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D.C. Council approves redistricting plan, reshaping Wards 7 and 8

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D.C. lawmakers voted Tuesday in favor of a plan to redraw the boundaries of the city’s wards, making the fast-growing Navy Yard neighborhood a part of the historically low-income Ward 8 and the easternmost section of Capitol Hill a part of Ward 7.

The new map — which the city must by law redraw every 10 years after the U.S. census provides new information on shifting population levels across neighborhoods — will require a second vote by the D.C. Council later this month to complete a process that has been contentious across the city.

In almost every ward, residents whose homes might be redistricted into other wards have raised objections. A committee of three at-large council members held weeks of hearings, then approved a map, which council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) proposed several changes to this week.

The council voted Tuesday to approve Mendelson’s map by a vote of 11 to 1. Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), whose proposed amendment to keep the property around the Armed Forces Retirement Home and Washington Hospital Center in his ward failed on a tie vote, was the only member to vote against the legislation. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) was absent because of health issues.

Wards 7 and 8 have long represented poor, Black D.C. neighborhoods. What does it mean to redistrict them?

The 2020 Census showed that Ward 6 was disproportionately larger than the city’s other seven wards, having grown rapidly over the past decade as new apartment complexes sprung up in Navy Yard, along the Southwest Waterfront and in other neighborhoods. Wards 7 and 8, which have been almost exclusively east-of-the-Anacostia wards, grew at a far slower pace and needed to increase in population to meet the legal redistricting requirements.

That means those wards will expand across the Anacostia in the new configuration. Ward 7 will reach across the river to 15th Street from Benning Road NE to Potomac Avenue SE, and Ward 8 will add the Navy Yard area.

Part of the Shaw neighborhood will move from Ward 6 to Ward 2. Wards 3 and 4 remain unchanged under the proposal.

Much of the vocal opposition to the proposal comes from residents of the Hill East neighborhood that is set to move from Ward 6 to Ward 7. As these residents have objected to a split that leaves part of the Capitol Hill community in one ward and part in another, some have accused them of not wanting to live in a majority-Black ward.

A group of Ward 7 activists held a news conference Monday afternoon to ask the council to vote on a proposal that significantly expands the population of their ward. They said they approved of Mendelson’s plan.

“There are some communities actively advocating against this specific proposal or boundaries,” Dionna Maria Lewis, one of the leaders, wrote in an email. “… We believe that the dissension in and of itself is also reflective of a greater issue that externally, Ward 7 is not considered as economically viable, livable and desirable as other Wards, Ward 6 in particular. D.C. is only as strong as all eight wards.”

The council on Tuesday also voted to lease at nominal cost a 42,200-square-foot parcel in the NoMa neighborhood to a team of development partners that includes LaRuby May, an ally of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and a former Ward 8 council member. May, who represented Ward 8 for less than two years, is a former Bowser campaign staffer who worked on her mayoral transition team. She also operates a real estate and development consulting group.

The District-owned land at 2 Patterson Street NE, currently a vacant lot that council members said is worth $17 million, will be leased to the development team for 99 years for $1 per year. The proposed high-rise development would include 580 residential units, of which 56 percent would be listed as affordable for families earning 30 to 80 percent of the median family income.

Council members Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) voted against the deal, after raising questions about whether a long-term lease to a developer was the best use of the land.

The council postponed voting on a proposal to halt Bowser’s program clearing away tent encampments from city streets. Some members argued that the bill needed revisions to make sure the city could, for example, oust people camping on public school grounds.

The meeting may have been one of the last ones that the council will conduct from outside the Wilson Building, after working remotely since April 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After weeks of discussion, Mendelson suggested a plan Tuesday that would have the council return for partial in-person operation starting Jan. 18. Members of the public would be able to return to the building but would need to show proof of vaccination and remain masked in common areas.

Meetings that involve all 13 council members would be held in a hybrid fashion — simultaneously in-person and over Zoom — while smaller hearings could be either hybrid or entirely virtual.

But questions linger about some of the details, such as whether visitors would need an escort to navigate the building. Mendelson said the council will finalize its plan next week.

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