As the District grows and changes, its leaders need to balance the needs of current residents with the needs of residents in the future. The Office of Planning is “the only agency in the DC government really charged with thinking about the long term,” said Andrew Trueblood, the Office of Planning's acting director, when he introduced himself at the GGWash Forum Tuesday night.
Both longtime followers of DC planning and engaged residents looking to learn more packed the downtown WeWork where the forum was held. It was part of GGWash’s event series, which is free for GGWash Neighborhood members. Join today and can attend more conversations like this throughout the year!
Trueblood has held his post since November, and he's awaiting confirmation by the DC Council to become director in full. Every seat was taken, and every slice of pizza eaten, when he took the stage.
Throughout the forum, Trueblood returned to the question of how long-term planning can be balanced with immediate needs. In an opening speech, he emphasized three top priorities for the Office of Planning: the Comprehensive Plan, housing, and community-specific planning.
First, Trueblood described DC's current Comprehensive Plan, which guides how the city will grow for years to come. The Office of Planning began updating the document in 2006 and it's currently in its second amendment cycle. (There are more than 3,000 proposed amendments!)
Trueblood pointed out that the original plan was “created in a very different context.” It was based on a 2004 vision document focused on turning around the District's steep postwar population decline, which had only shown tentative signs of reversing at that time. Fifteen years later, it's clear that population growth is here to stay. However, the District's rapid changes make planning difficult.
“Bringing [the comprehensive plan] even up to sync with where we are today is a task, and then trying to bring it up to what we think it will be in 20 years is a monumental task,” Trueblood said.
Second, Trueblood emphasized the need for more housing, an issue brought to the forefront by DC's population boom over the past decade. There's a need for immediate action as well as long-term planning. Trueblood honed in on the regional nature of the housing problem, echoing DC Mayor Muriel Bowser's call for 240,000 new units across the region by 2025, with 36,000 of them in the District.
He also called for “changing the conversation from Affordable Housing to housing affordability,” in other words, talking less about how DC can subsidize particular low-income units and talking more about broad policies to lower housing prices across the market.
Trueblood also hammered home the importance of a systemic and contextually-sensitive approach to affordability policy, and laid out how it can help the agency address immediate issues and make helpful small moves without a long-term plan. Context sensitivity also tied into the last of his three top priorities: community-specific planning to “meet the needs of residents, wherever they are.”
The office is tasked with managing change in neighborhoods, and Trueblood expects to devote more resources to this after the Comprehensive Plan is complete. Many of the options in DC's extensive policy toolbox, Trueblood said, are location-specific. They might bring affordability in certain neighborhoods, but raise prices in others. He talked about the necessity of bringing more affordability to DC's wealthier neighborhoods rather than concentrating it in the poorest.
“I would actually flip the script and say, you know what, we need our deepest affordability in the areas that have the least amount of affordability today,” Trueblood said.
Audience questions comprised the bulk of the program. Although housing questions dominated the Q&A, attendees also asked about commercial, industrial, and arts and cultural space. Multiple questions focused on finding ways for more small, affordable lots to become available and help people build wealth through homeownership.
One attendee asked about options for residents who are “in a single-family zone and would like to be able to use the fact that maybe their lots are next to an alley, or their lots are extra large… but there's no mechanism short of a PUD [Planned Unit Development] hearing to deal with the fact that you should be able to subdivide lots because they're in a particularly odd situation.”
They argued that a more permissive approach to subdivision or to accessory apartments “could sprinkle a lot more affordable housing…in other neighborhoods.”
I appreciate the brother who brought up increasing middle-housing ownership as a means for developing wealth. That, as well as affordable housing, are crucial for increasing housing equity in DC. #GGWashLive— Derek Bowe, Jr. (@DerekBowe44) February 20, 2019
Chyla Evans, a newly-elected ANC 8C commissioner, asked about how ANCs and residents in Ward 8 could best engage and negotiate with developers proposing new market rate apartments in their neighborhoods.
Trueblood emphasized the importance of training ANCs to know the types of concessions they can incorporate and the key points of leverage for negotiations. He also referenced the problem of PUD appeals, which are currently holding over 2,000 housing units in legal limbo, as well as the accompanying community benefits that ANCs negotiated.
Q: Chyla Evans (ANC 8C commissioner) asks, 22 major developments in W8 right now. Developer proposing 700 mkt rate apts in Ward 8. Unusual but where the trend is going. What should existing W8 residents do/demand? (Excellent Q!) #ggwashlive— Greater Greater Washington (@ggwash) February 20, 2019
Another attendee asked about autonomous vehicles, and Trueblood invoked the need for caution when making long-term plans.
“How do we think about 20 years, what are the job implications, what are the implications on parking? We need to think about how [autonomous vehicles] will impact the city and land values and land use, but also without jumping too early because we don't necessarily know how it will all play out or when it will all play out.”
The first words of the introduction to the DC Comprehensive Plan are “Planning an Inclusive City.” The Office of Planning aims to keep—or more accurately, to make—Washington a city for all its residents. Those ambitions extend into the future, and include generations of people who will inhabit the buildings we construct today decades from now.
Balancing the needs of future generations with the needs of today's residents, and those residents' potential issues with the concrete problems of today, is a monumental task. But it is a vitally important one.
The conversation continues in the GGWash Neighborhood!
This event was part of GGWash’s mission to bring people together online and offline to discuss, organize, and advocate for a greater Washington, DC region for all people. We hope you’ll support us by joining the GGWash Neighborhood or making a donation as part of our 2019 fundraising drive!