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PLANNING--THE HEART OF THE CITY'S FUTURE

In early November, 2000, Washington Post staff writer Debbi Wilgoren interviewed Andrew Altman, Mayor Williams' Director of City Planning. The result is a candid look into the goals of this administration for the future of our nation's capital city. In NARPAC's equally candid view, the picture produced is disturbingly inadequate. There is no longer term focus, no grand design for the nation's capital metro area, no concept of the core city's role in that metro area, no evident sense of the city's socioeconomic needs, and no vision of the role of future metro cores in the further evolution of the world's newest socioeconomic entity--the "metro-state".

At the risk of alienating those in the DC government who share Mr. Altman's limited view, NARPAC reproduces virtually the entire interview and , in italics, pretends to be a second interviewee, though the flow of the questions remains unchanged.

PLANNER SEES CITY ON CUSP OF NEW LOOK
(By Debbi Wilgoren, Washington Post Staff Writer, November 2, 2000)
(NARPAC inserts as second interviewee are purely hypothetical)


Q: More than a year after Mayor Anthony Williams recruited and hired you from Oakland, Calif., to be the District's director of planning, you remain enthusiastic about your job. Why?

Altman: It's such a great time to be here. There are certain moments in a city's history when momentous change occurs that really sets in motion how that city's going to unfold over the next 10 to 20 years. And the forces have to be aligned, the stars have to be aligned for that to occur. And that's what's happened, in my view, in the city.

You have to have the political star, the economic star, the community star. If you don't have those things together, the city won't succeed. If you have those together, there's an energy that you can channel.

NARPAC: DC residents have elected a progressive government and clearly want to stop the decline of the core city of this unique metro area. It is, after all, the home of the capital of the United States, the world's most envied country, and the long-running national economic boom provides both the resources and the incentives to invest in the future.

Q: How has the booming economy affected your planning for the District?

Altman: With the economy doing well, you're seeing a lot of development that's occurring. You really have the moment now to say what kind of development should occur, how it should occur. How can we transform different areas? What does the city need to grow? How do we look at our neighborhoods and the character of those neighborhoods?

Finally, the city's population has stopped hemorrhaging. That's huge. Now it's actually starting to turn around. And you have thousands of units of housing right now that are either in process or [seeking permits.] That's big. People are coming back to the city. People want to stay in the city.

You have, just downtown, something like $3 billion worth of projects going on. You know, you walk around downtown, there are cranes everywhere. There's 2,000 [housing] units going east of the river.

We have people coming back to the city, large retailers and developers, who before would literally develop everywhere around the city, the perimeter of the city, but not in the city; who, when you go to the shopping center conference, say: "I want to be in this market. It's an attractive market for us."

You have all of this to build on, so it's just a fantastic opportunity.

NARPAC: Both commercial and individual investors recognize the desirability of being near the center of American--and world--power and influence. Virtually all the city has to do is stop frightening businesses away with its outdated government regulations, and frightening people away with its degraded quality of life. That fear has already been largely reduced. The tougher part is to decide what, if any, kinds of business to attract, and what, if any, types of residents to attract.

Q: What are your specific priorities?

Altman: You have areas of the city that right now we can really put in motion what I think would be dramatic changes. The mayor asked me what my priorities were. I talked about the waterfront. I talked about rebuilding neighborhood centers and rebuilding our neighborhoods. I talked about the continued revitalization of downtown, but of a residential and mixed-use downtown. And I talked about our corridors leading into the city--you know, Georgia Avenue, New York Avenue.

NARPAC: We see three distinct and equally important thrusts, with priorities based on political/economic realities. First, we must make evident our intentions to significantly improve the quality of neighborhood life for the residents--the voters. Second, we need to improve the environment for private and public investments to do business in the city--the greatest source of city revenues. Third, and equally important, we must develop a meaningful, lasting, long-range plan for the further socioeconomic development of this unique core city of this unique American metro area. We have a lot of catching up to do relative to our sprawling suburbs.

Q: You say you are passionate about the waterfront. Why?

Altman: We are a waterfront city, but you would not know it. Here you have the Anacostia waterfront that has been cut off from the city. It has been cut off because of urban renewal. It has been cut off because of freeways. And you have neighborhoods there, some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, that are literally cut off from their waterfront.

So it's not only an economic development issue, it's an equity issue. It's an environmental issue, and it's about reclaiming, I think, civic identity as cities around the country look to their waterfronts to bring that back.

Look at the Navy Yard, what's occurring at the Navy Yard. We have a tremendous boom up at the Navy Yard right now. We have 5,000 jobs coming in and consolidating operations at the Navy Yard. That's spurring a million square feet of development around there.

And the question you have to ask is, what is this waterfront going to become? And how is it going to benefit our neighborhood? How do we have residential at our waterfront? How do we have great open space at our waterfront? How do people have access to that?

You can live on the other side of M Street [SE], and you cannot get to the waterfront, where it's blocked from you or it's foreboding.

Look at our marina, the Southwest marina. I mean, you're seven blocks from the Mall, from the National Mall, where you have 23 million tourists. How many people are going down there? I mean, you do have some people going down. I'm not saying it's not used. But is it a great waterfront? A spectacular waterfront of the nation's capital?

The answer's no. Could it be? Yeah. Could you do that? I think you could.

That is the kind of thing, when I talked about moments in a city's history, where you can set in motion something like that and pull the factors together, pull together the federal government, pull together the community, pull together the private sector and say let's redo Washington's waterfront. I think the time is right for that.

NARPAC: In the shorter run, the banks of the Anacostia offer important opportunities for upgrading run-down, environmentally polluted areas; major commercial growth; and enhancing the attractiveness of the city for its residents, visitors, and daytime workers.

To the extent that the SW/SE Freeway--and the railroad tracks that parallel it for a distance-- somehow inhibit access to the northern riverbank, there are ay number of relatively simple mechanisms to make that "barrier" more permeable to people as well as vehicles. There are also useful, productive structures that can be built adjacent to these rights of way to reduce the eyesore and increase the linkage.

In the longer run, however, the Anacostia must be recognized as a river, not an ocean, and that almost one-third of the city's potentially productive area lies on the other side. Our longer range objectives must be to make the entire area 'East of the River' a full, dues paying, benefits- receiving part of our city as well as the gateway to the entire relatively undeveloped Southeast Quadrant of this metro area. The river need present no more of a barrier to crossings than the freeway and railroad mentioned above.


Q: How will you decide what to do first?

Altman: In the Office of Planning, we now will have neighborhood planners, one planner per ward. Their job will be to work with the communities, to come up each year with strategic plans for the neighborhoods. And these are going to be very different from past plans. There has been a lot of planning and a lot of planning fatigue in the city and a lot of frustration that people didn't see plans implemented.

So what we want to do is take a different approach to planning, a more strategic approach that says, "We can't do everything, so let's not even go out and try to do wish-list planning or needs-based planning."

We want to say let's come together, what are the three or four things in the neighborhood that are most important that we can collectively--city, community, private sector--work on, that are really fundamental to moving the city forward and moving your neighborhood forward?

NARPAC: All three thrusts must go forward in parallel--fixing up our neighborhoods where our resident tax-payers live; attracting new businesses which bring revenues and potential new residents; and laying out the long-range infrastructure over which major new developments can take place--mainly, but not exclusively East of the River. Major cities, and the nation's capital in particular, must be a lot more than the sum of its individual neighborhoods. DC prides itself on having over 100 local communities with some kind of individual character. But the major foci of interest in the city will be larger than any one or two neighborhoods, and may well require some compromises on the part of those neighborhoods.

Q: What was the condition of the Planning Office when you arrived?

Altman: When they brought me in, the Office of Planning had been decimated. It was down to maybe 10 professional planners. Other cities that are roughly the same size have 50 to 60 planners, and that's just to do the basic planning work. In Oakland, I had 45 to 50 planners. It was a small city, of 400,000.

For the nation's capital, it makes it absurd to have such a small office. It means you've ceded planning to the federal government. Or you're just not doing planning, which was the case.

The expectation was really high because people wanted planning out in the community for a long time. I think it had to hit rock bottom, and it had hit rock bottom to the point where people said, "This is just insufferable." As the economy's doing well, planning issues also move to the fore. Planning suddenly becomes very critical, and people felt they didn't have that.

So the first thing was you need people. You need human capital. The second was you need to define what is the role of planning. You have to give it stature. You have to say that you want the professional advice of a planning office with respect to development issues.

One of the reasons I'm so optimistic, and I can say this sincerely, is that I've had enormous support from the mayor and the council and the community for a strong planning office.

I've been able to hire so far close to 20-some professional planners, getting the best planners from both locally and around the country to come to Washington because they're encouraged, the way I was. They see the same prospects.

NARPAC: DC has a Department of Housing and Community Development to take care of the little items of immediate interest to neighborhoods, though it was certainly in poor shape when the current administration came into power. But the Director of City Planning must balance the needs and desires of the communities with those of the city as a whole. Communities do not plan highways, public transportation systems, major parking facilities, and accommodate the needs of the city's tourists, visitors, and the very large number of commuters. It's not that the city lacked plans--albeit stale ones--but that little attention was paid to those plans as the city grew.

Furthermore, the planning office must take into account the obvious needs to increase the city's revenue base compared to the demands for its services. It is by no means clear that the primary objective for the city is to attract more residents, especially if those households consume more in costly city services (schools, health, safety, etc.) than they provide in revenues to pay for them. As Control Board Chair Rivlin has recently pointed out, there are other scenarios for the city's future. We need a senior staff with a clear vision of how the national capital core city should evolve within its metro area to symbolize the still-unfolding American way of life. We need to evolve a staff that realizes it is obliged to reflect the aspirations of all Americans and those beyond who aspire to its way of life,`not just to pander to the quirks and negativism of local demagogic activists.


Q: What are some of the critical decisions you see coming up for the District?

Altman: Mount Vernon Square. Downtown. I believe strongly that should be a residential neighborhood. That's where you set a direction, and you give the market a signal. And you're doing that in light of what the city needs to accomplish. You're not doing it in a vacuum.

We need more residents. That's fundamental to our fiscal and economic health and vitality as a city. But in this city in particular, it has a huge fiscal impact, whereas office workers and employees don't have that same economic impact.

The city can't tax. The commuter tax issue. So we don't recover the revenue the way a state does, up to 8 percent of wages in some form. So that's critical. So the residents bring a lot to us.

You want to get more housing to the city; you want to get more people to the city. You want to figure out where you're going to target your investment, in which neighborhoods. And that's something that's very important.

NARPAC: DC has three very major challenges that must be addressed by the city as a whole, or in conjunction with the rest of the metro area. First, the city has an unusual amount of land which belongs either to the federal government, the city government, non-profit institutions, or foreign dignitaries. Long-range planning for the city must address alternate and more revenue-productive uses for many of these larger tracts. For instance, the Old Soldiers' Home, St. Elizabeth's mental hospital, and Bolling Air Force Base are all under-utilized anachronisms whose future must be challenged.

Second, the city has collected a remarkable share of the metro area's poor and needy. With less than 15% of the metro area's taxpayers, we harbor well over 50% of the area's welfare recipients. We have only 2.3 taxpaying households per welfare recipient; the suburbs average more than 12. The city will never become financially competitive with its suburbs until means are found to level the metro area playing field by sharing its responsibilities to those in poverty.

Third, the city's basic transportation infrastructure is only partially planned, much less fleshed out. The metro area has yet to plan any major expansions of its services beyond the initial plan some 25 years ago. Whole sectors of the core city--and its suburbs--are still without a sound transportation plan for the next 25 years. It is a major problem.


Q: How can you rebuild some neighborhood centers and bring investment in?

Altman: Look at Georgia Avenue. What you want to do is sort of break it down, build sort of a block-by-block approach. Okay, we're not going to try to do everything on Georgia Avenue, we're going to do three or four blocks. We're going to concentrate our efforts, we're going to say we're going to do some housing, some commercial development, really make an impact.

We're going to take three or four blocks of H Street [NE] and do that. We're going to take three or four blocks of another area of [downtown] Anacostia.

These neighborhood centers are important to the vitality of a community. Let's target those efforts strategically, with the community and with the private sector, and say, okay, we're going to do these four things and put a lot of energy into that instead of dissipating our effort and trying to do everything and do nothing well in the end.

NARPAC: The city's residents have a long way to go before they accept "gentrification" as the key to urban growth rather than some sort of sinister plot against the disadvantaged. Blighted areas, as they are euphemistically called, (as well as the city's thousands of individual blighted properties and "brownfield" sites) must be eliminated by a major program clearly designed to benefit both the larger socioeconomic interests of the city, and the very personal interests of those trapped in blight. Mechanisms must be developed so that those displaced will benefit directly from the improved economic productivity of their former homes--even if, as is mostly the case, they were only government-subsidized tenants.

Some special conditions will also have to be accepted in the immediate (4-6 block) vicinity of metro stations. The suburbs have come to recognize that these stations are the best drivers of high-density economic growth--just look at how they have grown. Many DC residents still resist having them (like Georgetown), and others want them to remain convenient but almost invisible bus stops. These attitudes defeat the purpose and benefit of public transportation.


Q: What will your approach be in more affluent neighborhoods?

Altman: Different neighborhoods are going to have different conditions. And there has to be a balance. The affluent, stable neighborhoods may have to accept more housing than they currently want, and you see the development battles in Northwest, for example.

If you're looking at the city and saying where should density go, if we want to have more people in the city, where do you accommodate some of that density? You look at our transit stops, transit-oriented development. Those are natural places. Some of those can be in Northwest. There has to be a fair share.

NARPAC: In the main, the more affluent neighborhoods will take care of themselves. Something on the order of 20% of the city's households pay more in taxes than they receive in city services. Nevertheless, they remain the most desirable places to live, and will inevitably have to either shift to higher density or pay higher property taxes to keep low-density living. One of the true mysteries in DC is why total property tax revenues have continued to decline in the city despite the economic boom, while total individual income taxes have continued to rise, despite the net outflow of many DC residents. In any event, the most upscale parts of town are the ones undergoing the greatest continued "gentrification" at this time, while the poorest parts of town seem most anxious to avoid it.

Q: What are the challenges you face?

Altman: There are huge challenges. Don't get me wrong. A lot is dependent on the continued strength of the economy. You have to have the continued support of the leadership coming together. The mayor, council, community continuing to work together.

The relationship with the federal government is key, what happens with the next administration. And continuing to have a strong relationship with the federal government is essential. And the relationship with Congress is essential, in all kinds of ways.

You have to stay on course. There's so many competing demands, all the time now, that one of the ways that you don't succeed is if you try to do everything.

NARPAC: Although many of this core city's problems are similar to those of other large American metro areas, it is in several ways unique. It is, after all, the seat of government of the USA--a primary tenant, if you will, that is not going to become obsolete like heavy industries did in many other US cities. On the flip side, of course, the federal government can be overwhelming--although this is not really the case here now. The federal government agencies have been particularly useful in helping the city revitalize over the past five years.

But the city's future directions--a major responsibility of the Planning Office--has to be a carefully balanced evolution between a) the federal government; b) the many ancillary organizations that come with it (from foreign governments and non-profit businesses, to hordes of tourists and lobbyists with little obligation to the city); c) commercial businesses that produce revenues for the city; d) private citizens and residents that give the city its character; and e) the exuberant, prosperous suburbs that fence us in. Each is dependent on the other for its future success, but there are virtually no organizations in which these often-conflicting stake-holders meet as equals to guide their interrelated futures.

The greatest challenge is to take advantage of the current remarkable economic boom to benefit all of the justified stake-holders in the nations's capital city, and to craft a highly visible national asset in which all Americans can take significant pride. This will surely not be accomplished overnight.


Q: Where will we see tangible results in the next three to five years?

Altman: The vision right now we're shooting for is to see a lot more housing in the city. We'd love to shoot for, I don't know, 50,000 or 100,000 people. I don't know about the next five years, but you want to set a goal that you're really aggressively shooting to get that many more people in the city. It's going to take a very concerted effort to even get close to that.

I would like to see moves made so that the waterfront starts to redevelop, so you start to see points along the waterfront where we're reconnecting it to the city--in other words, like a river walk.

We've been shooting very hard to bring grocery stores and services east of the river, just basic services that the community should have, and in five years we should see those services coming back to the neighborhoods. And bringing those back, that would be a great achievement.

I think you want to see a downtown that continues to evolve, to get more people living downtown so that downtown becomes a destination for Washingtonians, not just for tourists.

That you'll see more housing downtown. There's 800 units underway. I'd love to see those all completed. That they're not just projects getting permits but actually are breaking ground, actually are built.

I'd love to see the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood starting to unfold as a major residential center because it really is a rare opportunity that between your downtown and the Shaw neighborhood, right where the new convention center is, that, boom, you've got all this vacant land, that the city owns 30 percent of.

Let's spur that development in the right way. Where do you get a chance to build a whole new in-town, downtown residential neighborhood? So that is a great opportunity.

NARPAC: Tangible results of DC's socioeconomic turnaround will be obvious virtually all over this city within the next 3 to 5 years. The value of DC's housing stock will be much higher from the richest to the poorest neighborhoods. More DC residents will own their homes, and very few will still be relegated to urban slums. Thee will be many fewer boarded-up derelict houses and apartment buildings. New businesses are arriving already, DC unemployment is at its all-time low. More tourists visit their nation's capital and stay in new DC hotel rooms. More skilled suburban workers commute to jobs in the city.

The roads are being improved. Some of DC's most heavily traveled "gateways" are being spruced up. "Brownfield" eyesores will be well along in remediation. A new world-class convention center will be open for business. Thousands of new jobs will have been created. The police have more modern equipment and better training, and crime is down. DC's school buildings have been modernized, and some improvements in student performance is anticipated. Health statistics are continuing to improve. Government workers will be more productive and prouder of their own performance.

Near-term improvements will be obvious to the most casual observer. It remains to be seen, however, whether there will be in place a really outstanding plan to make DC the finest of all American cities.


Q: What about Mayor Williams's plan to make D.C. a center of high-tech commerce?

Altman: We're trying to do it north of Massachusetts Avenue, with the new Metro stop, and you'd like to see that unfold as a technology district and also bring technology jobs down to the waterfront and to other areas of the city. With the economy around us booming, part of what we want to do is to see that we can attract from the regional economy and diversify and bring that in. That helps the whole city, too.

NARPAC: Attracting new kinds of businesses to DC is essential. Whether high-tech commerce is the best approach remains to be seen. Another approach would be to focus on emerging businesses that also depend on proximity to the federal government. At one time, NARPAC advocated that DC become the "information capital of the world" since many of the sources of such basic information are already here.

Q: Any other goals you want to mention?

Altman: This is something that in some ways is beyond the city, is difficult for a city to do, but we still have enormous concentration of poverty in the District. So at the end of the day, even with the development boom, if you still have a city that has severe distress, severe, highly concentrated poverty, you really haven't been successful as a city. And you have to measure it by that.

So, what is it that you can do? The efforts from schools is critical to the whole city, the education connection, both for attracting residents but also for addressing issues of poverty. We want to continue to see how to make the job connections between the economy that's growing and our residents.

You want to not have huge concentrations of distressed poverty. So you want to have more mixed-income neighborhoods, without having, you know, we don't want to displace people. Right?

Everyone should have a place here in Washington. But at the same time, you also don't want to have the vast concentrations of poverty. And there's a whole set of sort of social and other initiatives that you want to take. And you might also want to talk to Carolyn Graham [deputy mayor for children, youth and families] and others about what they're trying to do with regard to that.

NARPAC: Neither the city's residents, its local government, nor its Congressional overseers have faced up to the need for DC to take on its special role as the nation's one and only capital city. It has an obligation to try to be better than just average or mediocre. It has to accept the need to excel in all aspects of American urban life. The city does not belong solely to its residents, its federal government officials, its lobbyists, its minorities, or its vociferous activists. It belongs in some measure to all Americans and needs to be sensitive to what will make them proud of their country. Our planning efforts must grow to accept that challenge.


This item was archived in July, 2002

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