City seeks proposed amendments to Comprehensive Plan

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Some residents want the Comprehensive Plan to prevent large developments from imposing upon low-density communities, as critics say occurred at 5333 Connecticut Ave. NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/April 2017)

The District’s Comprehensive Plan is a document that many residents would likely find dauntingly inaccessible, irrelevant to daily life, or both. But this 20-year vision in fact sets up major principles to direct the city’s growth and development.

The plan incorporates a host of policies, regulations and planning initiatives; maps out the recommended density in different sections of the city; and ultimately governs actions by the D.C. government and private landowners alike that can either preserve or reshape a neighborhood.

And now, the D.C. Office of Planning is leading an effort to update the plan, developing its own amendments and seeking input from the public. The agency is in an “open call” period for formal amendments to the existing plan’s language, which will last through May 24.

“Our Comprehensive Plan, both the text and the two maps, provide a framework for our zoning regulations, which cannot be inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan,” Tanya Stern, a deputy director at the Planning Office, told The Current. “So these provide direct policies to shape what development proposals can actually be built in the city.”

Furthermore, she said, because the Comprehensive Plan must be approved by the D.C. Council, a policy in the plan carries the force of law – a new agency head or mayoral administration can only change direction after a formal amendment process.

The existing Comprehensive Plan was first approved in 2006 and then updated in 2011, which makes it due for another revision. Since then, the District’s population has increased substantially, prompting a need to accommodate emerging growth trends, planners said.

Meanwhile, the latest Comprehensive Plan update will also seek to incorporate existing plans by various city agencies, such as the Department of Energy & Environment’s Climate Ready DC; the Department of Transportation’s moveDC; and visions the Office of Planning has developed in recent years for specific neighborhoods, including Adams Morgan, the central 14th Street corridor, Van Ness and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus.

As the Office of Planning weighs various possible amendments to the Comprehensive Plan, the agency will sort through testimony that can reflect conflicting visions for the city’s future — from advocates who want to encourage new development, and those who hope to ensure strong protections for existing communities.

Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, falls into the former camp.

“A lot of the language in the [current] Comprehensive Plan ultimately emphasizes maintaining the status quo,” Cort said. “While there’s lots of great things about many neighborhoods that are distinctive and historic, we need to make sure we balance how we’re enhancing and protecting all the good things about our neighborhoods, while also responding to the demands that more people want to live here and our serious problem with housing affordability.”

Cort’s group has joined an array of developers, nonprofits, advisory neighborhood commissions and other interested stakeholders to develop and promote 10 priorities for the Comprehensive Plan amendment process, with a focus on housing. These include “meet the housing demand,” “best utilize areas near transit,” and “clarify zoning authority” to let the Zoning Commission allow dense developments; the full list and more information is available at dchousingpriorities.com.

David Whitehead of Greater Great Washington, who helped forge these consensus priorities, wants the amended plan to explicitly acknowledge a goal of introducing more affordable options into areas like Ward 3, rather than being overly deferential to “stable neighborhoods.”

“For example, instead of saying ‘protect neighborhoods from development pressures,’ we might say ‘maintain and enhance a neighborhood’s character and make it accessible to people of multiple incomes,’” he said.

But other groups caution against overly disrupting existing communities. As new large developments are proposed or constructed near single-family homes, many residents there worry about reductions to green space, light and air, street parking and the overall peacefulness that made their neighborhoods desirable in the first place.

The Committee of 100 on the Federal City has raised particular concerns about the proposal from the DC Housing Priorities to “affirm” that the Zoning Commission can allow increased density “that supersedes the levels in the Comprehensive Plan’s maps” in certain development projects.

While the smart-growth advocates describe this amendment as merely a clarification of existing authority, the Committee of 100 contends that it would drastically expand the Zoning Commission’s power, circumventing the Comprehensive Plan’s carefully considered and legislatively adopted limits.

Both sides of the argument point to two specific development battles, one located at the McMillan Reservoir near the MedStar Washington Hospital Center and the other near the Brookland Metro station in Northeast. In both cases, the D.C. Court of Appeals reversed zoning approvals for the large-scale projects. Housing advocates say that valuable housing and amenities are at risk, both in these particular cases and — if precedent holds — throughout the city.

But opponents say the courts have stood up for residents’ rights against powerful development interests. “If the Zoning Commission is given the authority to approve such projects, it would remove the legal authority that the communities would have to challenge these projects,” said Stephen Hansen, chair of the Committee of 100.

Stern, of the Office of Planning, said that her agency has also heard a lot about affordable housing during its outreach on the Comprehensive Plan update. The Committee of 100 wants to see a greater emphasis on preserving existing affordable housing — for example, by protecting small older apartment buildings from teardowns to build glitzy new ones with high-end finishes and amenities.

“We’re dealing here with a built-out city, and when we’re lucky enough to have a housing stock as good as ours, our focus needs to be on preserving what we have,” said the group’s vice chair, Meg Maguire. “To argue that preserving those buildings is somehow dampening supply is ridiculous.”

Cort, of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, argues that the best balance involves accommodating large new developments while also ensuring they include substantial amounts of affordable housing, perhaps by strengthening existing rules that set aside about 10 percent of large new residential buildings for lower-income households.

Advocates for this approach also contend that increased development can also help control runaway housing costs by bringing supply in line with high demand.

Stern also said another consistent topic of community interest has been ensuring that the city’s housing supply includes ample residences that are large enough for families. Meanwhile, her agency intends to add a new element to the plan called “resiliency” — ways of protecting the city from environmental and social disasters. But she said it’s premature to speculate on what specific policies might go into effect in the updated Comprehensive Plan.

As advocates submit proposed amendments for the plan to achieve their respective visions for the city, the Office of Planning is asking that they follow a highly specific process for formatting and justifying their amendments. Stern encourages residents to visit the detailed website on the Comprehensive Plan update — plandc.dc.gov — and also to work with the Office of Planning to learn more.

The Office of Planning will spend this summer crafting a draft for the amended Comprehensive Plan, based on the amendments submitted by May 24 and on the agency’s own proposals. At that point, the agency will seek public comment on the draft, then potentially modify it to incorporate that feedback. A final version is due early next year, at which time the D.C. Council will hold its own hearings before adopting or rejecting it.

Stern said her agency will notice when issues are raised by a large number of voices or an influential organization, but that ultimately each amendment will be considered on its merits.

“An organization can be vocal, but the proposal still has to meet the criteria for inclusion in the Comprehensive Plan,” she said. “Ultimately, the proposed amendments that make it through the screening process and make it through the public comment period — OP is going to be the [one] submitting these to the council and defending them to the council.”