It used to be that local planning director was a pretty anonymous if not mundane job.
The requirements included producing plans, studies and recommendations, which were then forwarded on to the planning commission. Zoning ordinances were considered; permit applications were reviewed. Even the most comprehensive research papers were often left on the shelf. The planning director was considered a paper pusher and if the average citizen didn’t know his or her name, it was no surprise.
Not in the era of Harriet Tregoning.
Tregoning, who announced Tuesday that she would end her seven-year stint as D.C. planning director, used the post as a platform to shape most everything about how the city grew and evolved. A small part of her job as she envisioned it was the buildings that were approved and constructed. Instead, Tregoning’s Office of Planning enjoyed broad influence over how the city managed transportation, parking, energy usage, economic strategy and historic preservation.
She worked at the federal government before diving into local issues. At the Environmental Protection Agency, Tregoning launched the Smart Growth Network, a way for local and national government agencies to share strategies for managing growth.
In 2000, when Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) appointed her as his planning director, it gave Tregoning the chance to put all that she had collected into action. He increased her heft by elevating the Maryland office of planning to a state agency that would implement his signature “smart growth” initiative to stop suburban sprawl. Traffic and congestion had become so bad in Maryland that Glendening made addressing it a top priority, and in Tregoning he had someone with endless ideas about how to address it. In an interview with the Post after being appointed, Tregoning laid out how she would bring smart growth to the state:
“My main challenge is to really make sure smart growth as implemented will be as successful as it was when conceived,” Tregoning said. “Maryland is absolutely headed in the right direction. The governor really has his finger on the pulse of not just Maryland, but also the nation. Smart growth is incentive-based, contains more carrots than sticks, and there’s a lot of opportunity to create situations where everyone really benefits.”
A year later, Glendening made Tregoning the state’s first “special secretary for smart growth,” a cabinet-level post, saying that “the pace of sprawl across the country is a disaster. It’s a disaster to the environment. It’s a disaster to the quality of life.” With Tregoning on board, the era of rubber stamps for new developments on green fields in the state had ended. Smart growth had come to Maryland.
So when Adrian Fenty, fresh off a crushing victory to become the next mayor of D.C. in 2006, picked Tregoning to be his planning director, no one should have expected a shrinking violet. The District had already had a planner who was viewed as a government star (in Andy Altman, who worked under Anthony Williams) but Tregoning quickly expanded her reach.
Tregoning’s visions, often in partnership with Gabe Klein, then the transportation director, became the obsession of a growing number of urban bloggers, armchair planners and social media mavens interested in shaping how the city would evolve. Tregoning was profiled in the Washington City Paper and Washingtonian Magazine. When she resigned, David Alpert, the influential blogger at Greater Greater Washington, wrote that Tregoning had served as the city’s “futurist-in-chief.” For Daniel Malouff, who advocates for better transit and higher density at the blog BeyondDC, news of her resignation was a heart breaker:
— BeyondDC (@beyonddc) February 4, 2014
In an interview Gwen Wright, planning director for Montgomery County, called Tregoning “one of our most creative and forward thinking public servants.”
“I’ve lived in the District of Columbia since 1987 and I would say that the changes in the last few years, while Harriet has been planning director, have been nothing short of miraculous,” Wright said. “There are parts of the city that have been utterly transformed.”
Among Tregoning’s most consequential (and controversial) work:
1. Regional influence
As Tregoning espoused the smart growth mantra and the District continued to add new residents, bike lanes, restaurants and start-up companies, other local jurisdictions, partners of hers at the Council of Governments, felt emboldened to follow. Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the advocacy group Coalition for Smarter Growth, said Tregoning “made D.C. the envy of cities around the country.” “She played a really important role in strengthening the Council of Governments as a regional planning body,” he said.
Chris Hamilton, Arlington County’s transportation bureau chief for commuter services, tweeted Wednesday:
— Chris Hamilton (@ChrisRHamilton) February 5, 2014
In various ways, Tregoning has tried to make it easier for D.C. residents to take public transit, bike or walk and, sometimes, harder to drive and park. Not all of the ideas were approved, and her efforts were among her most controversial, prompting angry letters and tense public meetings from residents who tired of not being able to find parking spaces and were angry that Tregoning was proposing ways to make them even more sparse. A headline on a story about the city’s proposed zoning changes read: “D.C. zoning revamp stokes residents’ fears about changing city.”
Under Tregoning, D.C. made the controversial decision to allow the demolition of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, a Brutalist church near the White House, to make way for a new office building. The District approved zoning for a development over the tracks at Union Station, Burnham Place, that will be among the tallest projects in the city because its height will be measured from the high point of a bridge. And she backed a vision for development of McMillan Reservoir, in Northwest, drawing the ire of the project’s opponents, who call themselves “Friends of McMillan Park.” The group’s tweet from Tuesday:
— Friends of McMillan (@McMillanPark) February 4, 2014
3. The Height Act
Tregoning led Mayor Gray’s effort to alter the federally imposed Height Act, which limits how tall developers can build buildings in the city. Changes could have allowed even more density, particularly downtown, but the idea drew feverish opposition, with one columnist, Jonetta Rose Barras, writing that the Gray/Tregoning proposal was “all about satisfying salivating developers searching for ways to make more money than they are now making constructing the usual luxury housing and retail — the city’s character and beauty be damned.”
The idea failed in November. Tregoning said that wasn’t a factor in deciding to leave city government. “In some cases a proposed change can really re-open dialogue and really re-open discussion and I think that’s what happened there,” she said.
Tregoning and Klein paved the road for lanes shared by cars and bikes alike and pushed other transportation options that continue to expand across the city. Her land use plan for the District’s streetcar system (should it get built) has become a road map for how neighborhoods will grow and evolve along the tracks.
5. Environmental sustaintability
The Sustainable D.C. project, completed under Gray, calls for sustainable solutions to the city’s built environment, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste and water. Its effect could be felt for the next 20 years. “It makes a very specific connection between environmental sustainability for the city and a strong economy through green energy growth in the city,” Schwartz said.
Tregoning effectively argued that planning required making hard choices about how to use land and energy, and that position meant difficult battles. At HUD, Tregoning will oversee the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, where she plans to continue her fight, this time in cities all over the country.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz