Image by Council of the District of Columbia.

Frustration and skepticism were evident at this past Wednesday’s oversight hearing for the Office of Planning (OP) and the Office of Zoning (OZ). The hearing was a chance for DC residents and councilmembers to ask agency officials hard questions about their performance over the last year.

The hearing spanned more than six hours and touched on a variety of issues, with a particular focus on the recently-released amendments to the DC Comprehensive Plan. Many asked agency leaders for more clarity, more trust, and simply more planning.

Councilmembers want OP to make plans and stick to them

Generally oversight hearings focus broadly on what an agency has accomplished in the last year with councilmembers asking questions about new programs or staffing decisions, but last week’s hearing was dominated by the Office of Planning’s recently-released amendments to the Framework Element of the Comprehensive Plan.

The Comp Plan is a massive planning document that lays out the direction for development in the city for years to come. The Framework Element under question acts as the introduction, setting the course, narrative and priorities of the rest of the document.

The first point of contention was around OP’s process. Chairman Phil Mendelson (At-large) and many witnesses pointed out that OP had promised a 60-day public review period for these amendments, which did not happen before the legislation was introduced.

Councilmember Robert White (At-large) focused on the substance of what OP had proposed. In particular he wanted to know more about OP’s population predictions and overall approach to planning.

“So who is steering the ship? We can’t get to 800,000 residents if we don’t build anymore, so who is steering the ship?… Our growth has to be deliberate. The Comprehensive Plan is the opportunity to map this out deliberately, otherwise it is left to chance. It is my belief that your office has to steer that ship. You have to set what our goals are so we can respond.”

Chairman Mendelson echoed this sentiment, asking OP to make clearer plans for neighborhoods: “We are a growing city, but we need to make a decision if we want [a particular neighborhood] to transform or to be preserved and stable.”

Councilmember Elissa Silverman (At-large) criticized OP for not putting greater emphasis on affordable housing and displacement in its proposed amendments: “It is certainly a shortfall of this Framework to not have a section on what residents consider the biggest issues in our city.”

She went further to question the how the city has effectively used the Comprehensive Plan (written in 2006) to influence the course of the city’s development:

“We have had tremendous displacement, so that says to me that the Comp Plan is toothless… The current Comp Plan sets a goal of one-third of all housing to be affordable to those making 80 percent AMI or less [around $88,250 for a family of four] — does the Office of Planning measure this? Let’s be honest, if this is the vision we know we failed. We’ve made great strides in affordable housing… but we haven’t met these goals in reality.”

First few pages of the DC Comprehensive Plan. Image by the author.

Mendelson and the public don’t trust the zoning process

Hours before, the hearing began with witnesses and questions concerning the Office of Zoning, which encompasses both the Zoning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA).

The Zoning Commission consists of five appointed members who review and rule on most large development plans in the city, ensuring they are in line with the zoning code and that they are consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. The BZA reviews cases that are asking for flexibility from DC’s strict regulations, granting variances and special exemptions to applicants if they meet the criteria for each type of allowance.

Multiple witnesses, in particular from the Trinidad neighborhood, brought testimony concerning pop-ups and pop-backs, which are essentially extensions or extra floors added to existing buildings. Witnesses said such changes are “threatening” the neighborhood by creating “behemoths” out of existing row homes and making the neighborhood more expensive. Activist Chris Otten called the BZA a “rubber-stamp machine” that simply approved these applications without sufficient review, “stuffing all these people into our neighborhoods” even after pop-up regulations were made more strict in recent years.

Chairman Mendelson echoed these concerns: “I hear over and over that these offices rubber stamp cases. I’m seeing a very low denial rate in the chart you have provided. Isn’t the variance standing supposed to be exceptional?”

Mendelson compared the BZA’s application denial rates to other bodies that weigh in on those decisions:

  • “The Office of Planning’s recommends denying about 5 percent of cases,
  • ANCs vote against about 9.5 percent of cases,
  • The Office of Zoning's denial rate is around 1.1 percent.”

Mendelson went on to say that this pattern and perception “hurts the reputation of the whole process.”

Mendelson wants the Zoning Commission to do a better job and stop getting appealed

Mendelson also questioned Anthony Hood, chairman of the Zoning Commission, on the recent surge in appeals that the Zoning Commission has faced in the courts, which are holding up thousands of homes and affordable homes:

“There have been some appeals that Office of Zoning has lost. What are we doing to stop that? What are we doing to avoid these appeals?”

The thrust of his cross examination focused on the “quality of the orders” the Zoning Commission produces, which were called into question in some of these appeals cases. Mendelson:

“The Monroe street project has been a vacant lot for years. That’s not good. It went to the Court of Appeals two to three times? The nicest thing I can say is that the order wasn’t written right. That speaks on the Office of Zoning. How do we improve the orders?”

The Chairman pushed for more training for OZ staff, and the OZ officials agreed that would be helpful.

Proposed project near Brookland Metro station, appealed and stuck for years. Image by Menkiti Group used with permission.

The real showdown will be March 20th

Given the amount of testimony and debate about these appeals and about the Comp Plan at this, an oversight hearing, it’s clear that the March 20th hearing (2pm) on the amendments to Comprehensive Plan will be one to watch. At that hearing, residents and councilmembers will continue discuss the purpose and direction of the new Comprehensive Plan, though a formal vote won’t happen for a few more months to come.

GGWash has been working with a diverse coalition of partners on amending the Comprehensive Plan (this post does not represent the views of that coalition). If you’d like to help us bring about a better Comp Plan, you can sign the coalition’s priorities statement, which continues to state the group’s goals for the ongoing Comp Plan amendment process. You can also join me for a Q&A conference call to learn more about OP’s proposed amendments, there are two dates available. Click below for more information and to RSVP.

RSVP to a Comp Plan Q&A session!