Urbanista! Inside Harriet Tregoning's Push to Reshape D.C.

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Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

When it comes to cars, Harriet Tregoning is a bit like a 17-year-old. She likes to give rides, but the driving part is a little dicey.

On a recent Tuesday morning, D.C.’s planning director is trying to figure out how to get from the Georgetown Four Seasons to National Harbor, where she’s scheduled to speak at a conference of real estate types. “I’m still not entirely sure where National Harbor is, relative to the District,” Tregoning says. “It’s funny what you can’t remember.”

I map out a route on my iPhone, then wedge my bike into the back seat of her yellow Mini Cooper. Tregoning, who’s usually a bike commuter, won’t hear of me leaving it behind. But things get confusing once we get on the road. As she navigates through traffic, Tregoning talks to other drivers as if they can hear her. She merges onto the Southwest Freeway hesitantly, like it’s her first time.

“I’m not a great driver, and part of that is, I’ve always had a small car, and I don’t like being next to big things. They make me nervous, so I just speed up,” Tregoning says, gunning the engine to get around a couple of very large trucks. “I kind of like the adrenaline rush that you get when biking. I also kind of like that about driving. “

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She relaxes a bit as we head over the 11th Street Bridge. The running commentary continues, but the topic shifts from the surrounding traffic to the surrounding real estate. Eyeing the massive military installation on our right as we speed down I-295, the woman in charge of figuring out how the District’s current growth spurt will shape the city’s built landscape sees opportunity. “I covet Bolling Air Force Base. Don’t you?” she asks. “They have, like, suburban houses out there on the point!”

At National Harbor, Tregoning rolls past a gigantic parking garage. She’s thrilled to find a spot on the street instead, only blocks from the Gaylord National Hotel. When we return two hours later, there’s a meter maid at the dashboard. Tregoning sprints over to her. “I’m right here!” she yells. “Don’t write me a ticket!” Too late. She tosses the ticket in the back seat, exasperated. (Before I set foot in the car, Tregoning preemptively put all driving-related profanities off the record.)

You’ll forgive Tregoning for being a bit rusty. She and her husband only bought a car a couple years ago. The battery’s dead most of the time, she says; they’ve had to jump start it by rolling down the hill. It’d probably be cheaper to rent Zipcars. “It just doesn’t pencil for us to have a car,” she sighs.

From Tregoning’s perspective, though, the vague annoyance of having to deal with a vehicle she barely ever drives is a healthy feeling. And she’s responsible for that feeling: Tregoning has spent the past five years working to make D.C. a place where everything is within walking distance, and where bikes and transit will take you to anything that’s not. Tregoning’s job as the head of the Office of Planning, and her constant advocacy for the philosophy known as smart growth, has made her the embodiment of a shift in the Washingtonian lifestyle that hasn’t yet been unanimously embraced.

Five years is a long time for any political appointee. It’s especially long for one with a professional start like Tregoning, who did major national and state-level work before she was able to start implementing her ideals through city hall. Not many people with a CV the length of hers still have to bike to community meetings—only to face questions from citizens worried that her plans will leave them with nowhere to park their cars.

All the same, when the guy who hired Tregoning was defeated in an election dominated by questions about the changing nature of the city, the new mayor asked her to stay. Though her record would have ensured that plenty of other job offers came her way, she said yes. And why not? It’s easier to get things done in a place with state-like powers and only 13 legislators. “We are the fly-by-our-pants city of doom,” she says, wryly.

Now, more than anyone else in city government—and perhaps more than any planning director in the country—she’s the one shaping how D.C. looks and feels.

Even if she can’t find her way around it behind the wheel.

Our Readers Say

It is absolutely her job to have whatever metrics and data necessary to, you know, make plans. Harriet is a gold mine of information and credibility for the District. It will be a sad day if, or when, she leaves. Yes, she may not be the favorite of the Committee of 100, and she may not be willing to do all she can for places like Ward 3. In total, she is the embodiment of what this city needs and the kind of leadership required to have the District be an actual leader for the nation's cities.

We are lucky to have you here in DC. And I believe know exactly how you feel about those Tenleytown people!
After reading two pages I fell asleep. A lot of nothing.
A couple of years ago, I think it was DeBonis who described going to some random meeting somewhere in ward 5 and he drove past Harriet on her way to the same meeting, waiting for a bus. There's a difference between leaders who talk about it and those who really get it, and there's a difference between those who get it and those who actually live it.

Harriet lives it, and it shows. We are very very lucky to have her, and I make no apologies for being one of her legion of fans.
Hoskins = empty suit.
Tregoning = brain.
Hoskins is a shallow egomaniacal do boy that is more concerned with kissing the Mayor's butt than doing good work for the residents. I wonder if Hoskins gave Tregoning permission to do this article! Fire Hoskins!
I think Ms. Tregoning plays her role perfectly. She appears to be thoughtful about how to make an impact, and it's working - the city is better off because of efforts like hers.
As a former resident of Tenley Circle, I have to say that Ward 3 does not deserve her help. I am much happier living in Ward 4 without those uptight "Liberals" who are only want to live among their own kind.
Great article! The rest of the planning profession should have as much imagination and impact.

As for comments about congestion, I couldn't agree more. I have yet to hear a definition of the concept that makes sense. Everybody from Baltimore to Westminster to DC has congestion.It is a perception, not a definable term. On the other hand, I would accept congestion with a vibrant successful community. That is what DC is getting.
While Ms. Tregoning's transcendent vision of smart growth in DC is terrific, the Development Review section of OP is actually managing to the idea of smart growth malodorous in neighborhoods across DC.

The tool is the analyses of cases OP prepares for the Zoning Commission. The beneficiaries are opportunistic developers intent on erecting out-of-scale projects in the margins between existing residential neighborhoods and the denser new development the city needs. The victims are the taxpayers who thought that OP could be counted on to make good on its commitment to conserve neighborhoods even as it encourages smart growth.

Here's hoping some elements of the media take a look at this low profile but hugely powerful and apparently unaccountable element of OP's work.

Excellent article that captures the struggle to achieve smart growth. But the notion that the long march started with Tregoning and her husband is misguided. It reflects the reporter's failure to read through more than 20 years of coverage on the subject or look at recent articles on PlanMaryland at gazette.net. Had she read about Maryland's planning history before Glendening, she would have given credit to the Schaefer's 2020 Commission and the successor Barnes Commission. Both sought to create state powers to guide growth toward already developed areas or land already designated for development. The failure to adopt Barnes' legislative agenda ceding planning power to the state explains why counties are still plagued by the fight between smart growth and suburban sprawl. http://www.green.maryland.gov/pdfs/TheGazette042310.pdf
A professional beurocrat from the lefty anti-growth crowd. Smart growth is a joke, it is whatever the party in power wants to call it. I call it anti-capitalist, anti-progress. And learn to drive for chrissakes...I know that was you who cut me off the other day, and you almost had me swerving into a metrobus top avoid your anti-car, anti-compentence behind the wheel. Stick to yer bike and freeze in the rain instead. If you don't like cars ( and we all love ours! too bad for you!)get off the road.
The District is endlessly fortunate to have Harriet Tregoning. It isn't often enough that public servants like Tregoning receive thanks. THANK YOU to her, and to Lydia for this artful feature.
Thanks to Mr. Goldreich for recognizing that Maryland also had a role to play in the smart growth movenmment. Governor Glendening's program passed the General Assembly in 1997 and was in place when Ms. Tregoning became Secretary of Planning in 2000. That is not to diminish in any way her role in the national movement for better patterns of growth. The authors of Maryland's program (with the exception of the Governor and one or two others who have moved on to National efforts) are still in local government or in the General Assembly. Unfortunately few of them are involved in the current efforts surrounding the pointless ramblings of Planmaryland.

As for sprawl, it is unlikely the Barnes legislation (the 2020 Bill is the way it is remembered in Maryland, if at all) would have had much impact on the residential building boom of the late '90s and 2000s, which was fueled by the unholy alliance of the Congress and 2 Presidents (of both parties) to encourage unsustainable mortgage loans to those who could not afford them. The resulting crash, combined with rising fuel prices, has largely killed sprawl as a viable pattern of growth and development in the future. I view sprawl as the 'zombie' development pattern. It might get up and bite you in one or two more places, but it is already dead. The future fight will be over whether we will make our urban places more livable and how much of our resources we will spend to subsidize Java Master's automobile fetish.
Thanks for this article. Read it through (Long!), very informative and linear.
I have thrown out hints that I want craaoetimn and scatter my ashes in a nice park. But I have a very nice insurance policy since 20 that will take care of whatever way my family decides to handle it. I signed up for quaity of life/end of life care at 27, but haven't signed up with any particluar parlor for the actual arrangements.I suggest to anyone over the age of 21 who have a steady job, to look into either end of life or quality of life care because it covers everything including personal nurses, home care and everything you need in case you become disabled or very sick at a younger age or when you are very old and need around the clock care.

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