Testimony of Kent Boese to the D.C. Council Regarding the Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 2018
Chairman Mendelson and esteemed Councilmembers, I thank you for this opportunity to testify on the Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act. I have concerns about the process, speed, and magnitude of the amendments that are currently being considered. I am also concerned that in an attempt to expediently resolve challenges to the Planned Unit Development process that new unforeseen and unintentional problems may be created. With this in mind, I ask that our Council work with the communities you have been elected to represent to provide the community engagement necessary that the Office of Planning denied the community when they failed to follow through on their commitment to accept public comment prior to this hearing.
As a successful Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner now serving in my eighth year, and as chair for the past five years, I can state without a doubt that a successful amendment of the Comprehensive Plan can only be achieved with the people, and not in spite of the people. You need no further proof than to acknowledge that during the open call period 3,074 amendments were proposed and today 272 people have signed up to testify. This is important.
The Comprehensive Plan is important because it is the most important planning document outlining the future of Washington. The plan guides land use in the District and must provide a vision framework for the type of city we want to be. Do we want to be an inclusive city? Do we want to be a diverse city? Do we want to be a historic city? Do we want to be a growing city? Do we want to be a beautiful, walkable, and multi-modal city with thriving commerce and room for residents of all incomes? The answer to these questions is Yes!
Planning is by nature a wicked problem as there is no right answer and every solution is neither right nor wrong, but rather better or worse … and this is precisely why this needs to be a public and transparent process, not a closed process.
Because the Comprehensive Plan is just that, comprehensive, it must draw from and harness every discipline that touches upon the plan, including zoning, preservation, transportation, the environment, and others. The Comprehensive Plan is not solely about zoning nor should zoning be more important than the Comprehensive Plan. To the point, the District’s Home Rule Charter requires that zoning “shall not be inconsistent” with the Comprehensive Plan. So let us be committed to getting the Comprehensive Plan right!
Many confuse zoning with the Comprehensive Plan and often incorrectly consider the Future Land Use Map as a zoning map. But let’s be clear that zoning is but one of many tools through which the Comprehensive Plan is realized. Zoning is a set of rules through which decisions are made base on regulations and laws. The Comprehensive Plan, on the other hand, must be a visionary and aspirational document that may appear to be somewhat fuzzy at times and have competing priorities. But in order for it to be a guiding document, it must have a clear vision with concise goals and have a process whereby competing priorities can be weighed against each other to achieve the best overall result for Washington.
So, why are we here? Many are here today because they believe that amending the Comprehensive Plan is the way to fix a zoning problem. Some advocate that the Zoning Commission should have more authority than the Comprehensive Plan. Others are here today to advocated for a strong commitment to increasing affordable housing, and others still are committed to preserving neighborhood character.
We are here today because we all love the District. We want:
  • To preserve the District’s architectural heritage, history, and culture that makes our neighborhoods beloved by many;
  • A predictable zoning process;
  • A city that values those who have lived here for decades while making room for new residents;
  • A city that truly values diversity and inclusiveness.; and,
  • A city that can grow to meet the challenges and needs of the future.
Unfortunately, many who have testified are of the opinion that we must choose between increased density and a commitment to affordable housing OR protecting neighborhood character. This is a false choice. We can and need to do both. I know this can be accomplished because I have done it – both in working with developers to transform of the Alsco-Linens of the Week factory into 225 new housing opportunities and in working with the city to redevelop the historic Hebrew Home property into a 187 unit development, including 150 affordable apartments including 90 for seniors. A growing city and the prosperity it brings can not and should not be at the expense of those who live here.
The outpouring of participation in the Comprehensive Plan Amendment cycle is a direct result of failures in the 2010 plan to predict the speed with which Washington is growing and address the pressure that growth is causing in century old neighborhoods. It is also the result of rewriting and updating the Zoning Regulations prior to updating the Comprehensive Plan. Rather than this being a 10 year amendment process, it has become a Comprehensive Plan rewrite process.
While I ask this body to establish a transparent and open community process where all stakeholders can build consensus on our future, I do want to touch upon a few specific topics today.
Planned Unit Developments
One of the chief issues today is the future of Planned Unit Developments (PUDs). Depending upon whom one talks to, PUDs are either reviled or praised. Regardless of one’s position, PUDs are an important tool that can achieve better results for our city and communities where there is oversight and used appropriately.
In ANC 1A, the PUD process was an integral and successful part of developing a workable plan to rebuild the long-delayed Park Morton Public Housing Complex. I worked with the community, the residents of Park Morton, and ANCs 1A and 1B to increase density, preserve public housing, increase affordable housing, include senior housing, and establish benefits to the surrounding community including a permanent one-acre park. I used the existing zoning on each of the two sites along with the Comprehensive Plan as an informed basis from which to determine reasonable heights for the PUD applications. In this instance, the process worked and it worked well.
PUDs are especially appropriate on large parcels of land and along commercial corridors. We do need to consider where our city will grow, and where PUDs are likely to be appropriate. Most importantly, PUDs give the community and ANCs a seat at the table to negotiate with developers for the benefit of the community.
What needs to be resolved through this amendment process is:
  • The Comp Plan still needs to have clear language on what the future use of land should be and how that meets the vision of our growing city;
  • We need to reaffirm the role of ANCs to build community consensus and have party status in Zoning Cases;
  • We need to find a way to safeguard the rights of impacted residents to challenge bad decisions while minimizing challenges of little or no merit; and,
  • We must establish a clear path for our city to grow in a manner that is both compatible with our neighborhoods and fully leverages parcels for their highest and best use.
Construction is expensive, and loosing a floor or two of housing where it makes the most sense only serves to further restrict housing in an increasingly expensive city. Additionally, it increases development pressure to convert our rowhouse communities into two-bedroom condominiums which are not affordable and often too small for growing families.
Map Amendments
Due to the legal challenges recently approved PUDs are facing, some development teams are choosing to instead upzone sites through a map amendment. The effort to redevelop the old Hebrew Home at 1125 Spring Road is an effort that illustrates this point. While this path eliminates the ability to challenge a project in court, it is less desirable for the community.
Map amendments:
  • Do not safeguard the community or ANCs interests. Map amendments do not have party status, so those entrusted to safeguard the public interest have no ability to do so beyond establishing a good working relationship;
  • Do not require community benefits in exchange for the additional density;
  • Do not require DDOT to perform a robust traffic and parking analysis; and,
  • Can result in less density and less housing.
While the development team for the Hebrew Home is collaborating well with ANCs 1A, 4C, and the community and has agreed to providing community benefits as part of the effort, the lack of an established process to memorialize this agreement has caused concerns and many nearby residents would have preferred a PUD process.
Preserving Family-Sized Housing
Family-sized housing is a significant and growing problem in the District. Every year we see more and more row houses converted into multiple family dwellings. This is because we don’t have enough housing to meet the demands of our growing city. New private development produces very few family-sized units, and rowhouse conversions reduce the city’s supply of family-sized units. A question that I keep returning to is this:
“If Washington can not preserve family-sized housing in our neighborhoods, why are we investing so much in our neighborhood schools. In a generation or two there will be no children in the neighborhoods to attend the schools.”
This is an issue that the Council must address, including in the Comprehensive Plan. One aspect that directly relates to this is the role PUDs can play on commercial corridors. We must allow density where density makes sense and have a predictable process where we are not further restricting housing. When we restrict housing or reduce outcomes, we only increase stress in our neighborhoods, increase the cost of housing, and increase an unacknowledged war on family-sized housing.
Establish Conservation Districts
At the core of all of this, residents want respectful and compatible development. For me, it has never been about supporting or opposing development. The District is going to change and grow. That is a given. We can not be a city of “Yes” and “No.” Rather, we need to be a city of “How.” I believe that the best path forward would include the establishment of conservation/legacy districts to help guide development in century old neighborhoods. We do not always need the full protections that historic districts provide, but we do need a way to guild and shape development that is compatible. Modern buildings can relate to historic structures through use of scale, materials, or architectural vocabulary. I would think many developers would appreciate having guidelines and an architectural review process instead of being vehemently opposed by neighbors at zoning hearings and having projects held up in court.
The rich patchwork quilt that is Washington must be able to weave new development into its fabric as old threads break and create opportunities. That efforts to do this are frequently opposed in the community is a failure of government to make the rules clear and to provide needed guidance, oversight, and predictability.
While the stakes are high and the challenges are great, I have confidence that we as a people can get where we need to be. But it requires intelligence, vision, and courage.
I ask you all to put people before politics, find reasonable solutions, reaffirm that the Comprehensive Plan is the single most important planning document in our city, and have the courage and commitment to do the right thing.