Photo of the Central Armature Works, Inc. building
Eric Falquero

Texas-based developer Trammell Crow intends to break ground on the “Armature Works” project in Northeast D.C. later this year. A 2017 appeal by the grassroots entity H Street Neighbors had challenged the development and stalled work on the project while it moved through the courts. The appeal was dismissed earlier this year. The same group has appealed several other projects in the NoMa area, as have other groups throughout the city. According to a spreadsheet maintained by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, more than 4500 housing units are not being built because they are stalled in an appeals process. Approximately 700 of them would be classified as affordable.

   A slew of appeals against “planned unit developments,” which allow developers to exceed zoning limits in exchange for building some affordable housing units or providing other benefits for the community, may hinge on a precedent set by Friends of McMillan Park, which contested 25 acres of fenced-off and unused land at the corner of North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue NW. The historic site is home to ruins of an obsolete water filtration system.  

Street Sense Media reported on the long-running grassroots resistance to the redevelopment plans in 2015 and the appeal the group filed in November 2016. One month later, the day after a ceremonial groundbreaking at the McMillan Park site, the D.C. Court of Appeals overruled the Zoning Commission’s approval of the $90 million project. Friends of McMillan had successfully argued to the court that the project did not fall within the guidelines of the city’s Comprehensive Plan.  

The 1000-page Comprehensive Plan guides “inclusive” development in the city, aiming to encourage, yet regulate, growth that will attract new residents without pushing away Washingtonians. The McMillan case was the first successful filing of its kind in two decades. Now, to other actors, the Comprehensive Plan suddenly had teeth. 

The plan was created with the expectation that it would be updated every five years. It was last overhauled in 2006 and last updated in 2011. Since early 2017, the D.C. Office of Planning has been spearheading revisions. 

Commercial real estate developers say that a minority of District residents have prevented thousands of affordable and market-rate housing units from being built by filing appeals that stall projects for months as they work their way through the courts. Developers say that now, when they pitch projects to investors, they must factor in time for lengthy appeals. But the residents filing appeals say this is the only tool they have to demand more affordable housing and combat gentrification. 

The Comprehensive Plan update process has been a lightning rod for these tensions.  

During the 2006 revision, the Office of Planning received 300 public comments. During the comment period for the current revision, it received more than 3,000. A total of 273 concerned citizens, including lawyers, activists and policy wonks, signed up to testify at the first D.C. Council hearing, which lasted more than 13 hours and stretched well into the morning of March 21.  

Despite its length, the hearing was relatively small in scope, only addressing changes to the 60-page “Framework Element” that sets up broad guidelines for the detailed chapters that follow. City government had released a markup of the suggested changes ahead of time. 

ANC 2B Commissioner Nicholas DelleDonne sent an email to his constituents highlighting the suggested changes and calling out language on page 54 of the document. “New language there reads that the Plan is ‘not to be strictly followed,’” DelleDonne wrote to his constituents. “That is a massive shift — not an amendment, but a rewrite.” DelleDonne and others fear the plan would become a set of suggestions, not a rulebook. 

[Read more: ANC commissioners drum up interest in Comprehensive Plan]

This change would effectively remove the potential for the U.S. Court of Appeals to interfere with decisions made by local zoning officials based on the language in the plan, as has been done recently. That’s exactly what developers say is needed. 

When asked why this portion of the document was updated, the Bowser administration said in a statement provided to Street Sense Media that the language governing enforcement of the Plan is vague. DelleDonne interprets the new language as even more vague, indicating the plan is not to be “strictly followed” – rewriting or removing current guidelines rather than massaging them.   

During the hearing, Councilmember-at-Large Robert White Jr. said the amended plan, as written, doesn’t have enough “teeth” to bring needed change. “Long-term residents are being displaced by development,” he said. 

Screenshot of a man speaking into a microphone. Text on the screen says "You are watching the council of the district of columbia committee of the whole" and displays the date "03/20/2018"

At-Large Councilmember Robert White Jr. at the March 20-21 marathon D.C. Council meeting regarding the framework section of the comprehensive plan. Image courtesy of DCCouncil.us

“There is a clear misunderstanding of the issues,” said his colleague Trayon White, who added that residents east of the Anacostia River, in Wards 7 and 8, are very much misunderstood.   

Councilmember Brianne Nadeau said there is a consistent path of racial and economic discrimination in D.C. “Steer the ship toward more responsible and affordable public housing,” she said. 

Activist David Whitehead, representing the Edgewood Community in Ward 5, said the Comprehensive Plan should be a tool to get more affordable housing and prevent displacement.  

“We need more housing,” he said to the packed council chamber, adding that the Comprehensive Plan needs stronger language on affordable housing. “The question is whether to water down the Comprehensive Plan or clarify it.” 

“We need to emphasize stability,” testified Ms. Greene, a public witness. “Don’t tear down the existing affordable housing.” 

Caroline Petty, president of the Brookland Civic Association, favored the plan, though she had concerns. The amendments obscure the clarity of the Comprehensive Plan, she said, opening it more to debate and interpretation. 

Councilmember Elissa Silverman commented that “we have lost much affordable housing in our city,” and also emphasized the need for clarity. 

“What is a stable neighborhood?” Nadeau asked rhetorically. “It is one where people don’t get displaced.” 

There is a lack of “transparency,” testified Dr. Sabiyha Prince, a gentrification expert trained in anthropology and qualitative research. 

In response to a complaint by housing advocates that Mayor Bowser’s office bypassed usual procedure, her communications director told Street Sense Media in an email that officials in the mayor’s office held several meetings with assembled members of the public. Bowser’s staff submitted a report to the Office of Planning.   

“The problems aren’t solved; they’re getting worse,” said Parisa Norouzi, Executive Director of Empower D.C., the main nonprofit behind the anti-plan protest efforts and “Stop the Comprehensive Scam” stickers worn by many to the hearing. Empower D.C. has been organizing community meetings for the past year to review individual chapters of the 1,000-page plan, generate comments to submit to the Office of Planning, and organize turnout to events such as the evening hearing.  

Photo of Ari Theresa speaking to people sitting in a circle of desks around him.

Attorney Ari Theresa speaks at a D.C. Grassroots Planning Coalition workshop about the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Photo by Mark Rose

“We keep subsidizing high-cost developers to build a few affordable housing units,” she complained to a recent gathering at one such meeting meeting in a packed church basement in Southeast D.C.. “We have to pick a fight with the status quo.” She argued that there’s still a lot of racism in D.C. driving gentrification, whether people admit it on the surface or not  “We need a drastic reassurance to enable uplifting of people starting with affordable housing.” 

There is a basic equity gap that is hard to bridge in the current climate, all seemed to agree, whether they supported the proposed changes or stood against them.    

“It’s poor to develop this way,” Dr. Prince later told Street Sense Media. “It represents uneven development; it’s helping some people and not others; a trickle-down strategy. It’s important to take input from the community and follow through 100 percent.” 

A D.C. Council vote is expected in the fall. More information about the plan is available at http://plandc.dc.gov.