ANY PLANS for federal projects in this city - things like the location of government office buildings, historic areas, monuments and parks -- get quickly caught up in the complicated relationship between the federal and District governments. City agencies like the Municipal Planning Office and the Zoning Commision have certain tasks to perform; federal agencies, including the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and the Commission on Fine Arts, have others. But the respective areas of responsibilities are so confused, and the bureaucratic procedures so convoluted, that often federal and local planners can't agree on who is supposed to do what -- let alone whether a given project is worth doing in the first place. About the only thing they do agree on is that Congress should do something to eliminate the red tape and confusion. Rep. Charles Diggs (D.-Mich.), chairman of the House District Committee, is trying to do just that.
Recently, Mr. Diggs started a series of hearings on proposed legislation that would abolish NCPC, the federal agency responsible for what use is made of federal land. In its place would be another agency, with the unwieldly name "Federal Capital Region Planning Commission," with a presidentially appointed director and a longer list of responsibilities than NCPC -- including substantial control over Georgetown and other areas of the city. The bill, still in draft form, also calls for some type of urban-development corporation which could buy land, sell bonds, borrow money and give loans for commercial projects -- subject only to the approval of its board of directors. That means the development corporation could, for example, buy property and build another White Flint Mall anywhere in the region, since it would never need approval from the D.C. City Council or any of the county legislatures. Moreover, Mr. Diggs's proposal would increase the membership of the Fine Arts Commission -- the federal group that determines the way much of downtown Washington should look -- and allow it to make rulings that would have the effect of law.
A number of people have already testified before the House District Committee on this draft legislation, and additional hearings are scheduled for next week. Among those who have commented on the bill so far are City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, Planning Office Director Ben Gilbert, Metropolitan Council of Governments Director Walt Sheiber and Metropolitan Board of Trade President Robert Linowes -- and all of them criticized this approach. Their major concern is that local government would be stripped of much of it control over what use is made of public and private land in this city. We agree. Mr. Diggs should go back to the drawing board. It is never going to be easy to strike an equitable balance between federal and local responsibilities in a community where the federal government is the largest landholder and the biggest industry. But Mr. Diggs's approach doesn't come close to reconciling the interests of the federal government with the principle, and still less the practice, of self-rule for this city.