,” Dr. Prince later told Street Sense Media. “It represents uneven development; it’s helping some people and not others; a trickle-down strategy. It’s important to take input from the community and follow through 100 percent.”

A D.C. Council vote is expected in the fall. More information about the plan is available at

Read the full story here.