October 27, 2005 - From the October, 2005 issue

Washington DC's Revival Rests On A Mayor and Planning Director's Vision

Andrew Altman served under Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams for six years as the city's planning director. Prior to that, Altman was the City of Oakland's planning director. Despite D.C.'s fiscal and management problems when he came to office, Mayor Williams and Altman intentionally elevated the role of planning within the city. Mr. Altman last year moved from planning director to head the city's redevelopment of the Anacostia River waterfront. He has announced he will be leaving to join the private sector in November. In this exclusive interview with TPR, Mr. Altman articulates how planning can save and revitalize a city.


Andrew Altman

Andy, we are conducting this interview in Cambridge at a Harvard Design Magazine's symposium on the question, "Can design make cities more livable?" Let's start with the basic question: Can design make cities more livable?

Professionally, maybe genetically – I have to say yes. The essence of what I was presenting at this Harvard Design Magazine conference is that design can certainly make cities more livable, but you have to have the right political leadership and environment in order for design to matter. There are lots of great designs, lots of good plans that can be done, but if you don't have the political leadership, community leadership, or the interest in making design matter, then I think it can be a really hollow exercise. I've been very fortunate because I've had six years since joining Mayor Anthony Williams in his first term - he's now in his second – of unequivocal political support for a strong planning role in the city and for allowing public planning to shape decisions in the city and to shape the built environment. That's made all of the difference in the world. Then I've seen completely different situations where you can have great planners or great architects but the environment is so stacked against them that design doesn't matter.

When you assumed the D.C. city planning position six years ago, the city had a newly elected mayor and was coming out of receivership. How challenging and complex were D.C.'s problems? And how did planning become the centerpiece of Mayor Williams' new administration?

It seems like ancient history, but it's only seven years ago that the city was in receivership, so it was literally under the control of the control board, which says it all. It was a federal, presidentially-appointed board that ran the city. They had stripped all of the power from then-Mayor Marion Barry. The city had a junk bond rating. It had the highest homicide rates, and there was a lack of faith. When the new mayor was elected, that all changed. The economy had started to change, so that was in his favor and in the city's favor, but the integrity that the mayor brought and the leadership that he brought gave the confidence to the president and Congress to turn the city back to the mayor. The city came out of receivership, but it still had massive problems. It's a city that is a city, a state, and a county all in one. It runs prisons, it runs hospitals, it runs halfway homes, it runs a social welfare system, and it runs schools. You have all of the responsibilities, Medicaid, Medicare, etc., of a government. It functions as a state. There are so many pressing needs, and when the mayor came in there were so many pent-up pressing needs. You know, at the time, it was everything from you can't cut the grass to you can't fill a pothole on the streets to junk bonds to a city in deficit.

An amazing part of the story – the question you're asking – is why planning would matter. Who would have time for that? But I think the mayor's brilliance was not to be so consumed in the day-to-day that he lost sight of what's good for the long-term viability of the city, and he saw planning as the key to that. He saw that planning can respond to the challenges of the day and but also is uniquely capable of guiding the long-term shape of the city and not doing it in such an abstract way that we went out and said, "Let's do a comprehensive plan that's going to solve the problems" but then quickly become irrelevant. He said, "Let's strategically focus the planning office on what would be the big idea that's going to shape this city for the next five, ten, 15 years," and that's where the waterfront emerged. It emerged as a driving idea to galvanize people around the future of the city in a very tangible way.

Directing the Anacostia River Development Corp. is your present job in D.C. It is an expansive land use platform for a big civic agenda, as is the L.A. River for metropolitan Los Angeles. You have spent time early in your career in Los Angeles working for the city redevelopment agency. What instructive lessons can you share from your D.C. planning experience with L.A. planners and elected leaders re such projects?

We just had an L.A. delegation visit us in Washington, and it's amazing to think that in five years we actually have delegations visiting Washington when no one even thought that Washington had a waterfront. So, I would say, first of all, you need a strong idea. People thought the Anacostia River was neglected and forgotten. People didn't understand it. It was not on the mental map of the city. Then, it's not enough to have the idea; you have to mobilize. You have to start mobilizing constituencies so that they see that this is something that's really going to benefit them.

The mayor expended a lot of political capital, frankly, with community groups, the business community, and the federal government, because the federal government owns 70 percent of the shoreline. One critical lesson I'd say is that the mayor constantly made the Anacostia waterfront a priority. He talked about it all the time. Whenever he could put money into it, he'd put money into it. Everyone knew that that was the mayor's priority, and it created a kind of aura of inevitability. It was just repetition. And we weren't so bogged down in planning that everything was sequential. I think planners make the mistake of being very linear: first doing the big plan, then the little plan, then next plan. Then, everyone's forgotten you at that point. So, I think we started out by doing planning and projects at the same time. The same time we started with our plan, we started lobbying, for example, to get Hope VI money to transform public housing on the river. We didn't wait until we had figured it out; we were just opportunistic and aggressive about implementation.

Don't separate planning from implementation. You've got to do them at the same time, even if it's not perfect. The mayor always said, "You've got to fix the airplane while you're flying it."

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So, what are the results of your six year tenure as D.C. Planning Director? What are the civic benefits of having a mayor and a planner that place planning at the center of a City's proactive agenda?

You start at the very basic level, which created, first of all, a regulatory certainty and a framework for investment. We needed to start by having a functioning planning office, and we made sure that developers knew the areas we were focused on in terms of investment. There was clear regulatory structure, in terms of incenting development in some areas and protecting neighborhoods in others, and people knew they could get an answer by professionalizing planning. So that has created a very stable investment climate. Second, we really inspired people about the future.

A lot of planning is about confidence and identity of the city, and I think it really engaged people in thinking about the future of their city, the future of their neighborhoods, taking control – particularly in a city that doesn't have a vote and suffers from political disempowerment – I think planning played a key role. The other is that it really served as a vehicle for investment of public dollars. The city is always spending a significant amount of money, and the mayor used planning as the vehicle to guide that investment. Just like if you were a developer and you had pre-development money before you build something, if you think of planning as part of your initial investment in your overall capital budgeting and prioritizing, you make a big difference.

We've carried a running debate in TPR over the last six months between those who think the city planning function ought to be one of arbitration and mediation between competing interests, and those who assert that a city planning director ought to articulate and execute a grand planning vision that channels and directs new investment and development. With a decision pending on who should be Los Angeles' next planning director, which way should our new Mayor lean? Then again, does TPR/Los Angeles have the argument framed correctly?

I don't think it's an either/or. I really don't. We do both. I spend huge amounts of time doing conflict resolution among neighborhood groups. The reality is that every day there's another issue to mediate, and you can't say, "Well, stop, I'll figure it out, and I'll get back to you." On the other hand, if you don't have a vision and don't have a sense of what you're trying to accomplish, then you're endlessly just in a negotiation mode and are not going to move the city forward. You're always going to be at the lowest common denominator. I think the challenge for a planning director is someone who understands both. If you get someone who's just a mechanic and doesn't have the vision, I think you'll go wrong. If you have someone with the vision but no idea how to implement it, I think planning becomes sort of irrelevant. It's a hard balance to find, but I think a city like Los Angeles, should have the best planning director around. It's an amazing city with great challenges.

You've declined requests to apply to be L.A.'s planning director. And you have just announced that you're going to be leaving your current position in D.C. What are your plans for the immediate future?

I'm going to start a new private development company in New York City with Steve Guttman, who's the former chairman of Federal Reality and Santana Row in San Jose, and we're going to be undertaking the kind of work I've done in Washington, which is larger-scaled mixed-use development. We're going to be doing that from the private side. We have great financial backing a number of sites we're going to start on, and hopefully we'll be doing things out in L.A. and California as well. For me, this has been a logical progression. I started out at the redevelopment agency, I've always seen the connection between planning and implementation, and I've been moving steadily towards implementation roles. It's faster than I thought I'd be going to the private sector, but at the end of the day I care about how we build great cities and great environments. I care about creating the best-quality neighborhoods and urban environments and public spaces that we can.

So for me it's a continual learning process to see it from all angles.

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