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

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Clark may not have realized how much the new mayor was actually on board with Tregoning’s vision. If her interview with Fenty was perfunctory, her interview with Gray had taken years: As D.C. Council Chairman during the Fenty years, Gray’s planning hearings turned into long conversations about the future of the city.

“He and Harriet had built a relationship,” says Klein, by way of explanation for his ouster. “I hadn’t, really.”

Which doesn’t mean Tregoning didn’t consider leaving. She says she talked to other states and cities—like Chicago, where Klein became Transportation Commissioner—and ultimately decided to stick with D.C. Several people were even pitching her as the next Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

Tregoning says she wasn’t lobbying for the Deputy Mayor spot, but sure doesn’t consider herself inferior to the guy who got it. Email correspondence obtained through a public records request show frequent points of tension between Tregoning and her new boss, Victor Hoskins: He told her to let him know before speaking on the radio and in front of industry groups, and deflected her requests for information about a city-wide community benefits agreement with Walmart. (The chain has been criticized for building suburban-style, car-oriented stores). At one point, Tregoning was informed that redevelopment of St. Elizabeths Hospital’s east campus would be taken out of her portfolio. “What happened to letting Planning do planning?” she wrote to Hoskins. “My staff is very upset and demoralized by this and I have to ask why this document, or others that impact our office would be issued without any input from the affected parties?”

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Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, the D.C. politician most aligned with Tregoning’s agenda, wants to see her office weigh in on everything the city government does—as she did in Maryland under Glendening. “She’s probably not included enough on these things,” Wells says, noting Gray’s desire to lure the Redskins to a site near RFK Stadium as an example. “She’s clearly at times out of the loop when we need smart planning.”

The biggest clash, however, came over historic preservation. “I am beginning to become gravely concerned by the zealous nature of the historic preservation decisions that I see moving forward in the city right now,” Hoskins wrote last October, offering the campus of St. Elizabeths as an example. He suggested it might be necessary to take the Historic Preservation Office out of Tregoning’s agency—she strongly disagreed, and won.

In large part, Tregoning has survived because she’s a lot more diplomatic than the fired Fentyites. Among fellow believers, she’s not shy about preaching from the fire-and-brimstone sections of the smart growth gospel: “I think it’s ridiculous for us to be talking about congestion,” she snaps, deriding suburban proposals to widen highways to alleviate traffic. “No new capacity alleviates congestion. I mean, where has it ever happened? I find it unbelievable that that is still the mantra, when it’s never been proven to work.” But that’s not something she’d say at a meeting of one of the regional bodies where she serves alongside suburban highway enthusiasts.

“I’m always thinking about how to put it so people won’t think I’m being ideological, or I’m not attacking someone,” Tregoning says. “For the change I want, what is the lever? If there are people I need to influence, who do they need to hear it from? Because it’s probably not me. That’s why the developers are so important. I think planners in general do better leading from behind. You know, we’re not elected. This is not the era of the—not that I’d even want to be Robert Moses, but you know what I mean?”

She trails off at the mention of midcentury New York’s much-maligned master builder, a man known for bulldozing community opposition and amassing power over government’s many levers.

Moses would never have spoken about leading from behind. But any great city builder might have recognized Tregoning’s inability to stay in her lane—figuratively. The tendency stems comes from the fact that she doesn’t really see them. “I have no idea how other planning directors define their job,” she says. “So I feel like I’m responsible in many ways for our future. The future of the city, as broad as that is.”

Near the beginning of the Gray administration, when she asked for data like transit ridership and energy usage, people told her it wasn’t her job.

“I think it is my job,” she says. “Population growth is my job. I don’t want to measure how many permits for PUDs get issued and how many plans get written. The outcomes are positive changes in the city that anybody in the city would understand. And if I’m not having an impact on those things, I’m just not interested in being here.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, this story originally misstated the title of JBG Companies Principal Grant Ehat.

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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