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Influential D.C. Planning Director Heads To Obama Administration

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Harriet Tregoning led the D.C. Office of Planning under Mayor Adrian Fenty and remained there under Mayor Vincent Gray.
Harriet Tregoning led the D.C. Office of Planning under Mayor Adrian Fenty and remained there under Mayor Vincent Gray.

Tomorrow marks the last day on the job for one of D.C.'s most influential public officials, who is leaving her District office to take a job in the Obama administration.

In her eight years heading the Office of Planning, Harriet Tregoning says she has tried to make the city's neighborhoods more livable by making them friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists, places where residents don't have to own a car to run their daily errands.

"Our household level of transportation expense in the District of Columbia is only about 11 percent of household income. In the region that number is 19 percent. So if you are outside the District of Columbia, you are paying almost 70 percent more for transportation than you do if you get to live inside the District," she says.

Tregoning will leave office before the results of one of her most controversial projects will be realized — a rewrite of the city's complex zoning code. The D.C. Zoning Office is in the midst of reviewing the rewrite, including one part that would reduce or eliminate the minimum number of parking spaces developers would be required to build with office, apartment or residential buildings in downtown D.C. and near Metro stations.

"We are not taking away any existing parking so if you park and drive now you will be able to park and drive, but what we are trying to do is figure out what s the built environment that is going to make sense moving forward as the city continues to change and evolve, and as our transportation choices continue to flourish," she explains.

Car lobby AAA Mid-Atlantic has said Tregoning is waging a war on cars, and some neighborhood groups have fought her proposals. She says reducing car dependency is actually good for everyone, including drivers who will have to contend with fewer cars in their way.

"I don't think people are necessarily aware of what it costs the city or what it costs the taxpayers to maintain that space, or what that space might be able to be used for on certain streets. It could be an express transit lane, for example," she says.

In the Obama administration Tregoning will work on similar issues as the director of the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

More highlights of Harriet Tregoning’s interview with WAMU 88.5 News:

On the positive changes in D.C.
“I think the biggest change is the reversal in our population, meaning for five decades or more consistently losing population year on year. We’re now growing at about two percent a year in terms of population. To keep that in perspective for the entire decade between 2000 and 2010, our population growth was 5.2%. We’ve already eclipsed the past decade of growth in percentage terms and it’s been about 1,100 people per month. When I first moved to Washington in 1989, there were just a few neighborhoods that people would talk about in terms of having a great quality of life. I think now we have dozens and dozens and dozens of neighborhoods that are absolutely fabulous to live in, and that is for long-time residents as well as people who might be moving in.”

On the challenges of planning in the District
“I certainly think height limits downtown have caused the spread of commercial office development and what we now think of as good practice, associated residential development, to places like NoMa and the Capital Riverfront and the Southwest Waterfront and other places. One of our biggest challenges as a city that is popular and in many ways is limited in terms of development – and difficult to develop in many ways – is the more demand we have for housing, the more we struggle to produce the supply. One of our constraints is clearly height. Some of the places in the city where additional development could be accommodated with the least impact on existing neighborhoods and the character of a particular place might be downtown. So I think that not today but at some point in the future those constraints are really going to begin to bite, and that is going to be a struggle for the city going forward.”

On the recent battle over the Federal Height Act
“It wasn’t so much whether the heights of building should actually change, it was about whether the Federal Height Act should change, which comes down to who gets to decide what the height of buildings will be in the District, and what is the federal interest. I think that was a rare opportunity for our city to have more democracy, to have more self-determination and I think it is totally legitimate and very likely that the consensus of our citizens and elected leaders in the city might be not to raise the heights. But it is a very different matter when we make that decision as opposed to never being allowed to consider it by the federal government.”

On why D.C. should rewrite parking rules for developers
“We have a current one size fits all requirement. We require minimum parking everywhere basically, and we basically tell people that whatever the level of car ownership is in your neighborhood, whatever the demand might be, it is the same rule: you have to provide a minimum level of parking even if no one will ever use it. When you have an [asset] that is essentially free, people tend to overuse it. I don’t think people are necessarily aware of what it costs the city or what it costs the taxpayers to maintain that space, or what that space might be able to be used for on certain streets. It could be an express transit lane, for example.”

On whether Metro can handle demand with more car-free residents moving to D.C.
“Metro has a lot of capacity off-peak. We can talk about the prime commute times, but off-peak Metro has a lot of capacity and one of the great things about some of the technological advances – including knowing when the train and bus is coming – is that it is a lot easier to use Metro for the many trips that households take that are not in the peak travel period, for shopping, recreation and to visit friends.”

On the benefits of making neighborhoods more bike- and pedestrian-friendly
“Our household level of transportation expense in the District of Columbia is only about 11 percent of household income. In the region that number is 19 percent. So if you are outside the District of Columbia, you are paying almost 70 percent more for transportation than you do if you get to live inside the District. We have better health outcomes at every income level in the District of Columbia than we do for the nation as a whole. We have a more pleasant, walkable convenient set of neighborhoods.”

Tregoning will appear on The Kojo Nnamdi Show today at noon.

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