Image from Prince George’s County.

Mayor Muriel Bowser has nominated Peter Shapiro, a resident of the Chevy Chase neighborhood of DC, to the board that decides DC’s zoning and rules on many large development projects.

Shapiro would replace Marcie Cohen, a former affordable housing and community development professional. Cohen has been a strong advocate for zoning that allows more overall housing in DC, speaking about the need for more housing many times.

Shapiro’s day job is head of the Prince George’s County Revenue Authority, an entity which acquires and helps develop land in the county to boost its economy. He used to live in the Prince George’s town of Brentwood, where he served on the town council for two years and then the county council for six.

He helped bring community members, developers, businesses, and others together around a vision for the Route 1 corridor just east of DC, which ultimately led to the Gateway Arts District spanning four towns (and including Bird Kitchen, the site of our extremely successful recent happy hour with County Executive Rushern Baker).

Left to right: Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, Chief of Staff Glenda Wilson, Communications Manager Barry Hudson, and Revenue Authority Executive Director Peter Shapiro. Photo by the author.

Shapiro later moved back to DC where he ran unsuccessfully for DC Council against Vincent Orange four years ago, winning our endorsement but splitting the anti-Orange vote with Sekou Biddle. (Our endorsed candidate Robert White beat Orange this year.)

He has long been a proponent of better transit and transit-oriented development. Way back in 2001, he endorsed the Purple Line and supported running it through existing communities with people who need to get to jobs, such as the area he represented.

He served on a Maryland “Special Task Force for Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)” in 2000, chaired the regional Transportation Planning Board in 2003, co-chairs the Urban Land Institute’s Regionalism Initiative Council, and is part of a joint ULI Washington and Baltimore TOD Product Council. He is an elected member of his neighborhood’s the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, but says he would resign that seat if confirmed to the Zoning Commission because both are very time-consuming, volunteer jobs.

Nomination, take two

Mayor Bowser initially nominated developer David Franco for the seat, but DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson refused to hold a hearing.

Mendelson told the Washington Blade that he’s concerned about having developers on the commission. Franco is very civic-minded and more supportive of affordable housing than most developers, but according to the Blade, Mendelson opposed confirming any developers, period.

Shapiro does not have the potential conflicts of interest that a developer would, but as someone with long experience with how well-designed development can enhance communities and boost the economy, he would be a valuable member of the Zoning Commission. Mendelson will hold a hearing on Shapiro’s nomination at 1 pm on Thursday, November 10.

What is the Zoning Commission?

The Zoning Commission is far more powerful than planning boards in other jurisdictions. When DC got home rule, Congress did not want to give the local legislature full authority over land use. Instead, the Zoning Commission has the final say (other than potential court appeals) over zoning and development decisions in DC.

The DC Council can guide the future direction of growth through the Comprehensive Plan and smaller plans, which the Zoning Commission is required to follow. But when it comes to changing zoning rules or approving particular developments, it has no authority; all councilmembers can do is write letters expressing an opinion.

There are actually two zoning boards in DC, the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Zoning Commission. Mainly, the BZA handles smaller individual projects; it grants variances and special exceptions to zoning rules for unusual circumstances. The Zoning Commission makes bigger-picture policy, like changing a neighborhood’s zoning or a citywide zoning rule. It also reviews Planned Unit Developments, generally big development projects which need more flexibility and also provide more community benefit. The BZA is somewhat more legalistic, while the Zoning Commission focuses more on policy.

The Zoning Commission has three members nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council, as well as two federal members, one from the National Park Service and one from the Architect of the Capitol. This makes DC’s three appointees even more crucial.

While the federal representatives serve as part of their jobs, locally-appointed Zoning Commissioners are not paid for their service. Yet, they have to attend two (often long) meetings most weeks and also sit on some meetings of the BZA, which has a seat for a rotating Zoning Commission member.

This makes it tricky to find someone with experience and knowledge who is not also a developer. The city would be lucky to get Shapiro, with his regional perspective, experience with development, and positive vision for DC.

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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.