by Marlene Berlin
(Writing as 2018 President of Van Ness Main Street)
DC’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2006 and updated in 2011, is going through another round of updates. The plan will guide future land use in the District, setting standards for such things as the density of our commercial areas and neighborhoods.
Why is that important? DC’s population recently surpassed 700,000, and as the population grows, they will need places to live and work. So DC needs to plan for impacts on housing, businesses, infrastructure like roads and sidewalks, and much more.
(The Comprehensive Plan is separate from the Zoning Code, another body of regulations that determines land use. The Comprehensive Plan sets out vision, standards, and in some cases limits. Zoning is more specific as to what can be built as to height, density, uses, side yards, etc, So the Plan might be thought of as more like the Constitution, while Zoning is more like the body of laws. Zoning is also updated periodically, the last time in January 2016.)
Driven by the city’s growth and the need for consistency, the Office of Planning began a new amendment cycle about two years ago. There has been an extensive community input process. The Office of Planning received 3,064 proposed amendments through community meetings, online surveys and emails. Most came from individuals (185) and 106 were from organizations, mostly community groups and nonprofits like Van Ness Main Street. The current plan is over 1,000 pages and is made up of Elements (i.e named sections) and maps.
Recently the Mayor, through the Office of Planning, submitted proposed revisions to the first Element of the Plan, the Framework Element, and asked the Council to pass legislation to implement the revisions. The proposed legislation stipulates that the Zoning Commission is the final determiner of what complies with the Plan. During a 13-hour Council hearing on March 20th, 275 witnesses testified, a testament to the high interest and high stakes in the future of our city.
Some believe that the legislation goes too far in loosening standards and vests too much power in the Zoning Commission. One result feared is that communities would have more limited input into the development process.
Also of concern are the Framework’s 13 Elements, which deal with land use, economic development, housing, and environmental protection, all of which are forces driving change and growth in DC. Included are land use designations and definitions contained in the two important maps of the Comprehensive Plan: the Generalized Policy Map (which differentiates types of commercial and land use areas for future growth), and Future Land Use Map (which reflects future density for residential and commercial areas).
A side issue and one breeding much controversy is how to deal with the Comprehensive Plan’s inconsistencies – internally and with the Zoning Code. In the past, the Zoning Commission was the final arbiter. In some recent situations a developer and the community have worked out agreements through the auspices of the local ANC, but in others, an individual or a small group have filed lawsuits.
Here’s an example of an inconsistency in the current version of the Plan. As Gary Malasky, chair of the Van Ness Main Street Economic Development Committee prepared the Main Street’s comments on the Plan last year, he compared current Van Ness zoning with the current Comprehensive Plan’s Future Land Use Map. He found an issue that could limit future growth in Van Ness.
The current zoning states the area is a medium density zone, while the current Comprehensive Plan map shows it as moderate density. Which definition best fits Van Ness? Under the current Comprehensive Plan:
Moderate density commercial is used to describe areas of retail, office, and service uses, generally three to five stories in height. Moderate density residential is the term for row house neighborhoods, low-rise garden apartments, and areas characterized by a mix of single-family homes, row houses and small apartments.
Medium density commercial describes areas of mid-rise office and retail development (typically four to seven stories). Medium density residential indicates areas of mid-rise apartment development (four to seven stories is also typical), though it may also identify areas with a mix of high-rises and row houses or high-rises surrounded by large open spaces.
Van Ness Main Street believes medium density more accurately describes Van Ness, and proposed changing the designation accordingly. Here’s why.
Assuring density according to the existing zoning provides the opportunity for better and more diverse retail uses, and more housing and offices for the customer base needed to support successful retail. Improving the retail environment is one of the main reasons Van Ness Main Street exists.
And ANC 3F agrees. It submitted comments that call for this Comprehensive Plan designation as well. This change, if adopted, would not change the density, height, or uses already permitted by current zoning, but would clarify in the Plan that a medium density zone is appropriate for an area such as Van Ness.
In addition, at the March 20th ANC 3F meeting, the commissioners passed a resolution addressing the issues of internal inconsistencies and urging the DC Council to “[p]rotect the capacity of ANCs and the District’s citizens to participate effectively in land-use decision making and benefit from a reasonable level of stability and predictability in zoning….” And it asks that the Council ensure the Plan provides for affordable housing and inclusive growth.