Fifteen months after the public hearing on the DC Comprehensive Plan framework, council chairman Phil Mendelson released a proposal for changes to this first chapter of DC’s guiding document. Here are the main things he changed.
The Comprehensive Plan is the document supposedly guiding all of DC’s growth and change, especially around land use, zoning, and development. The DC Office of Planning has been working on this amendment cycle since 2016, and a coalition GGWash organized, the Housing Priorities Coalition, submitted a whole pile of amendments.
In January 2018, OP submitted to the DC Council proposed changes to just the first chapter, the Framework Element. The council held a public hearing that March. Chairman Phil Mendelson then didn’t act on it until now.We’ve been frantically reading the bill. Here’s what it says.
It’s fussy as only Mendelson can be
In characteristic fashion, Mendelson rewrote almost every paragraph in minor and mostly inconsequential ways. For instance, the OP draft of a sentence in section 205.1 said “The District in 2016 had over 11,000 people per square mile.” Mendelson changed it to “In 2016, it had over 11,000 people per square mile,” with “it” referring to the word “Washington” in the previous paragraph.
In another section, 225.18, the OP draft defines mixed-use areas as ones “where the mixing of two more land uses is particularly encouraged.” Mendelson changed that to “… is especially encouraged.”
Legally important? Almost certainly not. Persnickety? Absolutely. Unnecessary? Probably. Mendelsonian? For sure.
The draft he released also shows changes against the current Comp Plan, not against OP’s proposals. That makes it easier to see what he’s changing in the Comp Plan but more difficult to see where he accepted, rejected, or changed earlier amendments, which are the ones everyone testified about over a year ago.
It talks about fair housing and inclusion a bit
The Office of Planning decided not to touch a set of “guiding principles,” some of which reinforce exclusivity that promotes segregation. We criticized the fact that the Framework doesn’t mention “fair housing” at all.
Mendelson proposed fixing what we’d called the most problematic of the principles, #8, which made it sound like new people coming into neighborhoods “threaten” them (underlined text is added, strikeout is removed):
The residential character of neighborhoods must be protected, maintained and improved. Many District neighborhoods possess social, economic, historic, and physical qualities that make them unique and desirable places in which to live.
These qualities can lead to development and redevelopment pressures that threatenAs the District continues to grow, more residents, and those of varied socio-economic backgrounds, should be accommodated, including the production and preservation of affordable housing, while using zoning, design, and other means to retain the veryqualities that physically characterize these that make theneighborhoods and make them attractive. These pressures must be controlled through zoning and other means to ensure that neighborhood character is preserved and enhanced.
We don’t love the “physically characterize” bit, which suggests that the physical form of neighborhoods — rather than its activity or its people — is most important. But the other changes are a huge improvement.
Where principle #10 says “The preservation of existing affordable housing and the production of new affordable housing are essential to avoid a deepening of racial and economic divides in the city,” he added, “and must occur city-wide to achieve fair housing objectives.”
This is a welcome mention and makes an important point that new homes, especially new affordable ones, have to go everywhere in the city, including in the areas they haven’t historically gone.
Later in the document, where it talks about a concept called “Neighborhood Conservation Areas,” or areas on a map showing places that aren’t going to see large-scale change, after saying the “guiding philosophy… is to conserve and enhance established neighborhoods,” he added, “but not preclude development, particularly to address city-wide housing needs.”
It adds weight on affordable housing
The Office of Planning’s December 2017 draft added language about jobs, technology, and more, but it didn’t talk about how urgently DC must address affordable housing and displacement.
At the March 2018 hearing, people on both sides of DC’s debates over growth said that they wanted to see more about this. OP responded by proposing some new narrative language to add in, which it sent to the council and posted publicly in an August 2018 letter.
Mendelson’s draft incorporates that, mostly. As with everything else, he changes words here and there, moves some sentences up and down, and moves around paragraph breaks. He added some mentions of specific programs he supports and/or helped fund.
The most significant change in OP’s August letter emphasized that affordable housing should be a top priority in community benefits from development that goes through the Planned Unit Development (PUD) process. OP proposed:
Specific public benefits are determined through each PUD application and should respond to critical issues facing the District as identified in the Comprehensive Plan and through the PUD process itself. In light of the acute need to preserve and build affordable housing described in Section 205a, the production of new affordable housing units [above and beyond existing legal requirements] and the prevention of displacement of on-site residents should be considered as high-priority public benefits in the evaluation of residential PUDs.
Mendelson’ version is identical except for two changes in the last half:
… the production of new affordable housing units, above and beyond existing matter-of-right limits, and the prevention of permanent displacement of on-site residents should be considered as high-priority public benefits in the evaluation of residential PUDs.
The change to “matter-of-right limits” might reflect confusion about the purpose of this provision. The idea was that the affordable housing that counts as a benefit has to be beyond what inclusionary zoning or other laws require. That’s not a “limit.”
The second change is more significant. It limits what displacement DC should be concerned about, to exclude temporary displacement. During a number of recent public housing redevelopments, residents would have to move out during construction, but then construction would drag on for years. People would build new lives and not come back.
In response, many tenants’ advocates have been pushing an idea called Build First, where new housing gets built on a part of a site, people can move in, and only then their existing homes are demolished. DC’s New Communities Initiative, which redevelops public housing, has nominally committed to Build First in its projects going forward. The Housing Priorities Coalition, which GGWash organized during the early phases of this Comprehensive Plan cycle, endorsed this idea. Mendelson’s changes would reduce the impetus to follow Build First.
The Housing Priorities Coalition has also asked for the language to specify affordable housing as “the highest priority” rather than just one “high-priority” benefit in an otherwise-unspecified list.
It rejects OP’s ideas to fix the PUD process
Planned Unit Developments are a part of DC’s land use process. They allow a building that’s larger than zoning allows, in exchange for community benefits like affordable housing or other things.
Sometimes, part of the Comp Plan says something that suggests a larger building is not okay. Another part suggests it is. People who then support the building argue a specific PUD is consistent with the plan, while opponents say it violates the plan.
Until a set of legal decisions in 2006 and 2007, DC’s appeals court would uphold a lot of these PUDs which lay in the gray area where the Comp Plan is ambiguous. More recently, judges have been much more critical.
The Office of Planning wanted to give more flexibility to allow more housing or offices in exchange for benefits, by emphasizing that some parts of the plan are “not a zoning map,” as the plan already says, and “generalized guidance.”
Mendelson removed most of these, as he suggested he would last year. For instance, one section of the plan, 225, describes categories on the land use map, like Low Density Commercial” or Medium Density Residential.” Generally, areas which are low density commercial (for instance) today have the color code for that on the map, but in the past, PUDs would allow something that wasn’t low density commercial if it fulfilled other, conflicting Comp Plan policies.
OP suggested changing these sections from saying they “define” certain areas to say they “describe” them, better reflecting the way this depicts the current situation more than it sets a regulatory limit. One problematic definition, Medium Density Residential, gave a specific number of stories that was an issue in one court case, Durant III; OP wanted to remove that but Mendelson put it back.
Not all OP proposals were taken out. One provision, in 226.1(c), said that a map category might have some larger buildings if the overall density for the area is consistent with that category, including if a site has some taller buildings in one part but less in another, such as what’s proposed at the McMillan site which has open space on a part, townhouses on a part, and larger buildings on a part. Mendelson kept OP’s changes except for minor grammatical rewrites.
It rejects a proposal to strengthen neighborhood planning
DC has a neighborhood planning tool called the Small Area Plan, where OP works with a community to devise a more detailed, specific plan for one area. Many cities and counties have some kind of tool like this; Montgomery County calls it a Sector Plan, for instance.
In a Montgomery County Sector Plan, the new plan overrides an old one. A Sector Plan could provide for taller buildings, or shorter ones. It could require specific amounts of affordable housing or other benefits.
DC Small Area Plans are much weaker. They can offer “supplemental guidance” to the Comp Plan, but can’t override it. Instead, any actual policy changes that conflict with the Comp Plan have to be incorporated at the next main Comp Plan amendment cycle, which has been every five years when things happen on schedule, and much longer when not.
Partly because of this, OP largely stopped doing formal Small Area Plans after 2009. There were 27 neighborhood plans completed from 2002 to 2009 (almost half in 2008), but only 15 completed from 2010 to 2017. Of those, 24 of the 27 plans in the 2000s were official Small Area Plans, but only six of 15 in the 2010s were. The others were just reports that have no actual regulatory force.
The Office of Planning had proposed language that would allow approved Small Area Plans to have similar weight to Comprehensive Plan language, allowing for more ways to modify plans mid-cycle. Mendelson removed those changes.
The reason, he told colleagues, is because of the way the plans are approved. The Comp Plan is legislation the council reviews, amends, and passes. Small Area Plans just go through as resolutions and the council doesn’t amend them.
Mendelson reportedly said he wants the administration to instead submit such changes as full Comp Plan amendments. That would mean a much larger council role in development than ever before.
We’ll have some more in depth articles about these in the coming days and weeks. The council will debate, potentially amend, and vote on Mendelson’s proposals on Tuesday, July 9.