Helpful or Hurtful: The Power of ANCs in DC Development
Almost everyone practicing architecture in our city, along with the land use attorneys who represent our clients, know the potential power of the Advisory Neighborhood Committees (ANC’s) in the development process. We normally strive to curry favor and collect Brownie points when ANC’s are concerned. However, a series of recent events strongly suggests that it is time to examine the ANC system and how these bodies use their significant influence. Our hope is that this post will spark an open and honest dialogue amongst Washington’s design and legal communities, as well as elected and appointed government officials, about the roles of ANC’s and all of us in the community in shaping the future of our city.
First, some background history. The District of Columbia Home Rule Act is federal legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in December of 1973. The Act ceded, be it with heavy strings attached, many congressional powers over the District to a new local government. The act also contains the District Charter, a.k.a. the Home Rule Charter, which was ratified by our citizenry in 1974. The charter not only established the office of the Mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia, it also established the ANC’s. We will leave it to historians to determine whether the ANC’s are a grand codification of grassroots democracy or merely a patrician move on the part of congress, thinking their charges needed to be taught how to exercise democracy at the neighborhood level. The important thing is that the ANC’s are given an advisory role, but not de facto authority, over a host of governmental functions.
This role extends to a plethora of activities impacting all manner of decisions throughout our city. In fact, one could argue they downright impact the quality of life within their boundaries, as well as the entire city at large. Per the Charter, the ANC’s “may advise the District government on matters of public policy, including decisions regarding planning, streets, recreation, social services programs, health, safety, and sanitation in that neighborhood commission area.” Moreover, “timely notice shall be given to each advisory neighborhood commission of requested or proposed zoning changes, variances, public improvements, licenses, or permits of significance to neighborhood planning and development within its neighborhood commission area for its review, comment, and recommendation.”
Of further significance, most of the locally enacted rulemaking since the creation of the ANC’s has given them “great weight” in the decision making process. Architects know firsthand how this great weight applies to all matters before the Zoning Commission, Board of Zoning Adjustments, Office of Planning, Department of Transportation, Historic Preservation Review Board and other agencies through which we must marshal our projects. While great weight does not necessary grant authority per se, in reality, the ANC’s wield an abundant amount of power, perhaps more than the Charter intended. We will return to this thought momentarily.
This month, several things have happened that bring the future development in our city to the forefront. If the ANC’s want a respected place at the table, they must raise the level of discourse. On September 7th, the Zoning Commission set down for public hearings the Office of Planning’s recommend rewrite of the Zoning Regulations. This is the first major rewrite since 1958. There have been over a thousand ad hoc changes and additions since the ‘58 rewrite. Additionally, on the 12th, the National Capitol Planning Commission issued its findings regarding possible changes to the Height Act of 1910, which they have been considering at the request of our congressional overlords. Furthermore, on the 15th, the Washington Post devoted nearly its entire Sunday magazine to various planning and development initiatives in the city. All of these issues will, at some point, come before some, or all, of our ANC’s. The rewrite is already before the Zoning Commission; any change in the Height Act would initiate changes in the Zoning Regulations; and the development plans outlined in the Post magazine articles impact specific ANC’s and/or all of them.
Therein lies the dilemma. The ANC’s are good – sometimes – in representing the parochial interest of their neighborhoods, but not so good – some would say terrible – at considering overall, citywide, public policy. All of these recent events, however, involve matters of public policy. For instance an ANC opposed to a particular nearby project may be against increased traffic, difficulty in finding free parking, noise from users, and the like, without any concern for accommodating growth, increasing the tax base and attracting a greater cross section of humanity. When applied to the zoning rewrite, significant proposals, like the reintroduction of corner stores, parking maximums rather than minimums and the easing of restrictions on accessory dwelling units, may all fall victim to rampant Not-in-My-Backyard attitudes prevalent throughout much of our fair city.
Furthermore, the ANC’s do not even impartially represent the interests of their own broader constituencies beyond those of the individual single member districts (SMD’s) within. Because the SMD’s are delineated to encompass areas of equal population, many of the Ward 3 ANC’s are comprised of more residents from the apartment buildings lining our grand avenues than from the single family homes and townhouses a half block away. The concerns of an apartment dweller, differs from a home owner’s, and they both differ from those of other neighbors, say college students and the homeless. These cannot be reconciled in one meeting per month.
Equally troubling is the effects of the squeaky wheel syndrome. ANC’s are more inclined to be against something than for something simply because the squeaky wheel gets the grease. More people will show up to complain about change and development than will supporters. It’s human nature.
The Cathedral Commons project was delayed for a decade by an overstated neighborhood opposition. It took an independent group of local supporters to overturn years of the ANC’s and the local citizen association’s hurdles. [Let’s not even get started on the decidedly undemocratic impact of non-governmental, private citizen associations.] Similarly, the Adams Morgan church-hotel project set a new record for total hours before the Zoning Commission due to neighborhood opposition, yet there is no discernible evidence that the architecture was improved in the process. If the ANC’s want a respected place at the table, they must raise the level of discourse.
We find it particularly upsetting when this NIMBY-ism, and “last one in, close the door” attitude is used to oppose sensible development in already established areas of the city. It is exclusionary and at times, downright discriminatory. Redevelopment and gentrification are dangerous double-edged swords. Along with the many positive effects, also comes the displacement of low-income renters and increasing land values that often lead to the exodus of the stabilizing middle-class residents. The young, the hip and the wealthy do not necessarily make for a balanced neighborhood. Do we really want all of DC to become like Manhattan south of 125th Street? Preventing higher density, transit-oriented developments at Metro stations; resisting more accessory dwelling units such as granny flats; insisting that heights remain as our federal overseers set them a century ago; and otherwise restricting the densification of desirable areas, actually increases gentrification pressures in the rest of the city. These are basic questions of public policy, and they should not be answered on an ad hoc, neighborhood by neighborhood basis.
Let us be clear. We do not in any way advocate the abolishment of the ANC system. In fact, the opposite is true. We urge all District citizens to actively participate in their ANC’s and make their voices heard on the local level, even if Congress continues to deny us a national voice. (For readers living outside the Washington metropolitan area, while District residents pay full freight when it comes to federal taxes, they have no voting representation in Congress.)
ANC participation must be an accurate cross section of the entire community. We should attend meetings regularly and contest any unsubstantiated claims by our commissioners or neighbors. Consider challenging incumbents, if they do not represent the views of the entire neighborhood. Commissioners must step up their game, as well. They ought to broaden their horizon and consider the entire city in addition to their immediate constituents, for they cannot truly meet the needs of their constituents without also considering the bigger picture. They must resist any extremist views from within the community calling for narrow-minded protectionism.
As a firm, we’ve reached no conclusions regarding changes to the Height Act or the myriad of changes in the zoning rewrite. Those require extensive study and reasoned debate. In the end, one hopes that they will sink or swim on their own merits without the undue influence of money, politics, and insular neighborhood concerns. The architectural community has little say on the first two. On the third, those of us with planning expertise must speak out and be heard, and we trust the ANC’s will be equal to the task.