Tuesday, November 20


DORN MCGRATH, WASHINGTON BUSINESS JOURNAL - Why does the District need a planning commission? It would help educate the city government, developers and citizens in every neighborhood about the planning process, which currently is not well understood. Yes, we have a comprehensive plan, but it is, in effect, a triumph of good graphics and ballyhoo over substance. A planning commission could help citizens and public officials understand this and set their sights higher. The D.C. Council vacuously cites the comprehensive plan, but always manages to find a way to defer final action on anything the plan suggests. Then, in haste, it adopts whatever has emerged. This amounts to political flatulence, rather than legislating as the law requires.

A planning commission for the District would provide some parity with the National Capital Planning Commission, a heavily funded agency interested primarily in the federal government's holdings. The NCPC also calls the shots, ultimately, on whatever the local planning and development office produces in the way of a comprehensive plan. . .

The city will probably continue to function as it does today without a planning commission. Emergency repairs to failing infrastructure, expensive (mostly speculative) development schemes, an unplanned baseball stadium, and sporadic treatment of selected sites along New York Avenue have become the city's modus operandi. Meanwhile, the city continues to tolerate the nuisance of an illegally operated trash-transfer facility on Brentwood Road, just opposite the Israel Baptist Church. . .

It seems that "smart growth" now extends only to the low-hanging fruit of new condo and shopping center development, rather than the untidy business of planning for needed parks, recreation facilities, vehicle storage and maintenance and schools. . .

When he first came to town from Oakland, Calif., to fill the post of city administrator, Robert Bobb inquired of a group of citizens, "Why doesn't Washington have a planning commission — nearly every other big city has one?" By now he understands, I'm sure.

[Dorn C. McGrath Jr. is professor emeritus at George Washington University]


At 9:58 AM, Anonymous said...

Way to give Ellen McCarthy's rebuttal equal time. DC does not need another bureacratic board of busy-bodies dicating their tastes and values on the rest of the city.

At 10:55 AM, Anonymous said...

Here is the rebuttal from the same Washington Business Journal article:

Ellen McCarthy says NO
Proponents tout a planning commission for Washington as a cure for all
perceived planning ills. Indeed, such commissions are part of the planning
process in many, though by no means all, large American cities. D.C., however,
already has a high-functioning planning structure, so in order to justify
change, we must be clear about what a planning commission can — and cannot — do
for Washington.

Many of the arguments for the commission relate more to policy disagreements
with the Office of Planning than to identifying holes in the present system that
could be fixed by a volunteer planning advisory group.

The District already has a good system of planning checks and balances. The
Home Rule Charter designates the mayor as chief planner; the mayor has delegated
that power to the Office of Planning, which currently has more than 70 staff
positions. OP prepares plans for neighborhoods, maintains a state-of-the art
geographic information system and Census data, does long-range planning and
prepares a report on every case that goes before the Zoning Commission or Board
of Zoning Adjustment.

The charter provides for a Zoning Commission that adopts amendments to zoning
regulations, changes to the existing zoning classifications and new overlay
districts and also reviews campus plans and proposed planned unit developments.
D.C. is unlike most jurisdictions in that its Zoning Commission's decisions do
not go before the council for a vote. They are final, except for appeals to the
courts. The Board of Zoning Adjustment grants variances or special exceptions
when circumstances make it difficult to abide by the zoning regs.

The touchstone of the entire system is the comprehensive plan, which is
prepared by OP, proposed by the mayor, adopted by the Council, and reviewed by
National Capital Planning Commission and Congress. In addition to policy goals
covering transportation, economic development, urban design, etc., the comp plan
includes a map specifying land use and intensity for every parcel in the
District. Legally, zoning "may not be inconsistent" with the plan.

One of the major benefits of planning commissions in some cities is to provide
objective input on development proposals, frequently as a counterpoint to
elected bodies subject to pressure from campaign contributors or small but vocal
groups of neighbors. In our case, the Zoning Commission plays this role, largely
insulated from political pressures, but still accountable. The mayoral
appointees serve specified terms, and can be blocked by the mayor or the
Council. The federal representatives are ex officio, and are not beholden to
campaign contributors or NIMBYs.

The only major areas left out of ZC review are the comp plan and small
neighborhood plans. After extensive public input, these go directly to the
Council for review and adoption. Although the Council holds public hearings on
these, some planning commission advocates consider this to be insufficient
opportunity for public input. It's a hard argument to make — on the comp plan,
for example, there were a Citizen Advisory Commission, three multihour public
hearings, two Council votes, dozens of meetings with citizens and local Advisory
Neighborhood Commissions and a Web site that received more than 2 million hits.

Some advocates of a planning commission even envision it making
recommendations to the Zoning Commission on individual projects. Adding yet
another review level to a project that may already be undergoing review by the
local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, the neighborhood association, the Office
of Planning, the Historic Preservation Review Board and the Zoning Commission or
BZA would not serve to encourage investment in our neighborhoods.

Finding qualified members would also be difficult. The number most often
suggested is nine. Those members would need some expertise in planning issues
and would have to be broadly representative of the city. As it is, there is
difficulty in getting the right appointees for the ZC, BZA and HPRB.

And if the planning commission's staff were to number more than a handful,
there would be the possibility of competing planning agencies, creating an
unnecessary expense and replicating existing capabilities.

The District is blessed with a professional planning staff and a system of
checks and balances. A planning commission might provide for additional public
input and objective recommendations to the Council for small-area plans and the
comprehensive plan — if sufficient qualified people could be persuaded to serve
and if the scope and staffing were carefully managed to avoid unproductive
bureaucratic in-fighting. And those are big ifs.

--Ellen McCarthy is director of planning and land use in the real estate section
at Nixon Peabody. McCarthy served as director of the Office of Planning under
then-Mayor Tony Williams.


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