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D.C. is set to update its official roadmap for development today. Here’s why that matters.

Changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan will have far-reaching implications

A large performance hall along the water and next to highways as seen from above, along with other residential and office buildings.
Foggy Bottom viewed from above
AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, D.C. lawmakers are poised to take one of their most important votes this year and pass changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, its guiding framework for growth and development. The vote comes as the District and surrounding jurisdictions aim to address the region’s affordable housing crisis by encouraging the construction of new homes, and also as the city’s population continues to mount. D.C. reached 700,000 residents last year, the first time it has done so since 1975, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

That has put additional pressure on low- and middle-income residents through higher rents and home prices, as more people compete for a limited supply of housing. But over the past three years, District leaders have been reworking the Comprehensive Plan to facilitate more real estate development and other urban priorities like a better transportation network. City councilmembers will vote for a second and final time on changes to the introductory chapter of the prodigious plan at a scheduled meeting today. What is at stake is the future of the city.

Specifically, the D.C. Council will debate a 93-page package of land-use and zoning reforms that resulted from earlier drafts. The amendments were arranged by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s office, in coordination with those of other councilmembers as well as advocacy and industry groups. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration proposed the original language in 2017 through the D.C. Office of Planning, which has continued to work with legislators on the Comprehensive Plan. The Council then held a 13-hour hearing on that bill in March 2018.

What is the Comprehensive Plan?

In short, the plan is a document that sets D.C.’s overarching development vision for the next two decades. Its sections treat economic development, housing, historic and environmental preservation, transportation, and other subjects. Initially adopted in 2006 and last updated in 2011, the plan serves as a guidebook for the independent D.C. Zoning Commission, which reviews development projects that require special exemptions or variances to be constructed.

A map of a city subdivided into 10 planning areas.
Area elements in D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan
D.C. government

What are the proposed changes and what would they do?

The Council, Bowser’s administration, and interest groups have hashed out myriad updates to the Comprehensive Plan, but the biggest ones include a stronger emphasis on affordable housing, racial equity, climate resilience, civic participation, and multimodal transportation as priorities for D.C. For example, the new language explicitly states that “the District seeks to create and support an equitable and inclusive city,” meaning that it ought to address “the historic, structural, and systemic racial inequalities and disenfranchisement of many District residents.” The plan also urges against displacement, segregation, and concentrated poverty.

Especially important are the reforms relating to planned unit developments (PUDs), which are projects that receive density bonuses above by-right zoning rules in exchange for public benefits like community amenities and infrastructure improvements. (Developers can build more when they contribute more.) The proposed changes identify a few “high-priority public benefits” for the Zoning Commission’s considerations of PUDs, including the production and preservation of affordable housing, reducing displacement through build-first redevelopment models, and guaranteeing the right of residents to return, at similar rents, after construction.

Who supports the changes? Who opposes them?

It appears that most of the Council favors the changes, with observers expecting them to pass Tuesday. Last week, a broad coalition of housing and anti-poverty advocates praised a recent iteration of the bill, too. The D.C. Building Industry and the D.C. Housing Authority, though, expressed concerns about the PUD provisions, according to the Washington City Paper and Greater Greater Washington. Notably, the housing authority is aiming to redevelop its public housing portfolio under a would-be 20-year plan that has a price tag in the billions of dollars.

How did we get to this point?

It’s been quite a saga. The amendment process has taken roughly two years after the Bowser administration submitted its Comprehensive Plan legislation to the Council in 2017 to get to this stage. The fact that approximately 300 people testified in person about the plan and its larger development implications at the March 2018 hearing compelled lawmakers to weigh their moves carefully. (2018, it’s worth pointing out, was a local election year.) There’s been no shortage of other Council business on the agenda, plus urban planning shake-ups as well.

What comes next?

Once the Council approves the changes to the Comprehensive Plan’s introductory chapter, they will head to Bowser’s desk for her signature. But that won’t be the end of the process: The D.C. Office of Planning says it will float additional amendments to subsequent chapters of the plan later this month. These will address neighborhood-level priorities, based on city planning areas, and infrastructure and urban design. They will also undergo Council review.