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D.C. to pursue changes to long-term development plan in 2019

Legislators will take up Comprehensive Plan amendments in the coming months

Cranes above D.C. buildings
Andrei Medvedev/Shutterstock

Update, Jan. 7: At a press briefing on the eve of the D.C. Council’s first legislative meeting of 2019, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson reiterated his commitment to finalizing changes to the District’s Comprehensive Plan for growth “over the next several months.” Although the Council probably will not hold another hearing on the proposal in question, Mendelson said he feels “some urgency” to advance the changes, including with “more emphasis on housing.”

Original post, Dec. 7:

Urban planning nerds who are anxious to see what local lawmakers are going to do to the District’s Comprehensive Plan for development and growth will have to wait a little longer.

Earlier this week, D.C. Council Council Chairman Phil Mendelson told reporters at a media briefing that his committee of the whole would not mark up proposed amendments to the Comp Plan—as the District’s overarching framework for land-use is known—before the end of 2018. Some community activists and leaders had expected changes to move forward by then because the Council’s current two-year legislative session terminates later this month.

Mendelson said the “crush of business” that lawmakers are handling as they head into next year, which has included everything from decriminalizing Metro fare evasion to a deal for a new hospital in Southeast, was the reason for the timing. But he said he was “committed” to advancing updates to at least the introductory chapter of the Comp Plan before the Council completes D.C.’s budget for fiscal year 2020, which starts on Oct. 1, 2019, during the spring.

Although the planning document may sound mundane, it is important for how the District will transform over the coming years. Adopted in 2006, the Comp Plan was last updated in 2011. Since then, the city has continued to see a boom in population and economic activity that has brought it great wealth but—in the absence of sufficient housing production—also intensified cost-of-living pressures on low- and middle-income residents. The Comp Plan is one way that officials can establish ground rules for future development and infrastructure.

Last March, the Council’s committee of the whole held a contentious public hearing on the potential Comp Plan modifications that stretched for more than a dozen hours and featured around 300 witnesses. Particularly at issue is the planned unit development process, which allows developers to exceed by-right zoning in exchange for providing community benefits. In recent years, community members have often challenged real estate projects involved in this process, citing gentrification issues. The Comp Plan changes may reduce such appeals.

Mendelson has said he wants to ensure that affordable housing is characterized as a priority for the city and to clarify language about zoning conflicts in whatever final amendments are made. “Making the [Comprehensive Plan] more general, dumbing it down, is not making it a better plan,” he told the Washington Business Journal last September. “The challenge here is that the framework is essentially silent on housing being a priority.” The District’s Office of Planning, which is looking for a permanent director, will oversee updates to the Comp Plan.