The public dialogue on planning and development in the District is about to change dramatically.
Time will tell whether that will make much difference in the city's land-use policies. But public debate of issues involving planning and land use is certain to be more frank, spirited and informative.
That probably won't sit well with special interests and their acolytes, but so be it.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader set the tone last week in a letter to members of the D.C. Council: "Rest assured a mobilized citizenry will emerge to set . . . priorities right. The greased wheels will not be so easy this time."
The timing of Nader's letter and Mayor Anthony Williams's selection of Andrew Altman as the new planning director were purely coincidental. Nonetheless, they signal the advent of sorely needed changes, not just in the planning process but in the way land-use policy is formulated.
Nader was especially critical of proposals to build a major league baseball stadium and an intermodal transportation center in the heart of downtown, east of Mount Vernon Square.
The ITC -- a planning and land-use debacle in the making -- is envisioned as a 17-acre underground facility with 7,200 parking spaces and connections to buses, Metro and trolley service being proposed near the new convention center.
Neither the stadium nor the ITC will be built, Nader predicted in an interview last week. "They're not going to get away with this," he said. "The beauty of it all is they've got existing sites" from which to choose.
Several studies have "rejected this corporate-developer-entertainment tax-subsidized model in the central city as wasteful [and] environmentally harmful," Nader said.
He said those studies also show that this model is a "drain on the city's tax base and productive of far fewer jobs than the sustainable neighborhoods where people live and work and contribute to city revenues rather than deplete them."
Eminent domain, "funded by corporate welfare" and "other roughshod modes of unilateral decision-making" are not what many District residents expect from their new mayor and his administration, Nader said in letters to Chairman Linda Cropp and others on the council.
If nothing else, Nader's involvement and the selection of Altman as director of planning for the District will fill two glaring voids.
Several groups, including the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, have advocated more active participation by citizens in the planning process.
Meanwhile, the D.C. Office of Planning has not had a permanent director in more than four years. Staffing in that office has been sharply reduced in the interim. Worse, the judgment and initiatives of planners have been cast aside in favor of policies heavily influenced by politics and powerful special interest groups.
People who are familiar with Altman's professional background agree that Williams made an excellent choice in naming him director of the office of planning.
"I couldn't think of a better-qualified person to be city planner," said Tersh Boasberg, a Washington lawyer and member of the search team that interviewed the finalists for the job. "I think [Altman] can articulate a vision for the city through Williams," added Boasberg, who is also chairman of the Committee of 100.
"I think Andrew Altman will be a major asset to the mayor," said Greg Fazakerley, also a member of the search committee and chairman and chief executive officer of Development Resources Inc., a downtown development firm.
Altman's experience as planning director in two major cities will be of considerable value in efforts to revitalize downtown, as well as other areas of the city, including those east of the Anacostia River, Fazakerley added.
Williams's choice of Altman, a professional planner, not only gives the office of planning the credibility it lacked but makes a positive statement in support of comprehensive planning as a framework for economic development.
Altman brings impressive credentials to the position, having been director of city planning in Oakland, Calif., and director of planning services in Los Angeles, where he also worked as a special assistant to former mayor Tom Bradley. Altman holds a master's degree in city planning from MIT and was recently employed there as a visiting lecturer, teaching a graduate course on the remaking of distressed cities.
Still, Altman will have to adapt quickly to a steep learning curve as he familiarizes himself with the District and attempts to make comprehensive planning relevant again.
That much shouldn't be too difficult. His biggest challenge will come in getting stakeholders with competing agendas -- politicians, business interest groups, community leaders, preservationists and housing activists -- to embrace his planning initiatives for the District.
If Altman succeeds in persuading city officials to stop making ad hoc land-use decisions and follow the District's Comprehensive Plan, as amended from time to time, he will have made his mark here.