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"Levey Live" archives

Q&A With Andrew Altman

Tuesday, September 7, 1999

"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
Craig Cola/
Bob's guest today is Andrew Altman, the District's new Director of City Planning. Altman came to Washington from Oakland, CA where he served as Director of City Planning since September 1996. Before joining Oakland's Office of Planning in 1995, Altman worked in the Community Redevelopment Agency in Los Angeles, CA.

Andrew Altman
Andrew Altman

In September of 1998, Altman received the Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University for design. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Temple University and a Masters in city planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He lives with his wife in Washington, D.C.

Here is a transcript of today's session:

Annandale, VA: Mr. Altman,
Could you describe one or two of your successes in Oakland? What lessons learned from your California experience would apply to DC, as in what will or won't work?

Andrew Altman: Neighborhood revitalization, sucessful in targeting six inner city neighborhoods. the key was to organize all the city services as a team in partnership with the community and taking a block by block approach. small achievements can go a long way such as fixing a blighted building, creating a park, helping a small business owner and building community spirit.

Bob Levey: It's more than 31 years since the riots that devastated the Seventh Street, 14th Street and H Street corridors. If you drive down these corridors today (and I'm sure you have), you still see huge pockets of land that are undeveloped, or poorly developed. What's the Altman plan to "finish" the riot corridors at last?

Andrew Altman: Oakland also had long neglected corridors that suffered from disinvestment. What worked there was focusing on the neighborhood centers within those corridors and bringing targeted investment as part of a compehensive package.. i.e. housing incentives, business loans, safety and beautification. One of the important elements in bringing back corridors such as 14th and H is to have the backing of major lending institutions that can provide needed capital to community based organizations and small businesses. This has to be part of your planning up front as opposed to doing a plan and waiting for money to material.

Washington, DC: What are the city's plan for development in the New York Ave corridor area particularly around Mount Vernon Square area?

Andrew Altman: I believe that this is one of the areas that hold great potential for new development in the city. A local non- profit is about to begin a planning process to figure out how to take advantage of this area's potential. It could be ideal for a new mixed used community with residential, new businesses and high tech and arts. We're looking forward to the results of the plan within the next 6 months.

Bob Levey: One of Mayor Williams' opponents in the Democratic primary (Councilman Kevin Chavous) argued that the biggest need in the District today is development of neighborhood businesses. I was pretty intrigued by that idea, although it sounds darned difficult to accomplish. Your thoughts?

Andrew Altman: Strong neighborhood commerical centers and neighborhood businesses are essential to a healthy city and healthy neighborhoods. We have many areas where the residential neighborhood is strong but the commerical area continues to struggle. To support neighborhood business, we need to make sure that the basic infrastructure is sound including the basics of clean, safe and attractive streets. We also need to support strong merchant organizations that can advocate for the needs of the business district and ensure a collective approach to neighborhood problem solving and the provision of services. Finally, small businesses need access to capital.

Bob Levey: Let's talk politics (hey, this is Washington; you'd better get used to it!). Here you've taken a highly political job in a city which has zero independent political power. Congress will be watching your every move. Are you a masochist, or just an optimist? Seriously, how will you function in an environment where the politics are unlike those anywhere else?

Andrew Altman: I guess I'm an optimistic masochist. There's only one way to function in such an environment which is to be very vigorous in asserting the district's interest and building strong coalitions that support district policies. Every city has it's political dynamic. Oakland certainly had its own intense brand of politics. "Don't shy away. Just jump in" is my motto.

Washington,DC: My wife and I recently graduated from Harvard's graduate programs and wish to reside within the District. As Altman develops his goals and objectives for the District, how does he propose to revitalize Columbia Heights and the Howard-Shaw communities? What suggestions would he have for newlyweds that wish to find affordable housing in the District?

Andrew Altman: Columbia Heights and Howard- the city is currently working on plans in both of these areas with a goal to rehabilitate and stabilize as much housing as possible. Advice for newlyweds... stay in the district. it's a great place. As a newlywed myself, keep looking.

McLean, VA: How do you plan to make blighted DC neighborhoods safe, attractive, AND affordable? It seems that there is no middle ground right now, as far as housing prices go. Once a neighborhood is gentrified the former residents can't afford it anymore.

Andrew Altman: You're right. Housing is a absolutely critical to the success of the District. It takes a multi-prong effort. We need to increase the supply of available affordable housing by leveraging city resources with lending institutions such as Fannie-Mae and AFL-CIO. That way, mortagaes can be made affordable to lower to moderate income people who would otherwise be priced out of the market. We also need to aggressivelypursue landlords that maintain deliniquient properties which could be a source of housing in many of the city's neighborhoods.

Bob Levey: Your boss, Mator Williams, recently proposed a 17-acre underground transportation terminal near Mount Vernon Square. The boos and catcalls were deafening. Is that idea dead, or just in need of a good rethinking?

Andrew Altman: "The idea" of an intermodel transportation center could work. The question as you raised it is where it works best to really serve the most riders and supports development in the city. We're currently relooking at where such a center makes sense.

Bob Levey: Public housing isn't very fashionable these days, here or elsewhere. In Chicago, for instance, they recently blew up their legendary high-rise project, Cabrini Green. Here in D.C., there's still a lot of need for public housing, but there seems to be an endless stream of delays and problems. What's the real story? And will you tilt in the direction of more public housing, built faster?

Andrew Altman: The question is how best to provide affordable housing for lower or moderate income people. The movement now is not to create new public housing enclaves as has been done in the past but to develop neighborhoods and communities that have a mix of income and diversity of people while providing for the very real needs of poor people and housing. We still have an obligation to support the creation of more affordable housing but it has to be done as part of building neighborhoods.

Bob Levey: A pet peeve--Bolling Air Force Base in Southeast. No planes arrive or take off from there. Most of the base is housing for military families, and office space for the Defense Intelligence Agency. All those people could be accommodated elsewhere. If they were, Bolling could be the next Watergate.... fabulous views of the monuments and river, easy access to downtown, Beltway only 7 minutes away, subway only two minutes away. I can't imagine a better large site for development within D.C. Are you ready to take on the Air Force and the spies in order to make me a prophet?

Andrew Altman: Count me in! It is absolutely a great site. In fact, the entire Anacostia waterfront is an amazing resource for the city that has been neglected and ignored. One of my first priorites is to focus much needed attention on the development of the Anacostia waterfront so we can realize its full potential to make D.C. a waterfront city.

Arlington, Va.: Housing downtown--everybody
talks about it, few people
seem to build any of it.
What's it going to take to get
enough apartments and condos
downtown to, say, keep a
grocery store in busi

Andrew Altman: You're right. We need housing downtown to make downtown vibrant and full of life. All great cities that have successful downtowns have downtown housing. We need to do this through incentives to developers to build the housing. You can already see a critical mass developing in the Penn quarter neighborhood and much more needs to occur to get us to a critical mass of housing and residence. This benefits teh entire city.

Bob Levey: The Anacostia River waterfront is a perfect example of how land-use decisions are often out of phase. On the eastern bank of the Anacostia sits a wonderful, federal park. On the western bank sits a bunch of huge, ugly oil storage tanks. Not exactly what you want to stare at while you're taking a walk through the park with your best honey. How can Andrew Altman change ALL of the Anacostia waterfront all at once, so we don't have oil tanks where views ought to be?

Andrew Altman: Again, you're right. The Anacostia river waterfront should be the jewel of the city and not walled off from it. we can't do it all at once but we can focus on key areas of the waterfront where we can redevelop obsolete industrial uses for new people-friendly uses. One of the things we need is a riverwalk such as that propsed by the Earth Conservation Corp so that Washington residents who live only blocks from the waterfront but who have never been to it's banks can enjoy its beauty. I hope to do a waterfront plan that provides the city with a strategy for how to accomplish this.

Bob Levey: In case you haven't boned up on your local history, the city was going to build a whole bunch of freeways in the 1960s, but local groups organized and stopped them. But now it's 1999, and it's close to impossible to leave the city to the north or east during afternoon rush hour, and close to impossible to drive into the city via the same routes during morning rush hour. Is it time to revisit the question of freeways within the District of Columbia? After all, Metro can't do the whole commuting job.

Andrew Altman: I don't believe that freeways are the answer. We need to continue to build a strong mass transit system that better integrates the city and the suburbs and we need strong regional cooperation to address the fundamental question of how groeth occurs in the region and unfettered sprawl is contained.

Bob Levey: Red-lining by banks and savings and loans has been an unfortunate reality of D.C. life. Even though federal law supposedly prevents it, we both know it goes on. What's your best shot at dealing with this? I can't think of another business practice that affects Little Guy D.C. quite as much, or quite as negatively.

Andrew Altman: I agree. Red-lining has to be aggressively dealt with in Oakland and we worked with a broad coalition of community organizations to pressure banks to sign commitments for affordable housing and small business development in distressed neighborhoods. It took a vigorous effort and alot of community organizing to effectively pressure lending institutions to make commitments to these communities. We also used the city's financial resouces (such as deposits of city funds to leverage banks to invest in areas of the city that we wanted). It's a tough fight but it is possible to create a win-win.

McLean, VA: Bob,

I'm surprised by your undemocratic opinion of Bolling AFB. Why shouldn't the military families enjoy the nice view? With pay that's less than average and that whole going-to-war thing, surely they deserve a peaceful place to live on their tour of duty in DC. MR. ALTMAN: Let me refashion this person's comments into a question for you. Can D.C. provide affordable housing for military personnel stationed in this area? Or will they have to live in (and commute from) Charles County and Stafford County, as they do now?

Andrew Altman: Hardly undemocratic. I think more military families should enjoy great views and live in D.C.. In fact, as 5,000 jobs move to the navy base, we would like to entise as many of these families as we can to live in the District and are working with the Navy to see how we can make this happen. We're also supporting new marine quarters near the Navy Yard so that these marines can live in the District and contribute to our community. So, yeah, we need to do more and provide incentives for not only military and federal employees but for others who work in D.C. but who live elsewhere.

Alexandria, VA: It seems that Bob's freeway question, as well as many others, relates to a larger issue for planning in DC: what are you going to do to help create a regional planning authority that can come up with a unified approach to issues such as traffic, pollution, and development?

Andrew Altman: Yeah, I agree that the toughest issues facing the city are regional in nature such as transpotration and growth. A strong regional strategy is required so that suburbs are not advantaged over D.C. which has a strong infrastructure and transportation system capable of supporting more people closer to where they work. I'm not yet sure how best to do this but I will be meeting with COG to figure out what is needed to create stronger regional cooperation.

Mt. Rainier MD: How is D.C. going to discourage low-rent landlords -slumlords- from running down their properties while raking in dough? Seems the building inspectors, many of them, are not too enthusiastic about going after these people. And one inspector who is, bless him, is seen as a boat rocker. Run-down properties are a critical problem to the city.

Andrew Altman: We need stronger penalties for absentee landlords so that it's no longer profitable to let their properties run down in the District.

Washington DC: Are you an advocate of a living downtown? If so, how will you handle the pro-business community in ensuring plentiful housing downtown?

Andrew Altman: Yes, absolutely. There has to be a balance. No successful downtown can be without a strong residential base. We have to forcefully advocate for downtown housing, provide the incentives needed to build affordable housing and have the pro-business community understand that there is a balance that needs to be achieved for the good of the city.

Washington, DC: How do you make Congress and the Federal government more responsive to the planning needs of DC neighborhoods when the residents have no vote to say what development plans will meet their needs?

Andrew Altman: First of all, eventhough much of the District contains porporrty under control of the federal government such as the waterfront, it is not an excuse for the District not to be aggressive in planning for these areas. It is our responsibility to plan for the entire city not the federal city separate from the District. We can do this by building strong partnerships with the federal government to jointly plan parts of our city that have previously been left to them. By building them into our plan, as opposed to simply responding to their plan the District can bring pressure to ensure that our needs are met. And it will take a strong organizing as part of our planning to garner broad based support and necessary political pressure.

Bob Levey: Blight east of the Anacostia River has been a big problem for years. But some neighborhoods "over there" are seeing residential development. Obviously, that's happening because there's a market, both for rentals and purchases. You're on record as saying you'll do everything you can for "east of the river." But why not just sit back and let the market work, as it seems to be doing?

Andrew Altman: I do think you need to let the market work and we need to make it work better but we also need to make sure we can provide housing for residents east of river neighborhoods so that they are not left out ot pushed out of neighborhoods they have invested in. SO we need a comprehenisve approach to the revitalization of these areas.

Bob Levey: When you were appointed, several local scribes wrote that your predecessors swayed under the influence of special interest groups. Is that true? If so, how will you avoid doing the same?

Andrew Altman: I don't know about my predesecors but there are always special interest groups. The question is how to ensure that there is a balance of interest and that there is an open fair process that allows for all voices to be heard and opinions considered on land-use issues. I believe that the planning process should provide such open forums for this sort of exchange among different interest groups to occur.

Bob Levey: It must be sunspots--we're 45 minutes into this chat and I haven't asked you about baseball!
Let's assume that a team magically decides to move here. Can there be a downtown stadium? Should there be a downtown stadium? WILL there be a downtown stadium?

Andrew Altman: Well, you finally hit a homerun. Will there be? I don't know. Should there be? I'm not yet sure. Can there be? Anything's possible. As a new kid in town, this is one issue that I'm going to have to look into to see where the best location is for a new stadium if one is needed at all. I'll have an answer next time you have me on.

SW Washington DC. : What is your favorite part of the district and why is it your favorite.

Andrew Altman: I love the whole district.... honestly, eventhough I grew up in Philadelphia I never appreciated how beautiful a city Washington D.C. is espeically the neighborhoods, not just the monuments. And, of course, it all goes back to that great plan of L'Enfant.

Bob Levey: Many thanks to Andrew Altman for a very enlightening hour. We'll be sure to have him back. Join us next Tuesday at the same time when our guest will be the president of George Washington University, Dr. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. Meanwhile, no Friday is complete without "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," the anything-goes version of our show. It appears Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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