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

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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.”

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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?

D.C.’s PLANNERS

  • In 1791, Pierre Charles L’Enfant was appointed—by the guy who would eventually become the city’s namesake—to lay out what would become the new nation’s capital. The grid of streets sliced through with radial avenues and a patchwork of square and triangular parks is still with us today.
  • Convened in 1901, the McMillan Commission expanded upon L’Enfant’s plan and removed some of its aberrations. Influenced by the City Beautiful movement that emphasized harmony and grandeur in urban architecture, the commission outlined a comprehensive park system with gardens and fountains, plus a network of parkways and a new railroad station.
  • The National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s 1950 comprehensive plan for the city operated under the assumption that cars would be the predominant mode of transportation in the future. Planners also encouraged federal agencies to locate outside the city, the better to survive an atomic attack. In the late 1950s, the Redevelopment Land Agency leveled and rebuilt 550 acres of Southwest Washington—one of the nation’s largest experiments in “urban renewal.”
  • In 1966, the newly-created Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority approved a 98-mile regional subway system, the routes of which would drive planning and development into the next century.
  • In the early 2000s, Mayor Anthony Williams and his planning director Andy Altman started to professionalize the Office of Planning, harnessing the city’s economic revival to stimulate neglected neighborhoods.

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.

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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