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Change Agent: DC’s City Planner Harriet Tregoning
Comments () | Published November 1, 2013
The newly proposed limits would be raised to 1.25 times the width of the street—about 200 feet on avenues, or 70 feet above the current one-to-one ratio. Photographic Rendering Courtesy Of DC Office Of Planning.

In 1999, Maryland’s Democratic governor Parris Glendening offered Tregoning the chance to put her theories into practice by making her his Secretary of Planning, with the power to review every line item in the state’s $23-billion budget.

Besides helping Baltimore reuse its industrial zones, Tregoning and Glendening relocated a new courthouse and a new campus for the University of Maryland, both planned to be built on farmland outside Hagerstown, to that town’s center. Glendening describes his former aide as a powerful mixture of politician and technocrat: “She used a combination of charm, knowledge, and in-your-face toughness as she needed it.”

When Glendening left office, he and Tregoning founded the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, a policy arm of Smart Growth America. Three years later, incoming DC mayor Adrian Fenty asked Tregoning to run his planning office. By then, she had been living in DC for 14 years, on Capitol Hill and in Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. “I was utterly excited at the prospect of planning a city I loved,” she says. “At the same time, I was terrified of it.”

If she was, she didn’t show it. In one of her first acts, she halted a plan to remove and redevelop the Florida Avenue Market, a funky wholesale complex in Northeast DC. Her office then proposed a “small area plan,” preserving the old businesses and making way for housing and Union Market, a foodie haven. But despite her occasional fights with builders, Tregoning has rarely advocated against developers—she has mostly asked them to stay within urban boundaries, as befits her principles.

She also has the support of political leaders. Her planning predecessors, Andy Altman and Ellen McCarthy, set the stage for her, under supportive mayors Tony Williams and Adrian Fenty. Vincent Gray backed her when he chaired the city council; as mayor, he kept her on, endorsed her plans, and gave her a direct line to his office. Gray fully supports her proposed changes to the Height Act.

Drivers are more prone to criticize her. Tregoning has proposed wholesale changes to zoning rules for the first time in 55 years. Among her plans, she suggested ending requirements that new buildings provide a minimum number of parking spaces near Metro stops and along bus corridors. The idea brought howls from residents, especially in upper Northwest. When she backed off, urbanists and smart-growth advocates criticized her for compromising.

But the city has continued to squeeze drivers with heavy parking-ticket enforcement, speed cameras, and bike lanes. AAA Mid-Atlantic calls DC’s approach a war against car commuters in which Tregoning is a general. “There’s a parking crisis,” the group’s chief spokesman, Lon Anderson, says. “There are not enough spaces. Then we see these proposed plans to remove parking requirements, and we come to the conclusion that some changes she’s suggesting are just not realistic.”

• • •

I’m almost surprised when, after a recent meeting with Ward 5 council member Kenyan McDuffie—about turning industrial land in his ward from dumping ground to destination—Tregoning accepts my offer to give her a lift. “There’s the impression here that I hate cars,” she says. “It’s not true. I’m not crazy about pedestrian-only streets, either. I think we should share.”

Her feelings about automobiles, she says, are beside the point: “People are going to be driving as much, but they are not going to own cars.” Instead, she believes, Washingtonians will use short-term rentals like Zipcar. Tregoning points out that the District’s newest residents are more likely to have student loans than car loans.

Her goals go beyond shuttling people efficiently from place to place. Yes, she envisions a town with fewer cars, where people walk, bike, and rely on public transportation. When—or if—it’s completed, a new streetcar line she helped champion will connect Benning Road on the city’s east side to Georgetown along the Potomac River. “It will have an impact larger than Metro,” she says.

“I want to make the District more like Paris and London—an exciting, cultural city with a much more diverse economy.”

Her small, pragmatic changes, however, are likely to have a powerful impact on the city’s soul. Take bike lanes. In the African-American backlash against Adrian Fenty that contributed to his 2010 defeat, his advocacy of bike lanes became code for catering to white folks. Many longtime Washingtonians don’t just dislike her changes—they suspect the DC government of using the planning office for social engineering. (Ironically, Vince Gray, voted into office by blacks, has continued to build more bike lanes and supports Tregoning at every step.) Others say the animosity goes beyond African-Americans. In her effort to welcome new, younger residents, one critic claims, she “has lost the heart and soul of older residents of the city.”

• • •

At the first public session on the city’s Height Act recommendations, Tregoning sat behind the curved commissioners’ table wearing a resigned “hit me” expression. After a long day, an errant strand of hair arced over her forehead. “There’s nothing magic about 130 feet,” she told the activists and architects who had gathered at the federal planning commission.

The activists seethed. Raising height limits could allow developers to turn the city into Rosslyn, they said—or worse, Manhattan. “This is the kind of thing that makes me not want statehood,” one woman said.

In the end, the National Capital Planning Commission, a federal body that makes official recommendations on the city to Congress, will likely propose allowing developers to build in the “penthouse space”—the rooftop area now occupied by equipment such as elevator shafts and heating and cooling units—but not beyond. That’s far less ambitious than DC’s recommendations. The commission is scheduled to take a final vote in November and send its recommendation to Congress, together with or separate from the District’s proposals.

If Issa’s committee acts on the recommendations, any changes would then have to pass the House and Senate, which is unlikely. As Tregoning often says, people don’t like change.

After getting stared down for most of the two-hour session, she loads her briefcase onto her folding bicycle, mounts up, and heads to the Metro and a bike ride back to Columbia Heights. “I wasn’t surprised,” she says. “I’m used to getting yelled at at least once a day.”

This article appears in the November 2013 issue of Washingtonian.

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