D.C. mayor planning environmental initiative

December 12, 2011

Hoping to jump-start his legislative agenda while boosting his standing with city progressives, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is undertaking an environmental initiative he thinks will one day make the city a national model for clean energy, urban farming, green space and car-free transportation options.

Gray (D), who is heading into his second year as mayor, said he formed his “Sustainable D.C.” initiative to strengthen city efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and lay the foundation for proposals that would revitalize an administration criticized for lack of vision.

Although the details won’t be finalized until spring, the plan could include more solar panels on government buildings, gardens in vacant city lots, new walking and biking trails, storm water retention ponds and turning waste into fuel.

“To lead, we must be bold,” Gray said at a speech recently. “This isn’t about incremental improvement. It’s about leaping beyond the competition.”

But in a city where study groups and comprehensive plans are routine and follow-through less frequent, some activists are skeptical Gray’s initiative will have a substantial impact.

Gwyn Jones, chair of the Washington chapter of the Sierra Club, said the “jury is still out” as to whether the initiative will result in lasting change.

“The devil is in the implementation,” said Jones, noting the 2000 Anacostia Waterfront Initiative has not been fully implemented. “But they have good people involved who seem to really want to make a difference, so our approach is, ‘Let’s play and see what we can get.’ ”

Gray’s proposal comes as many big-city mayors are competing over who can be the greenest. With the federal government and many state legislatures gridlocked over climate change, cities have been on the front lines with new environmental initiatives.

Yet Gray is putting his own touch on the concept. Perhaps better than any other policy effort to date, his efforts highlight his 2010 campaign pledge to seek community input in government decisions.

Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was often criticized for being isolated in his decision-making, but Gray has begun seeking consensus from residents and experts before formally unveiling his plan. And despite early concerns over Gray’s go-slow management style, advocates say his approach makes them feel more connected to the government.

In September, the city launched a Web site where residents could provide suggestions for what should be in the plan.

On Nov. 29, to kick off the second phase of the project, Gray gathered residents and experts to brainstorm, breaking up 400 people into nine working groups dealing with the environment, climate, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste, water and green economy. The groups are expected to report in late February so the administration can produce a draft plan by April.

“It’s got a lot of people energized,” said Michael Barrette, who works at the Environmental Protection Agency but also helps manage the Capitol Hill Energy Co-Op. “The mayor seems to be serious about getting citizen volunteer engagement, so we are really optimistic.”

The Sustainable D.C. Web site has generated hundreds of ideas, including building sports fields on the site of the old RFK Stadium, putting farms inside abandoned buildings, planting more trees, and a citywide ban on the use of Styrofoam and road salt.

Some suggestions seem far-fetched, such as charging a toll to enter the city or creating another “Central Park” in the city, in addition to the Mall. Others appear parochial, such as a suggestion the city remove the asphalt at Brent Elementary in Southeast.

In an interview, Gray said he views the initiative as way to help fulfill his goal of creating more jobs and foreign investment while also rallying a socially-liberal city behind a common goal.

“We have to set our sights high and innovate, but that is exactly how we will win,” he said. “To get there, we need to work together.”

With the city budget still constrained by the recent recession, Gray concedes that some costly initiatives may be out of reach during his administration. Complicating his efforts, the city is nearing its debt limit.

One likely proposal by the Sustainable D.C. energy working group — requiring most buildings to instill solar panels — could cost as much as $7 billion in public and private money over 10 years.

“We are after fundamental change,” said Robert Robinson, a member of the group. He said part of the cost would be offset by tax credits and energy savings.

Washington already is home to the nation’s largest bike-sharing system, 200 LEED-certified buildings and a 5-cent tax on plastic bags, and government experts say the District is well positioned to compete with other cities that lead the pack in sustainability efforts, such as Seattle, Portland, Ore., Denver and Chicago.

“In a weird way, the District, as a state and city, is the most interesting place potentially in America because they have a blending of state authority and local authority,” said Kevin S. McCarty, assistant executive director at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “The District to me is a bellwether of what is achievable in the absence of any federal involvement.”

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), author of the city’s bag tax, said Gray should be applauded for engaging the public. But Wells said he is not sure whether Gray has the political appetite to tackle the issue in a major way, which the council member said would require tough decisions on new plans to reduce the number of cars on city streets.

Wells added that Gray will have to change some of his own behavior, saying both the mayor and the council often serve bottled water during meetings.

“What does that tell the public?” Wells asked.

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Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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