For 10 years, the D.C. government has labored to produce a comprehensive plan that would set future land-use policy for Washington, a task that resulted in the City Council hastily passing four controversial land-use maps just before a congressionally mandated deadline in late December.
But despite the years of work and numerous citizens' meetings and hearings, the adoption of the plan marks the beginning rather than the end of what many expect to be a long and protracted struggle between neighborhood groups and developers over the future landscape of Washington.
The comprehensive plan is the first for the city under its 10-year-old Home Rule Charter, and it sets out general land-use policy for future building and development, including the location of housing, office buildings and shopping centers for many years to come.
Under the Home Rule Act, the plan stands as the ultimate authority on land-use for the city, however it is still unclear which governmental branches will be able to alter or amend the plan and what role the existing D.C. Zoning Commission will have in bringing the zoning map into compliance with the plan.
Under home rule, the mayor's office is given the responsibility for planning, and under that authority Mayor Marion Barry submitted a proposed plan to the City Council in 1983. The council passed most of the plan last January, but sent the maps back to the mayor's office for revisions, protesting that they needed to be more generalized.
Barry's second submission, forwarded to the council this fall, included a text and maps that were intended only as generalized policy documents. But citizens checking over the proposed plans said they saw many problems with specific sites and were shocked to find major changes in land use proposed by what appeared to be a flick of marking pens.
City planners defended the maps' "soft-edged" quality, saying they should only be advisory. But the City Council appeared determined to enact them as law, and D.C. neighborhood groups came before the council asking for changes, complaining about such things as residential-use categories that they said could have doubled existing residential densities throughout the city and questioning many of the new policies, such as locating a major regional shopping mall down the street from the established but struggling commercial area of Anacostia.
In the end, the council -- pushed by the December deadline -- adopted 240 amendments to the maps, rewrote much of the text and stipulated that the mayor submit detailed plans for each ward within one year, to incorporate other changes in site plans the community might want.
It is at the ward level that the real fight is expected to take place. Citizens in Northwest will be trying to set in concrete safeguards against encroaching commercial development, and residents in other quadrants of the city will be working to ensure that the development the city would like to encourage does not displace small merchants and stable neighborhoods.
"The ward plans are seen by some as the place to stop development," said J. Kirkwood White, a zoning attorney and former director of the city's planning office. "And I'm not sure the city has the planning staff to get these all done in a year. It could take 10 years, especially if people are going to view these as the real battlegrounds."
"Obviously, there are some lingering concerns on details," said Council Chairman David Clarke, as he made the motion to have the council vote on the plan. "But they can be worked out in the future."
The group most concerned about the changes made by the 240 amendments is the development community.
"Just look in the back of what the council adopted , and you can see the special interests listed there," said Whayne S. Quin, a D.C. zoning attorney with Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane. "No one knows what this plan does, and it's almost impossible to figure it out."
While many of the amendments were corrections of map inaccuracies, a number of them make significant changes in the policies the maps were designed to set in law.
For instance, the proposed maps showed four residential densities across the city, with a specific number of dwellings per acre each density would allow. The council removed the dwelling numbers at the suggestion of both citizens, who said the numbers amounted to a doubling of densities allowed by zoning, and building community representatives, who said they did not want to be limited to a certain number of units if they were going to build in a given area.
Residents in Northwest Washington were most successful in pushing for changes on the maps that limit the amount of commercial development in their neighborhoods, particularly along the Connecticut Avenue corridor. A series of four "multi-neighborhood" commercial centers in Northwest, which would have encouraged restaurants, offices and specialty shops, were changed to "local neighborhood" centers, a lower intensity of commercial use that excludes office development. Even the Spring Valley shopping center, which already fits the plan's description of a "regional center" (an even more intense use), was reduced from a multi-neighborhood center to a local center.
The council, however, added or upgraded the intensity of commercial development for a number of shopping areas in other parts of the city, in an effort to encourage more diversity of shopping for lower-income neighborhoods. It designated three areas in the eastern sector as future sites of regional shopping centers: the Hechinger Mall, the Minnesota Avenue-Benning Road area, and the Anacostia Metro rail station area. The only two existing regional centers, according to the plan, are Georgetown and Friendship Heights.
The proposed maps included three policy-setting categories for residential communities, listing all the city's neighborhoods as either areas to be conserved, enhanced or revitalized. The text was unclear, however, on exactly what enhancement or revitalization would mean and how it would be encouraged.
The council voted to remove those categories and instead to include language in the text that sets a policy of preserving the city's neighborhoods. The council also made changes in the maps that would reduce allowable residential densities in many corners of the city, but keep some increased residential densities near the central employment district and along corridors that feed the downtown, despite policy statements in the text that say neighborhoods near the downtown need to be protected against future office encroachment.
The proposed maps included a list of 10 special-treatment areas, sections of the city that needed "case-specific planning actions" to ensure desired development. The City Council eliminated the Buzzards Point and International Trade Center/Portal Site special treatment areas and a special treatment area that actually encompassed three downtown neighborhoods, New Hampshire Avenue in Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle and Mount Vernon Square.
It was unclear why the council eliminated those areas from the listing, but by doing so it removed specific policy statements about those areas that the city had included in the plan, such as limiting the number of medical uses along New Hampshire Avenue and establishing residential as the predominant land use on the north side of Massachusetts Avenue near Dupont Circle. The council added the Reed-Cooke area as a special treatment area.
The plan includes 22 "development opportunity" areas, areas that are seen by the city as sites that can accommodate growth. Most, however, are in areas of the city that developers have not been attracted to in the past. While the plan calls for finding ways to encourage development in those areas, developers and builders here say that there is nothing in the plan that will make it easier to work there.
The City Council did include a stipulation that the city draft a public facilities plan and "promote the continued contributions made by private institutions toward the economic . . . vitality of the District." Developers say, however, that the plan does not include any requirement that the city improve facilities in development areas, which they say is the kind of "commitment" the city will need to make before developers will be attracted to those areas.
There are significant contradictions in the plan, which residents and builders alike say could confuse zoning issues in the city for years. Many of the areas of the city listed for mixed-use development, which calls for a combination of retail, office and housing, are close to stable neighborhoods.
The plan says stable neighborhoods should be preserved and protected from commercial encroachment and that the mixed-use areas are proposed to "stimulate new housing and job opportunities." But it also says that a mix of uses is not required in the mixed-use areas. The city has had difficulty encouraging developers to include housing in mixed-use areas, and critics of the plan say it will begin to have problems attracting developers willing to include retail and special uses in mixed-use developments unless they are required.
New initiatives included in the plan call for major colleges, universities and similar institutions to draw and keep master plans. It is unclear if private hospitals are "similar institutions." The plan calls on the city to prepare waterfront and shoreline plans to direct development of the city's riverfronts.
The plan establishes an Interagency Planning Council to coordinate the city's land-use actions and assist in agency reviews of major development proposals, but it is unclear what authority such a council would have. The plan also calls for changes to the zoning code to allow accessory apartments within single-family homes and incorporate other plan policies, calls for the city to update the plan every five years and calls on the city to update the urban renewal plans to match the comprehensive plan's policies.
"This is a very flawed plan, but the basic framework is there," said Richard Wolf, a member of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. "At least we now have a plan that can be amended and a requirement that there be more detailed ward plans that will allow a process for changes."