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?”
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.”