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Challenges loom for D.C.'s oldest urban planning group

(Published June 14, 1999)


Special to The Common Denominator

At the venerable Committee of 100 on the Federal City, there's a clash brewing with important implications for the city.

Will the committee continue the way it always has, sometimes an effective voice against big development projects, sometimes a bit player?

Difficult questions have been raised over the past month, and there's a lot of grumbling and hand-wringing; clearly the group is finding a new balance. But it's not paralyzed or melting down. None of the dozen members interviewed for this story say they're ready to quit or mutiny. A special meeting to discuss their complaints was requested by the dissidents in an April letter to the committee’s chairman. That meeting is scheduled for June 15.

The opposition, consists of 26 members (just under a 10th of the membership) who signed a letter to committee chairman Tersh Boasberg. They charge the group is not run democratically: "The organization is not yours...It belongs to all of us," their letter said. Much of the hostility stems from the allegedly close ties between the chairman and the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

The organization’s bylaws, which don't even mention conflicts of interest, should be changed to deal with them, say the disgruntled members. The critics, many of whom run other grassroots organizations, also demand more candor about finances because, "expenditures over the past several years have risen from $7,500 per over $70,000 with the hiring of staff and other expenses."

Fundamental policy questions are not involved in the conflict. Questions like "How will the preservation of the L'Enfant Plan demonstrably benefit the District?" or "Is it necessary to tolerate development on a massive scale to spark economic development?" are not being asked. The critics aren't challenging the essentially preservationist ethos of the committee, only the particular way battles are being fought and the way the current leadership makes decisions.

For some members, it seems paradoxical that the complaints are being lodged just at the moment the organization is beginning to reform itself.

A committee headed by Barbara Zartman and Kateri Ellison is dealing with communications issues. "What's curious is that a lot of those who signed the letter are relatively new to the organization. Some of the signers are very new, and others haven't been to meetings in years," said treasurer Jim Nathanson, a former D.C. City Council member who represented Ward 3.

The precipitating event for the current state of unease was the issue of the new D.C. Convention Center, according to members. The committee's chairman decided months ago not to file a lawsuit to fight the project. Chairman Tersh Boasberg said he didn't believe it was advisable or proper to file a lawsuit "with its only purpose to gum up the works, essentially as harassment."

But many members were appalled. An architect, in a separate letter to Boasberg, said, "I have considered you to be an admirable chairman of the committee -- until recently. A lot of us invested a lot of time in the battle against the convention center north of Mount Vernon Square; you were an effective leader and advocate for the committee's position. But at some point you decided the battle was over, and announced, publicly, that the committee was retiring from the fray. You are entitled to your position, but you are not entitled to ascribe your position to the committee without due process."

On the financial issues, the dissenters figures are way off, said treasurer Nathanson. The organization's funding "is primarily dues-based. We have about 200 members who pay $50 each in dues. The letter claims we have a budget of $70,000, but in the best of times the bank account is less than half that amount...The organization gets peanuts from foundation grants but we're working on that."

On the demand for full financial disclosure, Nathanson retorts that the salient budget figures are in the newsletters every member gets. However, the latest newsletter lists total assets for 1998 as $42,571. The letter uses the "hiring of staff" and "other expenses" as signs of a new level of prosperity. But, according to Nathanson: "We've had different levels of administrators in the past, but at no time more than part-time and we've never had our own office."

From its inception in 1923, the Committee of 100 has been basically a conservative organization, focused on upholding the L'Enfant Plan for the city, preserving natural spaces and historic buildings. The committee's first president was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's uncle and its 100 members were until recent times overwhelmingly white, middle aged or older, and patrician.

"When I was invited to join, friends joked that by bringing me into the committee they were lowering the average age to 60," said Ellen McCarthy, a member for 15 years and now vice chairman. Now there are over 200 somewhat diverse members, a membership large and diverse enough for there to be serious disconnects between them.

The committee began in an era when urban issues were just gaining national attention, the same era as the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty, legitimizing a city's power to zone, the same year as the advent of the first city managers. The first issue the committee took a stand on was improvement of Washington's parks and natural areas, but not in the manner as Greenpeace or PETA. There's never been in -your-face demonstrations or any placards, there have only rarely been lawsuits. One senses there have been very few raised voices. The committee's approach has been to write letters to officials and to testify at hearings.

There's no evidence of any democratic traditions in its past, or present. "It's not really a membership-driven organization," Nathanson said. "The members are elected (by the trustees) and the members elect the trustees, who make policy decisions for the organization.

"What's happened recently is that Tersh (Boasberg) has democratized the organization in part by capping the term for trustees at six years; before trustees served for life. He also increased the number of trustees to 25. He's paying for democratizing the organization."

Other members interviewed, who declined to be identified, say they suspect some of the critics are not advocates for democracy as much as former trustees harboring resentment over losing their posts.

Some of the grousing is probably because the committee has lost crucial battles lately, like the one over the new convention center. But over the course of the last 76 years it's had a mixed record of success and has rarely prevailed on its own in opposing big, splashy development. High-profile successes like the preservation of the Old Stone House in Georgetown and the Corcoran were not initiated or led by the committee. The committee has had a string of low-key, low-profile successes like height preservation at the Market Square development and the Post Office near Union Station in the late 1980s. The committee is perhaps best known for its war waged from the 1940s to the ‘80s against the intrusion of an interstate highway system on woodlands in the District. A good part of that success was due to forming and maintaining a broad, passionate coalition.

The fact that the committee has often had to fight alone, even when coupled with its internal deficits, is still only a partial explanation for the committee's less-than-sensational record of success. Bigger obstacles are the hodge-podge nature of zoning and the idiosyncrasies of D.C. politics.

The zoning code is complex and often internally inconsistent. The District is not unique in this; in the past few years, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and several other cities decided to start from scratch and write new zoning codes. More peculiar to the District is the almost constant violations of the city’s Comprehensive Plan by city council, which "sets changes to the plan at the last minute, under cover of darkness and secrecy, sneaking in amendments," McCarthy said. "We've indicated to the mayor -- both the former and current one -- that they should weigh in strongly with the council and tell them it's unacceptable....There's been some indication that the Williams administration is willing to revisit the issue when a new planning director is selected."

An absence of fair play has bedeviled land planning issues in the District for years. For instance, in 1988 the Senate planned to hold hearings and make a final, binding decision on architectural plans for the Federal Judiciary Center near Union Station. No D.C. group was asked to testify or even comment. "We somehow just happened to hear about it two days before testimony was scheduled," a member of the committee told The New York Times. The committee had sufficient clout that it was one of two groups out of many chosen to testify.

The zoning process is often like a runaway train. "One problem is we're always in a reactive position because things get started in subtle ways," concedes Boasberg. "One doesn't always know if a proposed project is 'the real thing.' The hardest thing is for citizens’ groups to find out what's really going on and to deal with it in a public forum before a decision is made. With the convention center, by the time anyone found out about it, the decision was already made." The committee had "three minutes to make its presentation before city council," he said.

An even grimmer assessment is offered by former chairman Dorn C. McGrath, professor of urban planning at George Washington University: "There's no due process in the zoning process or city planning in this city. It's nothing short of corruption."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator