Ten of 13 D.C. Council members have agreed to back a resolution urging the Zoning Commission to rescind a new rule that developers build housing along with more lucrative office buildings in the remaining undeveloped parts of downtown Washington.
The non-binding resolution, which will be considered by the council next month, represents an unusual effort by the city's elected leaders to influence the independent Zoning Commission. The commission adopted the housing requirements in September on a preliminary 3 to 2 vote as part of an effort to create a vibrant, "living downtown" of mixed uses -- housing, arts and retail -- along with commercial office buildings.
As many as 6,000 downtown housing units could be built under the Zoning Commission plan, its proponents estimate.
But the decision has drawn fire from developers and nonprofit, low-income housing builders, and they have placed unusual pressure in recent weeks on the Zoning Commission to reconsider its decision when it meets for a final vote next month.
Developers are upset because the Zoning Commission plan could dramatically reduce property values south of Massachusetts Avenue in the East End, where Oliver Carr and other major developers are planning new office buildings.
The developers have formed an alliance with some low-income housing builders, who are hoping to use the profits from downtown development to build badly needed affordable housing in other parts of the city.
The coalition argues that the Zoning Commission plan is not economically sound and would cripple the downtown building boom that has sustained the city treasury for the last decade. The majority of the council essentially has sided with this position.
According to the resolution introduced this week, the council finds that the Zoning Commission's proposed action "will not allow housing or other development to proceed in the downtown area, because . . . that development will not be economically feasible."
If the plan were adopted, according to the resolution, the city could lose from $28 million to $250 million in tax revenue over the next decade.
The resolution recommends that the commission adopt an alternative proposal from developers and low-income housing producers that would allow developers to avoid the housing requirements by contributing to subsidized housing in other parts of the city.
The resolution was introduced by Chairman-Elect John A. Wilson, who currently represents Ward 2, and council members John Ray (D-At Large) and William Lightfoot (I-At Large). Seven other council members have sponsored the measure.
Community activists and other supporters of the Zoning Commission action expressed disappointment in the proposed resolution. They noted that Wilson sent a letter to the Zoning Commission last April supporting the thrust of what the commission approved in September.
"He's flip-flopped a week after the election," said Joe Sternlieb, housing chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2C, which covers the downtown area in question: the East End, Chinatown and Mount Vernon Square.
"We've worked a long time to try to get a compromise solution to the housing and tax revenue and downtown problems that we've had," Sternlieb added. "What the council has done is pull the rug out from under us . . . . I'm very disappointed in what he has done."
Wilson could not be reached for comment yesterday. Lightfoot defended the council resolution as an enticement for developers to build low-cost housing, not luxury housing that he said would be the result of the Zoning Commission's plan.
"We don't need yuppie housing," he said. "If the housing is constructed downtown, it will be more expensive and less likely to be occupied by people of color."
Jim Dickerson, co-director of Manna, a group that promotes low-income housing, praised the council resolution. "I couldn't have written it better myself," he said. "I hope it will send a message loud and clear to the Zoning Commission."