Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Nearly 300 zoning wonks and neighborhood firebrands packed the D.C. Council Tuesday to testify on the District’s most divisive issue: the future of development.

The hearing centered on proposed revisions to the D.C. Comprehensive Plan, a 1,000-page document of planning minutiae that acts as a guide for construction in the city. In recent years, some neighborhood activists wielding the plan have successfully blocked development projects through court appeals, to the great consternation of D.C. planning officials.

The Office of Planning received about 3,000 public comments on the entire document, changes for which are still under review.

At the hearing, developers and supporters of smart growth policies backed the proposed amendments, which were put forward by Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of Planning after two years of public comment. They argue the changes would stop court appeals of large development projects, some of which deliver affordable housing.

Those projects are known as Planned Unit Developments. In exchange for building taller and denser, developers of PUDs offer “public benefits,” which can include the addition of more affordable housing units than required. PUDs undergo Zoning Commission approval, but several prominent projects have been thrown out by the D.C. Court of Appeals after rulings that they were inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.

“We support this bill because it corrects portions of the PUD process that have led to dozens of groundless appeals and have arrested development within the District over the past year-and-a-half,” testified Michael Skena, vice president at MRP Realty, which has had its projects mired in litigation.

Among those who opposed the changes include activists who have filed appeals. Critics argue that the amendments serve to muddy the Comprehensive Plan, intentionally making it vague in order for developers to beat court appeals, and don’t require developers to build enough affordable units.

“Those who say that this bill provides clarity have an Orwellian definition of that term,” said Daniel Schramm, president of the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association. “The changes … practically render the plan unintelligible as a guiding document, making it easy to circumvent in getting approval for projects that are inconsistent.”

A dozen policy centers and advocacy shops focused their testimony on the lack of an emphasis in the amendments toward the prevention of displacement and creation of affordable housing. The proposed bill amends the Framework Elements section of the Comprehensive Plan, the intro to the document.

Claire Zippel, a policy analyst with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, testified that they hope the D.C. Council and Office of Planning will “ensure that the Framework truly centers affordable housing as a key city priority.”

While commending the amendments for addressing PUDs “stuck in courts,” Yesim Sayin Taylor of D.C. Policy Center said the bill “falls short of identifying important housing and affordability pressures in the District of Columbia, especially for low and middle-income families.”

The positions of most residents—including supporters and critics of easing the PUD process—dovetailed over the issue of displacement and affordable housing. David Whitehead, a housing organizer with Greater Greater Washington, said the plan ought to prioritize affordable housing, not “simply building market rate homes.”

“We need a stronger Comp Plan on displacement,” added Whitehead, whose coalition otherwise supports the PUD changes. “Out of the 60 pages the Office of Planning has proposed, there is literally only two sentences that discuss the problem of displacement.”

Inside the full D.C. Council chamber, residents distinguished themselves via pins and stickers. Supporters of the amendments donned yellow stickers that said “Support market and affordable housing,” while opponents wore pins that warned, “Stop the Comprehensive Scam.”

In her introductory remarks, At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman pointed out that both camps argue for the same goals: more affordable housing and less displacement. “Tell me yellow sticker folks, what makes you different from the white sticker folks?”

Yet sharp disagreements were also on show. Some hissed at testifiers, while at other times applause rang throughout the chamber. The Committee of 100, the top defender of the D.C. Height Act, and the Grassroots Planning Coalition argued that the District is pushing for changes that inadequately address displacement and would be a windfall for developers.

“The mayor has decided to side with developers,” said Stephen Hansen, chair of the Committee of 100. “The affordable housing language is being co-opted to push through the wish list of developers,” saidParisa Norouzi, an organizer with the Grassroots Planning Coalition.

In total, 273 residents had signed up to testify, producing one of the longest witness lists in recent history.

“I want to thank you for your perseverance and stamina,” Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray told testifiers as the hearing reached 8 hours at 10 p.m.

On the schedule, nearly half were yet to speak.

At 3:42 a.m. Whitehead tweeted, “And the #CompPlanHearing is…. over!!!” 

Wish you were there? Watch the video

This post has been updated.