George Clark and Barbara Zartman testify before the DC Council.

There is a group of well-organized residents who aren’t pleased with DC’s comprehensive zoning rewrite process. The Office of Planning is reviewing DC’s zoning code chapter by chapter to update it for the needs of a 21st century city. They have conducted almost 50 meetings on a wide variety of subtopics, solicited input online, and presented recommendations at public hearings to the Zoning Commission. But opponents, led by the Committee of 100 and the Federation of Citizens’ Associations, are very unhappy with the recommendations.

Yesterday, at a DC Council oversight hearing on the Office of Planning, they attacked OP’s conduct of this process. Barbara Zartman, of the Committee of 100, said, “What began as an undertaking to update provisions and conform the regulations to the Comprehensive Plan has turned into an excursion into every new, often untested, idea about land use, often to the detriment of fixing existing provisions.” George Clark, representing the Federation of Citizens’ Associations, compared the process to a “runaway freight train, with a brick on the deadman switch, that will ravage our city and its neighborhoods.” They alleged that OP misrepresented the opinions of the Task Force, disregarded consensus at meetings, and hired inexperienced staff who don’t communicate enough with the rest of the office.

Quite simply, they and I disagree about the best direction for our zoning code. More importantly, the large community we have at Greater Greater Washington and many other residents who participated in the process show that many other residents of DC also disagree with the opponents. The Committee and the Federation have been organizing residents for a long time. Decades ago, when they were fighting the freeways and the wholesale demolition of our historic neighborhoods in the name of progress, they were protecting something very important. Now, however, it’s these groups that have gotten off track.

Where once they opposed making our city a worse place to live, now they oppose its evolution into an even better place to live. As we have seen with the large numbers of Cleveland Park residents who organized to support the Giant development proposal against the wishes of the Cleveland Park Citizens’ Association, there is a real majority in favor of positive change. Those residents might not have the time or energy to speak as loudly as some of the opponents, but they are real just the same.

The Committee and the Federation still valuable knowledge stemming from years of experience with DC’s zoning, and I’m glad they are participating in the process. OP has incorporated many of their specific suggestions into recommendations, and sometimes deleted specific recommendations based on their feedback. But just organizing in DC for a long time doesn’t give them a veto over new policies. Nor can they unilaterally declare newer ideas, that have worked to great effect in other cities around the country and the world, impractical or dangerous.

OP has done a phenomenal job reaching out to the public through this process. They’ve held countless meetings. They’ve solicited input online and even set up a discussion forum (which unfortunately sees little use). When opponents asked for additional opportunities to review a set of recommendations, OP has accommodated them. When opponents asked OP to study some recommendations further for low and moderate density residential development, OP delayed those recommendations by several months to study them further. Nevertheless, the Committee and the Federation continue to criticize both the process and its result.

Rather than attacking OP, we should hold them up as a model of the way a DC government agency should run itself. I can only hope that, under the leadership of new Director Gabe Klein, DDOT could become as transparent and as adept at communicating with the public as OP. The same goes for WASA, BOEE, economic development, and other agencies that have even poorer records of openness.

My complete testimony is below. You can also watch the archived hearing video here.

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for this opportunity to testify. I also would like to thank my mother, who is here with me today. She is visiting from Boston this week, but the performance of the Office of Planning is such an important issue to me that she agreed to come down to the Wilson Building this morning.

I live in Dupont Circle, where my fiancée and I bought a historic townhouse this past year. I run the Web site Greater Greater Washington, which covers transportation and land use planning in the Washington metropolitan region. I write frequently about the work being done by the Office of Planning.

The Office of Planning is, quite simply, one of the best-run public agencies in any city. The staff of OP are first-rate, and we are very lucky to have them in the District of Columbia, from Harriet Tregoning down to the individual development review and historic preservation staff. Earlier this week, at the oversight hearing of the Department of Transportation, several ANC commissioners and other residents testified about their extreme frustration with that agency’s lack of communication. They spoke about repeated experiences with letters and resolutions going unanswered. I myself have had similar frustrations with DDOT.

Fortunately, the new Director, Gabe Klein, understands these problems and I believe is working hard to rectify them.  Even more fortunately, we don’t have to struggle with these problems from the Office of Planning. As I’ve written on Greater Greater Washington, the best reforms DDOT can make would be to become more like the Office of Planning.

OP is currently engaged in a comprehensive process to update DC’s zoning code for the needs of a 21st Century city. They have worked remarkably hard to solicit a very broad range of public input. The process has been going on for nearly a year and will continue for a year more. They have invited the public to participate in individual working group discussions. In several of the meetings I have attended, I have seen OP staff directly take a suggestion made by one participant and turn it into a component of their final product. They have a task force comprised of representatives appointed by Council and from citizens and civic organizations. They put meeting minutes and presentations online from each meeting. They set up an online discussion forum. The Zoning Commission hearings give the public multiple opportunities to participate through written comment or oral testimony. In short, OP has availed themselves of almost every conceivable avenue for public input into this process.

Some residents have criticized the Office of Planning’s process. They alleged that OP is not really listening to the public. In my opinion, these people are actually unhappy not because OP hasn’t listened, but simply because the residents of the District of Columbia, whose interests OP staff represent, don’t always agree with those individuals’ personal priorities.

Here in the District of Columbia, we have multiple avenues for residents to participate in the political process. The more traditional route is through civic and citizens’ organizations and ANCs. That is an important, and valuable route to involve our residents, and I always dispute any suggestions to abolish the ANCs. The people who participate in these avenues have valuable opinions to which our government should listen.

At the same time, there are many other residents who do not or cannot avail themselves of these avenues. They may work late nights at their jobs, or have small children. They may find ANC meetings too lengthy or too divisive. They may not have time to attend hearings at the Wilson Building, which often last many hours. Their parents visiting from out of town may not be as willing to accompany them to hearings or community meetings.

Instead, they participate in our democracy in other ways. They read and comment on blogs, such as Greater Washington and many others. They engage in discussions on neighborhood email lists. They talk to their friends and neighbors. They send emails to the DC Council and the Office of Planning. And they vote. These residents’ opinions are equally valuable, and our government should listen to them just the same. The Office of Planning’s recommendations weigh the interests of both types of residents and all others. Any one of us will not always agree with each of their conclusions, but I absolutely believe they represent the broad-based view of the residents of the District of Columbia.

At a Zoning Commision hearing last week, Councilmember Mary Cheh spoke about the development proposal for a new mixed-use Giant in Cleveland Park. She said:

Inevitably, you will hear opposition. But you have to put it in context. Sometimes opponents are vehement; sometimes opponents can raise their voices; sometimes they can be more organized. As the representative, I can say they are not representative of the broad-based view of the people of Ward Three.

Mr. Chairman, the opposition you may hear today from some members of our community, while heartfelt, is not representative of the broad-based view of the people of the District of Columbia.

I don’t agree with every decision of the Office of Planning. I’ve written about individual land use decisions that seem to run counter to the objectives of our Comprehensive Plan, either because of the form of the zoning rules or their interpretation. I’d like our historic preservation process to better consider whether the structures eligible for landmarking contribute to or detract from a sense of place in our city. I’ve disagreed with many individual rulings from HPRB. I never shy away from criticizing when I believe it is warranted, as DDOT engineers, members of the WMATA board, and land use planners in Prince George’s County can tell you.

However, at least right now, the Office of Planning deserves our praise. I have never seen OP avoid communicating with residents or refuse to explain their reasoning on tough issues. OP staff are very good at returning phone calls, far more than any other DC agency. The Office of Planning is a paragon of the sort of professional, communicative agency DC strives for. I hope that we can keep Harriet Tregoning and all of the other first-rate staff working in the District of Columbia for many years to come, and would love to see more of our government agencies operate as professionally as this one.

Thank you.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.