DSA Activists Pressure Council to Save Land Use Planning in DC

As part of our chapter’s continued anti-gentrification work with the DC Grassroots Planning Coalition (GPC), several DSA members joined other GPC activists last month in visiting the District Council to oppose ­Mayor Bowser’s efforts to weaken the city’s most important land use policy.

In two lobbying visits to the Council in June, one involving ten GPC members and the other involving eight of us, DSA members took part in lengthy collective discussions about DC gentrification and the Mayor’s efforts to amend the framework of the existing DC Comprehensive Plan with staffers for Council members Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Trayon White (Ward 8), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), Charles Allen (Ward 6), Anita Bonds (at large), Vincent Gray (Ward 7), and Robert White (at large).

On the days of our visits, we had less luck meeting with staffers for Elissa Silverman (at large), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Brandon Todd (Ward 4), and Council Chair Phil Mendelson.  We met only briefly with staffers for David Grosso (at large), mostly because we see Grosso as already being sympathetic to anti-gentrification activists and other critics of the Mayor’s proposed Comp Plan changes.

However, we were able to drop off literature in the offices of these Council members and remind them that hundreds of GPC members from around the District are still highly concerned about preserving the Comp Plan’s existing language restricting over-development.

Simply reminding Council members that District residents are still actively seeking for a rejection of the Mayor’s weakening language was the main purpose of our visits.  Therefore, just turning up at a Council member’s largely empty office with eight to ten activists expressing strong objections to the DC Office of Planning’s proposed Comp Plan amendment was a kind of success.

Parisa Norouzi, chief organizer for Empower DC, and Caitlin Cocilova, staff attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, took the lead in structuring the GPC’s lobbying visits to Council staffers about the Comp Plan and the anti-gentrification fight.

However, DSA activists Nick DelleDonne and David Poms, as well as this writer, also took part in the discussions with several legislative aides, as did other GPC members as individual residents and as representatives from other organizations.  In several visits a good sense of teamwork developed among all the different GPC activists involved in informal give and take with Council staffers, a fact that bodes well for future cooperation among the very different groups and individuals involved in the Grassroots Coalition.

As previous articles in the Washington Socialist have indicated, local DSA members have been involved for more than a year now in the GPC’s monthly organizing meetings around protecting the DC Comp Plan and making it better able to protect low-income housing in the District while promoting greater racial, social and economic equity in the District.

Last year, DSA activists engaged in the Comp Plan fight submitted our own proposed amendments to the Plan to the DC Office of Planning, and on March 22 of this year, a number of us joined more than 100 other anti-gentrification activists in delivering individual testimony about the Comp Plan before a huge hearing of the District Council.  DSA members along with other GPC activists also attended several candidates’ forums this year in which competing candidates for Council nominations in the Democratic Party primary were queried about their positions on the Comp Plan, gentrification, and racial and economic displacement in the city.

For many months now, DSA housing activist David Poms has served on the GPC’s city-wide steering committee.  Some DSA members have taken part in efforts to lobby neighborhood advisory commissions (ANCs) in opposition to the Office of Planning’s proposed Comp Plan framework amendment, DC Council bill B22-0663.  One of our major objections to B22-0663 is that it could make the framework of the Comp Plan so vague and riddled with loopholes as to make the Plan unenforceable.

At Washington Socialist press time, the general belief among District Council members and other observers is that Council Chair Phil Mendelson is strongly opposed to the Office of Planning’s scheme to make the Comp Plan vague and ambiguous.

At a GPC candidate forum on June 14 for Mendelson and his unsuccessful rival for the Chairman’s seat, Ed Lazere, Mendelson indicated that he wants the Comp Plan to be definitive enough to guide planning and zoning in the city, not as vague as the Office of Planning had proposed to make it.

It seems likely as of this writing that Mendelson will submit his own proposed amendment to the “framework” element in the Plan to the Council for consideration in September. Yet whether it will contain language as supportive of social and economic equity as GPC members have proposed, and whether it will be as tough on overly-ambitious developers as anti-gentrification activists think it needs to be, is something no one can predict at the moment.

Some observers close to the issue expect that Mendelson, although he began his political career as an advocate for tenants’ rights in the District, will author a compromise document in hopes of winning wide support on the Council.  Some current Council members, notably including Jack Evans in Ward 2, are known for generally siding with the big developers on real estate and zoning issues. There are other members, such as David Grosso, for example, who are seen as being much more independent of them.

Many militant anti-gentrification activists in the city, such as Chris Otten of DC for Reasonable Development, see the Council as a whole as so dependent on campaign contributions from developers that the District Government will always side with the development lobby against neighborhood activists.   That’s one reason why GPC organizers see continuing pressure on the Council as urgently important.  However, Otten cites the influence of the real estate lobby over DC politics as an extremely urgent reason for opposing any changes to the Comp Plan to make it weaker.  When push comes to shove, he suggests, the only recourse many embattled neighborhoods have is to take the developers -- and the District Government, if need be – to court; and a strong Comp Plan is needed for this to be possible.

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