Nowhere is safe! (

Oh dear. The last time the Committee of 100 on the Federal City‘s zoning chair spouted off on some issue, I suggested that the venerable organization could use a better public relations strategy. Lo and behold, a few months later, the Business Journal reported that they’d hired a P.R. firm to modernize their image.

It doesn’t seem to have done much good. On the Historic Washington listserv yesterday, Alma Gates penned another passionate letter calling for a campaign to warn the public about the pernicious effects of the comprehensive zoning update that’s nearing completion. Here are some excerpts:

Neighborhood preservation is of great concern because many of the special exception requirements under the current code will become matter-of-right under the [zoning regulations rewrite]. It is reasonable to expect some changes to neighborhoods, but their character, that which makes them unique and defined, should not change. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee neighborhood character will survive under the new zoning code. Given the proposed changes, it’s reasonable to ask, “Why have zoning?” Allowed uses in zone districts will be expanded, required off street parking will be significantly diminished, setback and height measurements will change. It is reasonable to expect neighborhood character will also change. […]

Zoning is a very difficult concept to grasp and as a result the public has ignored many opportunities to actively participate in the process over the past four years. On the whole, even ANCs have been absent at the table. Left unchallenged, the new code will substantially change neighborhood character. Preservation will no longer be an option.

A public education campaign on the scale of Time Warner’s publicity for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.” is needed to wake up residents to the fact their neighborhoods will soon be under attack by developers taking advantage of the increased density that the new code permits. Such a campaign is not going to come from the Office of Planning, the Council or the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. Rather, they are more intent on pushing through a new set of zoning regulations that will alter neighborhood character and allow greater height and density throughout the city. […]

It’s time for residents in every ward of the city to take back their neighborhoods. For too long a few have manipulated the thinking of many leaders in the city. If you are serious about a public education campaign begin your effort today to preserve neighborhood character. The C100 and Federation plan to work actively to get the word out to the public about the zoning changes and we hope the preservation community will support and join in our efforts.

Clearly, preservationists should have an outreach strategy to help the public understand why historic buildings and districts should be protected. Portraying Planning Director Harriet Tregoning as Voldemort, or whatever Gates meant by a public education campaign on the scale of what Time Warner did to promote the last Harry Potter movie, probably isn’t it.

I’d actually be interested to see specifics on how Gates thinks that the zoning update is going to destroy neighborhood character, given that many changes actually help preserve green space and setbacks. If she thinks she has a compelling argument for why the zoning update is so threatening, I imagine the public might be interested too. But the Committee of 100 has no idea how to do public outreach, besides sending letters, doing reports, and offering testimony. So they might want to start by figuring that out first.