When it comes to views on land use in the District of Columbia, it's hard to tell one mayoral candidate from another.
On a sweltering evening in late July, in a tightly packed room without air conditioning at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, mayoral candidates David Clarke, Charlene Drew Jarvis, John Ray and Maurice Turner sweated out a forum on land-use issues. Sharon Pratt Dixon and Walter E. Fauntroy also had been invited, but were unable to attend.
The forum, the sponsors of which included the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Planning Association, the D.C. Preservation League and the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, focused on planning, zoning and historic preservation.
Invited to be the moderator, I had the task of asking responses to questions sent in advance to each of the candidates and fielding questions submitted by the audience, in addition to acting as referee and time-keeper.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the candidates' responses and comments revealed substantial agreement on most issues, with only a few exceptions.
In answer to questions about administrative procedures in general and building permit processing in particular, the candidates strongly advocated administrative reform.
They spoke of streamlining the bureaucracy and demanding greater accountability on the part of individual officials within government. Charlene Drew Jarvis particularly emphasized the need for housecleaning.
The D.C. planning office and its managers were the administrative targets of choice. Candidates talked about appointing a new director, raising the professional qualifications of the staff and reorganizing the planning office so that, in the interest of independence, it no longer would fall within the economic development department.
Every speaker supported reviewing and amending existing zoning regulations, including down-zoning, to comply with the District's comprehensive plan. However, no one made specific recommendations about how and what regulations should be changed.
There was some disagreement over the effectiveness of the plan, which former police chief Turner criticized for being too imprecise and vague.
Clarke and Ray defended the plan, but Clarke acknowledged that superimposing it over a detailed street and property map would make it easier to interpret and enforce.
Questions were asked about specific neighborhoods and sites in the District, such as the McMillan Reservoir, St. Elizabeths Hospital and the Southeast waterfront area, to learn what each candidate thought about their ultimate development.
Criticism continues over the fate of the west campus of St. Elizabeths: Should it remain primarily a mental health-care facility? Should it be transformed into a mix of uses ranging from housing to shopping? Should the architecture and landscape be preserved? Should the property be sold to private developers to generate maximum economic benefits for the city and community?
No candidate had a specific plan or program of uses for St. Elizabeths ready to unfold that night. Instead, in the pursuit of consensus and the broadest possible public support, all cloaked themselves in the noncontroversial mantle of community consultation and community will.
Each candidate repeatedly espoused a policy geared to process, not product, in tying their positions to the views and prospective wishes of affected communities.
Let us collaborate by sitting down and reasoning and dreaming together. That, in so many words, was the usual answer to questions about how to develop specific sites or neighborhoods. Whatever the community wants, the community should get.
All seemed equally supportive of inclusive, rather than exclusive, land-use policies. Respect and preserve the past, protect the environment, provide for health and education, build shelter, generate commerce and create jobs, income and tax revenue. Nothing is left out. Who could argue?
Likewise, historic preservation was a high priority. When asked how they would reconcile historic preservation goals and economic development goals, often in conflict within historic districts, the candidates predictably endorsed both sets of goals while recognizing the need to consider projects on a case-by-case basis. There were no dogmatists in this group.
There was considerable discussion of housing. The candidates unhesitatingly declared themselves champions of fair housing opportunity for all. They promised more housing construction, more rehabilitation of vacant housing and better public housing management. Rent control and the interests of tenants, especially the elderly, frequently were mentioned and declared to be paramount.
Also mentioned was the importance of adopting housing and neighborhood development policies encouraging and stabilizing occupancy by families, ideally in home ownership situations. Less clear, once again, is exactly what such policies and related regulations might entail.
Minor differences emerged on the subject of housing linkage and the D.C. Downtown Development Plan.
No one opposed creating a "living downtown" by building housing along with commercial development. After all, it was noted, that's what the comprehensive plan calls for.
But while the candidates were willing to exact housing contributions from developers in return for development rights, all were not prepared to insist that every downtown commercial developer build housing on downtown sites.
In keeping with deliberations by the zoning commission over the downtown plan, some mayoral candidates favored pushing downtown-linked housing out into the neighborhoods where it would be more affordable and where housing dollars would stretch further.
Among the candidates there appears to be no Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, the willful and corrupt D.C. Commissioner who transformed Washington by paving and planting its muddy, treeless landscape in the 1880s, or Baron Haussmann, the forceful city administrator who restyled the boulevards and streets of Paris in the mid-19th century.
No inspiring grand plans or concrete concepts were put forward for reshaping Southeast neighborhoods, for revitalizing the Anacostia River and its watershed, for solving District and regional housing problems through innovative housing initiatives, for improving public transportation, or even for modifying the District's approach to integrated planning and zoning.
Perhaps it's unrealistic in this era to expect such ideas to be put forth in detail during a personality-driven political campaign, especially when most voters are preoccupied with problems in their neighborhoods. And perhaps it's expecting too much of a two-minute answer during a candidates' forum on a hot and humid July night.
In reality, politicians who offer visionary proposals or innovative solutions to urban problems risk controversy. And if they are unable to explain in simple terms complex strategies for implementing their visions, they risk losing credibility.
Nevertheless, imaginative aspirations and explicit proposals for Washington's physical future could be articulated by the candidates who say substantively the same, safe things about most land use issues.
Boldness and specificity, although fraught with political peril, certainly would inspire more voter interest in an otherwise lackluster, motherhood-and-apple-pie campaign.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.