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Zoning Commission too important for thoughtless pick

At a DC Council hearing on Zoning Commission nominee Greg Selfridge, it became evident that he lacks the experience and policy depth for this extremely important board.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

As Lydia DePillis reported, Selfridge is a developer, but seems to have little knowledge of zoning issues or citywide policy, and didn't even specifically want to be on the Zoning Commission:

Selfridge ... had no personal relationship with the Mayor, but had asked the head of Boards and Commissions for a position, and that it was decided that the Zoning Commission might be a good fit.

He has been to exactly two Board of Zoning Adjustment meetings, had only glancing familiarity with the comprehensive zoning review underway right now, and had only read bits of the District's Comprehensive Plan. He didn't have much to say about the priorities of affordable housing and historic preservation except that he supported them.

"As far as intimate familiarity with the regs, I don't have it," Selfridge said, "but I'm certain that I could get myself up to speed."

Every board is important, but the Zoning Commission is especially important because it's one of the areas where the federal government maintains considerable influence over the shape of DC. Two federal representatives, Peter May from the National Park Service and Michael Turnbull from the Architect of the Capitol, serve alongside three Mayoral representatives. Unlike in most places, like Montgomery County, the elected legislature doesn't have the power to review land use decisions.

DC has limited control over its own destiny in a number of areas, including land use. It's therefore particularly important that DC's representatives be extremely knowledgeable and effective advocates for the District's needs. They need more than a cursory knowledge of policy, or else they're likely to be swayed by the persistently anti-urban attitudes of Peter May or simple ignorance.

For example, DePillis notes, Selfridge's first reaction to zoning on U Street is that it needs lots of parking and not so many restaurants. He's also uncomfortable with new restaurants on Barracks Row. Sounds like someone very nervous about growth, even good growth in neighborhoods that want it.

This makes me wonder whether Fenty has much of a vision for the city. He's aggressively pushed streetcars and bike lanes and added housing opportunities, but how much of that is just the good counsel of Harriet Tregoning and Gabe Klein? When he overrides them, it often seems to be for the worse, like on sidewalks.

Mayor Williams talked about a goal of bringing in 100,000 new residents to DC. That's the right path to grow our tax base and our retail offerings and make DC a better place to live. Now Fenty has nominated someone to the Zoning Commission who seems instinctively uncomfortable with the urbanism Fenty's been advancing just because the guy asked to be nominated to something.

According to DePillis, the Council is expected to reject either Selfridge or Stan Wall, Fenty's other recent nominee, because they don't want all three DC members to be developers. The Council should send Selfridge back and ask the Mayor to pick someone who shares his policy goals and who has the policy depth to defend them against people like May.

Maybe we can help him find someone. Anyone here want to apply for the Zoning Commission? You need to be able to spend every Monday and Thursday night at the meetings.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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David: Why don't you apply? Or Perkins? Or one of the site's other contributors?

by yatesc on Jun 28, 2010 11:39 am • linkreport

it would be wonderful if the mayor would actually sit down and talk about how he feels about smart urban growth, with a chance for some real follow-up questions.

i get the feeling he wouldn't allow such an open-ended questioning, though...

by IMGoph on Jun 28, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

This was certainly an issue back in the campaign for mayor. One of the items that attracted me to Linda Cropp was her honest support of making the appointment process to the ZC more transparent and ensuring that the commission is comprised of true experts. Fenty didn't disagree with that position, but also didn't seem to care too much about it.

by Adam L on Jun 28, 2010 12:40 pm • linkreport

@yatesc: If I had that kind of time, I'd probably request to be on the RAC and I'd see if I get in. Either that or I'd return to taking piano lessons or tutoring high school kids. Plus, I'm an Arlington and not a DC resident.

Twice a week is a pretty big committment.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 28, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

Is this post based entirely on the short summary provided by that City Paper blog posting? I'm all for making sure there are community represenatatives on the Zoning Commission, but you seem to be targetting Selfridge instead of Wall for your fury. I know Greg and I've known him for some time. He's bright, hardworking, conscientious, and involved in his community. He speaks to parking problems around Barracks Row because they have serious parking shortages over there as anyone who lives near it would tell you. He may have developed some small properties, but he's hardly the big bad developer you make him out to be. He lives in DC and plans to send his daughter to public schools. He's been working with DC youth for a long time and used to coach a local baseball team near H Street. You assert that Greg doesn't share the Mayor's policy goals, but you haven't cited a single example of it. You should do a little more homework before laying into someone like this. If you knew Greg or knew anyone who did, you would not talk this way about him or what kind of public servant he would be.

by Phil on Jun 28, 2010 4:05 pm • linkreport


Community representatives that are in a position to learn the subject matter that they'll be expected to be experts in may work for some appointments, but as David so well explains, this is a critical appointment for the District in many many ways. Putting a newby up for this, no matter how well intentioned or eager to learn, is complete folly on Fenty's part ... and probably not very fair to Mr. Selfridge either who is finding himself in front of a bunch of questioners ... who he can't answer ... through no fault of his own. No disrespect to Mr. Selfridge, but he'd probably impress a lot more people if he voluntarily withdrew his name from this appointment.

by Lance on Jun 28, 2010 9:50 pm • linkreport

I was a little taken aback by:
"Selfridge ... had no personal relationship with the Mayor, but had asked the head of Boards and Commissions for a position, and that it was decided that the Zoning Commission might be a good fit."

Gee, I can just put my name in the hopper and some bureaucrat on the Mayor's staff decides where I'm "a good fit"? Please tell me it doesn't really work this way.

by Paul on Jun 29, 2010 9:00 am • linkreport

Phil said:

"He speaks to parking problems around Barracks Row because they have serious parking shortages over there as anyone who lives near it would tell you."

Phil, there are "parking shortages" near Barracks Row b/c too many people with antiquated suburban mindsets drive to a transit-accessible, walkable neighborhood. Neighborhoods like 8th Street, SE and U Street, NW do NOT need more parking. Too much parking is the problem. Remember all the parking lots around Massachusetts Ave., NW? That was a great place to be, wasn't it? All that great parking!!!

by Edna Wellthorpe on Jun 29, 2010 10:04 am • linkreport

I'm appalled that there would be more than 1 developer, much less 2 or 3, out of 3 DC representatives on the zoning commission.

Also, I wholeheartedly agree that there are many good reasons to grow DC's population - but I disagree with the general idea that increasing the tax base is one of those reasons: tax base would grow, but so would the demand for government services. Of course, if you think there's a specific reason to think tax base would grow more than demand for services, that's a different story.

by Arnold on Jun 29, 2010 10:43 am • linkreport

@Arnold, Of course, if you think there's a specific reason to think tax base would grow more than demand for services, that's a different story.

I think the line of reasoning, first articulated (at least informally) back in the 90s, was that we needed more higher-income people with relatively low demand for services to correct the revenue shortfalls to run a city where so much of the land is untaxable (i.e., has government buildings or tax-exempt organizations on it.) The thought was that DINKs (as they were called at the time ... 'Dual Income No Kids') were the ideal new resident since they'd bring in large income tax revenue but not use many services.

It's interesting to see now that what is happening given that the very folks who supposedly wouldn't cost the city much are demanding expensive items such as a streetcar system ... and dog parks ... and, wonder of wonder, better schools ...

by Lance on Jun 29, 2010 12:01 pm • linkreport

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