Mayor Marion Barry hardly can be blamed for pressing his planning office to finish a comprehensive land-use plan and ship the hefty, mind-boggling document off to the City Council for action.
Barry has been zinged repeatedly by community groups, members of Congress and political opponents for taking too long to prepare the plan, required by the home rule charter, that will guide residential and commercial growth in the city for the next 20 years.
But in his haste to relieve what has become a political headache, the mayor may be making a serious mistake.
The current plan is flawed and probably will require rethinking and extensive revision by the D.C. Planning Office before it is ready to withstand the scrutiny of the council, Congress and other organizations. Though Barry's top aides have said they are determined to have the final version of the document by June, this may not be possible.
The 330-page proposal, unveiled last fall, suffers from an inherent problem: It was drafted by city planners without first conferring with advisory neighborhood commissions and other local groups.
As a result, there is little community support for the plan. Some of the better-organized groups left out of the early planning process are sharpening their knives in anticipation of the public hearings that will be held before Barry submits a final version of the plan to City Council.
The plan has serious technical problems as well.
Dorn C. McGrath Jr., chairman of George Washington University's Department of Urban and Regional Planning, said last week that the plan is a confusing hodgepodge of goals and strategies that offers no clear vision of the city's future.
McGrath, member of an ad hoc group of scholars that was asked by the city to analyze the proposal, said the plan was inadequate because it wasn't linked to a long-term capital improvements program.
He also criticized the D.C. Planning Office for releasing the plan before it had completed two critical sections that deal with historic preservation and urban design guidelines.
"Putting together a plan without an urban design section is like trying to walk on one foot," McGrath told members of the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Committee recently. "Rushing into print with an incomplete document in a city like this is asking for trouble."
In short, McGrath said, the plan requires a major overhaul. He said he thinks it would be inexcusable to cut corners now on a plan that has such long-term implications.
Once enacted, the plan will influence the location and density of new housing construction. It will define the parameters of commercial and industrial growth. It will restrict construction along the city's long-neglected waterfront. And it will suggest far-reaching policies for economic development, transportation and water and air quality.
In effect, the new plan will replace the patchwork of zoning regulations and administrative and court decisions that have passed for urban planning in Washington for the past 25 years.
In many ways, Washington is light-years behind other major cities and some of its suburban neighbors in urban planning.
During the past few years, bankers and developers radically altered the face of downtown Washington by erecting boxy new office buildings, while neighborhoods changed significantly as a result of condominium conversion--all without the benefit of a comprehensive plan.
Moreover, city officials have acknowledged that they missed scores of opportunities to encourage economic development because they didn't have a coordinated game plan.
John (Skip) McKoy, who inherited the land-use plan when he replaced James Gibson as director of the D.C. planning office, has tried to assuage community concerns.
He extended the deadline for initial public comment on the plan. He agreed (after some coaxing) to produce a detailed map that would more clearly illustrate the proposed new land-use policies--although some sections of the map will be left blank while McKoy's staff refines the plan. He has appointed a technical advisory committee of local architects, economists and planners, apart from Dorn's group, to advise the city in preparing the final version of the plan. And he intends to seek the advice of a 45-member citizens advisory panel.
McKoy is under pressure from Barry and Deputy Mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson to finish the plan as quickly as possible. Recently, he expressed frustration with some community groups that he claimed wouldn't be satisfied "if I guaranteed we could meet to review the plan between now and doomsday."
But Dorn and other urban-planning scholars are urging the city to go slow at this critical juncture.
"It is our strong belief we should not rush into adoption of this project, but take a few more months--maybe the rest of the year--to do it," he said.