Does Washington Need a Planning Commission?

Planners from other cities are often surprised when I tell them that Washington, D.C. does not have a planning commission. Thanks to the city’s unique legacy as the home to the federal government, it boasts a convoluted system for regulating new building in the city that lacks a central planning body. The system is so complex that at times the city government itself forgets to enforce existing laws, and major new buildings on the National Mall can “take most Washingtonians and most Americans by surprise.”

Proposed South Capitol Street BridgeLet’s take a quick look at who’s involved. Starting at the federal level, the National Capital Planning Commission oversees all federal construction in the capital region, as well as creating long-term comprehensive plans focusing heavily on the location of the federal government. However the limited authority of the agency means the plan has little direct influence over private development in the city. For example, NCPC plans have proposed far-ranging ideas including a new mall along South Capitol Street that one blogger has even dedicated his site to discussing. I previously compared the NCPC’s hazy vision of the future with science fiction visions for our city.

While NCPC does not review private construction, another federal agency does review the aesthetics of some private construction. Private buildings in certain sections of the city (mostly abutting or facing federal property like Rock Creek Park and Pennsylvania Avenue) are subject to review by the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts under the Shipstead-Luce Act. It was a mix-up over this act that forced the District to purchase and tear down a private home last year.

For their part, the city’s Office of Planning (organized in the city government’s executive branch) creates a wide range of neighborhood and citywide plans including the recently completed 2006 Comprehensive Plan of the National Capital. The Mayor’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development oversees redevelopment plans and other special programs. The District Department of Transportation creates special transportation plans and oversees the planning of transportation infrastructure. Construction in any of the city’s many historic districts is regulated by the Historic Preservation Review Board.

Construction not subject to the specific bodies above is regulated by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that can issue a building permit for by-right construction conforming to the city’s zoning. Any planned unit developments or nonconforming projects must come before the quasi-autonomous Zoning Commission, and can be appealed to the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

Given this backdrop, the Washington Business Journal recently published two columns in their OnSite magazine arguing for and against creating a new planning commission. Dorn C. McGrath Jr., a professor emeritus from George Washington University, argues explaining this convoluted structure could be a primary task for the commission. He also thinks such a commission would help oversee the maintenance and development of city facilities, arguing, “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.”

Arguing against is Ellen McCarthy, who served as director under the Office of Planning for Mayor Anthony Williams. She boasts the city already has a “high-functioning planning structure” and questions the benefit of adding a new commission to the mix.

While I don’t think it is likely a commission will be created anytime soon, the debate is important because it sheds light on advantages and drawbacks of the existing system. The two viewpoints are shown below.

Does D.C. need a planning commission?

Yes by Dorn C. McGrath Jr.

D.C. urgently needs what a planning commission might one day provide, but now is not the time. A planning commission needs the political support of the mayor, and recent events tell us a planning commission is on the mayor’s back burner, if on the stove at all.

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.

There is no legal barrier to the city establishing a planning commission. The power of the mayor to do exactly this was confirmed in a 2003 legal opinion by Covington & Burling. Copies of that memorandum of law written for the Committee of 100 were furnished to members of the Council, then-Mayor Tony Williams and Office of Planning officials. They ignored it. The same memorandum was given to the current mayor and his director of planning. They, too, have ignored it. A planning commission might, after all, provide some sort of check on the mayor’s and deputy mayor’s adventures in development.

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.

The city also has chosen to put aside the messy problem of Department of Motor Vehicle operations, many of which are now crowded into an obsolete, ill-paved shopping center beside the trash-transfer facility. DMV inspectors are reduced to authorizing illegal parking in the shopping center and to conducting their driving tests on overloaded public streets. It is noteworthy that the original testing facility was much larger and located across Brentwood Road, but was compressed and relocated to make room for new development on the Rhode Island Avenue/Brentwood Road site in Northeast.

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.

Mayor Fenty is to be applauded for his valiant effort to take over the embarrassing public school system, but the citizens are still holding their breath to see if he and his new chancellor succeed. In the meantime, many wonder what types of schools will serve whatever types of occupants there may be in the vast number of condominiums that have been built in various locations throughout the city.

Washington is, and will remain, a fragmented city. It is divided between the federal city, which is governed mainly by Congress and the securicrats, and the rest — which is about half — governed to a certain extent by the city government. The city’s budget, never a certainty, is still subject to approval by Congress. A planning commission would be of some help in assuring Congress that there is some relationship between the proposed budget and actual capital improvements, many of which are badly needed. The planning commission would bring a degree of professionalism to the process of government, and begin, at last, the long task of educating officials and the public all across the city about planning per se as a basic obligation of government. The present lineup at OP can’t, and won’t, do this.

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. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

No by Ellen McCarthy

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.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. There are a bunch of problems with land use planning in the city, and it is arguable unfortunately that a Planning Commission would make much difference, without more fundamental foundational changes.

    1. Likely a planning commission would only cover OP and DDOT planning, yet all the other government agencies do planning too. Shouldn’t a planning commission have oversight over all such efforts.

    2. The comp plan currently does not require the coordination of transportation and land use planning. Just as OP is the “staff office” for the ZC and BZA, so too should DDOT have an equivalent role.

    3. Although this would require that land use and transportation planning be coordinated.

    4. The city doesn’t have a capital improvements/facilities plan to begin with.

    5. The city doesn’t have a philosophy that intends to maximize the community and economic benefit of public facilities.

    6. The kind of people likely to be appointed to a Planning Commission aren’t likely to be much different than the kind of people appointed to BZA and ZC, in other words, they aren’t likely to be too challenging of the Growth Machine.

    7. I argue that the point of planning and zoning should be to maintain, strengthen, and extend the qualities of livability. Until that is the actual foundation of the planning and zoning functions, it might not really matter. Because most decisions are not measured against that metric, and design, except in Shipstead-Luce areas and historic districts, isn’t even considered. Etc.

  2. One fundamental change is far greater public awareness.

    Note, for the record that the Mall for South Capitol was never reported in any of the media accounts of the Extending the Legacy program; all of the accounts are careful to only describe the future SCS as a “gateway” or “boulevard”, but never as a “mall”, “promenade” or “linear park.” Likewise with the newsletters I received from the various “environmentalist” and land planning related organizations.

    Asides from the greater diversity possible via blogs, “design studios” open the public are a means of increasing public conscious nous of the planning.

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