As the D.C. Council approaches the final stages of considering the Bowser administration’s amendments to a 1,000-plus-page comprehensive plan for the District’s future, community activists and leaders say they worry the plan favors developers and does not give enough attention to Black neighborhoods.
“There needs to be more community input and discussion about community benefits before the comprehensive plan is approved by the D.C. Council,” Eric Rogers, a candidate for the D.C. Council’s at-large seat in 2020, said. “Many residents and developers use the comprehensive plan as a guiding document on how the city should evolve in the coming years. That is why the community needs to weigh in on the plan before anything is adopted.”
The plan is evolving as the District continues to grow in population and prosperity despite the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, many residents and leaders are concerned that the document doesn’t address the high costs of living in the District and how to reverse the displacement of Black residents that has occurred during the past two decades.
Some longtime residents have labeled the Bowser comprehensive plan a latter-day incarnation of “The Plan, ” a mythical document that was widely thought to be fueled by a stubborn belief from the 1970s through early 2000s that powerful white interests were scheming to diminish Black political and economic power in D.C.
Bowser amendments to the modern comprehensive plan implemented in 2006 and further amended in 2011, became public in April 2020. The amendments deal with the coronavirus pandemic, housing, racial equity, resilience and public resources.
The plan calls for the District to respond to the pandemic with “resilience, response and recovery.” The Housing segment recommends a goal of producing 36,000 units of housing by 2025 with some designated for low-and-moderate income residents. It will detail strategies to deal with homelessness and encouraging homeownership.
The Racial Equity section calls for policies that would create equity in housing, education, economics and land use for people and communities of color. The Resilience part is to accommodate all races, colors, backgrounds and income levels for District residents.
The Public Resources section encourages the building and modernization of parks, schools, libraries and recreation centers. Adjunct materials to the amendments emphasize the administration’s desire and effort to engage the community in the process of creating the changes to the plan.
The Council’s Role
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) filed a bill — The Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 2020 — on Jan. 4. While the legislation includes the mayor’s amendments to the plan, the spokeswoman said the chairman, as the head of the council’s Committee of the Whole, retains the right to make changes.
The spokeswoman said Mendelson ideally would like to the council to consider his bill, with his adjustments, in March before the District’s 2021-2022 fiscal year budget is considered.
Plan Labeled ‘Racist’ by Advocates for the Poor
Rogers says the plan should have more community input, but Parisa Norouzi–the executive director of Empower DC, an organization that advocates for friendlier public policies for economically ailing residents in the District — denounced it as racially bigoted.
“The development patterns in this city have produced an exodus of 40,000 Black residents from this city in the past two decades,” Norouzi said. “How will the mayor’s amendments change this? This plan says nothing about stopping the displacement of residents. It does not provide details on that.”
She said the plan doesn’t address Black poverty and calls for any changes to be made to it to push for “sharing the wealth and sharing the equity.”
Norouzi questions the housing amendment, asking rhetorically who benefits from it.
“The mayor talks about affordable housing for people or families who earn in the range of $70,000 or $80,000,” she said. “That’s not going to be much help for a Black family who earns $45,000 a year. It seems many Black families in the city won’t be able to take advantage of the new housing to be built.”
Norouzi said the biggest beneficiaries of the mayor’s amendments are developers.
“The land grab among developers is already taking place,” she said. “The developers have been focusing on this comprehensive plan process for some time and want to use it as much as possible. Some developers want to construct buildings higher in height and with more density. But they don’t want to consult with the community. They want to go to the city zoning board and have their way. They don’t want to consult with advisory neighborhood commissions or community organizations. The mayor’s amendments don’t address this at all.”
Norouzi wants the Bowser administration to re-write its amendments to reflect the needs of lower-income District residents and for Mendelson to delay consideration of the plan until further community input takes place.
Kinder, Gentler Opposition
W. Earl Williams, a resident of the Hillcrest neighborhood in Ward 7 and former president of the D.C. Citizens Federation, doesn’t convey Norouzi’s ferocity toward the plan but voices concerns.
“I am concerned about the comprehensive plan supporting commercial development in residential areas such as mine,” he said. “In Hillcrest, we don’t want a commercial building next to a single-family home.”
Williams says he understands the importance of the plan and wants to see more widespread residential interest.
“When newcomers come to our city, they look at the comprehensive plan to decide where they want to live,” he said. “They are looking at areas that are going to boom economically. Our neighbors west of the Anacostia River pay attention to things like that but many people who live east don’t. We have to do that because our children’s lives are at stake.”