The Zoning Commission is about to make a bad decision tomorrow that could have disastrous consequences on the production of affordable housing and neighborhood improvement in the District.

The Zoning Commission has been deliberating during the past five months on a proposal to rezone the downtown into the "Downtown Development District." This district is the planning office's answer to a "living downtown," called for by D.C.'s comprehensive plan. The idea is to have a substantial number of housing units downtown, as well as arts and shopping areas.

The battle lines have been drawn over the issue of whether the housing should be focused in a narrow geographic area where the economics mean that it will be very costly or whether the housing should be focused in the neighborhoods for people most in need.

The chairman of the Zoning Commission, Tersh Boasberg, has proposed a "compromise" designed to satisfy advocates of downtown housing and the advocates of affordable neighborhood housing. Boasberg's proposal, which has received preliminary support from the other commission members, mandates that 75 percent of the housing must be built on downtown commercial sites. Another 25 percent could be built elsewhere.

If passed, this proposal will:

Severely curtail downtown development, thereby reducing an already shrinking D.C. tax base -- which means fewer funds for much needed community services.

Deprive the city of many millions of dollars desperately needed for the production of affordable housing and neighborhood improvement.

Produce little downtown housing.

Produce almost no neighborhood housing.

Use the profits from downtown office development to subsidize the production of luxury housing with rents as high as 3,200 per month at the expense of housing for low- and moderate-income families.

Further polarize and antagonize the city along racial, class and geographic lines.

Force city-owned property downtown to be sold at drastically reduced prices, thus depriving the housing department of funds to be used in the production of affordable housing elsewhere in the city.

Severely limit citizen participation in decisions for future development projects.

Eliminate creative approaches that would reconcile the high cost of commercial development downtown with the real cost of housing production both downtown and in the neighborhoods.

Undermine the specific goals in the comprehensive plan.

Substitute zoning for planning. The proposal reduces the whole downtown, a diverse area, to lot-by-lot zoning.

At best the proposal is anti-planning. At worst it is anti-development and anti low- and moderate-income people. It focuses on one section of the city to the exclusion and detriment of other sections of the city. It smacks of elitism.

This is probably the single most important public policy decision pertaining to housing that this city has made in the past 30 years. Yet there has been no study or thorough examination on its impact. Most citizens are unaware and either un- or ill-informed on these matters.

The Zoning Commission needs to put this proposal on hold until a thorough examination of the economic and social ramifications can be assessed. Failure to examine the ramifications of this proposal and a failure to give citizens of our city a chance to understand the issues would be a far greater sin than allowing office development to continue apace in the downtown by adopting no new zoning plan.

The way downtown is developed will determine whether those of us who labor to provide affordable housing and preserve strong neighborhoods succeed during the next decade. -- Jim Dickerson -- Michael Crescenzo The writers work for nonprofit housing developers.