National Capital Planning Commission’s equity plan calls for stronger project site considerations

NCPC’s new equity action plan was one of 90 released last month by federal agencies in response to President Joe Biden’s January 2021 executive order.

Site locations for federal projects in the National Capital Region can have big impacts on equity and inclusion. Good design is inclusive, and accounts for unintended consequences, said Mina Wright, director of the General Services Administration’s Office of Planning & Design Quality.

“I have three kids, millennial kids who are constantly wrapping me for being a boomer and how boomers kind of screwed it up for them. And I’m always arguing with them. ‘Well yeah, but they were unintended consequences of progress,” she lamented at the National Capital Planning Commission’s meeting Thursday. “And so to stop and be more deliberate is never a bad thing.”

The meeting presented NCPC’s new equity action plan, one of 90 released last month by federal agencies in response to President Joe Biden’s January 2021 executive order. Agencies developed their equity plans under the guidance of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Domestic Policy Council. They were required to have accountability mechanisms, success metrics and key milestones, according to Shaibya Dalal, a senior equity fellow at OMB working to implement the executive order.

“Given that this assessment was very much a first step, we asked agencies to prioritize three to five programs and services that were closely aligned with their mission and delivered high impact as measured by number of customers served or another metric,” Dalal told NCPC on Thursday.

Congress established the National Capital Planning Commission in 1924, and the independent commission advances the federal government’s interest in the region’s development. The agency also provides overall planning guidance for federal land and buildings in the region, reviews designs of federal and certain local projects, oversees long-range planning for future development, and monitors capital investment by federal agencies.

Considering NCPC’s independent function, Dalal commended its equity action plan for exemplifying why the White House wanted agencies to undertake such an effort. She said NCPC’s plan in particular “recognizes and applies the key distinction between equality and equity. It gives voice to narratives left out of the commemorative landscape. It builds equity into foundational planning frameworks to enable agencies to ask the right questions, and the plan reinvigorates community engagement.”

NCPC’s plan focuses on five priority action areas: commemoration, the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital, the Federal Capital Improvements Program, a review of master plans and significant projects, and public engagement. As for the last action area, NCPC said that as of now its outreach activities do not regularly reach underserved communities.

“To encourage greater familiarity and participation in Commission meetings and all agency activities, NCPC will expand its distribution lists, hold individual or small group meet-and-greets with underrepresented community members, and offer more accessible meeting formats and materials,” the plan says.

For the “commemoration” action area, NCPC partnered with the Trust for the National Mall and the National Park Service to pilot the Beyond Granite program, from October 2021 to December 2023. The program will bring 8-10 temporary installations to Washington, D.C., to explore how the Commission can broaden representation and subject matter of public art and memorials to include marginalized groups.

On the matter of its Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital, the Commission said its existing strategy “lacks targeted policies, actions and investments to improve outcomes for people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities, and those adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.” NCPC cited findings from the Greater Washington Partnership that in 2021, 13.6% of Black residents and 10.9% of Hispanic residents in the region lived in poverty, compared to 4.9% of white residents. Last year the gap in median home value between Black and white residents was $156,000, and Black residents were nearly two times as likely to have housing costs that represent 30% or more of household income. The “30% rule” originates from the Brooke Amendment to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and has been used by academics and financial websites as a baseline for family budgeting despite critics saying it oversimplifies the issue of what constitutes affordability, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In response, the equity action plan calls for updating key sections of the Comprehensive Plan, and compiling all of its existing policies that advance equity into an “equity crosswalk” tool. NCPC Communications Specialist Bsrat Mezghebe said these changes would inform how equity is integrated into the Federal Capital Improvements Program (FCIP).

“For the FCIP, site selection and capital improvement funding can have profound equity impacts, and the FCIP really offers the earliest opportunity for agencies to consider them. NCPC has already proactively working with the OMB to incorporate equity-related questions for applicants to answer for NCPC review to determine how proposed capital improvement projects might create or reduce equity disparities,” she said.

The Commission includes members of Congress and the heads of the three executive branch agencies with significant land holdings in the region: GSA, the Interior Department and the Defense Department. Speaking for the House of Representatives’ seat, Collin Davenport from Rep. Gerry Connolly’s office (D-Va.), asked how these findings would be presented to the commissioners when making decisions.

Diane Sullivan, NCPC director of Urban Design and Plan Review, said to expect equity areas to play a larger role in recommendations to the commissioners. She also said transportation would be a bigger theme in future master plans.

“With the master plans that are coming in, we’re in a process right now where a lot of master plans are coming in, out in the counties, especially Prince George’s County [Maryland] and there are equity emphasis areas there,” she said. “Traffic is going to be a big impact. So the cumulative effects of all of these, the intensification of all these master plans.”

While representing GSA on the Commission, Wright applauded the plan’s public engagement efforts.

“We preach that in the design world all the time: Just engage early. Think very early on in the process, because if you’re trying to fix it at the eleventh hour, it’s too expensive,” she said.

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