The Zoning Commission gave this building the go ahead, but it hasn't been built because the DC Court of Appeals blocked construction. The Comprehensive Plan should clarify the Zoning Commission's authority. Image by The Menkiti Group.

A coalition of faith groups, business groups, tenants' groups, developers, affordable housing advocates, and over 400 residents have unified to support the construction of more housing, with a special emphasis on affordable housing and clear land use guidelines as DC rewrites its Comprehensive Plan.

The coalition, which includes Ward3Vision and many other groups, has agreed on a statement of ten priorities. In a series of posts, coalition members will go through many of the priorities to explain what they mean, why there's a problem, and how the group reached agreement.

Do you support the priorities? 

Sign the Priorities Statement!

One of the ten priorities is “Clarify zoning authority.” What does that mean?  

The coalition says:

Clarify zoning authority​. Through the Comprehensive Plan, the District should affirm that the Zoning Commission has the purview to allow increased density for Planned Unit Developments that supersedes the levels in the Comprehensive Plan’s maps in exchange for community benefits.

This is not asking for anything new

The Planned Unit Development Process (PUD) already exists, and it does precisely this: grants extra density (or other flexibility from the zoning regulations) to developers who apply for it in exchange for community benefits.  In fact, the Zoning Commission cannot approve a PUD unless the developer can show that the public benefits proposed are greater than what would be obtained from a matter of right development and comparable to or greater than the benefit to the developer.

PUDs are a helpful tool.  They not only create more homes in the District through allowing for increased density, but they also invite the community to engage with private developers and work with them to create affordable housing, renovate parks and sidewalks (or build new ones), create bike infrastructure, bring in car sharing, and produce many other public benefits and/or amenities.  What’s more, they allow the community to weigh in on the design of the building to make sure it is an attractive addition to the neighborhood!

The Comp Plan already says that PUDs can offer more density than what’s shown in its two primary maps, which are the foundation for land use policy in the city.

See policy 226(c) on page 2-37 of the plan’s Framework Element:

  • “The densities within any given area on the Future Land Use Map reflect all contiguous properties on a block—there may be individual buildings that are higher or lower than these ranges within each area. Similarly, the land use category definitions describe the general character of development in each area, citing typical building heights (in stories) as appropriate. It should be noted that the granting of density bonuses (for example, through Planned Unit Developments) may result in heights that exceed the typical ranges cited here.” (emphasis added)

Recent court decisions have disrupted the long-standing function of the Zoning Commission

The PUD process has been challenged recently by the DC Court of Appeals, which has remanded a number of project approvals after hearing lawsuits brought by opponents. The first such recent decision, Durant, said that a project near the Brookland Metro station was improper because its size exceeded the ranges in the corresponding Comp Plan map. But 226(c) (see above) specifically says PUDs can exceed those ranges.

Until these recent decisions, the court had a long history explicitly acknowledging that the Zoning Commission (which includes both local appointees and federal officials) is the appropriate body to interpret the Comprehensive Plan as it applies to zoning.  However, it seems clear that the Court of Appeals finds that the broad language in the Comp Plan is not as explicit as it needs to be in establishing the legitimacy of the PUD process.

We want the Comp Plan to clarify the Zoning Commission’s authority to interpret the Comp Plan. Internally contradictory language throughout the Comp Plan is partly to blame, as it has opened the door to these kinds of challenges.

The Durant case has since inspired a number of new court challenges to approved PUDs across the city. These threaten to restrict the amount of new housing, including affordable housing, that is built at a time when the District needs both to forestall displacement and keep prices affordable to as many people as possible. A slowdown in new housing in the 1990s contributed to the shortage we have today, and we are still recovering. Let's not repeat that now

The plans for Bruce Monroe Park, which include 108 subsidized affordable homes, were made possible through a PUD. Image by Park View Community.

We need to let the Zoning Commission do its job

The Zoning Commission and the PUD process are open to the public and offer many, many opportunities for neighbors, ANCs, and other parties to weigh in, negotiate, and advocate for what they want in their neighborhood.

We think that is great!  Neighbors should have a seat at the table when it comes to developments that will affect the future of their community. But just because someone disagrees with the Zoning Commission’s final ruling does not mean we need to challenge the entire development approval system for the city.  

There might be very good reasons to sue over a development decision, such as protecting tenants or not preserving affordable housing. But we can avoid these lawsuits if we fix the development review process to prioritize these issues, and we should definitely avoid lawsuits that seem solely to aim at stopping or slowing all development.  This isn’t productive, and in fact closes off the possibility to enlist private development to help us create more homes and more affordable homes in the District.

Community benefits should “prioritize affordable housing” and be long lasting

The coalition’s priorities statement should be read as an interrelated, cohesive document.  In that context, a related and important bullet point is the following, which further clarifies what we mean by “community benefits”:

  • Prioritize affordable housing as a community benefit.​ When rezoning or granting significant zoning relief, the District should affirm through the Comprehensive Plan that affordable housing (in addition to any underlying requirement) is the highest priority benefit and that other community benefits should be long-lasting.

Another member of the coalition will further unpack that bullet point in an upcoming post.

Sign on to the priorities!

This is one of ten priorities where the coalition reached agreement. We'll be following up with articles on more of the 10 priorities by a variety of coalition members. (Note: While the coalition agreed on the priorities, this article is our commentary about one of the priorities, not an official coalition statement, and not all members have signed onto the specific wording here. The same goes for the other posts in this series.)

So far, 70 organizations and over 400 individuals have put their names on the priorities statement. Will you join them? Sign on today!

Ellen McCarthy is a city planner, adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s Urban Planning program and principal of The Urban Partnership, a consultancy.  She is a former DC Planning Director, a preservationist, and a rabid Washington Nationals fan. Her professional interests include affordable housing, social equity & creating great urban places and public spaces.