Thursday, September 17, 2009

Department of Planning Proposed Zoning Changes and City's Aging Infrastructure exposed by Cooper Cafritz Fire

The following is an excellent article that discusses the DC Office of Planning's rewrite of Title 11, the zoning regulations which would be the basis for increasing building density in the District of Columbia. Also the fire at the home of philanthropist Peggy Cooper Cafritz exposed a potentially disasterous and immediate problem: underperforming hydrants. The article (from DC Watch) is as follows:

Proposed Zoning Changes and the City's Aging Infrastructure

Alma Gates,

Over the past year, the Office of Planning has held a series of public meetings on the rewrite of Title 11, the zoning regulations, and, as a complementary exercise, it is in the process of amending the Comprehensive Plan. Few city residents have participated in the rewrite, and most are unaware that the anticipated outcome of the new zoning regulations will be increased density throughout the city. The Comprehensive Plan amendments, many of which were submitted by city agency staffs, are meant to provide the justification for the zoning changes. Growing a city brings a new set of responsibilities and concerns for those who must ensure public welfare and safety. For example, there have been numerous recent media reports about the fire at the home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz. The Post, the Northwest Current, and the Examiner cited a lack of water pressure due to the age and inadequacy of the infrastructure as a contributing factor in the difficulty experienced by firefighters who attempted to extinguish the blaze on Chain Bridge Road. Responders to the Cafritz fire, like those at the Eastern Market, Georgetown Library, and Adams Mill apartment building, experienced immediate underperforming hydrants, indicating the problem of low water pressure is citywide.

The city hired a former Shreveport, Louisiana, fire chief to prepare a report on the fire and related water problems following the 2007 Adams Mill apartment fire. One of the report's major conclusions found, “The condition of the water system infrastructure is highly questionable due to its age and condition, as due to deferred maintenance and inspection. Major portions of the underground infrastructure will have to be replaced to upgrade the system. Correction of these problems will require millions of dollars and at least two decades of continual effort.” The Cafritz fire leaves no doubt that the city has failed to implement the report's recommendations; and it is a clear indication of the serious vulnerability that currently exists in the city. WASA notes there are 1,300 miles of water mains in the District that have a median age of 74 years, and 14 percent of them are more than one hundred years old. Those who lived in Washington through Marion Barry's tenure as Mayor know little attention was paid to infrastructure; and subsequent mayors have done little to address or improve the aging underpinnings of the city. This reality led Robert McCartney, Metro columnist to note, “Rebuilding infrastructure is a top priority. The Red Line crash in June, and problems battling the fire at the Cafritz home July 31 because of a 75-year-old water main, highlighted some deficiencies in the region.”

Metro is at capacity, water mains are insufficient, and PEPCO is scrambling to make power delivery more reliable. Yet the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) and the Office of Planning (OP) continue to encourage new development without addressing the exiting strain on what lies beneath the city's streets and in its overhead power lines. “The tragic crash on Metro's Red Line was a wake-up call that our region's transportation infrastructure is aging and in need of repair,” said Jim Moran (D-VA) in a July 23 press release. It is time to seriously consider the unsafe, deficient, and unreliable foundation upon which new development will be built as the DMPED and OP move forward their agendas for growing the city through a revised Comprehensive Plan and new zoning regulations. Couple that with the fact that, while current setback regulations were established to provide light, air, and fire protection, proposed setbacks will be significantly reduced under the new zoning regulations; and, the Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment do not consider infrastructure reliability in hearings. The reality of what happens when homes are closer together or many more residents simultaneously turn on their water taps, as might be the case at the proposed Athena site on MacArthur Boulevard or the recently approved Giant development on Wisconsin Avenue, is not addressed in terms of infrastructure capacity.

A serious problem exists in Washington, DC, that will not be solved by new zoning regulations or amendments to the Comprehensive Plan. Today, the city council held a hearing to determine what went wrong at the Cafritz fire, although the cause is already well documented. It was an opportunity — a missed opportunity —for WASA and the Fire Department to stop pointing fingers at each other and begin pointing to the necessity for the DMPED and OP to furnish a strategy to improve the city's aging and inadequate infrastructure before placing additional strains on a failing system. This is the least government can do for its taxpaying citizens.

No comments:

Post a Comment