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Change Agent: DC’s City Planner Harriet Tregoning
Her vision of DC is bigger, greener, and maybe taller. But the city planner says she really just wants it to be smarter. By Harry Jaffe
Comments () | Published November 1, 2013
Tregoning’s technocratic vision for DC is based in solid smart-growth principles. Carrying it out may become a battle for the soul of the city. Photograph by Stephen Voss.

“None of the people who encouraged me to take this job ever told me how often I’d want to quit,” Harriet Tregoning, DC’s city planner, said in a rare calm moment early this fall. “The job of the director of planning is to push for change. No one wants to change.”

Tregoning’s opponents have their doubts. They say she has turned the District’s planning office, a onetime bureaucratic backwater, into a powerful advocate for change.

The day before our interview, September 24, her team had released a proposal to allow building heights downtown to go to 200 feet, far above the limit set in the days of Pierre L’Enfant, Tregoning’s original predecessor. Under the plan, certain buildings could rise 70 feet higher than the standard codified in the 1910 Height of Buildings Act. That evening, at the National Capital Planning Commission, she would present the proposal in front of an audience made up largely of critics, who think her plan could ruin the city’s low-slung European character.

Sitting at her dining-room table in the Columbia Heights rowhouse she shares with her husband and their two chows, Tregoning, 53, wore a dark, tailored suit, her brown hair held in place with a band, the better to fit under her bike helmet. Her workday would take her, by bicycle, the 3½ miles to her office in Southwest DC, then to the District Building for meetings with the city administrator and DC Council members, then to the skirmish over the Height Act at the commission.

Tregoning frames the proposal—as she does many of her programs—not as a personal vision for change but as an accommodation to reality. She points out that DC’s population, after decreasing for decades following the passage of home rule in 1973, is growing by more than 1,000 residents a month—most of them young people moving to new neighborhoods west of the Anacostia River or to traditional African-American areas such as Shaw and Eckington. Childbearing families who once fled to the suburbs, meanwhile, are staying, thanks largely to improved schools. “We are getting these middle-class households back at numbers surprising to us,” Tregoning says. “We want to accommodate them.

“The Height Act has served us well,” she says. “We love the streets that are open to light and air. But if the city grows at a rate even lower than its current pace, we will have a shortage of land for development by 2020. It may be necessary to build up.”

The other reality is that the federal government, not Tregoning, makes the decisions about DC’s Height Act. Congressman Darrell Issa, a conservative California Republican who has taken a benevolent interest in DC, broached the matter of the act at a Hill hearing in July of last year, asking the city to review the limits set in the 1910 law.

With limited local control over a burgeoning city, Tregoning points out, Issa’s interest represents an opportunity. “It might be another 100 years before another member of Congress asks that question,” she says.

Many Washingtonians counter that Tregoning has applied her considerable political skills to molding the District in her image. “She has her own set of ideas about where she wants to take the city—it boils down to higher, tighter, denser,” says George Clark, former president of the Federation of Citizens Associations. “She brings a top-down imposition.”

Having the temerity to suggest that office buildings and apartment houses be allowed to bump up a few floors is vintage Tregoning. She’s been challenging the way land is used since the 1990s, first for the federal government and then for Maryland. Now she’s applying her ideas to a city where residents often battle over changes down to the square foot. It’s turned her into a street fighter who often finds herself between warring forces.

• • •

Tregoning first came to Washington as a high-schooler. She remembers marveling at the rowhouses nearly abutting the Supreme Court. “I fell utterly in love,” she says. “I vowed to live here one day.”

Her father, Arthur Hiken, was a sailor serving in occupied Japan when he met her mother, Sumako. The couple moved to Chicago, where Harriet was born in 1960. Two years later, soon after her brother, Alan, came along, Arthur Hiken died, leaving Sumako with two children under age two. “She was a person of great will and perseverance,” Tregoning says of her mother.

Sumako moved her two young kids to St. Louis and found a house three blocks from a library, where Tregoning says she “all but lived.” She started taking classes at Washington University while still in high school and got her degree in civil engineering and public policy at age 20. At the university, she met Michael Tregoning, a banker, then followed his jobs to California and Dallas, in each place working on Superfund policy at the local regional office for the Environmental Protection Agency. After they split up in the early 1990s, she moved to Washington to head the EPA’s waste-policy branch.

Cleaning up land that was already spoiled didn’t satisfy Tregoning. She figured there must be a better way to use land at the outset.

Her awakening as an urban planner began during sessions of President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1994. The discussions there, about creating communities oriented around walkable town centers, led to a movement that would become known as “smart growth,” and Tregoning became a leading voice. In a country where owning a home in a subdivision embodies the American dream, smart growth was heresy, but Tregoning adopted it as gospel.

At the EPA, she helped convene the Smart Growth Network, a collection of private and public groups, to work out the movement’s basic principles. She rose to chair the Council on Sustainable Development and, in 2000, helped found Smart Growth America, an advocacy group.

Her partner in many of these endeavors was Geoffrey Anderson, whom she met at the EPA and who is now president and CEO of Smart Growth America. They married in 2005. Tregoning and Anderson keep bees at his childhood home in DC’s Brookland, labeling their products Bee-land Honey.

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