The Washington Post

D.C. is losing its ‘futurist-in-chief’

Harriet Tregoning, head of D.C.’s Office of Planning, will step down from her post on Feb. 23 to work for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, DCist reported.

Tregoning has been one of the region’s leaders around smart growth. She pushed for helping the city grow and locating new housing, jobs, stores and other amenities where people can easily get to them on foot, bike and transit.

That she was ready to move on from D.C. is not much of a surprise. She had been planning director across two administrations, and there had been news reports she was on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s short list to head that city’s planning department.

Tregoning made the most headlines for things like pushing to give the District more autonomy around the height limit, but her biggest influence for D.C. was more behind the scenes. As the mayor’s representative on the federal National Capital Planning Commission, the regional Transportation Planning Board and other bodies, she did a masterful job of working with officials who often don’t have the center city’s health at heart.

At one of the first NCPC meetings I ever attended, for instance, Tregoning was trying to convince members such as Herbert Ames, a George W. Bush appointee who lived in South Carolina, as well as the representatives of the Department of Defense and other agencies, that it really was not a matter of the federal interest whether “mechanical penthouses” had to be set back from interior courtyards of buildings, a minor point of zoning where NCPC was considering overruling the city’s zoning administrator.

Tregoning looked to the future, not the past

Tregoning is at her most comfortable when talking about the future, and in fact some described her as “D.C.’s futurist-in-chief.” She can cite statistics about the city’s demographics, growth and change to paint a vivid picture of where we are and where we might go. Rather than manage around conditions as they are today, Tregoning would envision where they would be tomorrow, or quoting the famous Wayne Gretzky adage in testimony, “skating to where the puck will be.”

Under her leadership, the Office of Planning truly tried to anticipate our future growth and demand, and find ways to match plans and zoning to the city’s actual needs. The office promoted aligning parking requirements not with the guesses of 1958 or even the patterns of today but how people will get around in a world of choices such as Zipcar, car2go, Capital Bikeshare, Uber and more. It supported helping seniors to age in place and potentially repurpose large yet mostly empty single-family houses to hold more residents of many generations, as they once did.

Patience meant success but also missed opportunities

Tregoning has an uncommon combination of drive and patience, which is necessary to be effective in government. Some people with a lot of good ideas run up against brick walls and grow frustrated (and, perhaps, even she eventually did). Others simply content themselves with punching a clock and not rocking the boat, maybe trying to achieve a small amount from time to time but rarely sticking their necks out.

That patience sometimes meant that the Office of Planning would not take on more difficult tasks. You wouldn’t know it from some of the vitriol, but by and large, she worked with many of D.C.’s most affluent and politically powerful neighborhoods to shape changes in a way that would avoid a big fight. When working on the Georgetown campus plan, for instance, the office acceded to many of the requests from neighborhood leaders, sometimes finding a win-win for all, sometimes to reach a suboptimal result like endorsing neighborhood demands to move all undergraduates onto the campus.

The Williams Administration, and former Planning Director Ellen McCarthy, had formulated a plan to make upper Wisconsin Avenue a thriving and walkable commercial corridor like many others around the city instead of a disjointed set of low-slung and dumpy buildings and parking lots. But the blowback from some neighbors was very strong, and many called for removing McCarthy for it.

Tregoning’s Office of Planning mostly left Wisconsin Avenue alone and focused on areas where the city is going to change much more. That may have been politically wise, but it also meant that the need to house more residents fell disproportionately on changing neighborhoods while established ones got to erect barriers to new people coming in. Likewise, she didn’t invest much effort into fixing weaknesses in the city’s historic preservation system, which fulfills many important roles but also sometimes becomes a vehicle for lopping a floor off every building regardless of historic merit.

A one-two punch for smart growth in local government

Tregoning is stepping down around the same time as Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. The two are probably the region’s greatest voices within government for smart growth. Others will have to step up, or regional decisions like plans from the Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board could become a lot less forward-thinking.

The good news, on the other hand, is that both Tregoning and Zimmerman are staying in D.C., not to mention that “the city’s loss is the nation’s gain” in both cases, as they will be able to help other metropolitan areas, as well as perhaps Washington from time to time, at HUD and, in Zimmerman’s case, Smart Growth America (the nonprofit Tregoning’s husband Geoff Anderson runs).

The Gray administration will have big shoes to fill

Quite a few of Mayor Gray’s most meaningful achievements involved Tregoning. Most notably, his ambitious Sustainable DC plan came from a multi-agency process that Tregoning led. Without her, it seems very unlikely the District Department of Transportation would have committed to bold targets, like having 50 percent of trips by transit and 25 percent by walking and biking by 2032.

If Gray does not win the April 1 primary, then anyone he picks will be a caretaker and most likely very few high-level projects will get done at the Office of Planning. (Certainly the numerous good planners at the department will keep doing their jobs on many important smaller initiatives, of course.) If Gray does win the renomination, even though he may face a general election fight, it would be reasonable to be thinking about a permanent replacement if he can attract one.

While Gray has hired some excellent people (mostly after his first year in office) and holds a good vision for the future of D.C., his administration’s record has been lackluster on bringing in dynamic agency heads from outside city government. More often, he promoted deputies, some of whom were ready for the top job while others seemed lost without strong guidance.

On the other hand, the mayor corrected some early hiring mistakes in his own staff quite effectively. Would he ensure that the next planning director maintains D.C.’s momentum instead of simply giving in to the inevitable opposition to every change?

Update: Tregoning will be Director of Sustainable Housing and Communities at HUD. She said the job

deals with a lot of the issues I’ve been really passionate about in Washington: transportation and working clsoely with US DOT; sustainability; urban job creation. I’m getting more and more terrified about what’s happening to middle wage jobs, with the income disparities. … Cities have reflexively squeezed the labor out of transportation and municipal operations for decades without thinking about it, and we have to think about that.We are having a great conversation about that here in DC around green infrastructure and the Green Rivers plan, or looking at some of the things we’ve touched on in Sustainable DC. Retrofit of buildings, urban agriculture, sustainable transportation and waste management are all things that could have huge implications for jobs and are things cities need to be investing in.

It sounds like a great fit for her most recent work in D.C, and her current interests. Best of luck!

David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.



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