March 7, 2013

District of Columbia Mayor Gray Announces Release of New Sustainable DC Plan to Implement Sustainability Initiative

If Fully Implemented, Plan Could Lead to Sweeping Changes to the Regulatory Landscape for the Built Environment in the District (and Perhaps Set a Precedent for Other Parts of the Country as Well)
Holland & Knight Alert
Amy L. Edwards

The release of a new plan to implement the District of Columbia's "Sustainable DC" Initiative was announced by Mayor Vincent Gray on February 20, 3013. The Sustainable DC Plan builds on 15 months of planning and public engagement to identify the most pressing challenges facing the District's sustainability and proposes specific actions to be taken to address those challenges over the next 20 years. These actions would affect many aspects of the District's built environment, including residential and commercial development, open spaces, and energy, water and transportation infrastructures, among others. Collectively, these actions could significantly alter the regulatory landscape for planning and development in the District in the years ahead.


When the Sustainable DC Initiative was launched in September 2011, Mayor Gray stated that he wanted the District to become the "healthiest, greenest, most livable city in the United States." Since then, the initiative has established a Green Ribbon Committee, composed of community leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, as well as the Green Cabinet, which was led by the city administrator and included directors of multiple District agencies; convened nine community-based working groups focusing on various aspects of sustainability; and held more than 180 public events across the District to promote sustainability and engage the public in the initiative. These efforts led to the publication of A Vision for a Sustainable DC in April 2012, which defined the initiative's scope and set forth a set of broad goals for the District to achieve over the next 20 years. The Sustainable DC Plan released on February 20 seeks to implement many of those goals.

Challenges to Sustainability

First, the Sustainable DC Plan identifies multiple challenges facing the District's sustainability, including those related to the local economy and the need to simultaneously mitigate and adapt to climate change. To address these challenges, the plan sets forth the following goals:

  • Triple the number of small, District-based businesses by reducing the regulatory burden on small businesses, promoting businesses that meet social and environmental performance standards, and using anchor institutions in the District to create local markets for sustainable enterprises.
  • Expand the number and range of jobs available to District residents by integrating sustainable jobs training into school curricula and partnering with the Workforce Investment Council to craft targeted workforce development strategies.
  • Reduce total greenhouse gas emissions in the District by 50 percent by 2032 by creating a mechanism to report emissions from specific sources and financial incentives to support climate protection programs.
  • Improve the District's physical adaptation to the effects of climate change by evaluating the vulnerability of the District's energy infrastructure and by requiring all new buildings and major infrastructure projects to undergo a climate change impact analysis as part of the regulatory planning process.

Solutions for Improving Sustainability

Second, the Sustainable DC Plan proposes a wide variety of solutions in several distinct areas, including construction and development of the built environment, energy infrastructure, food and nutrition, the natural environment, transportation infrastructure, waste management, and water infrastructure, among others. Within these areas, particularly notable goals and targets include:

The Built Environment

  • Increase urban density to accommodate future population growth by increasing the supply of affordable housing, expanding brownfield development, reducing required parking minimums and restricting surface parking for large developments, and allowing accessory dwellings as part of existing homes.
  • Improve the sustainability performance of existing buildings by rehabilitating all public housing, eliminating environmental threats in affordable housing posed by mold, lead, and carbon monoxide, expanding green construction training programs, updating building operations and maintenance best practices through new public-private partnerships, and retrofitting all public buildings to achieve LEED Gold or equivalent standards. By 2032, 100 percent of all existing commercial and multifamily buildings should achieve net-zero energy standards.
  • Increase green building standards for all new construction by updating the Green Building Act to require higher levels of LEED certification and adopting new green construction codes for new development and major renovations, providing financial incentives for new buildings that achieve LEED Gold or equivalent standards, and requiring all new buildings to achieve net-zero, if not net-positive, energy performance. By 2032, all new developments should achieve net-zero energy performance standards.

Energy Infrastructure

  • Improve energy efficiency and reduce overall consumption by requiring audits and disclosure of building energy performance, establishing minimum energy performance standards, providing $500 million in funding for renewable energy and efficiency retrofits, and completing a comprehensive energy plan for the District. The long-term goal is to reduce total energy consumption by 50 percent by 2032.
  • Increase the use of energy from clean and renewable sources by revising the District's Renewable Portfolio Standard, building 1,000 additional residential and commercial renewable energy projects, and allowing community solar and other renewable energy systems.
  • Modernize energy infrastructure by developing a plan for citywide smart grid technology, improving efficiency and reliability of energy transmission infrastructure, and expanding local energy generation projects.

Food and Nutrition

  • Develop an additional 20 acres of land in the District for the cultivation of food by installing educational gardens at D.C. public schools, developing orchards in D.C. public spaces and establishing a permit process for pop-up agriculture.

The Natural Environment

  • Protect and restore wetlands and other aquatic ecosystems by planting an additional 140 acres of wetlands along the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and other streams, and requiring new waterfront developments and renovations to incorporate low-impact development strategies related to green infrastructure and stormwater management.
  • Expand tree cover in the District by planting 8,600 new trees annually until 2032 and requiring trees and green space on all new development sites.

Transportation Infrastructure

  • Increase use of public transit, biking and walking by completing 37 miles of streetcar and premium bus services, improving transit connections to employment and activity centers in underserved areas, developing a citywide 100-mile bike lane network, expanding the Capital Bikeshare Program by 200 stations, and reprogramming traffic and crosswalk signals to be more convenient for pedestrians and cyclists. Collectively, public transit, walking and biking should account for 75 percent of all commuter trips in the District by 2032.
  • Reduce traffic congestion by expanding performance-based parking and car-sharing programs, and studying the feasibility of congestion pricing. The goal is to reduce trips made by car or taxi to 25 percent of all commuter trips in the District by 2032.

Waste Management

  • Reuse 20 percent of all construction and demolition waste by 2032 by requiring new large construction and major renovation projects to prepare comprehensive construction waste management plans to reuse or recycle 75 percent of construction and demolition waste, and requiring use of recycled and salvaged building materials.

Water Infrastructure

  • Improve the quality of District waterways by restricting the use of pesticides and fertilizers, restricting use of road salts in winter, and studying the feasibility of nutrient and water quality trading programs.
  • Relieve pressure on stormwater infrastructure and reduce long-term flood risks by installing 2 million new square feet of green roofs, increasing use of green infrastructure in the public right of way, constructing 25 miles of green alleys and increasing use of pervious surfaces.
  • Reduce demands for potable water by updating District building codes to increase water-efficiency standards and allow use of alternative water systems, provide financial incentives for new water-efficiency measures in landscaping and building design, and expand the use of water monitoring technology.


The Sustainable DC Plan recognizes that achieving these goals will require certain commitments and reforms by the D.C. government in collaboration with the federal government, community organizations, businesses and other local institutions. A few reforms specifically identified in the plan include dedicating additional District government staff to implementing various goals, identifying and reforming laws and regulations that conflict with sustainability goals, and expanding public-private collaboration on multiple issues.


The Sustainable DC Plan includes many discrete actions to be taken and specific targets to be achieved in multiple stages over the next 20 years. Some short-term goals could be realized relatively quickly, while others may require many years to fully implement. Together, these efforts have the potential to significantly alter the regulatory landscape for major development activities in the District. As an additional complication, this initiative is being introduced in the context of a wide variety of new programs and regulatory changes that also impact the District's sustainability, including the Green Building Act, Green Power Purchasing Program and the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, among others, as well as new regulations, such as those regarding stormwater management and soil erosion and sediment controls. Given this intense activity, it will be essential for planners, designers, builders and real estate professionals to remain abreast of new programs, incentives and regulations issued by the District government on an ongoing basis in the months and years ahead. Moreover, because many of its specific solutions are transferable to many large urban centers, building owners may see similar proposals and plans in other jurisdictions across the country in the near future.

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