Starting with Pierre L’Enfant’s original street map for the nation’s new capitol, and continuing with the McMillan Commission’s blueprint for future development in 1902, planners have played an outsized role in Washington’s development. That’s true of the past few decades, too, as the city began developing around the new Metro—a phenomenon that acquired critical mass during then-Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration, as the population began to grow, more residents moved downtown, and neighborhood commerce sprang to life. Williams interviewed his planning director, Andy Altman, by taking him out to St. Elizabeths, sitting on a bluff overlooking the city, and talking about the future.
Tregoning’s interview with Adrian Fenty was not like that.
Her patron was the anti-planner: His impatience to get things built—fast—didn’t leave much time for strategy. But he did care about having a high-profile cabinet full of big names. By that metric, Tregoning qualified.
“I basically asked him about the role, planning vs. economic development,” Tregoning remembers—like whether Fenty would ever back off on a plan because it wouldn’t make as much money. “And he said all the right things. But I got the feeling he didn’t even know why I was even asking, like what could possibly be the problem.”
In the years that followed, Tregoning says she nearly quit so many times she’s lost count, often during fights that centered around that very question: What’s in someone’s near-term economic interest, and what’s just good planning?
The earliest example was Florida Avenue Market, the historic but run-down collection of food wholesalers that developers and then-Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. wanted to demolish to make way for a new office and residential complex. Tregoning insisted on studying the area and putting together a small comprehensive plan, which she credits with bringing in a few other developers and neighboring Gallaudet University. The group Tregoning attracted is instead planning a food-focused concept that will retain much of the historic market.
“I am not a rubber stamp, and planning has to be meaningful and have integrity, and if people can’t trust the planning office, who can they trust?” Tregoning says.
In her first four years, Tregoning served as the intermediary between a deaf-eared, development-crazed mayor and community groups that wanted things like stronger historic preservation policies and more affordable housing in new condo projects. Internally, she resisted giving incentives to developments that she believed didn’t need them, like the $2 million that Councilmember Jim Graham secured for a one-story CVS on Georgia Avenue: “‘What are we, Buffalo?’” one former administration official remembers her grumbling. Those were the kinds of fights she tended to lose.
Most of the time, though, Tregoning tried to pick battles she could win—even if it meant leaving a rich, influential swath of the city untouched. She’d watched as the last planning director, Ellen McCarthy, battled an aggressive, determined band of NIMBYs who killed a plan for more intensive development in upper Northwest. Relative to the wealth of the surrounding neighborhoods, Van Ness and Tenleytown have become some of the worst-planned and least-developed Metro stations in the city, with every new project occasioning yowls of protest.
Tregoning, for all her missionary zeal about smart growth, hasn’t really yowled back. After green-friendly Mary Cheh was elected councilmember in 2006, the smart growth advocacy group Ward3Vision begged Tregoning to try again with a plan that would make it easier to bring in more residents and better retail. She declined. Other than some peacemaking over the American University campus plan, her office has stayed out of the ward almost entirely.
“The Office of Planning has ceded planning in Ward 3 to the Committee of 100 types,” says local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Tom Quinn, referring to the venerable advocacy group that has battled development efforts its members deem too dense or too tall. “She’s doing the right thing in most corners of the city. But in Ward 3, for whatever reason, there’s a lack of courage to move forward.”
In explaining her reasons, Tregoning is frank. “My predecessor lost her job over the Wisconsin Avenue plan, and I wasn’t convinced that there was a constituency for change,” Tregoning says, her voice lilting up in a characteristic questioning tone. “I wanted them to feel a little neglected.”
But Tregoning’s reticence didn’t win her any friends among the Committee of 100, whose members include the city’s longest-standing historic preservationists, architects, and community activists. They accused her of high handedness in presiding over historic preservation appeals and of imposing her will through an overhaul of the city’s zoning regulations. After Vince Gray defeated Fenty, the group sent a vituperative letter asking that Tregoning and Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein not be reappointed.
“There may be some residents who applaud the ‘I-know-best’ approach exemplified by Harriet Tregoning, but we think that her style conveys the message that the public is not welcome to intrude on the advancement of an agenda,” sniffed the letter. “We are hopeful that as Mayor you will find the absolutist approach incompatible with bringing the city together.”
The same fear of urbanism that animated critics when Tregoning was at EPA, it turns out, exists inside the District Line. “The question that some people have is her vision for the city, for higher tighter and denser,” says Committee of 100 president George Clark. “And that might be appropriate for some spots in the city, but as an overall philosophy, that can have issues.”
In the end, Gray cut Klein, but kept Tregoning.