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D.C. Council approves development framework with emphasis on affordable housing

The updates to the city’s Comprehensive Plan contemplate racial equity as well

A residential building in D.C.
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District lawmakers on Tuesday preliminarily advanced key changes to the Comprehensive Plan, the city’s guiding document for development and growth. The move followed over a year of consideration by the legislature, including an impassioned public hearing in March 2018 that saw about 300 witnesses and ran into the early morning, lasting for over 12 hours.

Among the prospective changes, laid out in a 231-page report by a D.C. Council committee, are a stronger focus on affordable housing and racial equity as priorities for the District. The Council’s revisions to the Comprehensive Plan also discuss the importance of “planned unit developments,” or PUDs—zoning vehicles that permit greater density in exchange for certain community benefits—in raising the amount of housing, retail, and other amenities in the city.

PUDs are granted by the D.C. Zoning Commission, a semi-independent body with local and federal representation. In recent years, they have come under fire from legal challenges by neighborhood activists who say they are concerned about gentrification and other negative impacts related to development. The updates to the Comprehensive Plan say the community benefits derived from PUDs ought to be “lasting” and “not inconsistent” with the plan itself.

“In light of the acute need to preserve and build affordable housing,” the Council’s revisions say, “the production of new affordable housing units, above and beyond existing matter-of-right limits, and the prevention of permanent displacement of on-site residents should be considered as high-priority public benefits in the evaluation of residential PUDs.” Also, the Zoning Commission must “clearly explain its decision-making rationale,” note the changes.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s committee of the whole spearheaded the revisions in consultation with other councilmembers and the D.C. Office of Planning, which originally proposed an update to the Comprehensive Plan early last year after receiving more than 3,000 public comments. A second vote is required for the changes to become law. One is expected in the coming months, as are additional conversations among councilmembers.

As for combatting racial inequality, the latest version of the Comprehensive Plan says D.C. must “commit to normalizing conversations about race and operationalizing strategies for advancing racial equity.” “We must recognize that managing growth and change includes addressing the historic, structural, and systemic racial inequities and disenfranchisement of many District residents,” it adds. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie requested these changes and recently proposed separate legislation designed to support racial equity goals.

Language about urban resilience, climate change, and natural and social catastrophes was also added to the document. Following the Council’s vote Tuesday, Andrew Trueblood, who directs the Office of Planning under Mayor Muriel Bowser, tweeted in praise of the progress.

The last time the Comprehensive Plan was formally revised was 2011. It was enacted in 2006.