The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are the proposed changes to D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan already out of date?

A large residential construction project is underway in the NoMa neighborhood of D.C. in January.
A large residential construction project is underway in the NoMa neighborhood of D.C. in January. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Kirby Vining is chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

In November, the D.C. Council will begin considering a number of major changes proposed by the mayor to D.C.’s legally binding 1,500-page Comprehensive Plan. The proposed amendments do not address the long-term impacts of the novel coronavirus on how we live, work and commute. These profound impacts were not foreseen when the Office of Planning began its rewrite of the plan in 2017. Before adopting the plan, and given the far-reaching disruption caused by the coronavirus, the council should ask tough questions about the mayor’s proposals.

Driving the mayor’s proposals are several key assumptions, principally that D.C.’s population will continue to grow at a rapid pace. Also assumed is that D.C.-wide up-zoning and building of 36,000 new residential units by 2025 — only 12,000 of which would be affordable — represent the best way to accommodate this growth and lower living costs. But will the increased supply of market-rate housing trickle down to lower housing prices for those most in need of affordable housing?

On what basis does the mayor assume that population is still growing at a rapid rate? In-migration has declined nearly every year since 2012. According to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, D.C.’s population grew by only 4,202 in 2019, the smallest increase in a decade, with a total net increase in the adult population of only 398. The council should assess whether, in a post-coronavirus world, net out-migration is a real possibility.

Should D.C. be promoting the construction of new market-rate housing, much of it consisting of smaller units in high-rise buildings, or focusing its resources on preventing evictions and displacement of current residents? Won’t the aggressive development promoted by the proposed amendments accelerate the cycle of displacement and homelessness the amendments purport to cure? Shouldn’t the highest priorities be the preservation of existing affordable housing, investment in rehabilitating public housing and construction of new homes for low-income, longtime residents?

What will be the impact of teleworking on the need for additional office space in the future? Vacancy rates in commercial office space are at a record level, and market-rate rents are sinking. Perhaps this is an opportunity to convert some office buildings into residences, as some have proposed.

With Metro already taking a huge hit in ridership, what will be the long-term effects on our valued public transportation system? Under what conditions will riders again be willing to travel in packed Metro cars? What subsidies will be required to maintain the system as more work is performed remotely?

The foundation on which the proposed amendments are based has undergone a sea change. The mayor’s proposed amendments to the plan are not based on present reality and will not, as claimed, achieve equity for the most vulnerable.

The D.C. Council should shelve those parts of the draft plan that cannot be prudently assessed without knowing more about the ultimate impact of the pandemic. Instead, the council should address the crises at our door by supporting small, locally owned businesses, many of which have already been forced to close, depriving people of their income and placing them in jeopardy of becoming homeless; enacting job creation incentives, particularly to help lower-skilled residents; and expanding broadband so residents and students can work and learn from home.

Further, drawing on substantive engagement with residents, the council should focus housing goals on the preservation of existing affordable housing and the building of affordable housing in all wards for those most in need, especially low-income households whose housing needs are insufficiently addressed in the proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan.

D.C. needs a plan for today and tomorrow, not yesterday.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this cop-ed: D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan is far from all-encompassing

The Post’s View: D.C. should reject the mayor’s Comprehensive Plan proposals

The Post’s View: Bowser presented a sound spending plan. Now the D.C. Council needs to wake up to reality.

Brianne K. Nadeau: Get serious about affordable housing