By giving final approval this week to a controversial plan requiring commercial developers to build housing in downtown Washington, the D.C. Zoning Commission raised a fundamental question about government's role in encouraging business growth and spurring economic development: Should elected officials cede their responsibility for those areas to appointed boards and commissions?
It is a question that warrants serious consideration by Mayor-elect Sharon Pratt Dixon and the new D.C. Council when they take office next month. It comes down to a question of who should set economic development policy in the District.
Ultimately, the mayor and council have a responsibility to maintain the city's fiscal integrity. It's absolutely necessary, therefore, that they establish the framework for economic development as a means of ensuring job growth and the flow of income from commercial enterprises.
The zoning commission, however, appears to have confused its role with those of the offices of planning, and business and economic development, among others. A majority of the commission's members seemingly is bent on not just formulating the District's housing policy but on establishing a new direction for economic development and business growth in downtown Washington.
Not surprisingly, the zoning commission approved a plan requiring developers to build housing as well as commercial projects downtown. The plan, which the commission approved by a 3 to 2 vote, gives developers the option of meeting part of their housing "quotas" by funding residential development elsewhere in the city. While that is something of a compromise compared with a proposal that received preliminary approval in September, it's still arbitrary and counterproductive to meeting the city's housing and economic needs.
Although some managed to find encouragement in the ruling, it was enough to cause the most ardent among its supporters to hold their noses.
"Each of us has tried to wrestle with this, and each of us is unhappy with it," Tersh Boasberg, the zoning commission's chairman, was quoted as saying.
There was no compelling need to wrestle with the matter. A plan supported by the D.C. government, developers and affordable-housing advocates made more sense. Under that plan, downtown developers would have contributed to a trust fund to support the development of neighborhood housing, some of it close to the downtown area. That wasn't good enough for the zoning commission.
Under the same proposal, developers also would have been awarded bonus commercial space that they would have been permitted to transfer to other areas of the city, in exchange for building residential units.
The zoning commission's plan supposedly will lead to the construction of more than 5,000 housing units in the downtown area. Those who support the so-called compromise plan also estimate that it could provide $200 million in subsidies for construction of low-income housing outside the downtown area.
Those numbers and the rationale underlying the commission's decision are just so much pie-in-the-sky. The District -- indeed all of metropolitan Washington -- needs affordable housing, not some arbitrary plan intended to create another enclave for the wealthy.
No one can build housing in downtown Washington without renting or selling it to people in upper-income brackets. Market forces, simple arithmetic and logic plainly show that it's next to impossible to produce affordable housing in downtown Washington for even moderate-income groups. Land values downtown are pegged to commercial development, making them astronomically high. With office space going for $30 to $45 a square foot in the downtown area, it's ludicrous to think that a developer can squeeze out a profit by building housing there for the average working person or retiree.
Even if there were widespread support for an enclave for an elite class of tenants and homeowners in the downtown area, the case is yet to be made that there is much demand for it. And demand should be the key factor in deciding where and what kind of housing is needed in the District. Just last month, the Rivlin Commission, the blue-ribbon panel that issued a much-anticipated report on the District's budget and financial priorities, observed that the affordable-housing issue "is of great concern within the District."
The development industry at long last seems ready to address that issue by contributing to a housing trust fund. More housing will eventually be built downtown whenever it's practical. In the meantime, it's important that downtown Washington be further developed as the hub of commercial, trade and entertainment activities. These activities are not only vital to the city's economic health, but they also will attract D.C. residents, tourists and people who live in the suburbs.
Policies and strategies aimed at creating that kind of downtown development should be formulated and carried out by elected government officials and their staffs. In its role as arbiter in matters dealing with design, height, scale, aesthetics -- indeed the physical appearance of downtown -- the zoning commission has a responsibility to help city officials implement those policies.
As it is, the zoning commission is usurping the authority of those who have a responsibility for orchestrating economic development in the city. That prospect is made more troubling by the fact that Boasberg was joined in voting for the housing plan by John G. Parsons and William Ensign, who represent the National Park Service and the architect of the Capitol, respectively. Thus, representatives of federal agencies holding statutory seats on the commission have effectively voted to overturn a plan favored by the District's elected mayor and city council.
That alignment will remain in place at least until 1993, when Boasberg's term as an appointee of the mayor expires. In the meantime, there is nothing to indicate that the commission's fixation with its force-fed housing policy will change.
Additional housing will be built in or near downtown when the economy and demand are strong enough to support it. A more enlightened zoning commission could help expedite the process.
As it is, Jim Dickerson, co-director of Manna Inc. and a spokesman for the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing Development, wasn't far off the mark when he suggested that the present zoning commission is in "la la land."