The man who helped end the march of freeways into Washington and start the Metro subway system, who sparked the urban renewal of the nation's capital and guided the greatest government building boom in more than 175 years, has retired from the National Capital Planning Commission as quietly as he came almost three decades ago.
But, then, Charles H. Conrad is a retiring person. The slight, soft-spoken executive director of the NCPC is a man who loves building things, from cabinets to his Arlington home and a summer house on the Lower Potomac.
Since taking the helm of the federal planning agency 14 years ago, he also has built a small, professional staff that has weathered riots, home rule and at least two presidential attempts to eliminate it.
A reception in his honor will be held tonight at the Smithsonian Institution, in the hall with the joint Smithsonian-#ncpc/ Bicentennial display of the history of plans for the nation's capital.
Conrad leaves the NCPC at a time when plans are once again afoot to reorganize the 55-year-old planning agency, which was formed to create park land for Washington and remained, according to Conrad, as the protector of "the federal interest." It has been the only federal agency making any long-range plans for the future growth of the city.
How Washington will look in the future, as well as how it has changed in the past three decades, concerned Conrad on his final day as he sat in his empty office on the 12th floor of a modern building at 1325 G St. NW.
The commission had just concluded another meeting in which members were reminded they no longer had the powers they once had to approve or block construction of buildings, bridges and roads here.
The commission's role, since the 1973 Home Rule Act, has been reduced largely to advising other agencies -- advice the agencies apparently may ignore, although the issue has yet to be tested in court.
As things stand now, Conrad points out in the quiet monotone that has been his hallmark as NCPC director, neither the planning commission nor any agency here "has the power to protect the federal interest."
Conrad emphasizes that he is "not being critical of District officials or the commission... this has been a wonderful part of my life... and remember we supported home rule and D.C. having a planning entity at city hall, doing its own planning. But what most people forget, even the White House, is that NCPC also was proposed to be reorganized to meet federal needs."
For example, Conrad says, many major moves by federal agencies from one location around Washington to another -- which affect thousands of government employes and the local jurisdictions -- are no longer subject to review by the NCPC or the public.
This came about because the Government Services Administration has stopped constructing new government office buildings and now leases more than 50 percent of federal office space here. The NCPC charter gives it the power to review construction of federal buildings but says nothing about leased buildings.
Conrad became a city planner in the 1930s, in the days "when no schools had such things." Most places in America then had little or no zoning, let alone long-range plans for the future. Subdivisions, suburban shopping centers and urban renewal had yet to be invented.
A native of New Jersey, where his father was a lithographer, Conrad went to Iowa State College to major in forestry. But after taking courses in landscape planning, "I knew that this is what I really wanted to do." He began doing it immediately upon graduation when he was hired by the college as a site planner.
But shortly afterward, as another world war threatened, he left campus to join the Army Corps of Engineers as a civilian planner designing new army camps. "It was fascinating," said Conrad, "seeing the bulldozers right outside your barracks' windows carrying out the plans you'd designed."
Although the Corps offered him protection from the draft, Conrad leaped at a chance to go to Richmond, at half the salary ($1,800 a year) as an assistant to Harland Bartholomew, "considered by many to be the father of city planning," Conrad said. Bartholomew was appointed chairman of NCPC by President Eisenhower in 1954, three years after Conrad had joined NCPC. Conrad rose to deputy director during Bartholomew's six-year term.
In Richmond, Conrad briefly helped Bartholomew plan expressways and arterial roads for the state capital, but was soon drafted and became an Army map-reading instructor. After the war, he returned to Iowa, working for the Des Moines city planning department until "a job in the East" beckoned and he came to Arlington as planning consultant to update the county zoning regulations. He stayed on to become Arlington's chief planner for three years before working briefly for the Federal Housing Administration.
No sooner had Conrad joined NCPC than he was back in Arlington, representing the commission in a dispute over extending the George Washington Memorial Parkway past Rosslyn. Arlington ultimately agreed to the riverside parkway, although Fairfax County later blocked its part of the planned extension to Great Falls and, on the Maryland side, Prince George's County blocked the parkway's extension to Fort Washington across from Mount Vernon. The parkway and most of Washington's stream valley parks were planned and developed by NCPC.
Conrad said he didn't want to discuss Arlington, where he lives, because NCPC presently is suing the county over high-rise buildings being built in Rosslyn, which the National Park Service, NCPC and other federal agencies believe will ruin Washington's skyline.
Although Conrad's style is low-key -- a major reason for his selection as executive director in 1965, according to then NCPC chairman Elizabeth Rowe -- Conrad, his staff and the commission soon were at the center of many of Washington's major controversies.
The commission was the forum for the highway battles of the 1950s, "when the expressway was king... and highway engineers were proposing eight major radials into the city and three beltways around it," said Conrad. "We fought to get a more balanced transportation system, including rapid rail," and helped form regional transportation agencies that took over private bus companies and built Metro.
NCPC also spurred the cooperation that resulted in the formation of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which has since taken over NCPC's regional planning role. And it developed the Year 2000 Plan, "which was a good framework for regional development, and Montgomery, Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington are still following that basic corridor plan," Conrad said.
Perhaps the most noticeable changes guided by the NCPC are the new federal buildings and museums in the city and restorations. "Since 1960," Conrad said, "there have been more federal buildings built here than at any time in U.S. history."
But Conrad feels that two of his major accomplishments have been the rehabilitation of the slums of the nation's capital, where he helped plan and later direct the city's urban renewal projects, and the decision, in the midst of the 1968 riots, to begin planning immediately for rehabilitation of the riot-damaged areas.
Some urban renewal projects were controversial, particularly the new Southwest, where a historic area was razed and replaced with high-rise apartments, townhouses and what many consider a sterile, Maine Avenue waterfront. "But people forget at that time, under federal regulations, everything had to be completely cleared," Conrad noted. "Our original plan was to rehabilitate 75 percent of the area and clear only 25 percent."
Unfortunately, said Conrad, restoration has been slow and there still are boarded up buildings in the area.
During his retirement, Conrad expects to advise the government of Nigeria on planning. But not all of his projects are massive.
His first project the day after leaving the commission was helping his eldest son, who has a small construction business, build a porch. It isn't controversial and it won't change the landscape of Washington, but, says Conrad, "I enjoy it."