Pierre L'Enfant died 159 years ago, but Bill Washburn is quite sure that the man who drew the initial plan for the nation's capital is shuddering in his grave at Arlington National Cemetery. How else, Washburn wonders, could the French architect react to the city government's latest attempt to create a land-use plan to shape development here for the next 20 years?
Washburn, chairman of the 500-member D.C. Citizens Planning Coalition, said the city's plan will convert the city "into a free-fire zone for developers."
The objects of Washburn's ire are four innocent-looking, multicolored maps and 19 pages of innocuous prose that city planners say should become part of an overall comprehensive plan, most of which was adopted by the City Council in January. But an earlier version of the land-use plan proved so unpopular that it was shipped back to the city planning office for more work.
As it has turned out, the new plan, more detailed in some respects, less so in other ways, has proved just as controversial.
The District's 10-year-old home rule government has not previously devised a land-use plan, and the question can be reasonably asked why one is needed when, unlike the outer reaches of Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties, most of the city is largely developed.
But Fred L. Greene, the city's planning director, and other city officials say such a plan is necessary to shape commercial development near Metro subway stations and also in neighborhoods, such as those east of the Anacostia River, where grocery stores and shopping centers are a rare commodity. By the same token, the plan attempts to pinpoint neighborhoods that the city plans to target for rehabilitation efforts.
"Buildings get old, they are knocked down and we need to say how they are redeveloped," he said. "The plan begins to help you address that. You have to know what you want before you know what to spend."
Washburn, an urban planning professor at the University of the District of Columbia, is not alone in his vocal sentiments about the plan. Numerous other citizen activists do not like it either, with most of them claiming that it will do little to protect them from unwanted incursions of commercial development in their neighborhoods or that the plan is too vague to mean much of anything.
Odd as it may seem, considering the views of numerous citizen opponents, development and business interests do not care for it either. In their view, the plan in many instances is too specific in setting limits on residential construction, while at the same time it does not promote enough commercial and industrial development.
"There's about two sentences on industrial development," said attorney Phil Feola, of the Linowes and Blocher law firm, which often represents developers. "That's a mistake."
Neighborhood representatives and business executives cited numerous instances at recent City Council hearings in which the maps produced by the city planning office were simply wrong. They pointed to specific locations designated as residential enclaves on the maps where stores and offices exist. The Brookland Metro Station was left off the maps.
"I think the maps were inartfully drafted," complained Norman Glasgow, an attorney for developers.
Greene told council members that "what we have prepared is not going to satisfy everyone." After listening to the often conflicting testimony from nearly 100 persons at the hearings, Greene said, "We seemed to reach a compromise -- we can't please them."
Still, he said, "The vagueness that the citizens complained about did not surprise me. They want to be able to see what will happen on their street and exact block.
"If they read the text and not just look at the maps," he said, "they'll see it's clear we're for neighborhood preservation. The maps should not be the sole focus."
The plan lays out a broad set of goals in language few could disagree with. Who can argue with statements such as: "the successful and creative functioning of neighborhoods is of fundamental concern" or "ensuring good quality neighborhoods is of the utmost importance to the District"?
Yet the vagueness of such goals leaves open the question of how they should be met.
"It's apple pie and motherhood," Washburn said. "Planning is simply not about apple pie and motherhood masquerading as policies. There are no rules there to guide anyone -- developers or the community."
Anne Sellin, representing the Residential Action Coalition, a group of residents in the Dupont Circle area, said, "We do not think it provides us with what we need to protect a fragile neighborhood near Downtown."
Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) said, "The text is so soft you can make it anything you want. It's open to all kinds of interpretation."
Greene acknowledged, "It is not a zoning map. It is vague in the sense that it is part of a process. It is not the end." He said that more specific plans will be drawn for each of the city's eight wards within the next year, all of them refinements of the generalized map that came under attack at the council hearings.
At the same time, D.C. planners have pinpointed so-called Development Opportunity Areas, "which will accommodate the city's major growth and development needs through the year 2000," and Special Treatment Areas, where "uniquely tailored solutions will be necessary."
The 22 Development Opportunity Areas are mostly located around Metrobus interchange points and subway stations and at regional shopping areas -- locations that city officials believe have "special potential for growth and development."
The city has identified the locations as U Street NW, Howard Gateway near Howard University, UDC-Mount Vernon Square, Northeast No. 1-Eckington Yards, International Cultural and Trade Center-Portal Site near the 14th Street Bridge, Buzzard Point-Near Southeast, Western and Wisconsin avenues NW, Georgia and Missouri Avenues NW, Georgia and New Hampshire avenues NW, Fort Totten Metro station area, Rhode Island Avenue Metro station area, New York Avenue corridor, Hechinger Mall area, H Street NE, Fort Lincoln, Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE area, Anacostia subway station area, St. Elizabeths Hospital, Camp Simms, D.C. Village, Columbia Heights and Brookland.
There are 10 Special Treatment Areas listed: Lower 16th Street NW, New Hampshire Avenue NW-Dupont Circle-Mount Vernon Square, Northeast No. 1-Eckington Yards, Buzzard Point-Near Southeast, International Trade and Cultural Center-Portal Site, Fort Totten subway station area, Deanwood Metro station area, St. Elizabeths Hospital, D.C. Village and Chinatown.
The council must decide whether any of the four maps should be enacted into law, as some citizen groups have urged, or whether they should be advisory, as Mayor Marion Barry wants. The maps would carry more weight if they were enacted into law, but then it also would be more cumbersome to change them, as inevitably would happen.