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How can Obama really do more for DC?

Yesterday, President Obama and Mayor-Elect Gray met for lunch. According to Gray, Obama said he "wants to do more for the city."

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

How can he do more? Obviously there are a number of federal programs that give out funding, whether discretionary or formula, and Obama could push for DC in many areas of the federal budget. But the President is very concerned about the deficit, and Congress makes the final budget decisions. What could Obama do for DC that doesn't involve large spending programs?

President Obama already controls a lot of what goes on in DC. He heads the largest employer in the District. Agencies control a great number of buildings downtown. The National Park Service (NPS) controls most of the parkland in the District, from the Mall to individual neighborhood pocket parks.

The President controls, either directly or indirectly, half of the 12 seats on the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC): 3 direct Presidential appointees and 3 ex officio seats for the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior (handled by the Park Service), and General Services Administration (GSA). The Park Service also holds one of the seats on the Zoning Commission.

If these federal agencies, especially Interior and GSA, had strong guidance from the White House and coordinated closely to improve the vitality of DC on and around federal property, they could create some big change. All it really takes is the will to overcome bureucratic inertia.

Here are some specific steps Obama could take right now:

Appoint a high-level DC point person. The simplest item could be a very significant one. There is no one person in the White House in charge of working with the DC government. Obama should appoint such a person at a high enough level to give him or her the power to really coordinate the DC-related work of the cabinet departments and push them to make changes when necessary and when they fit with the President's vision.

Appoint a DC resident to NCPC. Of the 3 Presidential appointees, the law requires one to be from Maryland and one from Virginia. The third appointee is currently Herbert Ames, a real estate agent from South Carolina appointed by President Bush. His term ends next year. The President should pick someone who lives in DC and who truly cares about making the District a better place.

Restrain excessive fortress design at federal facilities. Many federal agencies seem to want their building to be a fortress, partly because everyone is particularly sensitive to security, and partly because it makes agencies feel like they are more important.

Fortunately, NCPC and GSA have been pushing for more federal buildings to engage the street, like the upcoming GSA headquarters modernization which will include ground-floor retail. Require all new or renovated federal facilities in urban areas to contain publicly-accessible retail or food spaces, and avoid a bunker mentality unless it really, truly is necessary.

Direct federal agencies to encourage multimodalism. The President already issued an executive order instructing agencies to try to reduce their carbon footprint. He could specifically push agencies to accommodate bike parking inside their buildings and to put Capital Bikeshare stations outside, for example.

Encouraging transit use is not as simple as encouraging bicycle use. The best thing would be for Congress to extend the increased ceiling for pretax transit benefits, keeping it on an equal footing with the parking benefit. That also means federal workers get a higher transit benefit, helping workers better afford to take transit. Unfortunately, this isn't something Obama can do on his own.

Make St. Elizabeth's a good neighbor. The biggest immediate opportunity for making federal design fit with a community will come at St. Elizabeth's, where DHS is consolidating operations. That will have a lot of security, but there are many ways DHS can also encourage employees to interact with the surrounding community, foster nearby restaurants that are also open to the public, and take transit, streetcar, bike or walk to the complex.

Direct NPS to allow the Circulator and Capital Bikeshare. NPS has exclusive concession contracts for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, including ones for the Tourmobile and for bike rentals. They have been interpreting these contracts to prohibit allowing transit services, including bike transit (Capital Bikeshare), on the Mall.

However, $1 transit service doesn't compete with a $23 tour bus, and a bike meant for under 30 minutes of use to get from one place to another doesn't compete with an all-day bike rental. The White House should instruct NPS to find a way to allow these services immediately.

Direct NPS to treat urban parks differently from rural parks. NPS manages its parks in dense urban areas with the same philosophies as a natural wilderness like Yosemite. People from Colorado primarily wrote the National Mall Plan. But keeping spaces wild is not as paramount of a concern for urban parkland, which needs to contribute to the health of residents.

For example, NPS recently denied permission for DDOT to build a wooden walkway across a part of Fort Totten Park to help people walk to the Metro station. NPS needs a separate division with separate management policies for urban parks, staffed by people with expertise running parks in cities and a passion for making parks good public spaces.

Give DC control over local neighborhood parks. NPS plays a valuable role in our nation (some of my fondest childhood memories are from Minute Man National Historical Park), but it makes no sense that they decide all policy, handle all law enforcement, and have to plow the sidewalks (which they don't do) around most small neighborhood square, circle, and triangle parks throughout the District.

The President could instruct the Park Service to work out a way to turn day to day maintenance and policy of the small parks over to DC while maintaining ownership of the land and NCPC review for permanent changes to the parks. For example, NPS could essentially work out a contract with DC where it outsources park management to DC for these parks.

NPS could pay DC what it spends on those parks, including policing, snow and more. DPR could take over those duties, and handle things like permits for events or retail concessions, but DC wouldn't be able to decide to develop the park into housing, for example.

Local BIDs may also want to contribute to park beautification or "adopt" parks, as they do in many other cities. NPS is currently fairly hostile to public-private partnerships. Turning over the parks' immediate control would make such arrangements possible.

Unify management of lands around the Mall. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall keeps pointing out that nobody can really plan for the contiguous park space people generally call the Mall because control is fragmented between the Park Service, the Smithsonian, the Architect of the Capitol, the Secret Service, the National Gallery, the Commission on Fine Arts, NCPC, DDOT, DC DPR, the various memorial commissions, and more.

Create a board composed of federal, DC and citizen representatives to coordinate policy for the and work with NCPC, which could perhaps staff the commission.

And of course:

Publicly support voting rights. This was one of the primary asks from Gray at the lunch. Obama may have said he supports voting rights, but he has done little to make that a part of the national conversation, and most Americans still don't know that DC residents have no vote in Congress.

Obama should take public steps, whether symbolic like restoring the "Taxation without representation" plates to his limousine or meaningful like asking Congress for legislation, that will generate news cycles around DC voting rights. The Post also editorialized for the President to promise to veto Congressional measures that step on DC home rule.

It's great that President Obama wants to have a positive effect on DC. Fortunately, he is in a position to do so, easily and immediately. He can get started on the above initiatives right away.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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If we can't get representation, how about just no taxation? Can District residents receive an income tax credit for making this our home?

by Randall M. on Dec 2, 2010 12:00 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised you didn't include what I think would be the most important move - asking Congress to lift the height restriction! Let's face it...DC ain't no Paris. The Washington Monument is probably the least ornamental obelisk I've ever seen – definitely not attractive enough to have the whole city literally bow at its feet.

Personally I think it would be a little silly to only lift the restriction outside of downtown (since, after all, downtown is where the free market likes to build its towers), but even if it would only be an exemption for outlying areas, it would be a good thing.

Obviously Obama can't change this himself, but Obama also can't unilaterally give voting rights to DC residents, but you included that on the list.

by Stephen Smith on Dec 2, 2010 12:04 pm • linkreport

You're so right on about the NPS. They do a wonderful job protecting our nation's wilderness areas, where the best policy is to leave things alone. But DC's urban park areas, which have freeways and masses of people moving through them, need active engagement. The one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work.

by aaa on Dec 2, 2010 12:11 pm • linkreport

I have a question. Does the rights that US Territories - such as; Puerto Rico, differ that DC? If so, how? Would those territorial rights benefit DC if it where to legitimately become a " US Territory" if it is not already considered one (which I doubt)? Please give me insight or feedback on this matter. I'd really appreciate it.

by Charmaine on Dec 2, 2010 12:24 pm • linkreport

NPS already has some kind of partnership with DPR in issueing (free) permits or reservations for picnic sites in RCP. To get a reservation/permit you have to go to the DC DPR on 16th St.NW. So a relationship already exists that could be expanded.

I would love to see a seperate division within NPS created for urban parks but NPS is perpetually underfunded. Unless it could be achieved w/o new funds the likelihood approaches nil.

The problem, exemplified by the denial to add a wooden walkway at Ft. Tot., must be apparent to people within NPS too. They live here too. There must be some fertile ground for practical changes within NPS.

by Tina on Dec 2, 2010 12:40 pm • linkreport

So you want NPS to give up the day to day control of their neighbohood parks around the city, yet continue to pay for them? Not a chance. They yell at the top of their lungs every year how they are underfunded as it is.

According to a GAO report by NPS in 2005,

"NPS manages 356 federal properties in the District. These properties cover about 6,735 acres of land and range in size from less than 1 acre to about 1,750 acres. Among the properties are 200 circles, squares, and triangles and 95 parks and parkways. Although the circles, squares, and triangles represent the largest total number of properties, their size ranges from 0.01 acres to about 7 acres, with an average size of 0.3 acres. Parks and parkways represent the second largest total number of properties and the greatest percentage of acreage, 93 percent."

The only way NPS would ever consider giving control of those 200 parks, circles, squares etc is if DC wanted to shoulder the burden, which I am sure NPS would love to hand off.

The NPS budget for its properties in the District in 2010 was ~86 million, DC's park and Rec budget is less than half that. Obviously that 86 mil covers everything, not just the circles and pocket parks but there is zero way DC can afford it considering we've had a combined billion dollar city budget deficit for the 3 fiscal years ending in this one.

by freely on Dec 2, 2010 12:42 pm • linkreport


I'd like to see taller buildings in parts of DC but the potential to obscure the Capital or the Washington Monument isn't the reason for the height act.

That said, there are still plenty of areas to build before raising building heights becomes necessary.

To this list, I'd add a strong and sustained commitment to high speed rail. DC could become a hub for high speed rail between the Boston-Washington and Washington-Charlotte corridors. I know this is too much to hope for, however, with all the Ayn Rand-disciples who'll be coming to Congress next month, and as someone said, view any spending on improving infrastructure as a Marxist-Leninist plot to make us more European/French.

by Ben on Dec 2, 2010 12:45 pm • linkreport

Ben: It's not any spending on infrastructure, just any spending on infrastructure that's not for cars.

by David Alpert on Dec 2, 2010 12:46 pm • linkreport

On the transit benefits, I know the push among urbanists is to restore them to the level that parking currently enjoys, but why no push for the counter proposal, remove the parking benefit entirely. This is probably an area where urbanists, libertarians and deficit hawks could agree. At the minimum, the parking statute could be reformed to only apply to park n' rides operated by a public transit agency, thus eliminating the loophole where you can drive downtown and have your parking subsidized by federal tax policy.

We transit folks are too protective of this sacred ox, what we should be pushing for is to gore the other guy's ox even worse.

by Will on Dec 2, 2010 12:47 pm • linkreport

Will, I think there is a push among urbanists to restore parity between the parking and the transit benefits by reducing the parking benefit. I think even many urbanists would agree that eliminating the parking benefit and keeping the transit benefit is not fair.

by Scoot on Dec 2, 2010 12:59 pm • linkreport

In terms of the transit benefit:

1. Just do it for the tax free element. If a private company wants to give out that much, let them. But the feds don't need to increase their amount.

2. Keep it the same, tax the additional money the feds give out. OK, that is out one pocket, into the other, but possibly enough people are on the verge of a higher bracket that use would drop out and save some money.

3.Phase out the federal benefit completely, and give the money directly to WMATA.

I think you forgot the rain runoff thing.Give cities a few more years to build out construction of runoff facilities.

Alowing WMATA to op-out on more para-transit would also be nice.

by charlie on Dec 2, 2010 1:00 pm • linkreport

Charlie, what we're talking about is the pre-tax element.

All of this talk about the Federal Transit Benefit is merely a pre-tax withholding for any employer to offer for employees if they choose to enroll.

We are not talking about specific transit benefits for Federal employees.

by Alex B. on Dec 2, 2010 1:07 pm • linkreport

@AlexB; from what I understand there are three elements here:

1. Parking benefit; comes out of pre-tax at up to 230/month
2. Transit (now tax free up the same, threatened cut back) that comes out of pre-tax up to 230/month
3. federal employee benefit (up to 230 month -- but not coming out of income)

I'm not a benefits guru, and I don't get ANY of them, so I might be wrong on this.

Cutting/reducing the parking benefit seems to me the best thing to do. We need the revenue.

by charlie on Dec 2, 2010 1:16 pm • linkreport

NPS is underfunded, but many of the improvements they can make are not necessarily costly ones. Better marked pedestrian and bike crossings on Washington Blvd and the National Mall, a review of their relationship with Tourmobile, a more reasonable policy when it comes to third party improvements in urban parks, ceding some control of these areas to the District, a new approach to management of urban parks. These are not billion dollar decisions.

by aaa on Dec 2, 2010 1:19 pm • linkreport

Excellent post David!

I would counter that NPS should simply cede over control of the smaller neighborhood parks for all the reasons you mentioned. NPS retaining ownership seems like a bureaucratic mess.

Obama could also push GSA to cover full compliance with the EPA stormwater regulations and not just those feeding into combined sewers. I'm certainly no expert on the issue, but the agreement seemed like only a half victory to me.

I'd also like to DC Vote take some of this own. DC's autonomy is more than just a vote in Congress.

by jeff on Dec 2, 2010 1:19 pm • linkreport

I spend a lot of time taking take of one of the triangle parks downtown (although you wouldn't know it - the folks who spend most of their days there deposit quite a lot of their trash all over the place).

Would the little parks benefit from being handed from NPS to DCParks&Rec, at least in terms of daily and capital maintenance? NPS actually does an ok job of maintaining "my" park given the unbeleivably low budget they have for it. Would DC provide a higher level of maintenance? It doesn't seem likely.

The argument about establishing better joint-interest friends programs with nearby residents rings true, but transferring parks to DC seems likely to also reduce maintenance on a lot of parks that are just hanging on right now.

Yes, I think DCParks might do less than NPS on these parks. Particularly the little ones that have no obvious vote value.

by pinkshirt on Dec 2, 2010 1:22 pm • linkreport


Yes, those are the 3 issues. I'm not a federal employee, so I don't really care about their bennies. Some private employers also directly subsidize their employees with transit benefits just like the feds do - to me, that's a question of an employer's benefits, not of public policy.

I do care about the pre-tax benefits, however, because those affect thousands of employees who chip in their own money.

I want to make sure that's crystal clear, because all too often, someone talks about this and your random reader thinks that it doesn't apply to them because they don't work for the Feds - that's wrong.

by Alex B. on Dec 2, 2010 1:23 pm • linkreport

I'd like to see NPS transfer ownership of many of the smaller parks and triangles to DC. The issue is whether DPR has the funding to then properly maintain those parks/triangles.

I really like the non-fortress-ization of federal agencies. In particular, I'm thinking of the concrete barriers all around the State Department. The Dept of Homeland Security will be an island in Ward 8; I have no hopes of it being in any way integrated into its surrounding neighborhood.

Other non-urbanist ideas: Shorten the congressional review of DC laws or do away with them altogether. Continued tax benefits for first-time DC home purchases. Continued in-state tuition benefits for DC residents attending state colleges. Modifying tax laws to treat DC banks as "offshore" for purposes of getting more money here. Consolidating the myriad of federal security guards into 1 or 2 agencies. Invade Canada.

by Fritz on Dec 2, 2010 1:25 pm • linkreport

I think if NPS simply handed over all the triangles to DC, then yes, they would not be maintained as well because DC can't afford to simply come up with all the money NPS spends on those parks. That's why I suggested having NPS give DC the money but retain ultimate control. Sure, NPS probably isn't interested in reducing its budget and staffing, but the President can direct them to if he wants.

by David Alpert on Dec 2, 2010 1:28 pm • linkreport

Do you have any more information about that wooden walkway at Fort Totten...?

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 2, 2010 1:41 pm • linkreport

@AlexB; right. And actually that is what I was trying to propose:

increase the pre-tax transit benefit up to 230 a month for private employees, but don't increase the federal subsidy. Budget friendly. Might even be good in the long term for WMATA b/c it gets them off the federal employee benefit crackpipe.

by charlie on Dec 2, 2010 2:10 pm • linkreport

+1 on "Direct NPS to allow the Circulator and Capital Bikeshare."

Voting rights, shmoting rights. We want legislative and budget autonomy. The only way to assure we get and keep these basic political freedoms is through statehood. Obama can take the first step by saying out loud in front of cameras "DC deserves statehood."

by Ward 1 Guy on Dec 2, 2010 3:33 pm • linkreport

Fenty and his appointees very quietly did a lot of lobbying of federal agencies. They had some successes but it didn't exactly transform the city. I'm not entirely sure that a wholesale takeover of parks would be good for anyone, esp. in the absence of new revenue to maintain them. BTW, GSA makes every place adopt fortress measures. I used to work in a ludicrously secured building in another metro and that's par for the course.

by Rich on Dec 2, 2010 8:13 pm • linkreport

Let the President support another major home rule issue; let the Mayor nominate and the City Council approve by 2/3 vote all our local judges. After a judge is sitting for 10 years, he/she gets an up or down vote by the citizens to be allowed to continue in office.
Let NPS handle the Mall and Rock Creek...cede over the Circles and pocket parks over a period of time.
Let BOTH the Mayor and the President share the authority to call out the National Guard when either deems it appropriate.
Let Mr Obama promise to veto any congressional interference with our local laws already in effect.

by DC John on Dec 3, 2010 6:51 am • linkreport

Thank God for the National Park Service. Back when Jim Graham and Fenty were hellbent on rebuilding Klingle Road into Rock Creek Park, the NPS was firmly opposing it and throwing "road blocks" in DC's way. This, and the slowdown of the enviromental inpact statement process, eventually bought time until Cheh and a majority of the council were able to spike the expensive reconstruction of the road. This saved DC from building an enviromentally damaging and fiscally stupid project. At the end of the day, DC will get another pocket park and a bike trail that connects the Rock Creek and Potomac system to the National Cathedral area.

by Bob on Dec 3, 2010 5:01 pm • linkreport

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