More than 270 people have signed up to testify at a D.C. Council hearing on Tuesday afternoon. The topic: Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed amendments to D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan, the thick planning bible that guides how tall and dense new construction should be throughout the District.
Drafted by the mayor’s Office of Planning (OP), the initial 60 pages of amendments would make it easier for developers to construct large projects and withstand a court appeals process that has paralyzed several projects.
Since late January, a loose coalition has mobilized to fight these amendments. They call themselves the Grassroots Planning Coalition and their tagline is “Stop the #ComprehensiveScam.” In their view, the proposed changes to the plan would be a coup for pro-smart growth urbanists and the developer class.
This election cycle, the Coalition hopes to tap into voter anger over displacement and offer an alternative to their perceived enemies, an urbanist bloc that tends to support more development. On their side are lefty candidates like Jeremiah Lowery, who is challenging At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds. Lowery peppers his speeches with disdain for millionaire developers.
The Coalition’s strategizing meetings have drawn intrepid zoning wonks, street organizers, and historic preservationists. Together, its members, in their own words, aim to counterbalance the power of developers over public officials.
“They have their foot on the Wilson Building,” said David Schwartzman, a perennial D.C. Council candidate from the D.C. Statehood Green Party, at a March 10 strategizing meeting in Anacostia. He recited a dizzying list of foes, starting with the “big banks” and “big developers” and ending with the Federal City Council, the D.C. Policy Center, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and Greater Greater Washington.
“This whole thing was supposed to be an amendments cycle, and OP approached it as a whole rewrite,” says Stephen Hansen, chair of the Committee of 100. Founded in 1923, the Committee of 100 is a longtime guard of D.C.’s Height Act and often engages in historic preservation and nitty-gritty zoning policy issues. In terms of taking on the mayor this time around, Hansen says: “I would say it’s one of our stronger stances historically.”
“The Committee tends to be more policy-orientated. The advantage to our joining this coalition is that it’s a more grassroots reach,” he explains. “It’s a good symbiotic relationship.”
The coalition is chiefly worried that the amendments would weaken their hand in appealing development projects. Amid the District’s development boom, those well-schooled in the Comprehensive Plan have successfully slowed down projects through the D.C. Court of Appeals, which has become a thorn in the side of developers and city planning officials.
In the telling of the Committee and their allies, developers and the D.C. Zoning Commission ignored the Comprehensive Plan for years, even as the Home Rule Act mandates that zoning should “not be inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.”
Local activists like Chris Otten, who is part of a group called DC for Reasonable Development, began appealing projects to the D.C. Court of Appeals. These appeals tend to rest on arguments that the Zoning Commission did not adequately address the potential ripple effects of a given large development project: its effects on the environment, displacement, and the most vulnerable existing residents.
Otten’s big break came in December 2016, when the appeals court tossed out the Zoning Commission’s approval of the giant redevelopment proposal at the McMillan Sand Filtration site. The court ruled that “the project is inconsistent with the District’s Comprehensive Plan”—music to the ears for types like Otten. The precedent paved the way for over a dozen other appeals to the federal court, which have resulted in delays for major projects.
Now, Otten and opponents of the mayor’s amendments say developers over the past two years have proposed rewriting the Comprehensive Plan to avoid legal tangles. (The Office of Planning received more than 3,000 public submissions for amendments to the plan.) Through wordsmithing, critics say, the plan has been loosened to allow open interpretation.
“It’s not eliminating our rights to appeal. We will be able to appeal a decision in the future. But we don’t have any teeth,” Otten said at a meeting of the Grassroots Planning Coalition on March 10. “We go into the court, and they’ll just laugh us out of there, because they’re weakening [the Comprehensive Plan], fuzzy-ing it.”
While Otten and other complainants profess they are acting in the interests of keeping neighborhoods affordable, smart-growth proponents call the appeals obstruction. Yet worse, many city planners and developers say the throttling of residential development has exacerbated the crisis of affordability in D.C.
“When we hold up all housing, we hold up affordable housing,” said Eric Shaw, director of the Office of Planning, at a Feb. 28 D.C. Council oversight meeting. “That’s the truth.”
While the Grassroots Planning Coalition sees the city’s pro-smart-growth bloc as in bed with developers, the two sides have similar goals on paper. David Alpert, founder and president of Greater Greater Washington, says he shares concerns that OP’s amendments don’t adequately address affordable housing and displacement.
“We were also disappointed with the amendments that were created,” Alpert says. GGWworked with over a dozen groups to come up with a package of proposals for the Comprehensive Plan.
That coalition released a 43-page “DC Housing Priorities” paper, advocating for the “creation and preservation of a supply of housing (market-rate and subsidized affordable) to meet the demand at all income levels.” Alpert emphasizes that the city needs to push for more housing for those making 30 percent and 50 percent of the area median income, or between $33,000 and $55,150 a year for a family of four.
“There needs to be a really strong focus on affordable housing and displacement,” Alpert says, which sounds a lot like the talking points of the Grassroots Planning Coalition.
When asked about the opportunity for common ground, Hansen sounded tired. “I don’t want to put my energy in talking about them,” the Committee of 100 chair says. “It looks like we have common goals, but how we hope to reach them is very different avenues.”
Hansen sees Alpert and his allies as adherents of Reagonimcs and the “build, baby build” mentality, with hopes that the free market will one day help lower-income residents. “It failed in the ’80s, and it would fail with housing as well,” Hansen says. (Alpert says, “We’re not people who say, ‘Merely loosening rules will on its own bring down prices.’ I don’t believe that’s the case.”)
Another division exists between the two sides on Planned Unit Developments, known as PUDs. These development projects undergo community review through Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and require Zoning Commission approval. Developers typically file for PUDs to ask for permission to build greater density than what is allowed by-right on a lot.
In exchange for exemptions from zoning rules, the developers will offer public benefits, which can include more affordable housing than what is required by law or other concessions to the community. Shaw testified to the D.C. Council that “nearly 6,000 affordable housing units” have been approved through PUDs over the past five years—3,500 more than what zoning regulations alone would have required. The whole PUD process can run over a year, with ANCs sometimes negotiating with developers for a favorable public benefits package.
Otten has filed about a dozen appeals of PUDs that the Zoning Commission has approved, arguing that they in some way don’t adhere to the Comprehensive Plan. He now says the proposed amendments are “attacking the ability of the people to hold the Zoning Commission accountable.”
Alpert calls it a course correction. “The changes being proposed just try to realign the PUD process with the way it worked before,” Alpert says. But he adds he wants a greater focus on prioritizing affordable housing and displacement, which OP’s amendments don’t yet address.
Eyes now turn to the D.C. Council and to its chairman. Over his term, Phil Mendelson has earned a reputation as a legislative reengineer, taking many of the mayor’s bills and redoing them along points of consensus. (See: the mayor’s homeless shelter plan.) But he demurs on whether he’ll turn the Comprehensive Plan edits into a personal project. “I take seriously every bill that we move and mark up,” he says dryly.
Mendelson does have his early worries. “I am concerned whether the bill goes too far in making the plan more vague and therefore less useful,” he says. “I think the Office of Planning shot itself in the foot promising 60 days of public comment before submitting the bill, and it didn’t do that.”
OP originally planned for a public comment period after releasing their proposed amendments in January, but reversed after receiving 10 times the anticipated number of public proposals, Shaw told the D.C. Council. The proposed changes on the table deal with the Framework Element of the Comprehensive Plan, the introduction section of the 1,000-page document. Public submissions for changes to the other sections of the plan are still under review.
“The city’s gonna grow, and that’s a good thing,” Mendelson says. “And I’ve never known of any city that’s turned people away”—exactly what some critics are not shy to suggest should happen. At the February meeting of the Grassroots Planning Coalition, Otten flatly asked: “Fundamentally, the question for our city is, do we want a million people?”
Activists like Parisa Norouzi, the executive director of community organizing outfit Empower DC, aren’t betting on help from the Wilson Building. “Whether or not we’re aligned on all the points, it’s yet to be seen,” she says of Mendelson, before calling him one of the most knowledgeable councilmembers on the Comprehensive Plan. “We’re used to taking on hard fights and having not many allies on the Council.”
Meanwhile, Ed Lazere, who is running against Mendelson this year, says: “If I were chair, I would make sure the Comp Plan update is really clear about preservation and creation of affordable housing.” Lazere is on leave as the head of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
“The current leadership, as reflected in the Comp Plan,” Lazere says, “it prioritizes the wishes of big developers over the needs of hardworking families.”