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Building most anything in the District requires many levels of review by commissions, councils, and boards, to comply with regulations imposed by overlays, Acts, and districts. In Shaw, there’s even one more more hurdle to clear: The Shaw School Urban Renewal Plan, a document adopted by the National Capital Planning Commission and sanctified by HUD after the riots in 1968 to guide reconstruction. (The District had three total urban renewal plans: The Southwest plan, which remade that area and has since expired; and the Fort Lincoln plan, which still governs how much housing is to be built into the new development there.)
The SSURP, as we’ll call it, sets out guidelines from the broad—like development of arterial streets and commercial zones—to the incredibly specific (“Newly constructed kitchens shall include a minimum of one 42” sink-cabinet unit.”) Many of its dictates have already been followed, and it doesn’t come up in the planning process much anymore, but there are certain parts that developers can’t get around: The restrictions on density and height in certain areas are more conservative than even D.C.’s zoning codes allow.
A couple projects have already been planned that would breach SSURP’s specifications, like the United Negro College Fund headquarters at the Shaw metro, and an affordable housing project at 7th and R Streets (now in limbo, as the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development waits for a new administration to decide what it wants). Technically, they can’t get built until the SSURP is amended to allow for greater density, which is a chore. The now-defunct National Capital Revitalization Corporation was supposed to get it done several years ago, but the fixes never made it through the City Council.
So, later this year, the Council will take up a bill that will finally edit out the SSURP’s density and height restrictions on a few key parcels that can’t be developed on the more modest scale that planners envisioned in the 1960s. Ideally, the city would like to get rid of the whole thing: “If we can scrap it, we’re looking at that as well,” says the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning Economic Development’s Ketan Gada.
But it’s taken this long to even modify the plan to make way for already-approved projects, we might have to wait until it expires, which will happen 30 years after the final building plan for the Convention Center was approved—which means another couple decades. In the mean time, it’s just another hoop to jump through when building something that doesn’t comport with 1960s-era planning ideas.
Nobody ever said building in Washington wasn’t interesting.