The chaos of packing has just begun to disturb the honey atmosphere in Kirk White's office, a comfortable room furnished with a beat-up blue rug, a scarred wooden work table and blue-flowered curtains that look like rejects from a maiden aunt's parlor.
A blizzard of papers covers his desk and piles of maps and charts line the long table. Carefully avoiding the boxes stacked on the floor, White settles his pudgy, bear-size frame into a chair and sighs.
"I've enjoyed this," smiles the deputy director of the District Municipal Planning Office, fondly patting his work table. "But it's time to make the switch."
The switch is a major one for White, whose early legal career focused on serving the District poor. After five years as the MPO zoning and planning coordinator, he is leaving city government to become a partner at Linowes and Blocher, a Montgomery County law firm that has represented some of the area's biggest developers.
The attorneys are opening up a Washington office, White explained, and they made him an offer he couldn't refuse. The prospect of returning to law practice, combined with his recent 40th birthday, sparked his interest in a change, according to White.
"I really can't describe how much fun it's been to do what you're interested in for your own city," said White, whose boyish face and enthusiasm belie any hint of a mid-life crisis.
He joined MPO in 1973 when it was called the city Office of Planning and Management. When a reorganization plan turned OPM into MPO in 1975, it was White's task to help director Ben Gilbert consolidate the scattered District zoning and planning offices into a 75-person staff, responsible for planning the city's development.
"I wanted to get into the city government because it was beginning to get into the problems of the eastern part of the city and into the problems of poverty," said White, a native of Chevy Chase, D.C. He said he acquired an interest in "improving the condition of city's poor people" while working as a construction laborer during summer vacations from St. Albans school and Williams College.
This goal led to a career as what he calls "a reformer," which began during "the grim days" of the 1960s.
"I started my first job, as a lawyer for the Treasury Department, the day after Kennedy was assassinated," he noted, gesturing toward a picture of John, Robert and Edward Kennedy mounted on his wall. "I used to picket for home rule at the Board of Trade on my lunch hour, marching with the Free D.C. Movement.
"I didn't have a particular philosophical bent against the system. I just wanted to improve it," said White, who in 1965 began working as a volunteer for Nieghborhood Legal Services in Anacostia, a federally funded poverty program.
He joined the staff full time in 11967, and spent much of the following year in the District court-house, defending juveniles arrested for looting during the 1968 riots.
In 1970 he took a position with the George Washington University Urban League Institute, and in 1971 left to serve on the staff of City Council Vice Chairman Sterling Tucker.
"I started working for Sterling on May Day, when they were marching on Washington," he recalled. "In those days Nixon called the city the crime capital of the nation, retailers were closing stores and race relations were very tense."
As Tucker's aide, White focused his efforts on urban renewal and attempts to rebuild the city's riot corridors. Tucker's chairmanship of the Housing and Urban Development Committee gave White the opportunity to work with zoning, an interest that brought him to his position at MPO.
"We (MPO) wanted to make the zoning process more responsive to what was going on in the city at this time," noted White, who said part of the job's challenge rested in the demand to get people with different points of view to compromise.
"Government is the art of compromise. It has to try to be balanced, or in the end it will work for the greatest good," said White, who was often called upon to "bridge the gap between the old line approach to city government and the reform interests." Although he admitted that the lack of moderate-in-come housing is the city's greatest problem, he said he's most proud of "getting city attention focused on neighborhoods that had been ignored, like Anacostia. People have regarded Washington as a kind of sick dog," he laughed. "But it's a very healthy city that's seen a resurgence of interest.
"Developers don't threaten the city that they'll move into the suburbs. Now you go into Montgomery County and they're interested in moving into the District."
White attributes this change to the "strength of the city's leaders over the past few years" and a "combination of natural economic forces and good luck."
"I really love this city," White smiled apologetically. Butfor me, at this period of time, it's time to change."
While he concedes that Linowes and Blocker are best known for defending developers, he's quick to note that the firm lists as clients neighborhood groups and nursing homes.
"Working to strengthen the city economy is what I want to do now," he said. "It seems to be a sensible move. Time will tell."