Comprehensive Plan Amendment process zigzags to developers' advantage

Last week, the DC Office of Planning (OP) released their first update in months, and unfortunately, it goes completely off-script from the process they laid out, putting those of us who care about housing, economic, and environmental justice in a tough spot. This move will potentially shape the next several years of development politics, what kind of city we build and for whom we build it. This emergency needs our best effort and several meetings  shown at the foot of this article will address it.

Background on January 2018 move by DC Office of Planning

In a January 9th letter, the director of OP makes clear that rather then proceed with a 60 day public comment period on the full set of amendments, as was promised months ago, they're going straight for the kill by first focusing on the set of amendments that the developer class wants more than anything else - namely, to de-fang the most successful tool that anti-gentrification activists have used to slow down harmful development projects in recent years.

In OP's new draft of the Framework Chapter of the Comp Plan (the chapter that governs how to use the rest of the plan), the city has added several new sections, including some (225, 226, and 227) that are written to do the following things: turn the definition of various levels of density into general, not prescriptive, language, and to give final power of interpretation to the Zoning Commission to override language in the Comp Plan, provided that the Zoning Commission thinks its appropriately in line with the overall Plan. For those of you who follow development and zoning news in DC closely, you'll know that this is the heart of the DC superior court's 2016 decision that has developers up in arms. You'll also know that the Zoning Commission has been extremely loose in their interpretation of "in line with the Comp Plan" when it comes to variances for developers through the 'planned unit development' process, which has facilitated some of the most harmful development projects while shutting communities out of the planning process.

Many urbanists will insist here that consolidating power in the Zoning Commission in favor of developers is necessary to counter NIMBYism and to get more housing built, but while OP has put in a lot of language about expected future growth, and some language about the rise in rental housing cost and growing inequality, none of the changes proposed here force anyone in power to actually do anything about these problems. In fact, just one paragraph later (228), OP's new language admits that moving forward, we don't have the infrastructure ready to absorb the expected population growth in the coming decades, and claims that we're too broke to build it unless we keep giving away billions through public-private partnerships. Moreover, OP explicitly advocates against our proposal to mandate that equity be a paramount value of the Comp Plan and the Zoning Commission.

This is language coming out of the Mayor's office not long after the Mayor and 9 councilmembers allowed an estate tax on DC's wealthiest to expire last year, put billions into subsidizing the Wharf and a new soccer stadium, and as we're in the final running for 50,000 new jobs for Amazon HQ2. So, the plan seems to be to maximize flexibility for developers eager to cash in on scarcity, create the conditions for further gentrification, and then just hope for the best ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

The anti-democratic nature of this process should not be overlooked either. By diverting from the stated feedback process to just considering this one chapter, It is as if they are saying, "we get what we want, and then you can worry about the rest of the details once we've made sure they won't matter too much". The real estate press is already celebrating, and the Mayor has gone straight to introducing legislation that codifies this language rather than engage the community in what is supposed to be a democratic process.

We are in the midst of a housing crisis and desperately need more affordable housing in cities in order to achieve economic and environmental justice (and fight climate change), but given that the Office of Planning has chosen to roll out solely this chapter with just this set of amendments that are highly desirable for developers, in a way that minimizes community input, what are we to expect about how they'll prioritize anyone or anything else? We're looking at policy that could facilitate DC's final transition to a gilded playground for the wealthy unless we demand something different.

Meetings to fight back on this duplicitous detour of the announced process:

Saturday, Feb. 3  DSA Comp Plan working group meeting - ,1:30-3pm @ Panera bread on 673 H St NW. Join MDC DSA to discuss how we'll advocate for our preferred amendments to the DC Comprehensive Plan, and how we'll respond to the latest anti-democratic move from the DC Office of Planning while advocating for socialist planning, housing policy, and environmental justice. Read this post for more details on how to take action, and more dates to participate in activities with the Grassroots Planning Coalition. Email David Poms ( or join #comp-plan on Slack for more updates.

Saturday, February 10th DC Grassroots Planning Coalition Meeting 2-4 PM NOTE LOCATION CHANGE 2:00-4:30 PM Christ United Church, 900 4th St, SW Southwest Neighborhood Library, 900 Wesley Pl, SW (please consider attending the march against slumland Geoff Griffis in solidarity with Congress Heights tenants prior to the meeting – meet at noon at the Cleveland Park Metro Station)

I hope you'll join us at one of these upcoming meetings and stay engaged with this fight. Despite this attack on democratic urban planning, we have a great opportunity to engage in a conversation about what kind of city we want.

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