Office of Planning’s New Director on the Road Ahead

Much of the District is unrecognizable from fifteen years ago. But the city is still operating under a Comprehensive Plan designed from that era—when population and economic growth was a dream, but not yet a firm reality. That plan didn’t worry so much about housing affordability or creating more density because it didn’t have to. It didn’t take on streamlining the PUD process because there weren’t tons of projects in the pipeline or neighborhood groups nervous about gentrification. Fast forward to today and the picture is very different. Fortunately the Comprehensive Plan is up for a serious rewrite.

Andrew Trueblood, the new young Director of the Office of Planning, is in charge of the momentous and multi-year task of shepherding the plan through to implementation. The Federal City Council hosted him for a breakfast to hear his thoughts on what lies ahead.

First on his list is getting the Comprehensive Plan’s Framework approved by the D.C. Council. The Framework is the vision statement that sets priorities and goals for the rest of the 1000-page Comprehensive Plan. The hope is that Chairman Mendelson will give it the green light this spring so that the details can be hammered out within the next year or two.

The next top priority is housing—and affordability generally rather than affordable housing specifically. The District actually has among the most generous and thoughtful affordable housing policy in the country. The real problem is affordability for lower-middle income folks, especially if they want more than one-bedroom apartments. They are the ones who have been leaving the city in droves. The Comprehensive Plan can be written in a way that allows for different affordability strategies in different neighborhoods. It may make sense to focus on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) where there are single-family homes. Or maybe the height limit can be eased up downtown or close to transit centers.

The third top priority is community planning. The city hasn’t done a great job at making it clear that growth should not lead to displacement. Growth should benefit everyone, including the most vulnerable. But at the same time, we should not take economic growth for granted. The city needs an economic engine to keep prosperity spreading.

Then there are more ancillary goals.

Industrial space can’t all be converted to housing. Some must be preserved to keep production, distribution and vehicle repair-type places in the city. Maybe there is a way to make industrial buildings either more vertical or mixed-use.

The Office of Planning is also trying to better communicate and connect with the public. The 1000-page Comprehensive Plan is an intimidating and byzantine document. The city has never tried hard to explain it to the public. But it should, along with how PUDs work. Do NIMBYs know that PUDs can get their communities a new park or new infrastructure?

Part of Mr. Trueblood’s challenge is planning not just for today but fifteen years from today. That kind of prediction is hard to do. The technology and transportation landscape can change a lot faster than the built environment. Lyft and electric scooters were on nobody’s map fifteen years ago. Who knows how generational lifestyle tastes might change and if the next generation will like city living as much as Millennials do. It’s hard to believe, but the McMillan development plan—which is only now breaking ground—was awarded two weeks after the first iPhone hit the market.