Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Public Involvement

Government


Public officials who communicate their plans, listen to feedback, and then fix errors aren't idiots

"'George S. Hawkins, DC Water's general manager, said the utility did not realize that the fee would disproportionately affect newer homes with sprinkler systems.' What kind of idiots are crafting policy and making decisions at DC Water?"


Photo by Horst Gutmann on Flickr.

This is verbatim from the comments section of a recent article in the Washington Post describing the Water System Replacement Fee (WSRF), a change we recently made to our rate structure for retail customers. Yes, that idiot would be me, and yes, we arguably made a mistake that needs fixing.

The commenter is making a nasty comment about me, a nastiness that unfortunately seems to dominate the language that overloads much of the commentary in civic society today. But that's not why he has it deeply wrong. The commenter has it wrong both on what happened, and on a perspective that often creates the very problems that commenters of this sort so often attack.

What DC Water did wrong

We can agree that DC Water made a "mistake." (I'll explain the quotations in a moment.)

DC Water on October 1 adopted a new rate structure that is the most comprehensive change to the funding formula in our history. I wrote extensively about the proposal and the outreach we have engaged on it here. A number of comments to that post and in other forums revealed that one small segment of our customers faced a change they deemed unfair.

We investigated and analyzed the point and determined they were right. Working with our Board of Directors over several special meetings, we changed course and corrected the issue, before the new rate structure took effect.

The press picked up on the issue and reported both the problem and our eventual solution.

Making changes in response to feedback is what officials ought to do

The commenter is wrong because discovering and curing a problem before the new structure went into effect is actually an example of the system working.

We proposed a comprehensive and complicated new approach and presented it to the people we serve in an open and transparent process. The outreach included a letter addressed to each customer that described specifically what would happen to their specific bill. That enabled the people best able to evaluate the change to their circumstances to do so.

A small segment of our customers (about 2,100 of our 140,000) brought to our attention that in their cases our mechanism to calibrate a new infrastructure replacement charge based on meter size did not seem fair. In short, the use of a larger meter for this group did not equate to more water use because a larger meter was only required for fire suppression by new regulations, not because this group sought to use more water. In fact, our subsequent analysis indicated that customers in this group were almost all in newly-built homes that used less water due to updated pipes and low flow fixtures.

We were persuaded by the merit of their point to call a Special Meeting of our Board to modify the rate structure. And remember, this change was made before the new rate structure took effect.

The system worked! This is why the commenter is wrong about us being idiots. DC Water considered a comprehensive and innovative new rate structure. We planned to adopt the structure and described it in multiple venues in advance, giving our customers the chance to help us evaluate the change. They did, and pointed out an unexpected outcome, persuaded us on the merits (as did our own analysis), so we changed the structure. That is a public agency working as it should!

Things won't always be perfect on the first try

Yet what about the mistake in the first place? Should we not have foreseen the problem ahead of time? Perhaps, for the Monday morning quarterback always knows what play to call. But in the vast nature of the changes we were evaluating, we missed this issue. I think our team is one of the best in the business, but we are human and therefore not perfect. We made a mistake.

And on that score, the commenter is wrong in a far more fundamental way. To explain why, let me consider for a moment an area where the United States and private business is absolutely world class.

I'm talking software, hardware, apps, and the change to almost every business that new world is driving.

Silicon Valley is famous as a center of innovation, even as that center has by its nature shifted to anywhere. Anyone can come up with an innovative idea for a new app or associated service. Innovative practices can transform an industry or service overnight. My children use "Uber" as a verb and order one with a text, and do not even consider calling a traditional cab.

Yet we also know that the vast number of these new ideas, business ideas and service approaches fail. For every Uber there are nearly countless ideas that never see the light of day—some fail at the gate, others after months or even years of development and millions invested. Among entrepreneurs, such failures are almost a badge of courage, and certainly a step along the learning continuum that adds to the wisdom behind dreaming up the next one.

Failures and mistakes in any innovative field are part of the process of pushing the envelope, trying new things, not just sticking with what works. Without some failures, we don't learn. We don't get wiser. We don't break through the tried-and-true to get to the new.

For public agencies though, and water utilities for sure, we are not given any such margin to try new ideas, fail on some, learn and then get better. Read the commentary on any newsfeed online, or follow the Twitter-speak, or even the old-fashioned media in print or screen—and the highlight is always on the mistake that was made and recriminations that follow. Public officials are rarely given the leeway to try new ideas, some of which may fail. We are often held to that most inhuman of standards of not making mistakes at all, or being harshly criticized and attacked if we do.

The consequence is rational and obvious.

First, our approach will almost always be to stick with the tried and true—what we know works. Stick with what we know not because it is the most efficient, effective or could be re-engineered to something new. Stick with something we know because we can't make a mistake or be labeled as idiots.

Second, our approach will almost always drive out of our enterprises the natural entrepreneurs who might want to lead change. There is nothing inherently wrong with the tried and true—and in some cases it is still the right way today. But sticking with it just to avoid the possibility of failure will mean that those employees who want to try the new, want to experiment, want to be entrepreneurs, do not find a place in our enterprises.

Third, our approach then leads to the reality of an outdated and stale performance that becomes the stereotype of our work, or even our agencies and the entire public sector itself. Too often the stereotype then seems to reflect a sense of reality; too often public agencies do seem stuck behind the times with older techniques and approaches.

Which leads back to a painful and dangerous negative feedback loop. If public officials are routinely attacked for mistakes, the natural tendency is to not risk mistakes that are part of creativity. Inhibiting creativity risks losing those people and traits in the agencies. Agencies get caught up in practices mired in the past and become the subjects of constant criticism. Then agencies are criticized either way: criticism from mistakes, and criticism for old practices that are used to avoid mistakes.

Is there a wonder why public agencies are often subject to such easy and broad derision?

There is an answer, for there are ways that public agencies can adopt innovative practices and strategies while minimizing the risk of mistakes. I will write more about that, and have before here. Let me be clear: even as we work to embrace failure as a part of business, we must remain cautious overall. As guardians of public health, responsible for something as important as drinking water, we need to be extremely careful, since the consequences of failure in certain aspects of what we do can be truly disastrous. By acknowledging, calculating, and in the end accepting risks, we can embrace innovation without endangering anyone's welfare.

But other mistakes will still be made, just as they are by start-ups in Silicon Valley. Such is one cost of an efficient and exciting public agency that is evolving to deliver new and better service at lower costs to our customers. This is the opposite of being an idiot, but is the sum and substance of creativity and leadership in a system that does not favor either.

This post originally appeared on George Hawkins' personal blog. This version has been modified to add a new headline and subheaders, break up paragraphs, and conform to Greater Greater Washington's style.

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Zoning


This is your very last chance to weigh in on DC's epic 8-year zoning update (probably)

DC homeowners could soon have more freedom to rent out their basements and carriage houses, residential neighborhoods could get more corner groceries, and there might be less unneeded and unused parking in new buildings. That's if DC's Zoning Commission gives final sign-off to an update of the zoning code this fall. First, there's one last public comment period for residents to weigh in.

DC started revising its zoning way back in early 2008. A new Comprehensive Plan had just been approved, and it called for adjustments to the zoning code. Also, the code dated back to 1958, and while it had been amended along the way, it also had many outdated elements.

The Office of Planning convened public meetings to get resident input on what should change. Most of the changes are just reorganizing the code, ostensibly to be easier to use. Through those meetings, the planners also came up with some specific policy changes on a few topics.

What's changing?

One big change would let people rent out a basement or an external garage in zones where that's illegal today. While most row house zones allow a basement unit, and in many places "English basements" are common, that's not allowed in the lowest density row house zones and the zones with detached and semi-detached houses.

The zoning update would legalize such units, though with a number of restrictions: The owner still has to live in the house, there can't be more than a certain number of people, the door has to be below ground level or on the side to keep the house looking like a single-family house, and others.


Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

A second topic is car parking. Outdated assumptions that assumed people would drive, which date from long before Metro even existed, required more parking than necessary in many buildings, driving up the costs of new housing. Numerous examples surfaced of buildings which had built parking as prescribed by zoning and then found many required spaces difficult to rent or sell, or garages even going mostly empty.

The zoning board was also regularly granting exceptions to the parking rules, adding time and expense. The new minimums would give much more flexibility citywide and even more around Metro stations, high-frequency bus corridors, or streetcar lines.

Another change would make it easier for grocery stores to locate in residential zones, if they can occupy a corner building or one that was historically a commercial building, sell fresh food and at most a very small amount of liquor, and other restrictions.

Some neighborhoods have corner groceries in residential areas that have existed for a long time. But in neighborhoods without them, they can't start up; with this change, it's possible one could.


Photo by rockcreek on Flickr.

There are a lot more details, and you can learn a lot from the Office of Planning's summary blog posts explaining the rules on accessory apartments (like basements), car parking, and corner stores, as well as changes to alley lot rules, loading zones, downtown zoning, and industrial zones.

How you can speak up, one last time

The DC Zoning Commission will make the final decision on the new zoning code soon. The commission has heard testimony over many years at this point. It published the nearly-final new code in the DC Register in May for the last, legally-required official public comment period, and that comment period closes on September 25.

The commission probably won't make many changes, as it's already heard most of the arguments on each side, but you never know; with the recent "pop-up" rules, one commissioner, Park Service representative Peter May, who cast the swing vote, changed his mind after the final comment period, reversing a previous decision. Opponents of the zoning update are trying to generate public comments against the final draft.

If you want to weigh in, you can comment at a special page on the Zoning Commission website. Parking is in Subtitle C, General Rules, while accessory apartments and corner stores are in Subtitle U, Use Permissions. (If you followed earlier versions, they've moved out of the chapters on the various types of zones where the used to be into a new Subtitle U that consolidates all rules around uses in one place.)

Didn't I testify on this before? Maybe in 2009?

If you're been reading Greater Greater Washington or following DC planning, you might have participated in the zoning update process before. Maybe it was around 2009-2010, when the Zoning Commission had a first set of hearings on the broad policy questions. Or 2012, when the Office of Planning held public meetings in every ward on the proposal.

You might have participated in late 2013, when the Zoning Commission held its hearings on the actual text, or early 2014, when it held another set just because opponents said they hadn't had enough time to prepare. Or maybe you sent in comments in 2014, when Mayor Vince Gray asked for another six months to allow even more comment.

But this might be the last time. If the Zoning Commission takes "final action," then the zoning could could become effective... sometime soon. The commission has not said exactly when the new code actually would take effect, and there could be a grace period.

If the commission takes immediate action, then the code will become final about two years after the Office of Planning formally submitted it. That came after about 5½ years of OP deliberations on the code.

The original public process statement estimated 2-3 years for the whole process from start to finish; it has now been 7½. Most of the extra came because opponents of the changes continually complained to Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and others, claiming the code was a "moving target."

Hood and others responded by asking for more public process, but opponents simply kept arguing that they hadn't been consulted enough, asking for even more and more process. When OP made changes in response to opponents' requests, the opponents then even took that opportunity to claim that since OP had made changes, the code was some kind of moving target and some part of the process should start over.


A group of people protest to ask for delays in the zoning update process. Photo by the author.

For context, the recent "pop-up" rules, which added more restrictive zoning rules for many of DC's row house areas, went from OP's presentation to the Zoning Commission to final implementation in a day less than one year. The commission also made that change effective immediately upon approval rather than having a "vesting" grace period.

You can encourage the Zoning Commission to not waste any more time by submitting comments on the comment form. We can hope this saga can complete before DC gets yet another new Comprehensive Plan, which OP plans to start on this fall.

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Development


When dreaming of Olympics or anything else, beware of "planning down"

A team of architects and business leaders met in secret for many months to devise a big proposal for the Olympics in DC. Some parts of it have merit (and some don't), and ideas should always be welcome. But some things about the way they talk about the need to "transform" DC feel wrong.


Hand drawing city photo from Shutterstock.

It's terrific that some wealthy business leaders want to help the District. A generation ago, people in the suburbs were turning their backs on DC. Even now, as Jonathan O'Connell notes in his article on the Olympic bid, too often DC, Maryland, and Virginia compete to out-subsidize large businesses just so they'll move a few miles across a border.

The Olympic bid group didn't have that attitude. Russ Ramsey, who led the effort, lives in Great Falls, Virginia, but he wanted the Olympics to revive the area around the Anacostia River. The Anacostia can certainly benefit from having more friends, and areas around it more investment.

However, there's something a little disquieting about a group of business leaders and architects formulating this plan in secret, drawing pictures of stadiums on all manner of public land and arguing it would have lasting benefits for the city without really speaking to the public about what they'd like to be left with after an Olympics.

Let's call this "planning down"

There was a lot of discussion recently about "punching down" as a concept in comedy (see: criticisms of Trevor Noah, or criticisms by Garry Trudeau). Basically, it's when comedians make fun of groups of people who are less powerful in society than themselves. This secret planning feels like something similar; let's call it, "planning down."

"Planning down" would be what happens when one group of people decide they know what's best for another area whose populace is less powerful. Many residents felt this way when they heard about the machinations for the Olympics. Those of us who did should hold on to the feeling, as residents in poorer neighborhoods feel the same far more often.

John Muller, for example, has often written about communities in Historic Anacostia, Barry Farm, and elsewhere where residents feel government officials come in for "public meetings" seemingly already having decided what they want. (The same thing often happens in more politically powerful neighborhoods, but residents have more success forcing their views into the debate.)

We need to have discussions about the futures of such communities that truly engage residents in thinking about what they want for their communities. (Some government agencies have indeed done this.) There are certainly constraints—there are specific economic criteria a neighborhood needs to support a grocery store, for instance. But I think people can understand these constraints and work with them if given the chance.

The planning profession, in fact, enshrined principles around public participation in its ethical codes after the era of urban renewal which demolished many working-class neighborhoods to build "towers in the park," like in DC's Southwest Waterfront and parts of many other US cities. (You're more likely to encounter dismissive non-listening from certain transportation engineers.)

However, public engagement isn't the same as "letting the neighborhood decide." Sometimes, deferring to neighbors means letting a more-powerful group use zoning, preservation, or other tools to exclude others. For a non-Washington example, look at Toronto's "density creep" controversy, where a group of people in million-dollar homes worried about new half-million-dollar homes hurting their property values. You could say those doing the excluding are "zoning down"; it's not planning down to criticize the practice.

Some decision-makers fear taking any action unless every community stakeholder is in agreement. That's not the way to avoid planning down. It's possible to involve people in a conversation, then move ahead with some decision recognizing that no choice, whether to act or not act, will be universally popular. The key is to listen first (and hopefully make the right choice).


Superhero businessman photo from Shutterstock.

DC doesn't need to be "saved"

O'Connell concludes his article on the Olympic bid by asking, "The question is, who will be the private-sector leader for the future of Washington?" It would be most welcome to have private-sector individuals wanting to do more for DC, or the region, or their specific communities. We just need them to lead more from behind, facilitating conversations rather than deciding unilaterally what the future should be.

Many of us in the Greater Greater Washington community are somewhat more privileged than many DC residents as well. We should keep these same lessons in mind just as much when we talk about neighborhoods east of the Anacostia or elsewhere, especially if we don't know many people in those areas.

We can't just say we know what's right for other, less privileged areas; we need to understand the circumstances and hopes of the people who live there. We can't do that entirely on a blog that's easiest to read if you work in an office with a computer, either.

We can all do more to strengthen the public dialogue around planning, to encourage planning up instead of planning down. And we should. Greater Greater Washington is going to be working on building these bridges and elevating voices from diverse communities much more in the future. Stay tuned.

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Transit


Montgomery County's BRT challenge: Getting it right

Montgomery County is starting to plan the specific details for the 81-mile Bus Rapid Transit project county leaders approved last year. Its success will depend heavily upon whether the current wide, fast roads stay that way and just get bus lanes added on, or whether they become pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevards that welcome transit riders and respond to community needs.


A transit corridor street design by the National Association of Transportation Officials with 10' lanes, pedestrian refuges, and cycletracks.

Last summer, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) released initial designs for BRT on Georgia Avenue North. The plan called for too many lanes that, at 12 to 14 feet, were far too wide, and unnecessarily large buffer zones that altogether would have required the use of eminent domain.

According to Jeff Speck, a smart growth expert, the wide lanes would be "disastrous for safety" because research shows they encourage speeding.

Yet most of the corridors Montgomery plans to use for BRT are fast, six-lane roads. Sidewalks squeeze against the side. Intersections bulge out with multiple turn lanes and corners with high-speed, sweeping right turns.

In other words, Montgomery County is planning to install BRT on roads that cyclists and pedestrians alike avoid for safety reasons, a measure that will limit access to key intersections and strengthen barriers between communities and destinations.


The Maryland State Highway Administration's proposed cross section for Alternative 5 for BRT on Georgia Avenue features 12' and 14' lanes.

It's important to get the design details right from the start

Putting BRT on these roads without making other fundamental changes to the road's design would not only discourage walking and bicycling, but also keep transit ridership down. By planning an environment that's welcoming of pedestrians and bicycles, Montgomery County can transform key arterials into attractive, safe, multi-modal boulevards that better serve all users.


High speed right turns, and sidewalks up against high speed traffic make Rockville Pike an unpleasant place to walk. Image from Google Maps.

Planning for pedestrians and cycles isn't just a nice thing to do; it's also good business because it increases access to commerce. Chuck Marohn, an engineer who writes Strong Towns, would likely call most of Montgomery's BRT corridors "stroads," or street/road hybrids that "[move] cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment." Many strip retail centers and malls along our high speed stroads are struggling while businesses are thriving in walkable downtowns and new, mixed-use centers.

Other communities around the country have wisely invested in making BRT corridors more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. Oakland, for example, is planning what has been called "California's longest complete street" for International Boulevard, its BRT corridor. Oakland's 17-mile BRT system, scheduled to open in 2016, will have wider sidewalks, bulbouts, streetlights, and bicycle lanes (some of them protected) along the entire length.


UC Berkeley student recommendations for improved pedestrian and bicycle accommodations on the International Boulevard BRT corridor.

How community members can get involved

Representative community input will also be critical to designing a successful system, as residents are the ones who know where safety hazards and trouble spots exist.

The SHA and Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) have formalized a way for community members to give feedback on the first four of Montgomery's ten planned BRT routes (Viers Mill Road from Rockville to Wheaton, Georgia Avenue North from Olney to Wheaton, MD 355 from Clarksburg to Bethesda, and US 29 from Burtonsville to Silver Spring). Each site will have a Bus Rapid Transit Corridor Advisory Committee that, starting in December, will meet every other month to address where stations should go, where bike and pedestrian routes are needed, and how the street should be designed.

The committees are an important chance for residents, businesses, and other stakeholders to achieve consensus and help get the details right. If a diverse and representative range of community members answers the call for applications, Montgomery County can not only dramatically improv its transit service, but also turn some auto-oriented corridors into walkable, bikeable places.

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Government


Anacostia residents feel "meeting fatigue"

In my half-decade as a reporter covering the Anacostia neighborhood I have attended nearly 400 meetings. On many occasions I've left one to run to another on the same evening. Some residents who've trundled through these meetings say there have been too many, with not enough results. Is there a better way, or is this necessary to get community input?


William Alston-El and Denise Rolark Barnes at a community meeting in 2013. All photos by the author.

"All these meetings are pseudo-participation at their finest," says Rev. Oliver "OJ" Johnson, a former ANC Commissioner who's lived in Anacostia for 55 years. "Generally, the community never gets the feedback or follow-up reports from these meetings that we are promised."

Meetings come from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8A, Anacostia Coordinating Council, Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, ARCH Development Corporation, Anacostia Branch of the DC Public Library, DC Housing Authority, Historic Anacostia Block Association, Councilmember Marion Barry, Office of Planning,

United Planning Organization, Metropolitan Police Department, DC Commission on Arts & Humanities, Cultural Tourism DC, Union Temple Baptist Church, Urban Land Institute, DC Department of Transportation, WMATA, Chief Financial Officer, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, DC Public Schools, and more.

Meeting fatigue is not a condition unique to Anacostia. Residents of Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods have been inundated with meetings for decades. Washington, for all that it lacks in local sovereignty makes up for the near endless opportunity to participate.

Most meetings happen in the immediate neighborhood or surrounding ones. But important meetings, which can determine the future of Anacostia, like with the Zoning Commission or the Alcohol Beverage Control Board, frequently occur outside of the neighborhood. Anacostia's status as a Historic District adds an extra layer of regulation over building and renovations. There are more than 30 other Historic Districts in the city, with residents enduring a similar litany of meetings.

Johnson adds, "The meetings have slowly evolved over the decades. These meetings used to be about holding the city accountable and now they've become events on the social calendar. For people who've lived in the neighborhood for more than 15 years or longer, these meetings serve as reunions. I've seen people at meetings now in their mid-30s I first met attending meetings before they were in grade school because their parents initiated them decades ago. There's a lot we may not have in Anacostia, but it's not for a lack of meetings."


A Mayor's Agent hearing on the Big K development earlier this year.

New leaders restart the meeting process, frustrating longtime residents

While the cliche of Washington being a "transient city" holds true in certain sections of town, Anacostia and areas east of the river have a core of activists that have outlasted changes in local leadership.

"The community has had the same issues for decade," says Angela Copeland, a resident of old Anacostia for more than two decades. "But, we get a fresh crew of bureaucrats every election cycle and start again from scratch. 'What does Anacostia want/need?' You can go crazy after a number of years having this same darn conversation."

At many meetings, community members express their dismay at how the meeting was organized and presented. They offer statements, not questions. Some offer respectful critiques, while other residents lash out. Older residents often citicize the city for duplicating efforts; in reaction, newer people offer a willingness to do whatever is necessary to help the neighborhood revitalize.

Some people ask questions but are told it is not the correct meeting in which to ask that particular question. For example, at a Big K meeting, a resident will ask about the Anacostia streetcar. At an affordable housing meeting, a resident will ask about the CBE process for local businesses applying for government contracts. Confusion and disorientation often reigns.


A young professional speaks out at a community meeting.

On top of administrative turnover, in my 5 years covering Anacostia I've noticed an exodus of upstart activists, regenerated by a new wave of enthusiastic young professionals. In September 2009, I attended a meeting of the River East Emerging Leaders (or REEL). At least eight people I spoke to either no longer live East of the Anacostia River or have left the area entirely.

REEL continues to hold meetings. "Every time I go to one of their meetings they have a new Vice President or someone with a leadership title who I've never met before," said one local business leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They interrogate me, asking who I am. I kindly tell them I helped support the formation of the organization."

Can technology provide more ways to participate?

"Before I had a family, I used to go to meetings," said Copeland. "It's just harder for me to make the time, now. And, people get an attitude if you ask for an agenda in advance or minutes after or live social media interaction during or anything that attempts to break old molds. The old guard appears to enjoy keeping newer voices (I'm not a newer voice) out of the process by hanging on to old ways and dysfunction—namely lack of transparency."

I've intermittently live tweeted public meetings on Big K, Barry Farm, and pending development. As a result I receive messages from residents who are unable to attend but share their thanks for documenting what is being discussed.

Although agencies maintain strict control over Anacostia meetings, leaving many to feel their participation is not valued, accessibility has improved over the years, Copeland said. "The joke for me is that the city used to hold meetings during business hours like the community didn't work. The only people getting paid for their effort at the meetings were those who worked for the city."


Kaya Henderson speaks to a community gathering including Councilmembers Anita Bonds and Marion Barry as well as clergy and commander of the 7th District Police Station.

Meetings play an important role

"Meetings are important," Copeland, who is also the administrator of the Great Ward 8 Facebook page, wrote. "The most dedicated make the time and commitment and shoulder most of the burden. There are tools available (all kinds of meeting facilitation tools online, via phone) that could help spread the responsibilities. But, people have to want to let go of the control."

One of the co-founders of REEL, Historic Anacostia Block Association, and current 8A ANC Commissioner Charles Wilson said that regular gatherings are invaluable to build a physical sense of community that trumps a digital community. "Monthly community meetings are important because it is an easy way to keep residents thoroughly informed of the issues and it allows them to communicate in person with each other. Email communication is great, but nothing beats the effectiveness of face-to-face conversations."

When revitalization and development begin to arrive in Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods is uncertain, but one thing is for sure; the meetings will continue.

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Transit


How do you get people excited about Bus Rapid Transit? Bring a bus to the county fair

Bus Rapid Transit has become an increasingly popular concept for communities in the DC area, but to see it in action, you'd have to travel to Cleveland or Los Angeles. This week, you can get a glimpse of our possible future at the Montgomery County fair in Gaithersburg.


Photo by betterDCregion on Flickr.

Communities for Transit, a local nonprofit that promotes Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plan, set up a brand-new bus to display outside the gates of the fair, which began last Saturday and runs through this Saturday, August 16. Visitors can learn about the county's concept for an 80-mile system of bus lanes on major streets like Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, and Columbia Pike, and tour the bus, which will eventually make its way to Denver.

At a press conference yesterday, county councilmembers and County Executive Ike Leggett said they hope to ride BRT here within four years. Getting there will require more detailed studies, which are currently underway, and securing a funding source.


Fairgoers check out the bus while CFT's Scott Williamson explains how it works. Photo by the author.

While the BRT plan faced intense opposition from wealthier neighborhoods like Chevy Chase West and Woodmoor, those at the fair were more receptive, asking Communities for Transit staff and volunteers when it was going to happen. Parents searched a route map to find the closest stop to their jobs, while their kids hopped into the bus driver's seat and pretended to drive.

Most people don't participate in traditional community meetings, meaning a vocal minority can dominate the conversation. That's why there's a bus parked outside the county fair: it brings people into the conversation who otherwise wouldn't get engaged, revealing that public support is actually greater than we thought. And the display vehicle, with its big windows, cushioned seats, and overpowering new smell, may have changed any negative impressions some visitors may have had about riding the bus.

Hopefully, Montgomery County officials will encourage people to ride the Metroway BRT line that will open in Arlington and Alexandria in two weeks. It'll be the region's first chance to actually ride BRT in person, and a prime opportunity to build support and allay some residents' concerns.

Until then, you can see the Bus Rapid Transit vehicle for yourself from 12 pm to 8 pm every day this week through this Saturday at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fairgrounds, located at 16 Chestnut Street in Gaithersburg.

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History


The DC zoning update has already had triple the public input as the enormous 1958 zoning code. Enough is enough.

Last week, Mayor Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until at least this fall before considering the proposed DC zoning update. This comes after nearly seven years of deliberation and resident input, and will now mean an entire year after a full draft was released for public review.


Photo by Live Life Happy on Flickr.

Public involvement is a critical part of good planning, but on this project, city officials have established what must be a new record for public consultation. Already, there has been enormously more public input than when the original zoning code was passed in 1958.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth is urging residents to tell Mayor Gray that further delay in creating a more walkable and inclusive city is simply not acceptable.

As of earlier this year, there have been:

  • 81 public work group meetings on 20 topic areas in 2008-2009, with a total of 1,000 participants
  • 42 open task force meetings by a representative task force of 25 residents
  • 59 public hearings and meetings by the Zoning Commission on specific topics starting in 2009
  • 8 meetings in each ward in December 2012 and January 2013 to discuss the zoning revision
  • Over 100 ANC, community group, and special interest group meetings with the DC Office of Planning.
Miles away from the 1958 zoning code

Meanwhile, back in 1956-1958, there were no more than 25 public hearings. 20 of those were clustered in two 10-day breaks for public input.

The zoning codes were developed by a private consultant; the public had its input; and then a three-man group called the Zoning Advisory Council made significant alternations.

The Zoning Advisory Council was group of three "experienced" individuals, representing the National Capital Planning Commission, the Zoning Commission, and the District Commissioner. They advised the Zoning Commission when big changes came up. The Zoning Commission had to consider each of their views.

The current zoning update began with public and open working groups on each topic. The previous one began with a contract, in November 1954. At the time, there was no Office of Planning. The National Capital Planning Commission did most of the work. Zoning was the job of the Zoning Commission, which comprised the three District Commissioners, as well as a representative from the Architect of the Capitol and the National Park Service.

Two of the District Commissioners were civilians appointed by Congress. The third, and by far the dominant, was an ex-officio representative of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Engineer Commissioner was effectively the city manager.

Having no planning staff of its own, the Zoning Commission issued a contract in November 1954 for Harold Lewis, a well-respected engineer and urban planner. His father, Nelson Lewis, was a founder of American planning.

Lewis presented his plans over ten summer weeknights, June 18th-29th, 1956. Crowds packed into the stuffy auditoriums of schools and the Wilson building to voice their opinions on Lewis' proposal. Lewis or one of his assistants began each event with a defense of the assumptions that underlay the report.

The public addressed Lewis' plan with a barrage of testy testimony. Unlike the current process, the 1956 commission didn't break up the meeting by topic. This was the first time anyone had seen the proposal.

The zoning change significantly altered the zoning map. Lewis also wanted to force nonconforming structures and uses to close down entirely. And the code dramatically downzoned much of the city.

The 2008-2014 zoning update does not touch this level of controversy. The map does not change, and no areas get upzoned or downzoned. Policy changes, such as the controversial ones around parking, corner stores, and basement and garage apartments, are tiny compared to the changes of 1958.

Lewis took some of the public comments into consideration. He delivered his final report, known as the Lewis Report, on November 9th. A 7-month comment period then began, and ended with 10 days of hearings at the Wilson Building, May 27th-June 6th.

If the summer meetings were hot, this was volcanic. But it ended with the Zoning Advisory Council taking the comments behind closed doors. They issued a report on July 12, 1957. Other than details, the law went into effect on May 12th, 1958. With some alterations, what was set down then is still law.

Little changes shouldn't make it hard to solve big problems

It's not that the 1958 process was better. Far from it; the openness of the current process should be praised. And it's always worth examining how a public process could be more open. However, it's not clear how new rounds of testimony increase participation by underrepresented groups.

More time will just allow vocal residents to rehash the same disputes again. All to defend regulations that, no matter how comfortable they may have become, are based on discredited and outdated theory.

Comprehensively updating our zoning code for the first time since 1958 will help to make housing more affordable, by giving builders more flexible options in construction and easing the rules that allow homeowners to create an accessory apartment.

In a city with housing costs that are rapidly spiraling out of control, we can't afford to waste any more time with unjustified delays. Let the Zoning Commission begin deliberating! Send a message to Mayor Gray that DC residents are ready NOW for a new, modern, and more understandable zoning code.

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Zoning


DC's 40-year out of date zoning code will get at least 6 months more stale

A team of professionals looking at DC's zoning concluded that the 1958 code was hopelessly outdated, and found an urgent need for a new code. That report was in 1973. Four decades later, the code will continue getting older, as Mayor Vincent Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until September before deliberating on the proposed zoning update.


Photo by Neal Sanche on Flickr.

After over five years of public hearings and meetings to write a new code, the DC Office of Planning submitted it to the Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say over zoning in DC, last year.

There have been seven months of hearings already, with exhaustive chances for everyone to learn about the code and speak their minds. But Gray now wants changes, including ones that will add housing and help people age in place, to wait even longer.

The commission "set down" the code for public comment and hearings on September 9th, 2013. There were public hearings in November, but when some residents said they hadn't had enough time to read the new code, the commission added another set of hearings in January and February. There are two more hearings, for Wards 7 and 8 on April 21 and citywide on April 24, to give people yet another chance to speak.

But this week, the Gray administration decided to ask for even more delay, and the Zoning Commission extended the deadline to September 15, over a year after they set down the proposals.

The delay was almost another year longer than that. Gray wrote September 15, 2015 in a letter, but the zoning commissioners decided to assume he meant September 15, 2014.

Some commissioners argued that the process had gone on long enough, while others welcomed even more time. Rob Miller, a Gray appointee to the board, said, "Going through this process for seven years, what's another six months?" By that token, what's another seven years? The code has sorely needed revision for over 40 years.

Major problems with the zoning code were evident in 1970

In a July 1970 report, planning consultant Barton-Aschman Associates looked back at the code from the far side of highway protests, racial tension, riots, environmentalism, urban renewal, and the Metro system.

They didn't like what they saw. Despite some patches after Home Rule, the language was outdated and the code had major flaws. The study said,

A considerable number of provisions are archaic or substandard and need to be systematically reviewed and modernized. New techniques should be developed to accommodate changing market demand, technological advances, and new social conditions and programs.
Studies for the original code by its principal author, Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed people continued to have large families and drove everywhere, and that no historic neighborhoods would be preserved. The 1970 report criticized these assumptions as already out of date.

The 1958 code also did not plan for a city with Metro, with the lower dependence on driving and greater densities that made possible. The 1970 report argued,

Perhaps the Metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.
In 1976, 18 years after the zoning code was written, a panel of citizen representatives agreed that a zoning code which separated residential from commercial uses was harming the city:
The rigid separation of uses contemplated by our existing zoning is no longer desirable in many instances, and indeed, the separation of residential and commercial uses contributes positively to the increasing deadening of Downtown after dark.
The Special Citizens Advisory Committee on Urban Renewal included the 1958 code as part of the policies of an unrepresentative government that had decimated the city with slum clearance and highway construction. In the same period, the city made some additions to the planning laws, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and the Planned Unit Development process.

Downtown got new zoning in 1991 and amendments in 2000, and DC has added overlay districts to tweak zoning in many residential neighborhoods, but for most of the city, the zoning remains substantially the same as in the 1968 plan, and many of its problems were never solved.

For decades, people have said the zoning code is out of date. The earliest response to the highway riots questioned the zoning produced at that time. Then, one of the first actions of an independent DC was to question the land use regulation that was tied up with urban renewal. They patched the regulations up, but didn't reconstructed them in a way that improved stability and quality of life over the long term.

Some people say that changes to the zoning code will only worsen existing problems. But many of those problems exist because of the way the zoning is written now. Perhaps the city has become comfortable with the problems it's known about for 40 years. The risk of short-term pain is not a good enough reason to delay a much-needed update any more.

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Events


Events roundup: All together now

Add your voice to the public involvement process, learn about the history of a DC landmark, and meet fellow transit supporters in Montgomery County at events around the region.


Photo by Megara Tegal on Flickr.

Whose voices do planners hear?: Social media and evolving technologies have allowed a more diverse set of voices to weigh in on the planning process than ever before, but informal comments online often aren't formally recognized by planning agencies. How can planners bridge this communication gap?

The National Capital Planning Commission will host a panel discussion on this issue on Wednesday, April 9, 7-8:30 pm. NCPC's William Herbig will moderate a conversation with David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington, Cheryl Cort from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards from Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood. The free event is at NCPC's offices, 401 9th Street, NW, Suite 500. RSVP here.

After the jump: learn about the history of the Washington Coliseum, attend a community drop-in workshop about the Maryland Avenue SW transportation study, and attend a happy hour for rapid transit in Montgomery County.

The forgotten landmark: The Washington Coliseum, formerly Uline Arena, is now used as a parking facility, but once hosted the Beatles' first concert in America. To learn more about the facility's fascinating history, join the District Public Library for the last spring edition of its Know Your Neighborhood series as it presents a screening and panel discussion of filmmaker Jason Hornick's documentary "The Washington Coliseum: The Forgotten Landmark." The screening takes place this Tuesday, April 8, 6:30 pm at the Northeast Branch Library, 330 7th St. NE.

Maryland Ave SW drop-in workshop: DC's Maryland Avenue SW Small Area Plan hopes to knit back together the L'Enfant street grid in the Southwest Federal Center area. The plan calls for building a new Maryland Avenue atop the railroad tracks, between 7th and 12th Streets SW, which will link to existing roads, create new public spaces, and provide new walking, biking, and driving routes.

Following the study, the District Department of Transportation started its own analysis about whether it's possible to build Maryland Avenue and delve into more technical detail. DDOT officials are going to be outside the L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station at 7th & Maryland Avenue SW on Friday, April 11, from 11-1 and again from 4-6 to talk to people about their findings. The rain location is the Marketing Center at L'Enfant Plaza (next to Sandella's).

Happy hour for rapid transit in Montgomery: Interested in seeing Rapid Transit in Montgomery County? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit at a happy hour next week, on Tuesday, April 15, 6 pm, to hear the latest news about Rapid Transit, how you can get involved, and to connect with fellow allies, volunteers, and supporters.

The event is at the Communities for Transit office, 8630 Fenton Street, Suite 500, in Silver Spring. The event is free but please register here.

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Government


Proposed project stirs debate

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

A new controversial project has drawn vigorous support from some residents but strong opposition from others. Proponents insist that it will enhance the community, while those against see it as yet another example of change in an already changing neighborhood. Both sides agree that the change that will greatly impact the quality of life, for better or worse.


Yes/no image from Shutterstock.

Several local leaders and neighborhood activists insist that the project is an important way to help the community adapt to the 21st century and accommodate new ways of doing things that many residents want. They also argue that this is only a minor adjustment to previous plans.

Opponents disagree, insisting that the project does not fit into the character of the existing neighborhood and will ultimately render it unrecognizable from its current state. Both sides have marshaled data (and, more importantly, anecdotes) to support their vision for changing things or keeping them exactly the same.

Some community meetings have become intense affairs of shouting, foot-stomping and finger-pointing and the rhetoric on the neighborhood listserv has become increasingly vitriolic. The most passionate supporters and opponents insist that they love the neighborhood so much that they will move away if the wrong outcome comes to pass.

"I just moved here, and I would not have done so had I known that this project could have even been proposed," said one opponent. "I can't believe that no one consulted me to let me know ahead of time that such a change was even possible," said another. "I have kids. What about them?" she continued.

"I have lived in this neighborhood for a long time and I can't recall a time that our community was this divided," said a resident who supports the project. "This is yet another example of how the side I disagree with on this issue continues to put their own interests over mine."

Several residents have argued that this change will push elderly people out of their homes, while others insist it is necessary to ensure they can continue to live in their homes. The needs of poor residents have frequently come up, as affluent proponents say this change will help the less fortunate while wealthy opponents are certain it will harm the poor.

The fierce debate over the project has even garnered attention from the local media. After the last community meeting, one reporter filed a memorable story, "Community Members Square Off Over Controversial Project." Several notable local newspaper columnists have written that this project is a prime example of the tensions over change in the region.

Both sides do agree that the current public process has not involved enough residents. Those who support the project and those who oppose it both believe that certain voices in the community have spoken up at public meetings out of proportion to their numbers, while a "silent majority" of other residents who agree with their side of the issue have not yet been heard. Local elected officials have generally agreed that the government agency or private organization promoting the project has not done enough to involve the community.

Tensions continue to run high, but a decision should be reached soon. Whether the community rallies behind the eventual outcome and the project is advanced or rejected, or whether the project moves forward or stalls and the rift carries on for years to come, remains to be seen.

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