The Committee of 100 on the Federal City

Its History and Its Service to the Nation’s Capital
Richard Striner, Ph. D

The Committee of 100 on the Federal City was founded in 1923 to act as a force of conscience in the evolution of the nation’s capital city. It was formed to sustain and to safeguard the fundamental values derived from the tradition of the L’Enfant Plan and the McMillan Commission — that give the nation’s capital so much of its distinction, its beauty, and its grace as a community.

The Committee began in an age that sought to revive and extend the original planning ideals for Washington, D.C. Influenced by the “City Beautiful” movement, by resurgent architectural classicism, by the conservationist ethic, and by various urban reform movements inspired by the early 20th-century muckrakers, planners sought to make the nation’s capital the living embodiment of their ideals. The creation in 1901 of the McMillan Commission led to the articulation of sweeping initiatives for extending the L’Enfant Plan and for establishing strong standards for parks, monuments, public buildings, and scenic vistas far beyond the monumental core of D.C. In the spirit of idealism that suffused the age of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the recommendations of the McMillan Commission inspired successive reforms: the establishment of the Commission of Fine Arts in 1910, the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, and the Washington Zoning Ordinance of 1920. These eventful years comprised the background to the establishment of the Committee of 100.

Another essential aspect of the Committee’s founding was the widespread concern that the achievements of the preceding quarter century might prove to be fragile or insubstantial without continued oversight and advocacy. The distraction of World War I, followed by the laissez-faire of the early 1920s and the escapist “Back to Normalcy” spirit, led a number of prominent planners to undertake initiatives to preserve the momentum of planning in the nation’s capital. The scope of planning concerns expanded to address D.C.’s overcrowded schools, dismal alley housing conditions, and environmentally damaged natural lands under threat of being lost to development.

When Frederic A. Delano was asked in 1922 by American Civic Association President Dr. J. Horace McFarland in to form a Committee of 100 on the Federal City within that group, he accepted because, as he put it, “We all realized that comprehensive planning would be more constructive than sporadic resistance to a constant succession of proposals unrelated to a general plan.” The American Civic Association, with 75 chapters throughout the U.S. focused towards the improvement of the national capital, and specifically to support legislation in Congress for a permanent Planning Commission, gave the Committee a level of national support that no other city could claim.

The Committee of 100 released its first report in January 1924. The report recommended a major extension of Washington’s park and forest preserves under the guidance of an overall planning agency that would focus on park planning as one of its major responsibilities. But the Committee of 100 had advocated more than just an agency for parkland acquisition, recommending also that broad planning powers be vested in such an agency. It was the Committee’s continued advocacy of this concept that prompted the creation of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission (NCPPC) in 1926.

Frederic A. Delano, who was chairman of the Committee of 100 from 1922 to 1945, and became the President of the American Civic Association in 1925 served concurrently as chairman of NCPPC through most of its formative years. Delano pioneered major planning efforts, most notably a comprehensive plan for parks, parkways and recreational facilities for Washington and environs. Delano’s work led to the acquisition of new parkland in Washington, D.C. and the creation of the George Washington Memorial Parkway on both sides of the Potomac River, as well as extensions of parkland along Rock Creek and the Anacostia River into suburban Maryland.

The years of the Depression and the New Deal constituted an ambiguous time in the history of planning for the federal city. In some ways, the legacy of the McMillan Commission continued to be extended, with protection of park land and vistas, continued construction of grand architectural monuments in keeping with the “City Beautiful” vision, and the construction of public housing. However, the New Deal reforms created certain problems. Short-term federal agencies were created to alleviate the nation’s economic crisis; their imperative need for office space frequently prompted expedient shortcuts around NCPPC’s plans. This situation took a dramatic turn for the worse in the 1940s when World War II preempted almost every long-term planning provision for the federal city in favor of emergency needs in the wartime nerve center.

In the aftermath of World War II, the growth of the Washington metropolitan area continued to be explosive. The postwar period witnessed a major change in the spirit of public-sector planning as well, a change that would challenge the ideals and the mission of the Committee of 100. From its early days as an advocate and initiator of federal planning programs created to further McMillan-style planning, the Committee of 100 was ironically forced into more of an adversarial stance against some of the very planning agencies it helped to create.

What accounted for this was a shift in intellectual and cultural values. In the post-World War II period, the “City Beautiful” version of civic order was gradually overtaken and supplanted by the legacy of radical modernism, itself augmented by the culture of the automobile. The Committee was chagrined to find that the war against urban blight was redirected into massive urban renewal and freeway projects that produced major problems of fragmented development and over-building. To many observers, these nominal reform efforts seemed to constitute a case of well-intentioned ideas gone totally out of control, to the point where the freeways and the high-rise redevelopment appeared to be a new form of urban blight unto themselves. The Committee of 100 played a strong role in prompting the rethinking of the freeway approach to the challenge of the motor age.

In the 1940s and 1950s, large-scale programs of urban renewal were planned for Washington, particularly in the southwest quadrant. Early proposals for low-density rehabilitation were rejected in favor of the massive high-rise approach to building. In 1950, the NCPPC (renamed the National Capital Planning Commission, or NCPC, in 1952) proposed a comprehensive plan that emphasized urban renewal projects and three circumferential beltways around Washington.

The Committee of 100 took a prominent role in challenging previously-accepted freeway plans for the District. The presidential appointee members of NCPC, many of whom had doubts about earlier freeway plans, encouraged testimony by the Committee and were guided by it. The Committee opposed the Interstate Highway plans that would create high-speed interstate corridors through city neighborhoods.

The “Washington Freeway Battle” most visibly distinguished the work of the Committee of 100 in the 1950s and 1960s. It began with a proposal by District and Maryland highway planners to extend a freeway through Rock Creek Park to downtown Washington. The Committee joined the National Park Service, NCPC, and numerous national and local organizations in opposing this plan. Next, the road planners proposed a freeway extension down Wisconsin Avenue to Tenley Circle, then splitting with one leg through Melvin C. Hazen Park and Rock Creek Park and a second leg running down Glover-Archbold Park to the Potomac. The Committee also opposed this plan, joining with the families that had donated most of Glover-Archbold Park in litigation to block invasion of this irreplaceable stream valley woodland.

The Committee then gained support from civic groups throughout the city to defeat an elaborate wheel-and-spokes freeway plan. This plan involved not only extensive invasion of parklands and residential areas but also a new Potomac bridge at Three Sisters Islands near Spout Run. With the District of Columbia Federation of Civic Associations, the Committee sued in the federal courts. The landmark case reached a successful conclusion in 1968, blocking construction of the Three Sisters Bridge, the Potomac Freeway, the East Leg of a projected Inner Loop Freeway and a Northeast-North Central Freeway.

Meanwhile, the Committee strongly backed the creation of the National Capital Transportation Agency, which launched plans for a rail transit system designed to reduce the pressure of commuter vehicular traffic.

The Committee of 100 incorporated as a nonprofit group in 1965 and was granted tax-exempt status in 1967. During these years, the Committee broadened its membership base throughout the city and entered into effective coalitions with other civic and neighborhood organizations. Concurrently with its new role as watchdog on transportation issues, the Committee of 100 lent strong support to the growing movement for historic preservation in Washington. The Committee joined in the efforts to preserve the old Patent Office, the Old Stone House in Georgetown, the historic precinct at Lafayette Square and the historic district on Capitol Hill.

During this period the Committee worked zealously to protect Washington’s parks not only against highway encroachment but also against undesirable internal and abutting development. It also aided protection of important natural areas along the Potomac, including the Maryland shore opposite Mount Vernon, wetlands at the mouths of several Virginia creeks just south of the District, and Mason Neck below Fort Belvoir. The Committee played a major role in persuading Congress to create a thousand-acre national wildlife refuge for bald eagles and other species on Mason Neck, and helped to establish state and regional parks nearby.

The struggle for adoption of a comprehensive plan was one of the abiding tasks that confronted the Committee of 100 and D.C. community organizations in the 1970s and 1980s. The drafting of the comprehensive plan was repeatedly deferred by the city as the city sought to revitalize its economic base in the aftermath of the calamitous racial tension of the late 1960s and the parallel “flight to the suburbs” of many affluent taxpayers. In such a climate, the temptation to seek short-term economic solutions by encouraging maximum revenue-producing development was exacerbated by the growing domination of the region’s economy by the real-estate and construction industry.

The pattern was set across the Potomac River, where Arlington County supported enormous high-rise concentrations of office buildings in Rosslyn and Crystal City. Recurrent attempts to inflict similar high-rise development upon the forested profile of the Potomac Palisades required continuous vigilance by the Committee of 100. The Committee collaborated successfully with the National Park Service to prevent egregious intrusion on the natural setting of Palisades.

The D.C. government was eager to keep pace in the competition for revenue. One of the first of the resultant controversies took place over development of the Georgetown waterfront. The Georgetown citizens’ associations battled vigorously to maintain the waterfront area as an historic district with stringent limitations on new development. The Committee of 100 joined in this effort.

The fight for the Georgetown waterfront triggered a greater awareness of the threats to the city’s heritage and quality of neighborhood life that were posed by unplanned or ill-planned development. The 1970s witnessed a proliferation of citizen demands for controlled growth and historic preservation in such areas as the Wisconsin Avenue corridor, Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, Shaw, the downtown area, and Anacostia. The Committee maintained close liaisons with civic advocacy organizations that emerged in the early years of home rule, and has worked closely with many of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions established by the Home Rule Act.

In 1982, the Committee of 100 was requested by the U.S. General Accounting Office to assist in preparing a study of the National Capital Planning Commission. The Committee praised the legacy of NCPC while urging a number of steps to strengthen the organization. Specifically, the Committee of 100 advocated stronger liaisons with regional and federal organizations; that NCPC commissioners be selected to ensure the greatest breadth of vision and professional stature; that NCPC authority be extended; and that the pressing needs for funds and resources be met in order to complete the Comprehensive Plan.

In 1984-85, the D.C. City Council at last approved the District elements of the Comprehensive Plan. The Committee of 100 worked vigorously to delineate the all-important Ward Plans that were to provide for specific implementation of the general, and often vague, provisions of the adopted Comprehensive Plan. Notwithstanding valiant citizen efforts to uphold the planning mandated by Congress, much of the plan adopted in 1984 was effectively abandoned by the late 1980s. A succession of politically motivated “spot changes” in the plan and related ad hoc zoning attempts made a mockery of the citizens’ hopes for a competent planning and development process.

At the same time, the Committee of 100 led the battle in one of the most high-profile downtown land use controversies: the case of “Techworld,” a vast commercial office complex on Mount Vernon Square. The Committee worked with the D.C. Preservation League to prevent the construction of Techworld through testimony before the NCPC and the Zoning Commission, and then joined the League in presenting the case before the U.S. District Court. The Committee was joined by the Justice Department in the appealing the adverse decision by the lower court. In addition to contending that the city did not have the right to close Eighth Street and to permit the Techworld project to straddle the street with a multi-story building, the appellants also objected to violations of the 1910 Height of Buildings Act. Ultimately, the court battle was not successful in stopping Techworld because of an eleventh-hour amendment by Congress to the appropriations bill for D.C.

In a subsequent case, the Committee was successful in stopping the erection of a large, inappropriate rooftop addition to the Beaux Arts “Old City Post Office” building immediately adjacent to Union Station. In a related case, the Committee was successful in persuading Congress to respect the 1910 Height of Buildings Act in plans for a new judiciary administrative building on the east side of Union Station. The Committee continued to defend the integrity of the 1910 Act through its successful intervention in the Market Square North project, in which extra height was sought for a new building near the Navy Memorial.

Throughout the 1990s the Committee expanded its support for historic preservation of landmark buildings, and supported the creation of new historic districts in Sheridan-Kalorama, Kalorama Triangle, and Cleveland Park. In 1994, in collaboration with the Anacostia Coordinating Council, the Committee was instrumental in establishing an annual historic preservation awards program for the Anacostia Historic District.

The Committee also helped to unify the preservation community in opposition to the destruction of the Woodward Building, a major contributing building in the 15th Street Historic District. In 1990 the Committee won a significant court ruling that overturned the decision to demolish the Woodward Building and imposed more stringent requirements in “special merit” cases. The Committee of 100′s work in preserving the Woodward Building and narrowing the “special merit” loophole was recognized by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. as the most significant preservation action in 1990.

A related concern was the effort by developers to employ Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) as a method of building inappropriately sized or located buildings in return for amenities which are provided offsite. Committee of 100 members attacked this practice in cases before the Zoning Committee and District of Columbia courts. Also, pursuant to its oversight on zoning issues, the Committee steadfastly urged the D.C. Government to bring its zoning into conformance with the Adopted Comprehensive Plan. At the same time, the Committee strongly opposed attempts to weaken the city’s planning and zoning mandates for downtown housing.

Litigation brought by the Committee and others was required to block the transfer of jurisdiction over Kingman Island (Children’s Island) in the Anacostia River from the National Park Service to the city government without the legally required environmental studies. This transfer would have resulted in the conversion of public parkland to commercial purposes. Vigorous action by the Committee was necessary also to help counteract a proposal for an ill-planned and ill-sited professional football stadium in the Anacostia River Basin in flagrant violation of key principles of the L’Enfant Plan.

As the Committee of 100 looks to the future, it faces continued challenges and threats to the legacy of sound planning that the McMillan Commission hoped to bequeath to future generations. The tremendous and ever-accelerating growth of the region threatens federal historic landmarks as far away as Manassas, Virginia, and environmental systems as vast as the Chesapeake Bay.

The Committee will continue to advance the proposition that planning of the highest caliber is essential to ensure for residents of Washington D.C. — indeed for all the citizens of the United States for whom the District is a symbol — the attainment and preservation of a city worthy of the nation. From specific proposals such as its plan for the redesign of the Whitehurst Freeway, to more general initiatives such as testimony on regional air quality standards and support for reinvigoration of the NCPC, the Committee continues its broad campaign for exemplary planning in the nation’s capital.