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

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Smart growthers see themselves as members of a rebel movement, like civil or gay rights. And Tregoning, a petite 51-year-old who favors smocks and brightly colored glasses, wants you to know that she was there before her particular cause, which is to end sprawl and embrace a walkable model of urban life, had its Selma or its Stonewall.

Tregoning enlisted in the smart-growth war in the early 1990s, when she was working as head of the waste policy division at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she’d started right out of college in 1981. That was where she met Geoff Anderson, the man she’d marry 15 years later and who today runs Smart Growth America, the cause’s national advocate.

“So, we sort of started the smart growth movement together,” Tregoning says. Having read through 20 years’ worth of news coverage, I tell her it almost seems like they had. “Not almost,” Tregoning replies, smiling brightly. “Definitely! Deliberately!”

“I had this sort of epiphany, that at the EPA we’re sort of swabbing the deck of the Titanic,” Tregoning continues. “Worrying about these vanishingly small amounts of pollution, and not paying any attention to land use, which was changing everything.”

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Tregoning thought about trying to start the revolution from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but felt the agency was mired in “massive dysfunction.” So she stuck with the EPA, which let her launch a development, community, and environment division, and rethink how the agency could play a proactive role instead of cleaning up spills. “EPA was known as a regulatory agency,” Tregoning explains. “And we weren’t really trying to regulate. If anything, we were trying to get the EPA regulations to back off on the land use practices that would give you a superior environmental outcome.”

But to really change the way America was built, Tregoning would have to win over real estate developers, not just her fellow government servants. And in the mid-1990s, the presidents of the industry’s various organizations weren’t exactly receptive to a Clinton administration bureaucrat. “They were to the right of Attila the Hun,” she says. “They were scary.”

But Jim Chaffin, a developer who’d just become president of the Urban Land Institute, a membership-based research and education organization, seemed promising. In 1997, Tregoning helped ULI plan a little conference in Baltimore to lay out the movement’s central idea: helping people live car-free by mixing retail, restaurants and offices together with housing, all near transit. “They expected 200 people. Five hundred showed up. It was boffo for them,” Tregoning says of ULI. “They were off to the races.”

So was Tregoning. From her new post at EPA, Tregoning convened the Smart Growth Network of private, public, and government groups that drew up ten principles for the fledgling movement to build “equity in the brand.” She even prevented anyone else from service-marking “smart growth.” “So it would be like Kleenex,” Tregoning explains. “Everybody would use it as a term.”

Meanwhile, Tregoning was also chairing the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, which started to normalize the tenets of smart growth across the country—rather like the latter-day Tea Party’s nightmare of a worldwide scheme to concentrate everyone into cities. In 2000, she helped launch Smart Growth America, which ensured the movement’s continuity in a post-Clinton administration America.

“The Cato Institution said we were running a shadow, clandestine organization out of the government,” Tregoning says (scholar Randal O’Toole’s 1999 paper was called “Smart Growth at the Federal Trough: EPA’s Financing of the Anti-Sprawl Movement.”) “But by then it was too late. We were two years up and running. Too many people supported it. And we deliberately went after Republican governors so that this isn’t a partisan issue. This is about land use, this makes sense no matter what perspective you come from.”

Even with George Bush set to take office in 2001, Tregoning wasn’t keen on leaving her federal perch (Anderson took over for her, and found Bush’s first two EPA administrators fairly supportive—evidence that smart growth wasn’t just a liberal plot). But Maryland governor Parris Glendening was entranced by what Tregoning had helped create, and lured her to state government with the promise of being able to review Glendening’s entire $23 billion budget, line by line, and toss or change every item that advanced sprawl. When the University of Maryland wanted to put a new campus on a dairy farm in the western part of the state, for example, Tregoning decided it made a lot more sense to put it on abandoned lots in downtown Hagerstown. That decision revitalized a sagging city—with no new highways necessary.

“I said this to the cabinet, and they all look at me, and they look at Harriet, and I don’t think they realized how tough she was,” Glendening says. “The most amazing part about that is that she did that without creating enemies.”

KINDS OF WALKING Utilitarian Promenading Strolling Rambling Special Events
D.C.'s planners try to encourage development that promotes pedestrian life. But all walking isn't the same. Here, Harriet Tregoning's taxonomy of foot propulsion: Walking to get someplace to accomplish a task. Walking up and down, say, 18th Street in Adams Morgan to check out future prospects and let them check you out. Often happens at night. Walking socially, maybe just to stretch your legs, directionally but not in a hurry. Walking aimessly, setting your course as interesting sights arise. The stop-and-go of festivals, parades, rallies, and other gatherings.

One central piece of this success: Tregoning had figured out how to talk about smart growth—as a holistic approach that encompassed health, social issues, real estate development, and the environment—in layman’s terms. “The former heads of planning were wonderful, talented people, but they were not communicators,” says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of the environmental advocacy group 1000 Friends of Maryland. “She was just so much more effective at it. It was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t boring, I understand these new connections.’”

When Glendening aged out of the governor’s mansion in 2003, Tregoning decided to take her show on the road, starting a Smart Growth Leadership Institute within Smart Growth America. Glendening himself came close to taking a well-compensated job running a brownfields investment fund for AIG, but Tregoning convinced him to come be the president of her new Institute instead (five years later, he became very grateful).

In her D.C. incarnation, Tregoning is still winning over developers. On her panel at the International Council of Shopping Centers conference in National Harbor, she tells an audience full of real estate professionals that the best way to impress her office, which makes recommendations to the all-powerful Zoning Commission, is to show that they understood the pedestrian, bicycle, and transit flow around them—even if retailers want bigger spaces and more parking for cars.

Afterward, she gets buttonholed by the moderator, Grant Ehat, Principal of the JBG Companies, which has a large portfolio of high-end properties in D.C. and the immediate suburbs. “You know, we’re much more aligned with you than we are with the retailers,” he tells her.

Tregoning, on the spot, proposes that JBG do temporary installations in all the buildings it owns with empty storefronts. “We should talk about this being a program,” she says. “And you know who we should hook up with? The embassies.” Ehat thinks it’s a great idea. They’ll talk later.

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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