In 1978, when Marion Barry was running for his first term as D.C. mayor, a favorite jab against Mayor Walter Washington was the incumbent's supposedly disorganized, slow-as-molasses efforts to plan the future of the city's development.
"Planning must be done expeditiously to properly serve our city's citizens and businesses," said a 1978 Barry platform statement on zoning. "The municipal planning office, the mayor's planning arm, is still producing vague goals and policies that sound more like 'A Child's Garden of Verses' than a serious blueprint for land use decisions."
Eight years later, Barry's administration is still producing vague land use goals and policies, and they might be bound under the title "Winnie the Pooh Battles Goldilocks to the Death in Ward 3, and Files Suit."
Developers and neighborhood residents again are locked in combat before courts, commissions and historic preservation boards in upper Northwest, as they have been for years. One main reason happens to be the very thing that challenger Marion Barry was pointing out -- the lack of a comprehensive city land-use plan.
The ambiguities about how city properties are and will be zoned is leading to major questions about what kind of development will occur in neighborhoods all over the city, including two current hot spots in Northwest, Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues.
Residents of neighborhoods along Wisconsin Avenue say they are disgusted with what they believe is Barry's bias toward developers. At a rally Sunday to protest a large office-theater complex under construction at 4000 Wisconsin Ave., more than 100 people lustily cheered anti-Barry speeches by two of his mayoral rivals, Democrat Mattie Taylor and D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).
Earlier this month the council denounced the mayor's "unreasonable delays" in carrying out the comprehensive plan, and his "failure to implement nearly all of the objectives and policies" in a provisional comprehensive plan prepared by the council two years ago.
A comprehensive plan is an overall guide to what a city will look like in the future. It states what levels of traffic and industry will be tolerated, and what the type and density of development can occur on every square inch of property. Home buyers, bankers and real-estate speculators rely on it to decide where to invest.
The District's current zoning map was drawn up in 1958, at a time when officials were envisioning a city of 2 million people. Many residents complain that the city is "overzoned" and that in spots the map calls for development out of scale with the city as it actually has grown.
Congress' 1974 Home Rule Act gave the city 10 years to draw up a comprehensive plan with a new land-use map to guide development. Barry's 1978 attacks on the incumbent were partly aimed at Washington's delays in starting the comprehensive plan.
Now it's Barry's turn to delay.
It wasn't until the early 1980s that his planning officials started getting the comprehensive plan process off the ground, and it was December 1984 before the council approved a preliminary land-use plan for the city. It included a city map that designated zoning, plus lengthy statements about the type of development intended in each of the city's 100 neighborhoods. In many cases, the council reduced the density of development allowed in specific neighborhoods and on specific streets.
In March 1985, the council also told the mayor that city planners should check the council's 1984 proposal with community representatives, and set a one-year deadline for the community groups to finish their reports.
But the city did not appoint members to the so-called Citizen Advisory Committees until last November, eight months later. The city planning office also was late in lining up a consultant to help the citizen committees, and has been late on a number of other actions.
All in all, the city probably will not be done with these citizen advisory committee plans for a year. And then city officials intend yet another level of review, called the Small Area land use process. Some city officials and development insiders say it will probably be three or four years before the District has the final comprehensive plan that Congress called for 12 years ago.
The discrepancies between the old zoning and the council's 1984 land-use plan are causing friction between residents and developers in a number of neighborhoods. For example, residents in upper Northwest argue that large-scale development should not be allowed along Wisconsin Avenue by pointing to provisions in the council's 1984 land use report calling for density lower than that in the 1958 zoning map. Other provisions mandate higher density, but the residents don't point to those.
The D.C. zoning commission, acting on a request from residents, plans to hold hearings in the fall to consider "downzoning" parts of Wisconsin Avenue to make them consistent with the council's 1984 land use plan. Developers say that that's unfair, and agree with the city that the area should not be rezoned until the comprehensive plan's last phase is completed, years from now.
In the meantime, some residents fear that developers will be able to get permission to build complexes under the current higher-density zoning, even if the final comprehensive plan eventually calls for lower density.
"Everything will have been developed to the maximum" along Wisconsin Avenue by the time the comprehensive plan is complete, said architect Russell Perry, a Fort Reno neighborhood activist.
City officials say they have plans for stopgap rules to slow development in the interim. But the city still lacks a vision of what it will look like in the year 2000, and officials say they can't go any faster.
"Comprehensive rezoning is not something you move into very quickly," said Alvin McNeal, assistant to the planning office's director. "For the first time, we've undertaken a planning process in this city . . . I think we've made tremendous strides."