Harriet Tregoning, planning director for the District, changes her outfit before posing for a portrait on the bike lanes in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue in August last year. Tregoning is leaving her job to work for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

It used to be that local planning director was a pretty anonymous if not mundane job.

The requirements included producing plans, studies and recommendations, which were then forwarded on to the planning commission. Zoning ordinances were considered; permit applications were reviewed. Even the most comprehensive research papers were often left on the shelf. The planning director was considered a paper pusher, and if the average citizen didn’t know his or her name, it was no surprise.

Not in the era of Harriet Tregoning.

Tregoning, who announced Tuesday that she would end her seven-year stint as D.C. planning director, rose through the ranks at a time when planners sometimes became rock stars of local government, often as controversial as they were appreciated. Their influence could create new wealth out of neglected neighborhoods, and provide a spark of new development.

“This is a real time of cities again, with a larger share of the market choosing to live in cities and work in cities and be active in cities,” said Paul Farmer, chief executive of the American Planning Association. “I think it’s sort of natural that planning directors are playing a more visible role that I don’t think happened 20 or 25 years ago.”

Tregoning used her post as a platform to shape most everything about how the city grew and evolved. A small part of her job as she envisioned it was the buildings that were approved and constructed. Instead, Tregoning’s Office of Planning enjoyed broad influence over how the District managed transportation, parking, energy usage, economic strategy and historic preservation.

She worked at the federal government before diving into local issues. At the Environmental Protection Agency, Tregoning launched the Smart Growth Network, a way for local and national government agencies to share strategies for managing growth.

In 2000, when Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) appointed her as his planning director, Tregoning had the chance to put all that she had collected into action.

He increased her heft by elevating the Maryland office of planning to a state agency that would implement his signature “smart growth” initiative to stop suburban sprawl.

Glendening made Tregoning the state’s first “special secretary for smart growth,” a Cabinet-
level post, saying that “the pace of sprawl across the country is a disaster. It’s a disaster to the environment. It’s a disaster to the quality of life.” With Tregoning on board, the era of rubber stamps for new developments on green fields in the state had ended. Smart growth had come to Maryland.

So when Adrian M. Fenty, fresh off a crushing victory to become the next mayor of the District in 2006, picked Tregoning to be his planning director, no one should have expected a shrinking violet. The District had already had a planner who was viewed as a government star (in Andrew Altman, who worked under Anthony A. Williams), but Tregoning quickly expanded her reach.

Her visions, often forged in partnership with Gabe Klein, then the transportation director, became the obsession of a growing number of urban bloggers, armchair planners and social media mavens interested in shaping how the city would evolve. Tregoning was profiled in Washington City Paper and Washingtonian magazine. When she resigned, David Alpert, the influential blogger at Greater Greater Washington, wrote that Tregoning had served as the city’s “futurist-in-chief.”

Gwen Wright, planning director for Montgomery County, called Tregoning “one of our most creative and forward-thinking public servants.”

“I’ve lived in the District of Columbia since 1987, and I would say that the changes in the last few years, while Harriet has been planning director, have been nothing short of miraculous,” Wright said. “There are parts of the city that have been utterly transformed.”

In various ways, Tregoning has tried to make it easier for D.C. residents to take public transit, bike or walk and, sometimes, harder to drive and park. Not all of the ideas were approved, and the efforts were among her most controversial, prompting angry letters and tense public meetings from residents who tired of not being able to find parking spaces and were angry that Tregoning was proposing ways to make them even more sparse.

But Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the advocacy group Coalition for Smarter Growth, said Tregoning has “made D.C. the envy of cities around the country” and was an influential figure regionwide through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

“She played a really important role in strengthening [COG] as a regional planning body,” he said.

In a new post at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Tregoning will oversee the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, where she plans to continue her fight — this time in cities all over the country.

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