The D.C. Zoning Commission gave final approval yesterday to a plan to require developers to build housing downtown along with office buildings, despite strong opposition to the plan from the D.C. Council, developers of nonprofit housing and commercial builders.
Proponents of the housing plan, approved by a 3 to 2 vote, said it would guarantee construction of several thousand apartments or condominiums and make downtown a more vibrant and appealing place.
But opponents argued that it would lead to the creation of luxury units beyond the budgets of most District residents, and that a better approach would have been to require developers of downtown projects to subsidize a larger number of less-expensive units in other parts of the city.
Builders also said the housing requirement could bring downtown development to a virtual halt because housing would not be profitable on the expensive land there.
The plan the commission adopted would require developers to build housing when they put up commercial projects in parts of the East End, Chinatown and the Mount Vernon Square area, and would give them the option of fulfilling part of their housing quotas by funding housing in other neighborhoods.
The same three-member majority on the zoning panel gave preliminary approval to a downtown housing plan in September, triggering strong opposition from real estate executives and prompting the council to adopt a non-binding resolution last week urging the commission to reconsider its action.
Yesterday, the commission stood by the fundamental elements of its plan. But in an effort to soften its economic impact on developers and property owners, the panel voted to increase the amount of office space that can be built in parts of downtown by about 25 percent to more than 50 percent in some instances.
It also slightly increased the amount of the requirement that developers could satisfy by subsidizing housing outside downtown.
The vote, which followed months of sometimes acrimonious hearings and debates, divided the commission into two camps: one that wanted to increase the number of people living downtown, and another that placed a higher priority on creating affordable housing throughout the city.
Voting for the plan were commission Chairman Tersh Boasberg, a Washington lawyer and preservationist; John G. Parsons, who represents the National Park Service; and William Ensign, who represents the architect of the Capitol, a congressional office.
The dissenting votes were cast by Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Marshall Heights Community Redevelopment Corp. in Southeast Washington, and Maybelle T. Bennett, research director for the Coalition on Human Needs, a group that lobbies on welfare and related issues.
"Each of us has tried to wrestle with this, and each of us is unhappy with it," Boasberg said. Boasberg proposed the changes from the September version of the plan in an unsuccessful attempt to get a unanimous vote.
Jim Dickerson, a developer of nonprofit housing who spearheaded opposition to the plan, called the process ridiculous and the outcome terrible, saying it emphasized luxurious housing downtown at the expense of subsidized housing elsewhere.
"It's just the opposite of what we need," he said. "It takes money away from the lower-income people and gives it to the upper-income people."
But Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and one of the leading advocates of downtown housing, said the outcome was a "win-win situation" for advocates of low-income housing and downtown housing. Still, "the big winners were the commercial property owners" who were granted the right to build more office space, Lynch said.
J. Kirkwood White, a zoning lawyer who represents developers, said some developers "will be able to live with it and some won't." Developers may try to change the plan through legal or political channels, White said.
Commission members and other observers estimated that the plan could generate $200 million in subsidies for the construction of low-income housing outside downtown. They predicted that yesterday's action would lead to the production of 5,440 housing units in the downtown area, 83 percent of the goal the D.C. government set several years ago when it outlined a vision of a "living downtown" in the city's Comprehensive Plan.
Critics said the effects of the plan cannot be predicted, and Dickerson said the commission was in "la la land" when it calculated its estimates during the meeting.
Other uncertainties remain. The commission has yet to adopt a formula for how much developers would have to contribute to affordable housing production to satisfy the housing-construction requirement.