The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dry D.C. planning document fuels heated debate over future of expensive city

District residents line up to enter and testify before the D.C. Council on Tuesday about proposed changes to the city’s comprehensive plan. The seemingly dry topic has sparked a debate about gentrification, affordability and displacement.
District residents line up to enter and testify before the D.C. Council on Tuesday about proposed changes to the city’s comprehensive plan. The seemingly dry topic has sparked a debate about gentrification, affordability and displacement. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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The issue seems painfully dull: a 1,000-page framework that outlines how the District should plan for land use, transportation, density, recreational space, economic development and environmental protection over the next 20 years.

But it sparked a raging debate about gentrification, affordability and displacement as hundreds packed a D.C. Council hearing Tuesday on proposed changes to the city’s comprehensive plan.

The plan, adopted by the council in 2006 and last updated in 2011, drives decisions about development projects across the nation’s capital. It serves as a blueprint for the city’s future — and its priorities.

Lawmakers, planning officials, developers and community activists are wrestling over the central tension in D.C. politics: As young professionals pour into a once-struggling city and the economy booms, longtime residents are priced out, and income inequality is among the nation’s worst.

“Our city needs a stronger guiding tool for development and growth,” council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said at the hearing. “We need to explicitly recognize that the future of our city is being driven right now by displacement of our longest-term residents.”

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is proposing amendments to end what she considers to be nuisance challenges to development projects in an effort to reduce the cost of doing business in the District and speed the creation of new housing. Smart-growth advocates say that the mayor’s ideas will increase the supply of low-income housing by limiting the power of activists to block new developments, many of which are required to include some affordable housing along with market-rate units.

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But community activists say that the Bowser administration’s proposals will make it more difficult to fight gentrification. They say they need tools that exist in the plan to block luxury projects that heat up the real estate market while providing minimal benefits for neighborhoods.

The issues — diving deep into the weeds of urban development — have attracted enormous public interest.

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The council has received more than 3,000 written comments, and 273 people signed up to testify at Tuesday’s hearing — an apparent record. A 2009 hearing on legalizing same-sex marriage drew 267 witnesses.

Activists sported rival yellow “Support market and affordable housing” stickers and white “Stop the comprehensive plan scam” buttons. The council opened an overflow room for those who could not squeeze into the main chamber, where the 2 p.m. hearing was expected to stretch late into Tuesday night.

There was much agreement on the need for affordable housing; less on how to make it happen.

Supporters of the mayor’s amendments lamented a recent surge in lawsuits by community activists against projects approved by District officials.

“A few people can delay or halt even something that has robust community support,” said David Alpert, founder of the smart-
development organization Greater Greater Washington. “Is a land-use system where, no matter the community support, anything can be filibustered really good government?”

Others told the council that they are worried the mayor’s proposed changes would let developers run wild.

Is this champion disrupter of D.C. development a crusader or extortionist?

“The new land-use rules are so general that almost anything goes,” said Stephen Hansen, chairman of the preservation group Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

The plan is intended to serve as a 20-year guide to growth in a city that has reached a four-decade high population of 700,000 and is expected to grow to nearly 1 million by 2045.

“We are acutely aware of and concerned about the threat to affordability in the District and associated pressures that contribute to displacement of residents,” Office of Planning Director Eric D. Shaw said in written testimony to the council. “We continue to consider important refinements to the Comprehensive Plan that will further address the District’s housing sector and look forward to working with Council and their staff to shape these refinements.”

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Shaw was scheduled to testify in the evening after public comments concluded.

The legislation proposed by the mayor is the first of a two-part effort to overhaul the city’s comprehensive plan.

The council, which made no decisions Tuesday, is expected to vote on the overhaul in the coming months, after additional negotiations.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said his top priorities are making sure that the plan treats the creation of new housing as an urgent need and does not become so ambiguous that it is useless in helping the city resolve competing goals.

“Our task is to reconcile these conflicts with clarity rather than vagueness,” he said.

D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who chairs the housing committee, said she supported the mayor’s efforts to reduce nuisance lawsuits.

But several lawmakers seemed to be skeptical.

“As I see it, the proposed changes open doors to more dense, higher commercial development in neighborhoods without ensuring there will be adequate affordability,” said council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who represents the poorest part of the city.

“We have lost so much affordable housing in the city,” said council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). “Clearly, our strategy is not working.”

Others said that the issue before them provides an opportunity to influence the direction of the city.

“I don’t see a document that talks about land use; I see a document that will guide the future economic growth of the District of Columbia,” said council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). “In spite of the population growth and increased prosperities, we are seeing in D.C. lower and middle class — particularly black — families are being left behind.”