John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

After *years* of public debate, the D.C. Council advanced amendments to a massive blueprint that guides development and growth for the city. The Comprehensive Plan, or Comp Plan, as it’s called, was last re-written in 2006 and amended in 2011. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has been working to revamp the city document since 2016. 

Exactly one year after the mayor’s team sent the Council her proposed amendments to the 2006 Comp Plan—with a few public hearings in between—legislators resumed discussion on the critical document on Tuesday in a Committee of the Whole meeting and advanced changes to the mayor’s proposal (known as a “markup”). The first official vote on the Comp Plan will be during the May 4 legislative meeting.  

Why should you care about the Comp Plan? 

The document is over 1,000 pages long. The Comp Plan, a condition of D.C.’s Home Rule Act, is dense. It’s redundant. But “it affects everybody,” says Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC. “There are changes proposed in every ward, in every neighborhood.”  

The Plan—no, not that Plan—describes how D.C. should weigh competing demands for land, from housing to businesses to schools to transportation. Government agencies use the document to make sure the city moves forward collectively. And the Zoning Commission has to issue decisions “not inconsistent” with the Plan.   

The Comp Plan has also been cited in lawsuits against new development. These lawsuits have stalled the creation of several thousand housing units. This is partly why the mayor’s team wants to revise the Plan. The Bowser administration’s proposed changes to the Plan and its highly critical Future Land Use Map help it meet its goal of creating 36,000 new housing units by 2025, 12,000 of which are designated to be “affordable.”       

Recommended reading:

D.C. Is Rapidly Gentrifying and the Fate of its Affordable Housing Hangs in the Balance

What Is D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan And Why Are People Arguing Over It Again? 

The Graph That Illustrates DC’s Housing Production Versus Population Growth

14,400 Units: DC is Nearly Halfway to Meeting 2025 Housing Production Goals

What’s next for the Comp Plan?

Returning to Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, the vote to advance Chairman Phil Mendelson’s version of the amended Comp Plan jumpstarts the legislative process. What was simply a procedural vote of moving the amended Comp Plan to the full Council became a moment of reflection for lawmakers who raised concerns over what the document means for systemic racism and economic inequality. 

The Comp Plan doesn’t actually dictate what is built, but offers a framework for development. The last one, passed in 2006, focused on economic development and attracting businesses to the city. Now, lawmakers are focused more on housing. Bowser’s amendments to the Comp Plan aim to add more housing density, including in wealthier areas generally resistant to it. Her amendments have received criticism from some advocates who worry that the proposal will lead to even more gentrification.        

The vote on Tuesday was 11 to 0, with two councilmembers voting “present.” While explaining their decisions to vote present, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George cited a report issued by the Council Office of Racial Equity

The report, released the day before the vote, is an assessment of the amended Comp Plan’s impact on Black communities and other communities of color. The assessment is the first of its kind on legislation that’s up for a vote. And it offers a damning analysis of Bowser’s amendments to the Comp Plan, arguing the proposal as introduced “will exacerbate racial inequities in the District of Columbia.” The report says the mayoral proposal does not consider race despite “deep and persistent racial inequities,” and “vague” and “ambiguous” language leaves room for interpretation that could harm residents of color.    

The report says Mendelson’s amendments advance racial equity. However, the sheer size of the Comp Plan reduces the amendments’ “positive changes.” Therefore, the legislation the Council voted to advance on Tuesday will not disrupt the status quo of deep racial inequities, the report concludes. The report goes on to describe the stark racial inequities between Black and White residents, among the worst in the country. For example, at least 20,000 Black residents have been displaced from D.C. since the last Comp Plan passed in 2006. 

Mendelson’s amendments to the Comp Plan aimed to prioritize housing affordability, adding references to racial equity and segregation. He circulated a revised draft of the “Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 2020″ last week. Still, several members expressed confusion regarding his changes during the meeting. At-Large Councilmember Robert White noted phrases like “protecting rich historical and cultural legacies” that conflicted with other priorities in the amended Plan, like adding more housing. Mendelson repeatedly offered to meet with members before the May vote, so he could explain all the changes. 

Lawmakers repeatedly questioned whether any version of the Comp Plan could do more to disrupt the status quo.  

“When we recognize a Comp Plan may at best maintain the status quo of racial inequity, I think it needs to be clear that to do more it’s going to be up to the mayor and the Council for us to make policy decisions, make budget decisions, and to fund programs needed to address this inequity,” said Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen. “The Comp Plan by itself is not going to do that.” 

“This determines how you can use your land and how you can use your land determines how much wealth you can build or retain your wealth in your land,” Silverman said in response to characterizations that the Comp Plan is simply “a plan.” Mendelson interjected to say that “this only generally determines how you can use your land.”   

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie echoed Allen, calling the amended Plan a “work in progress.” “But there’s more work to be done,” he said.   

— Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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