February 1, 2003 - From the February, 2003 issue

Andrew Altman Activates Washington D.C.'s Planning Dept.

Prior to the election of Anthony Williams as Mayor of Washington, D.C., the district's planning office was powerless and had dwindled to a staff of ten people. Three years later, the planning department has a staff of 70 people and a seat at the table, influencing not only the neighborhood planning, but also the implementation of the plans through construction. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Andrew Altman, head of Washington, D.C.'s Planning Department, in which he outlines the keys to having a strong planning unit and the lessons learned for emulating his department's success in other cities.

In just three years, the office of planning in Washington, D.C. has evolved into a much heralded agency with a strong voice in land-use and city redevelopment decision-making. Having once worked for the LA CRA, and now with your experience in D.C., share with us how this came to be; how planning found a seat at the table in City Hall.

Well, the first and most fundamental lesson is that it is essential to have the support of the elected leadership. Without that, I would not be able to do anything that I'm doing.

In Washington, the planning function had been eviscerated. There were fewer than 10 professional planners in the office when I took over. The previous mayor didn't value planning very much-planning was not the driving force in development decisions in the city. When Anthony Williams was running for mayor, he heard from community residents across the city and from the developers, who wanted certainty in the market and a sense of direction for the city, that D.C. needed to rebuild the planning function.

When I came on board, the mandate was to go and find a professional planning director, elevate the office of planning in terms of its stature within government, staff it, and then give planning a seat at the table on all the major decisions. And that's what the mayor has done. That's why I stay here.

Washington has a strong mayor form of government, and so the mayor has great power and great latitude with respect to planning. He is technically, by statute, the chief planner of the city. But, it's in the exercise of that power where planning can either be very weak or can be very influential, and he chose to make it influential. So, we went from a department of 10 people to 70 people. We have been provided the budget to go out and hire the best planners that I could find. We have also found support when I needed money to do major planning studies, like the waterfront or our downtown. The mayor also gave planning a role in implementation, including the drafting of requests for proposal for major projects and sitting in on the evaluation panels. All of that is needed to make planning effective.

We also completed a major neighborhood planning effort across the city and the mayor actually linked planning to the budget, a rare thing that mayors almost never do. That gave a lot of support to do neighborhood plans, but electeds rarely take their own budget for the city and the priorities identified in the neighborhood plans and link them to the city's budget as a capital improvement program.

Why don't other cities, Mayors embrace planning as a tool for development?

Well, this mayor has been very willing, for example, to delegate to the planning office the complex issues of zoning and major land use decisions. He is informed of them, but he really doesn't encourage the culture where everything is brought to the mayor's office and negotiated. That's fundamentally different than how it was done in the past-and not all mayors want to do that. Many mayors want to be involved in the details. However, this Mayor likes that there's a professionalized planning office that makes those decisions so he doesn't have to get in the middle of every single dispute.

This mayor's philosophy has been to make the government more professional and not to have it be as politicized. After all, he took it out of Congressional control-the District was under receivership. He was elected on a good government platform and he was the district's chief financial officer. So he has a philosophy of public management very much based on respect for the professional capacity of governing.

The Planning Report recorded an interview last month with George Lefcoe, a former chair of both the city and county planning commissions of Los Angeles. In that interview, he suggested that the only true planning that had been done in L.A. was done by the redevelopment agency. What do you see as the proper relationship between the city planning department and the redevelopment agency?

Planning should plan and redevelopment agencies should implement. We've been very clear about that in Washington-the planning office is the chief planning agency of the city and the redevelopment role is to implement plans. Clearly, you have to have a collaborative relationship. In order to create any good plan, you have to have the implementers at the table. And, any good implementation agency should have the planners at the table. But it must be clear what the roles are. What makes planning work here is that the definition of the planning function has been very clear from the mayor.

Here in D.C., we are just starting up our redevelopment agency. So I was very fortunate, in a sense, in that we were able to come in and have the office of planning take a strong lead.

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In the interview with George Lefcoe, he also asserted that, "Various cities don't plan any more. They deploy the apparatus of planning, including the charade of general planning, primarily to mediate disputes between the developers and resident voters." Is there any planning really going on in our metropolises these days?

I can speak for Washington and say that there certainly is planning going on. Otherwise, I'd be bored and wasting my time. We're doing an enormous amount of planning here. One of the things that attracted me to Washington was that the mayor was willing to do big plans again-to do bold planning. We're doing a waterfront plan for seven miles of waterfront and 2,800 acres. We're doing a downtown plan and transit-oriented plans. Washington has returned to doing planning again.

In fact, I think you're seeing other examples of planning re-emerging in cities, at least on the East Coast, after a long hiatus. Look at what's going on in New York with the different schemes planned for the area around the World Trade Center and Ground Zero. Nonetheless, there's a larger planning discussion that Mayor Bloomberg is leading around lower Manhattan. He released a vision for lower Manhattan before those seven schemes were submitted. That was pretty bold. I've found a lot of hunger for big ideas again, such as "what is the vision for the city?" and "where are we headed?" There's been a lot of interest in that.

Andy, even Los Angeles has become gentrified and has scarce land and resources like the East Coast. The idea of joint-use has emerged, at least conceptually, as a valuable goal to seek and strategy to pursue. We've passed a number of school bonds and park bonds, library bonds and health care measures, but we have found it very difficult to leverage those into mixed-use projects. What's been, from your experience, in D.C. useful for us to be aware of here?

Well, we haven't had the same pressure on school building because, for the last 10 years, we have been losing population and we're only now gaining population. However, we've had a couple of successful samples, particularly in areas of the city where there's a market, where we've been able to leverage a school site to build apartments and build a new school. There's a school here called the Oyster School which is in some very desirable neighborhoods. The school was decrepit, there were no resources in the school district to do it, and we were able to do a joint use project, leveraging the land to rebuild the school and to provide housing. We're also doing it with some of the older schools that we have. We are looking at a new technology campus to use some of the land for office development for private sector firms that will be linked to the technology school.

We're also converting some of the older schools to housing. That's not a joint use, that's just schools that have been decommissioned and they're great resources for housing. The city has also been very successful in getting Hope VI grants from the federal government to demolish public housing and rebuild mixed income communities, and as part of that we're actually building new schools as part of the development of the new neighborhood. Those schools become a real anchor to attract and retain families, so we've been able to leverage those dollars from the federal government for Hope VI into opportunities for new schools as well as use the school in a multifunctional sense, being open 18 hours and having community services there, so it becomes a real community center as well.

Now, what are the extra difficulties of working with multiple jurisdictions and bureaucracies towards one common planning goal? Does the Mayor have oversight of the schools as well?

No, we don't have oversight of the schools, so the unique challenge of Washington is that 40 percent of our land is under federal ownership, and an additional 10 plus per cent of our land is under institutional ownership: universities or non-profits. So it's a real challenge in this city when you talk about doing planning because you have the federal government which has its own planning body for the region, its own planning commission-the National Capital Planning Commission. The mayor does not have jurisdiction over the schools, and obviously we are in a region where we have two states and the District, and the District doesn't have voting rights. So, when you come to the big decisions about infrastructure and investment and what shapes the region, we don't have representation at the Congress where often those decisions are ultimately made.

What that boils down to is that you have to be incredibly aggressive about what you want and what your vision is because the governance structure is not set up to give the city an advantage in those conversations. I think the lesson here, in terms of effective planning, is that you have to be very effective at coalition building. You have to understand how to use the planning process to mobilize private sector leadership, elected leadership, and planning becomes a permanent campaign.

Andy, you know we're flirting, in the Los Angeles basin, with bringing an NFL team back, and siting that stadium. What advice and counsel can you give the planning function in the city here about how to approach such a task?

It's good timing because we're trying to attract Major League Baseball here, and we think we have a very strong case, and have been in discussions with Major League Baseball. The advice I have is that the mayor has to say to the planners, "Give me the best sites, give me the options, give me your best recommendation," because, at the end of the day, a stadium is a significant infrastructure investment for the city, and it should be a city decision. You should turn to the planners and say, "As you're professional experts, what will work here? Where should we make this investment that will meet our development goals and have the kind of spin-off effect and corollary development that we want to see?" The mayor here did that. We came up with five sites; we're now narrowing those sites down, but one of the key criteria that the mayor asked us, to look at was, how does this fit into the plan of the city? And we have different options now, we're looking at downtown sites, we're looking at waterfront sites; ultimately, the mayor has to empower planning to lead that process, or you'll be very reactive. My advice for sports is: don't wait for sports to tell you where they want to be, the city should assert where it wants you to be.

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