More Business Input Needed on D.C. Comprehensive Plan

The District of Columbia’s real estate development practices have broken down in recent years due to a coordinated effort to undermine growth and resident concerns about gentrification, local activists told Trustees at a recent Federal City Council (FC2) breakfast.

The focal point of the Nov. 13 discussion was the latest D.C. Comprehensive Plan, a 20-year framework that guides future growth and development in the District’s neighborhoods. Originally adopted in 2006 and amended in 2011, the new Plan is currently under review by the DC City Council.

“We are seeing the District development process break down,” said David Alpert, Founder and Editor in Chief of Greater Greater Washington. “It’s true the Comp Plan is vague. There are a lot of ways we could learn from surrounding jurisdictions and others in the country, and we could improve our process.”

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson wants to revise sections of the Comprehensive Plan Framework Amendment Act of 2018 to further clarify the D.C. Zoning Commission’s authority to resolve conflicts and to establish affordable housing as a priority in the Plan’s “framework element” introductory chapter. Most likely those efforts will happen in early 2019.

The District of Columbia Building Industry Association (DCBIA) is concerned that Mendelson may be too prescriptive in his solutions, further tying the hands of developers in the Planned Unit Development (PUD) process, which permits developers to meet housing density goals without being bound by current zoning limits.

“We feel like the new Plan is providing more voices at the local level and preventing federal courts from interceding,” noted Brad Fennell, Senior Vice President at WC Smith and President of the DCBIA. “The Plan is about preventing individuals from hijacking a community process. It also speaks to meeting the housing demand of all levels and all types.”

Yet, one key point of contention is that the Plan would give the Zoning Commission more leeway to approve greater levels of density in development projects in exchange for benefits to the neighborhood. The Plan also emphasizes the importance of giving neighborhood leaders more input into the process.

Fennell and Lisa Maria Mallory, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of DCBIA, encouraged Trustees to get more involved in the advocacy process as the Council moves forward with its potential changes and continued discussions.

“We wanted to generate a discussion at the Federal City Council on whether and how we want to be engaged in the new iteration, revision and amendments to the Comprehensive Plan for the District,” said Anthony Williams, FC2 CEO and Executive Director, of the breakfast meeting.

The DCBIA estimates that some 6,500 residential units have been delayed or stopped in the last three years from PUD challenges due conflicting language in the current Plan that undermines the Zoning Commission’s decision-making process. Currently there are dozens of PUD cases pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals.