"Wow, this is really wild," Andrew Altman thought, as the car carrying him and the mayor of Washington headed to St. Elizabeths Hospital about 11 one night in June.

Once Mayor Anthony A. Williams persuaded the startled hospital guards to allow himself and his job candidate for D.C. planning director onto the federal property in Southeast Washington, they drove to a point overlooking the shimmering capital.

"This is where I want to leave my legacy," Williams told Altman. Showing him the sweep of the city as viewed from the neglected area east of the Anacostia River, the mayor wanted Altman to understand his vision of the potential for rejuvenation.

"It was a very striking and dramatic way of looking at the city," Altman said later of his late-night job interview. "It was then that I knew I wanted the job."

Until now, the District's planning director has been a position practically invisible and passive, a casualty of the city's fiscal crisis. Williams, himself a disciple of urban planning, has brought in Altman, 36, to rebuild the planning department, a job Altman said is akin to launching a start-up company.

Planners chart the course of development, so Altman arrives, as he puts it, "at a propitious moment in the city's history." The District is showing signs of economic recovery but has yet to forge a long-term strategy for bringing residents back and creating jobs. Both are central to boosting tax revenue that helps balance the city's budget.

The planning director "is vitally important, because it goes to our identity, esteem and self-confidence," Williams said. "It also goes to our vision. We're approaching a new century, and it's time to refresh and rejuvenate."

Altman, formerly planning and zoning director in Oakland, Calif., is a font of ideas about big-city planning and specifically, the District. He wanted to be a city planner when he was a 10-year-old growing up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where he was exposed to many of the vexing problems facing urban areas: drugs, blight, poverty, gangs.

His schoolteacher mother raised Altman--who is white--in a mostly black neighborhood. He left there for Temple University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, eager to join a profession in which he could help make older cities better places to live.

Rebuilding neighborhoods will be Altman's focus in Washington. In Oakland, his department chose specific blocks in six inner-city neighborhoods. The city's various service agencies teamed up to clean streets, create parks and provide loans and incentives for housing and small businesses. The same could be tried along three blocks of Georgia Avenue NW, for example, Altman said.

"I start with the premise that strong, vibrant neighborhoods give cities a competitive advantage," Altman said. "We should start small and think bigger."

Altman's other main emphasis is establishing Washington as a waterfront city, much as Baltimore has with its Inner Harbor. While studying successful cities last year on a fellowship at Harvard, Altman found that a thriving waterfront was a common thread. Driving around the vast Southeast Federal Center recently, he pointed out that the nearby neighborhoods are physically separated from the Anacostia River.

"The city is walled off from its waterfront," Altman said. "We need to look at how we open it up to have a unified city. I never really thought of Washington as a waterfront city, and yet it is. We need to change that psychology. All great cities celebrate their waterfronts."

Altman arrives in Washington at a time of strife in neighborhoods over development decisions. For a long time now, developers and big institutions have had their way, while residents have been cut out of decisions, according to several D.C. Council members, financial control board members and other city officials.

"I don't feel the government is actually helping us," said Harding Scott Polk, of the Palisades/Foxhall section of Northwest Washington, where George Washington and Georgetown universities are planning projects that bother nearby residents. "There's an uneven playing field between universities and residents."

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that "without a planning department, development has all been ad hoc."

Added lawyer and civic activist Tersh Boasberg: "It's been an absolute mess. We get these blockbuster projects like baseball stadiums, MCI Center and the convention center, but they aren't set in a larger context of an overall plan."

Altman said that one of his goals is to create a "clear, predictable, fair process for development decisions" so that "the public [leads] the planning effort."

Altman recently intervened in a dispute between Foxhall residents and George Washington's Mount Vernon campus, which wants to expand its facilities in the quiet neighborhood there. Altman sent both sides a list of professional mediators and suggested they hire one to resolve their differences. It was an approach neither side had considered.

The thirst for a planning vision across the city already has put Altman in demand at community meetings. More than 100 people crowded into a room at the National Building Museum recently to hear Altman sketch his early plans.

"In most cities if you tell people, 'We're featuring the new planning director,' only three or four people show up," Altman said. "People here are hungry for good planning."

At a recent community meeting with Altman about a Washington Gas Light Co. office-hotel project near the Navy Yard, Michael Cushman, a 16-year resident of Capitol Hill, gushed, "I'm happy to see planning back in D.C. I'm overjoyed."

Boasberg, who was part of a search committee that recruited Altman, said his appointment "represents a sea change in how the mayors of Washington view planning in the last 30 years. This mayor is a modern mayor who's grown up in the urban environment, not the civil rights movement. He has experience in urban affairs, with a heavy dose of planning."

With expectations set so high, Altman is already, after just three months on the job, feeling pressure to produce immediate results. He's being paid $114,000 a year.

"He's getting top dollar. I expect top-dollar results, sooner rather than later," said Terry Lynch, of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, which advocates more housing downtown.

Altman cautions, however, that he inherited a department that had been devastated by budget cuts. The planning office has only 15 planners; most cities the size of the District have about 60. The mayor and council are proposing 10 additional planners, which Altman said is a "wonderful down payment, but not enough to do what we need to do. You have to recognize the system and department are broken and are going to take a complete rebuilding."

Williams said he can relate to the pressure Altman faces. "It's the same problem I have writ large: managing expectations," Williams said. "It's going to take time."

Until then, Altman is burning the candle at both ends. He was married in May to Hillary Levitt Altman, director of the General Services Administration's Center for Urban Development and Livability.

"I haven't had a weekend off since I've been here," said Altman, who started work Aug. 2. "Ask my wife. Great way to start a marriage."

CAPTION: Andrew Altman wants to revitalize older sections of the District. He also wants Washington to celebrate its waterfront, as Baltimore has done with its Inner Harbor.

CAPTION: Andrew Altman, the District's new planning chief, says he is impressed by residents' interest. "People here are hungry for good planning," he said.