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

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Every smart growther has a horror story ofwhat things were like before they found The Way. For Tregoning, it was growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Mo., where she lived within walking distance of her school—but still had to drive, since she and it were separated by a highway.

Her latter-day car complex notwithstanding, Tregoning—born Harriet Hiken—got one as soon as she was old enough to drive. Her father had died when she was two years old; her Japanese mother didn’t speak English very well, but still scored a deal. “My mother bought a used Chevette off a Cadillac dealer’s lot by bargaining for eight hours, basically saying that the Chevette devalued every other car just by being on the lot,” Tregoning says. She thought it was a gift, but her mother made her pay back the money when she moved across town to attend Washington University, where she started taking classes before even finishing high school.

Tregoning was that kind of kid—the one that read every book in the local library, did her undergraduate degree in engineering just because she was good at math, and took law school classes for fun after she finished college in 1981 at the age of 20. There, she met Michael Tregoning, whom she married within a year, before leaving St. Louis forever. His banking job took them to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore, and three separate times to Dallas, all while she was working on Superfund policy for the EPA in different regional offices. (They didn’t last. He’s now the chief financial officer of an oil company.)

Tregoning originally moved to Columbia Heights for love, too—into an apartment at 14th Street and Park Road NW, where she only stayed for a few months before buying a place in Capitol Hill. “He was an artist,” she says, by way of explanation. “It wasn’t working out.” She and Anderson traded up in 2005, for a too-big, $1.1 million rowhouse in Adams Morgan. Five years later, they downsized to a condo back in Columbia Heights; she now uses the neighborhood as a shining example of well-planned revitalization every chance she gets.


The smart growth power couple is almost a liveable, walkable caricature: They’re a frequent sight parading their massive Chow Chows around the block. Their place is elegantly appointed, but not flashy. Their book club includes a senior vice president at the U.S. Green Building Council, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, an urban design expert at the National Capital Planning Commission, and the Washington Post’s chief environmental reporter (they read a lot of historical non-fiction, apparently).

Tregoning is a conspicuous commuter. On winter mornings, she’ll stuff her long, gentle curls under a beret, cram a helmet on top, envelop herself in a loose, puffy jacket, hoist on a small black backpack, and hop on her teal green folding bicycle (unless she rides her husband’s orange one), high-heeled wedges and all. The folder—a Brompton—can be thrown into a cab if she needs to get across town quickly, and is a dead giveaway that she’s inside whatever building it’s parked outside of. It’s also the avatar for her sparse Twitter feed.

The couple has an active social life, but Tregoning still feels somehow distant—one friend described her as “opaque,” another as “intense.” She has a way of smiling without actually looking happy. I wonder, riding bikes home with Tregoning after an evening event, whether she’d ever had kids.

“Well…” Tregoning hesitates, before explaining that she’d married Anderson late in life. “Also, I never had any reason to believe I’d do a good job,” she goes on. “I had a pretty fraught relationship with my mom. And if I did the things she did, I’d kill myself. If I had a daughter like me, I’d kill myself.”

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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