The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden removes Trump appointees from boards that shape the District

The National Native American Veterans Memorial on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is one of many local projects that required approval from federal design and planning boards. (Designed by Harvey Pratt (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes)/Matailong Du)

The Biden administration has removed key Trump appointees from several federal agencies that oversee the look and feel of D.C. neighborhoods and buildings — and city officials are pushing for more.

Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio sent an unusual letter to Biden’s personnel director last week, asking for a review of Trump’s last-minute appointments to the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Because these two boards are responsible for approving development in the city, the new members could impede Washington’s progress toward racial and economic equity, climate change and affordable housing, Falcicchio wrote in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

The White House took action Feb. 3, when it notified the NCPC that Paul Dans, a member of the Trump administration who had been appointed chairman of the commission on Jan. 5, and Gibson Worsham, an architect and historic preservation expert who had been appointed Dec. 30, “are no longer members of the commission,” according to NCPC spokesman Stephen Staudigl.

Biden also asked Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) Chairwoman Aimee Jorjani to resign her post, which she did on Friday.

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The three agencies influence Washington’s development in many ways. The ACHP is an independent federal agency that promotes historic preservation. Its 24-member board includes eight presidential appointees. The 12-member NCPC consists of three presidential appointees, two mayoral appointees and representatives from the federal and city government. It is the federal government’s central planning agency for the region. The seven-member CFA has a design focus and plays a critical role guiding and refining government buildings. Each group offers advice and approval on projects from renovations of historic Georgetown homes to the look and scale of new museums and memorials.

There have so far been no resignations or removals at the CFA, where four members joined the design oversight board a month after Trump signed a controversial executive order that mandates classical architecture for federal buildings, raising concern for city officials.

“With these appointments, the CFA now consists entirely of white, male Trump appointees supportive of the former administration’s ill-conceived Executive Order, ‘Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,’ which seeks to make our Nation’s Capital a mausoleum of neoclassical architecture,” Falcicchio wrote to Catherine Russell, director of the Presidential Personnel Office.

“For the sake of Washington, D.C.’s residents and visitors, the NCPC and CFA need members committed to meeting the myriad challenges and opportunities of today,” Falcicchio wrote. “The buildings and landscapes of Washington, D.C. must address the urgent needs for sustainability, resilience, and housing. They must also embrace our diversity and advance equity as a remedy to the legacy of discrimination that shapes our surroundings to this day.”

A White House spokesperson confirmed that the review of appointments continues.

“The Biden administration is conducting a thorough review of several councils, commissions, and advisory boards. As a part of that review, we may remove individuals whose continued membership on the board would not serve the public interest,” a spokesperson told The Post in an email Tuesday.

“We applaud the Biden administration for their decisive action, and we call on the Congress and the Administration to advance DC Statehood so that DC residents can manifest their own destiny,” said Shayne Wells, director of communications for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development.

Kirby Vining, chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, an organization promoting responsible development in the District, said his group closely monitors these boards and he doesn’t think a few personnel changes will have much effect. The NCPC operates like a planning board and has real authority, he said, while the CFA and ACHP are advisory.

“The NCPC has the authority to kill (a project), but the other two can be ignored and routinely are,” Vining said. The members of CFA can “get on their soapbox. They might have an opportunity to voice their opinions, but how much will it actually affect the decision?”

Falcicchio’s request, he said, is an opportunity for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser to push the Biden administration on diversity and equity issues that are priorities for her. “There’s probably an appetite for that in the Biden administration. There wasn’t a lot in the previous administration,” he said.

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The presidential appointees to the NCPC serve at the pleasure of the president, NCPC’s Staudigl said. President Bill Clinton elevated one of his appointees, Richard Friedman, to chairman at the end of his administration, but during the transition, President-elect George W. Bush removed Friedman as head of the panel and reassigned the position to one of his appointees. Friedman remained on the board.

It is unclear whether the Biden administration has sought the resignations of the CFA panel, including new members Perry Guillot, a landscape architect from New York who recently completed the redesign of the White House Rose Garden; Chas Fagan, an artist who made the sculpture of President Reagan in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol; New York-based architect Steven Spandle, who designed the new White House tennis pavilion; and Rodney Mims Cook Jr., president of the National Monuments Foundation and a founding board member of the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art. Guillot and Fagan did not return messages, and Spandle had no comment.

Justin Shubow was appointed to the board in October 2018 and elected chairman last month; he is president of the National Civic Art Society, a D.C.-based group that gained notoriety for its objection to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial design. The other two members, appointed in December 2019, are James McCrery II, an assistant professor at Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning, and Duncan G. Stroik, an architect and professor at Notre Dame. They did not return messages.

Past CFA members include such architecture heavyweights as John Belle, David M. Childs, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and N. Michael McKinnell. CFA appointments are four-year terms. Secretary Thomas Luebke could not recall an instance when a member has been replaced before the completion of the term, unless they resigned.

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