If the vision is carried out, it could turn D.C. into a place where fewer people drive cars, more pavement used for parking shifts to outdoor restaurant seating, and some people even pay a toll to drive downtown. The plan envisions a city where Metro stations are public gathering places, apartment buildings have stoops where people congregate, and taller buildings abut older single-family houses.
The amendments, which the council will vote on at two meetings this month before the bill heads to Bowser’s desk for final approval, allow for significantly more housing construction, especially along major corridors west of Rock Creek Park.
Bowser wants to allow developers to build apartments and townhouses, including affordable units, especially in desirable neighborhoods that have historically been largely restricted to single-family homes. Her proposed amendments would allow higher density along key corridors, including Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues in Ward 3.
The council rejected or dialed back some of Bowser’s proposals, reducing the density increase proposed in Cleveland Park and rejecting changes that, among other things, would have allowed more construction in the Northeast neighborhood of Ivy City and near the Brookland Metro station.
D.C. planning director Andrew Trueblood, who took the lead on drafting Bowser’s proposals, said her plan would allow the city to increase its new housing stock by as much as 15 percent, which he sees as badly needed. “The more that you cut that back, the harder it will be to produce housing and the less housing will be produced,” he said. “Some of these areas, I know there were projects that would have had housing that the owners might have to shelve. There’s a real impact to that.”
Many activists feel the density that the council is poised to allow is too much. In several neighborhoods, residents are petitioning to not allow greater construction in their areas. Some advocates for low-income Washingtonians argue allowing private developers to build luxury units has a track record of creating gentrification, not more affordable housing.
In Ward 1, where D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D) has pushed for increased density, the council has proposed allowing more housing than Bowser suggested on many blocks, including in Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Park View and the U Street area.
Other highlights of the amendments to the plan are below.
D.C. officials want fewer people to drive cars
Each section of the plan begins with a list of goals. In the transportation chapter, Bowser added an item, which she listed as her first priority: “Eliminating fatalities and serious injuries on the transportation network.” The next goal remains providing alternatives to cars. Another goal Bowser added to the plan: reducing the negative health and environmental effects from transportation. (Bowser added priorities in other sections, too: “ending homelessness” and “reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and adapting to climate change” among them.)
To meet her goal of fewer cars, Bowser calls for “emerging smart-city technologies,” like high-tech dynamic parking meters, and praises the private companies that have brought scooters, dockless bikes, and car-sharing to the District since the 2006 Comprehensive Plan was written. She adds a call for developers to build pedestrian or bicycle paths connecting their buildings to Metro stations.
The 2006 plan included a brief section discussing a bold but controversial policy idea: congestion pricing, or charging drivers to use the roads during high-traffic periods. In the updated version, Bowser and the council have fleshed out that section. This doesn’t mean D.C. will implement congestion pricing — after all, it hasn’t happened in the first 15 years of this plan — but it indicates officials are taking the idea seriously. Bowser added a line to that section: “The District’s ultimate goal is to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles and reduce vehicle miles traveled.”
Turning parking spaces into community spaces
Fewer cars means fewer parking spots — and vice versa. Bowser added a line in the plan suggesting the city should reduce parking as a way to discourage private car ownership and use: “An increase in vehicle parking has been shown to add vehicle trips to the transportation network. In light of this, excessive off-street vehicle parking should be discouraged.”
To make that happen, her amendments call for exploring options to reduce parking requirements in zoning for new buildings. The plan also says too little road space in the District is dedicated to non-car travel and calls for every nonlocal street in the city to include at least one lane for bicycles, buses or some purpose other than single-occupancy cars.
Bowser inserted new sections calling for “more active and livable” use of public space, including using asphalt for commercial and cultural activities, like the restaurant tables in roadways that have become popular during the pandemic. She added language calling for drinking fountains and stand-alone public restrooms in commercial corridors to make walking a more appealing choice for getting around town.
Planning for climate change
Since the 2006 plan, D.C.'s Southwest Waterfront has seen some of the most high-profile development in the city, and the amended plan calls for even more projects designed to make use of the Potomac and the Anacostia rivers. Ideas include extending city street grids so that pedestrians in neighborhoods like Hill East have greater access to the Anacostia, and studying ways to get past highways and railroads that block off some of the city’s waterfronts.
But the plan acknowledges that the waterfront geography of the city might change very soon, as global warming threatens to bring significant sea level rise to D.C. The city must focus on neighborhoods that could be vulnerable to flooding as a result, the plan says, including Georgetown, the Southwest Waterfront and the neighborhood around RFK Stadium.
With maps showing how much hotter the land surface tends to be in the city’s core than in less dense neighborhoods, and in its eastern neighborhoods compared with leafier areas west of Rock Creek Park, the plan calls for reducing urban heat islands by planting trees, installing lighter-colored sidewalks and using other technologies “wherever possible.”
Addressing the influence of civic, historic groups
In public meetings about the amendments, one of the most controversial aspects has been historic preservation.
The 2006 plan devotes an entire chapter to the subject, and advocates for increasing urban development have long pointed to historic preservationists and neighborhood residents who oppose development as stumbling blocks to new projects.
Bowser’s amendments emphasize the importance of the city’s historic character but nod toward small changes in how preservation is handled during the development process. She modified one sentence, which originally ordered: “Ensure that the views of property owners, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, neighborhood organizations, and the general public are solicited and given careful consideration.” In the mayor’s version, “ensure that” was deleted, and the sentence changed to say the public “should be” consulted.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) restored the original language. In several other places, Bowser changed the word “protect” to “preserve,” and Mendelson changed it back. Bowser’s language could dilute the influence of civic and preservationist groups, which sometimes present obstacles to boosting the density of projects and adding affordable and equitable housing.
“The word ‘protection’ has a murky history sometimes. Protection was used as protection for people. It was used to further segregation,” Trueblood said. “A development next to a building doesn’t necessarily harm it, but it should respect it … Neighborhood context has oftentimes been a way to push back on housing. How do we say, ‘You can respect neighborhood context and further it, and build more housing at the same time?’ ”
The council can debate further amendments at its meeting on Tuesday, then one more time later in the month.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said D.C. Planning Director Andrew Trueblood ascribed a motive to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser's proposal to change language in the comprehensive plan regarding the role of civic and preservationist groups. It was neighborhood advocates, not Trueblood, who said Bowser's proposed language could dilute their influence over the development process.