Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Harriet Tregoning


Harriet Tregoning looks back on her time as planning director

Harriet Tregoning, DC's planning director since 2007, is leaving to take a job with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. During her years at the helm of the Office of Planning, she has pushed DC to adopt smart-growth policies touching nearly every aspect of the city: land use, transportation, the economy, and more.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Her influence has been felt. If nothing else, what other planning directors can you name? We sat down with her for an exit interview.

RK: I can't believe you're leaving.

HT: Me either. It's breaking my heart a little bit to leave. I love this job.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as planning director?

Nothing I'm going to tell you was the work of me alone by any means. I really feel like I was fortunate to be in the city with a set of colleagues at a particular time where some significant change was possible.

I think we fully became a multimodal city during my time here. And the transportation choices have just multiplied enormously in DC, and I'm really proud of that whether it's bikeshare, additional carsharing options, whether it's the many coming miles of streetcar lines.

Those are all things I didn't have a singular hand in, but I certainly did my part to encourage those things and push them along and make sure we had supportive land use that really makes that possible. I think having convenient, walkable neighborhoods where you can meet a lot of your daily needs is a huge part of the transportation solution. And that's something that transportation officials throughout the region now routinely say, that yes, land use is an important part of transportation.

What about your biggest regret?

I have some unfinished business, I won't call it a regret. The change we've seen in transportation is an example of the kind of pace of change coming to cities all across America, and one of the biggest changes is really what's happening in our economy.

I think cities have a lot to say about that, whether it's with their land use, whether it's about how to fund infrastructure. A great example is the Clean Rivers Project that DC Water is working on. We've been very supportive of the idea that instead of using these big pipes to deal with our combined sewer overflow issuesone solution is to build, the technical term is to build ginormous pipes underground that will allow that stormwater to be stored and treated later.

Those pipes are fantastic. We've committed in our city to spend $4 billion on this, but the pipes, all the labor, all the materials, all the equipment comes from outside our economy and when they're done, the 80-plus days of the year when it rains more than a quarter of an inch those pipes will be of some use.

But if we build green infrastructure instead, we'll have a cooler city, a shadier, more pleasant city. We'll have more habitat for birds and wildlife. We'll have more parks, we'll have more green space. We'll also have the jobs that come with that that aren't high barrier to entry. We'll have the ongoing need to maintain these things, which also provides employment.

That seems to me like a better kind of solution, especially when that type of job is the thing that's disappearing from our economy. If we get the jump on this, every other place in the country is headed in this direction so we also create an export economy in services. That idea, that urban places can really take the lead in creating jobs and restructuring economies to benefit existing residents, I think that's a major challenge that's facing all cities and that's something I hope to work on in my new job.

I thought you were going to say something about the zoning rewrite, or the height act.

No! I'm so happy that I was the one who got to begin the dialogue aboutthis isn't the end of the conversation, this is just the beginning. I think it's fantastic that we had this unexpected opportunity to talk to residents about it and raise the specter for the first time since the 1960s where growth is an issue in the city, where we're going to have to figure out how to accommodate this growth.

What will DC look like in five or ten years?

I think we're definitely going to continue to grow. We're going to see more diversity in our economy. In ten years we might see the first driverless cars on the street. I think the sharing economy that has really taken hold is going to become a lot more ubiquitous.

For people in the middle class who are feeling pretty secure in their jobs, I keep thinking about the federal government having essentially eliminated 40,000 positions in the past few years. Those kind of changes are going to be happening throughout the economy. Even driverless cars, does that displace the need for taxis? For bus drivers?

My goodness, more examples of decent paying jobs going out of the economy. I think we're going to find that the sharing economy is going to be a way to maintain a quality of life that isn't as expensive.

Huh. Is the sharing economy something you'll tackle in your new position?

Certainly from a broad perspective on sustainability, it's less wasteful of resources but it's also a real community builder.

What lessons from DC are you bringing back to federal government?

Hopefully I'm bringing a lot from DCI learned so much in this job, it's overwhelming. It makes me very excited to go back to the federal workforce. I started my career at EPA, and then I went on to state government [before her job in DC]. And I didn't know a thing about how states and local governments worked, but now I have at least some inkling.

Also, I think I'll make people sick by talking about the example that DC is setting. There are so many things DC is doing well, and so many problems that are similar to issues faced by cities everywhere. It's an example and an inspiration.

Are you still going to bike to work?

(laughing} It's just transportation! It's not a statement. I don't think my time will be less valuable to me in the future. That's the reason I bike. It's the fastest way to get where I need to go.

Any rumblings about who will replace you at OP?

I don't know, but the mayor announced last week that they were looking inside the agency for an interim director, which is something I think is a brilliant idea.

This post originally appeared on Elevation DC.


Harriet Tregoning is leaving the DC Office of Planning

Harriet Tregoning, head of DC's Office of Planning, will step down from her post on February 23 to work for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, DCist reported.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Tregoning has been one of the region's leaders around smart growth. She pushed for helping the city grow and locating new housing, jobs, stores, and other amenities where people can easily get to them on foot, bike, and transit.

That she was ready to move on from DC is not much of a surprise. She had been planning director across two administrations, and there had been news reports she was on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's short list to head that city's planning department.

Tregoning made the most headlines for things like pushing to give DC more autonomy around the height limit, but her biggest influence for DC was more behind the scenes. As the mayor's representative on the federal National Capital Planning Commission, the regional Transportation Planning Board, and other bodies, she did a masterful job of working with officials who often don't have the center city's health at heart.

At one of the first NCPC meetings I ever attended, for instance, Tregoning was trying to convince members like Herbert Ames, a George W. Bush appointee who lived in South Carolina, as well as the representatives of the Department of Defense and other agencies, that it really was not a matter of the federal interest whether mechanical penthouses had to be set back from interior courtyards of buildings, a minor point of zoning where NCPC was considering overruling the city's Zoning Administrator.

Tregoning looked to the future, not the past

Tregoning is at her most comfortable when talking about the future, and in fact some described her as "DC's futurist-in-chief." She can cite statistics about the city's demographics, growth, and change to paint a vivid picture of where we are and where we might go. Rather than manage around conditions as they are today, Tregoning would envision where they would be tomorrow, or quoting the famous Wayne Gretzky adage in testimony, "skating to where the puck will be."

Under her leadership, the Office of Planning truly tried to anticipate our future growth and demand, and find ways to match plans and zoning to the city's actual needs. OP promoted aligning parking requirements with not the guesses of 1958 or even the patterns of today but how people will get around in a world of choices such as Zipcar, car2go, Capital Bikeshare, Uber, and more. It supported helping seniors to age in place and potentially repurpose large yet mostly empty single family houses to hold more residents of many generations, as they once did.

Patience meant success but also missed opportunities

Tregoning has an uncommon combination of drive and patience, which is necessary to be effective in government. Some people with a lot of good ideas run up against brick walls and grow frustrated (and, perhaps, even she eventually did.) Others simply content themselves with punching a clock and not rocking the boat, maybe trying to achieve a small amount from time to time but rarely sticking their necks out.

That patience sometimes meant that OP would not take on more difficult tasks. You wouldn't know it from some of the vitriol, but by and large, she worked with many of DC's most affluent and politically powerful neighborhoods to shape changes in a way that would avoid a big fight. When working on the Georgetown campus plan, for instance, OP acceded to many of the requests from neighborhood leaders, sometimes finding a win-win for all, sometimes to reach a suboptimal result like endorsing neighborhood demands to move all undergraduates onto the campus.

The Williams Administration, and former Planning Director Ellen McCarthy, had formulated a plan to make upper Wisconsin Avenue a thriving and walkable commercial corridor like many others around the city instead of a disjointed set of low-slung and dumpy buildings and parking lots. But the blowback from some neighbors was very strong, and many called for removing McCarthy for it.

Tregoning's OP mostly left Wisconsin Avenue alone and focused on areas where the city is going to change much more. That may have been politically wise, but it also meant that the need to house more residents fell disproportionately on changing neighborhoods while established ones got to erect barriers to new people coming in. Likewise, she didn't invest much effort into fixing weaknesses in the city's historic preservation system, which fulfills many important roles but also sometimes becomes a vehicle for lopping a floor off every building regardless of historic merit.

A one-two punch for smart growth in local government

Tregoning is stepping down around the same time as Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. The two are probably the region's greatest voices within government for smart growth. Others will have to step up, or regional decisions like plans from the Council of Governments' Transportation Planning Board could become a lot less forward-thinking.

The good news is that both Tregoning and Zimmerman are staying in DC while they work on national issues. This certainly means they will remain aware of local developments while at HUD and Smart Growth America (the nonprofit Tregoning's husband Geoff Anderson runs), respectively.

The Gray Administration will have big shoes to fill

Quite a few of Mayor Gray's most meaningful achievements involved Tregoning. Most notably, his ambitious Sustainable DC plan came from a multi-agency process Tregoning led. Without her, it seems very unlikely the District Department of Transportation would have committed to bold targets, like having 50% of trips by transit and 25% by walking and biking by 2032.

If Gray does not win the April 1 primary, then anyone he picks will be a caretaker and most likely very few high-level projects will get done at the Office of Planning. (Certainly the numerous good planners at the department will keep doing their jobs on the many important smaller initiatives, of course.) If Gray does win the renomination, even though he may face a general election fight, it would be reasonable to be thinking about a permanent replacement if he can attract one.

While Gray has hired some excellent people (mostly after his first year in office) and holds a good vision for the future of DC, his administration's record has been lackluster on bringing in dynamic agency heads from outside the city government. More often, he promoted deputies, some of whom were ready for the top job while others seemed lost without strong guidance.

On the other hand, the mayor corrected some early hiring mistakes in his own staff quite effectively. Would he ensure that the next planning director maintains DC's momentum instead of simply giving in to the inevitable opposition to every change?

Update: Tregoning will be Director of Sustainable Housing and Communities at HUD. She said the job

deals with a lot of the issues I've been really passionate about in Washington: transportation and working clsoely with US DOT; sustainability; urban job creation. I'm getting more and more terrified about what's happening to middle wage jobs, with the income disparities. ... Cities have reflexively squeezed the labor out of transportation and municipal operations for decades without thinking about it, and we have to think about that.

We are having a great conversation about that here in DC around green infrastructure and the Green Rivers plan, or looking at some of the things we've touched on in Sustainable DC. Retrofit of buildings, urban agriculture, sustainable transportation and waste management are all things that could have huge implications for jobs and are things cities need to be investing in.

It sounds like a great fit for her most recent work in DC and her current interests. Best of luck!


Topic of the week: 4 more years for Gray?

On Monday, DC Mayor Vincent Gray said he will seek a second term. He joins an already crowded field, which will make for a very interesting race. But there's also the question of how Gray has done as mayor.

Photo by AFGE on Flickr.

What are his biggest accomplishments? What are his biggest disappointments? And does he deserve a second term? Our contributors weigh in:

Dan Malouff:
On transportation, Gray has been OK but not perfect. He's done a good job moving the streetcar program forward, but progress on bike infrastructure has moved much more slowly than it did under Fenty. He'd be a low risk/moderate reward choice for a second term. We'd know that we'd be getting someone who basically advances our goals, but maybe not as quickly as a more progressive candidate might. On land use planning, he's worth voting for just to keep Harriet Tregoning on the job.

Malcolm Kenton:
One Gray accomplishment that I'm fond of is the Vision for a Sustainable DC, which cuts across departments and agencies and sets aggressive goals for emissions reduction and restoration of clean waters and healthy ecosystems. It remains to be seen how aggressively Gray will implement the plan and whether each department will receive adequate funding for their share of the work, but the plan is a significant step in the right direction.

I also applaud Gray for sticking with the streetcar plan despite opposition from many corners, including many voters who supported him.

However, I am unhappy with Gray's positions on minimum wage and labor standards issues. The majority of the Council is ahead of him there. I supported the Large Retailer Accountability Act and am dismayed that Gray vetoed it.

Erin McAuliff:
I think Gray and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero have made great headway in planning, laying out a vision and foundation that moves DC in the right direction (Sustainable DC and Age Friendly DC are my two big ones).

We will have to wait and see, though, how implementation plays out (as Malcolm mentioned) either through Gray in a second term or through a newly elected administration that could turn all of that good work on its head. I'm inclined to say he deserves a second term because it's a better bet for successful implementation. But maybe I would also support a candidate that recognizes those accomplishments and is highly committed to being an implementer.

Matt Malinowski:
Although "One City" sometimes gets short shrift, Mayor Gray has done much to fill the slogan with meaning. The One City Summit, held in early 2012, brought 1800 residents to the Washington Convention Center.

It was actually successful at getting the participants to work together in diverse groups to identify the priorities for government services and the future of the city. Participants became engaged while educating themselves about the trade-offs of various policies, such as how new business attraction may drive out existing small businesses.

Increasing sustainability and diversifying DC's economy while improving access to it were the big policy winners at the Summit. And Gray's administration has followed up, continuing its support for the Sustainable DC plan, promoting development at the St. Elizabeths site, and enabling continued growth city-wide through the MoveDC plan and relaxation of the Height Act.

Bringing Walmart to the District is a negative for sustainability and diversifying the economy. While improving the connections between education and jobs will take much more time, it is clear that Mayor Gray is not just continuing past policies on autopilot, but is asking hard questions about how the city and the region can succeed in the years ahead.


DC kicks off planning for Southwest's future

What should Southwest DC look like over the next few years? Will it continue to be a quiet neighborhood despite increasing development around it? Or will it become a bustling area with more people and retail?

Will Southwest see more development like this? Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

On Wednesday, the DC Office of Planning held a kickoff meeting for the Southwest Neighborhood Plan, which will be the Small Area Plan that will cover most of Southwest DC. The plan will address some of the development pressure that the neighborhood is experiencing, thanks in part to DC's growing population.

The neighborhood is currently surrounded by large development projects, like the Southwest Ecodistrict, the Wharf, and the Yards. Nationals Park borders the neighborhood, as well as the future DC United stadium and associated redevelopment in Buzzard Point. This creates a challenge for planners trying to craft a distinct vision for Southwest.

As the name "kickoff" implies, OP is still in the very early stages of putting the plan together. Right now there are no preconceived notions of what the plan will look like. Theoretically, everything is under consideration. The plan will focus on development along I and M streets, but plan will address issues of conservation, sustainability, and connectivity in areas to the north and south.

During this stage, OP is seeking input on what values are important to the community. Many residents value the diversity, affordability, green space, and access the neighborhood provides. But while some residents want more restaurants, retail, and bars, others are worried that competition will force out existing businesses. Neighbors also differed on whether a streetcar on M Street would be a good idea.

At the meeting, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning seemed optimistic that the neighborhood could build on its shared values to overcome differences and mold a plan. She pointed out that people aren't for or against the streetcar because it's a streetcar, they are for it or against it because of the perceived effects a streetcar will bring to traffic and the neighborhood. OP will continue to take input and then analyze and report back in late fall. They hope to have a final draft of the plan by Spring 2014.

Much of the land in the area is currently occupied by housing, which seems unlikely to go away over the next several years. But DC owns a fair bit of land that Tregoning called "underutilized." These are shorter structures like the DMV branch and inspection station and the DC Fire Department repair shop, located on M Street SW about halfway between the Waterfront and Navy Yard Metro stations. In the future, this area could sit right on a proposed streetcar line.

OP will continue to seek feedback through community meetings, an interactive website, and the #SWDCPlan tag on Twitter.


Is caving on parking minimums a smart move?

On Friday, DC planning director Harriet Tregoning announced she's giving into yet another demand from zoning update opponents: to reduce rather than eliminate minimum parking requirements in transit-rich areas outside downtown. Will this smooth the path forward for the remaining provisions, or only put other progressive changes at risk?

Photo by Blue Mountains Local Studies on Flickr.

Until last week, the Office of Planning (OP)'s plan was to eliminate parking minimums downtown and along corridors with Metro, streetcar, or high-frequency bus lines. Low-density neighborhoods of detached houses, and even moderate density neighborhoods of smaller row houses, would have retained minimums, though not for buildings of 10 units and fewer.

Now, only the highest density "downtown" neighborhoods, including developing centers like NoMA and the ballpark area, would have no parking minimums. Elsewhere, the minimums for multifamily residential will be 1 space per 3 units away from transit, and half that near transit, Tregoning explained.

Instead of exempting buildings up to 10 units, the new proposal only exempts buildings up to 4 units, and in "single-family" neighborhoods, even a single-family home will require a parking space unless it has no alley access. That means that nobody will have to put in a driveway curb cut for a single-family house, but might have to pave over a backyard even where street parking is plentiful.

In addition, property owners will be able to apply for an easier "special exception" to further reduce or waive parking minimums, rather than the tougher variance standard in effect now.

There is one significant step forward: OP had previously said that parking minimum changes (outside downtown) wouldn't go into effect if and when the zoning update won approval. Instead, there would be another, subsequent process to "map" the transit zones in each neighborhood. That would likely have led to years more of acrimony.

Instead, Tregoning said, OP now proposes to simply write rules so that the half-as-strict parking minimum rule automatically kicks in for properties within ½ mile of a Metro station or ¼ mile of a streetcar line or designated WMATA priority bus corridor. (I forgot to ask, but hopefully Circulator lines will also qualify.)

That means that if the Zoning Commission approves the plan, property owners near transit could see less onerous requirements more quickly than when there was going to be a mapping phase. While this is a step forward, OP could always have used this formula to define areas with no parking minimums at all. This didn't have to go hand in hand with retaining minimums.

This change isn't the right policy; it's just a political choice

There's no doubt the zoning update has engendered fierce debate. It's a constant topic of heated argument on neighborhood listservs, particularly in neighborhoods like Tenleytown, Chevy Chase, and Cleveland Park. A small group of opponents, almost all from west of Rock Creek Park, have shown up at hearings over 5 years to object to nearly every change of any kind.

From Tregoning's statements to the press, it's clear she's made the change in order to appease opponents, not because she's actually convinced keeping parking minimums is the better policy. She told Aaron Wiener at the Washington City Paper that abolishing requirements "was really wigging people out," and Mike Debonis at the Post quoted her saying, "A lot of people were very, very concerned with the concept of no parking minimums."

She also told DeBonis, "I'm not an ideologue. I'm very practical. The practical effect is not very different." That may be true in most cases, though it still means some owners will build garages they know aren't necessary, simply to avoid asking for zoning relief.

But the practical effect will be very different if the DC Zoning Commission further waters down the proposal before giving it final approval. Tregoning and associate director Jennifer Steingasser promised to transmit proposal to the commission by July 29. The commission, a hybrid federal-local body, has the final say on the plans, and can change them or ask OP to revise them in any way.

Opponents will pressure the Zoning Commission to scale back any changes, and there will be a strong temptation at least in the minds of some commissioners to shrink any proposal that meets substantial opposition. Had OP continued to propose eliminating minimums, the commission might have decided to keep some but reduce them. Now that OP set a new baseline of only reducing minimums, the commission may well decide to reduce them somewhat less.

Tregoning says she thinks the most recent change will appease some opponents, though some are blasting the new plan almost as vehemently. Chevy Chase resident and stalwart zoning update foe Sue Hemberger called the new proposal "repackaging [the] same anti-car policy." Alma Gates told Mike Debonis she's "not sure [the change] goes far enough," and DeBonis paraphrased Juliet Six saying she thinks the move "was calibrated to create an illusion of consensus."

The Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning have caved once again on parking minimums.

Retreat after retreat, and for what?

Why would this change engender any greater harmony, when OP has watered down its proposals several times in the last 5 years, never to any effect? Intransigence has paid off for those who opposed the zoning update since day one. They have managed to delay the update by at least a year, and bully the Office of Planning into successive rounds of scaling back.

OP has cut the fat, then the muscle, and now the bone from its plans. In 2008, the zoning update team was talking about eliminating all parking minimums and even establishing maximums. Travis Parker, the head of the update at the time, decided to leave in some minimums only in commercial corridors far from transit, because opponents say parking is most needed in those areas. Later, OP decided not to push forward on maximums.

When Parker moved to Colorado and Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser took over, she backed off further by promising to delay lower minimums around transit until after a further "mapping" process. It looked like Steingasser hoped that promise would quiet the small group of furious critics; it did not. Will this latest change be different?

Ironically, earlier last week, Matt Yglesias wrote in Slate that it's a bad idea to reduce rather than eliminate minimums. Among other reasons, he said,

On a concrete level, this is a form of compromise that really fails in its goal of de-mobilizing opposition. If you are a street parker and your priority in parking policy is to defend your access to cheap street parking, then any reduction in parking mandates should spark opposition. Watering the reform down doesn't lead to any genuine reconciliation of interests.
Maybe Tregoning has the pulse of the Zoning Commissionafter all, her agency works with the commissioners day week after week, on hundreds of Planned Unit Developments and map amendments every year. Maybe by making this particular change, as opposed to all of the other changes they've made to appease opposition over the last 5 years, maybe zoning commissioners will say, ah, it's clear OP has listened to public input, and we will therefore pass their proposal.

I hope so, but I think it's much more likely that opponents will use this concession to try to get another concession, and zoning commissioners will still cut something back even more. Everyone wants to strike a compromise. But when one zoning update head compromises, then he leaves, his boss takes over, and she compromises, then the agency director compromises, and finally zoning commissioners compromise, we're left with is a weak set of changes that do little to truly position the city for the future.


Parking lots remain mandatory

DC planning director Harriet Tregoning announced today that minimum parking requirements in transit-oriented neighborhoods will remain in the new zoning code.

Photo by photobeppus on Flickr.

As part of its rewrite of the zoning code, DC's Office of Planning (DCOP) had proposed eliminating mandatory parking requirements in the densest, most transit-friendly parts of the city.

Anyone who wanted to build parking would still be allowed to do so, but it wouldn't be mandatory. The new zoning code will lower requirements for parking, but won't eliminate them completely.

The new proposal will keep parking requirements for institutional and industrial land uses similar to what they are now. The requirement will drop by about half for residential and office buildings.

Under existing zoning, any new residential units are required to build parking spaces, whether the owner wants them or not. The requirement is a huge subsidy for drivers, and a major burden on car-free households. It also adds tremendously to the cost of new housing.

There is a silver lining: DCOP is still planning to eliminate parking requirements in downtown DC.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


How can DC foster an entrepreneurial District?

Over the past 10 years DC has grown from being a virtual non-entity when it came to the tech sector to a vibrant center with almost 450 startups. Some firms such as Blackboard and LivingSocial have built national and international reputations. What has DC done to help this along, and what can and should it do to keep the momentum going?

Photo by Stefano Cobucci on Flickr.

Last week, Smart Growth America hosted a panel on the relationship between startup communities and startup places, featuring DC planning director Harriet Tregoning, CEO of iStrategyLabs Peter Corbett, and SGA Vice-President Ilana Preuss.

Tregoning and Preuss talked about many ideas we've often discussed here on Greater Greater Washington in other contexts, which tend to attract "creative class" individuals to DC, like investing in public transportation and providing access to low-cost office space.

As any entrepreneur can attest, creating a new business brings with it many inherent risks and living in an environment that is extremely expensive can make diving into working on a tech start up a challenge. Reducing transportation costsmaking it realistic for residents to not need a caris one such way to make urban living more affordable. DC has made progress on this front in recent years with innovations such as the Capital Bikeshare program.

Moreover, if downtown DC only has rents that are affordable to large corporations or the government, then startups are going to logically locate somewhere else. A study by real estate firm CBRE found that downtown Washington had the second-highest commercial rent in the United Stateswith only Midtown Manhattan being more expensive.

What can DC do to increase the supply of affordable commercial office space? DC took one step by helping fund 1776, a new incubator which offers startups some much-needed office space.

What about the height limit?

More controversially, there is the question of whether DC should allow its buildings to be taller. Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, has held hearings on modifying the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which limits building heights based on the width of the adjacent street.

I asked Tregoning what she thought of this proposal. She argued that lifting the height limit would not necessarily create less expensive office space, as the new taller buildings are costly to build. She also said that building farther upwards could take away some of the charm that makes DC such an attractive place to live.

Corbett: DC plan is "bulls**t"

The world of startups and government are very different, and people in the startup world have often eyed the world of government and policy with suspicion. Some of that seemed to be on display as Corbett criticized Mayor Gray's stated goal of making DC the foremost east coast technology center, colorfully calling it impractical. Corbett said DC is not going to catch up to New York, which is already far larger and is constructing an "Innovation Island" tech center on Roosevelt Island.

However, that seems somewhat beside the point; it's good for DC to set high goals for itself. Many startups set goals of being the market leader in their industry and people in tech companies often speak of "taking over the world" with whatever product they are building, even though few ever do so and many are profitable and successful without massive dominance.

Corbett also argued that DC should make itself more attractive for investment by lowering its capital gains tax rate, which is significantly higher than in Maryland or Virginia. Mayor Gray has proposed this, but the DC Council did not go along.

However, in response to a later question, Corbett also said that "it's incredibly easy to get angel money in DC" and "anyone who's gonna kill it in the tech sector isn't going to let the location of their money stop them," Aaron Wiener reported, statements which seem to bolster Ken Archer's argument that the tax cut wouldn't really make a difference.

These debates are incredibly important for the future of the District. DC is known for being a government town. In the future it could be known just as much as a place where startups and entrepreneurs come to thrive. That would be good for all residents and the District's economy.


Unless cities risk failure, nothing will change

Government officials need to be willing to take risks to bring change to their cities. And residents need to support them when they do. Jarrett Walker called attention to video of DC planning director Harriet Tregoning addressing an Urban Land Institute event in October:

She says:

Planning directors, if they don't push to change anything, they might have job security, but literally nothing changes in their city. They look behind them and there's nobody behind them. In the job you're constantly out there pushing, but not so hard that no one is willing to support what you're trying to do.

Government is risk averse, right? I mean, really risk averse, and fearful of failure, because you might end up on the front page of the Washington Post.

But I think more and more cities are coming to recognize that not only is it important that they have innovators in their cities but that they be innovators, and be willing to try new things. And if they fail, fail fast.

She then talks about how Capital Bikeshare is actually DC's second bike sharing system, which we put in after the first, SmartBike, wasn't a success. She concludes, "Innovation is about failing. You have to fail sometimes, otherwise you're not trying hard enough to do something interesting, and there has to be some tolerance for it."

One clear prerequisite for a government official to be pushing for change is having a boss who understands this. An official is going to take action and some people will be upset. Does the boss (whether a mid-level manager, agency director, or mayor) just rebuke the employee simply because his or her actions generated angry emails? Or does he or she look more deeply at the issue to determine whether the employee is actually doing something good?

This tolerance also has to apply to the public. When we look at a project like a new bike lane, very soon after it opens you see blog comments and press articles about whether it's a success or failure. But the 15th Street bike lane started out as one-way, and DDOT then switched it to 2-way. Pennsylvania Avenue still needs fixes to stop U-turns.

Certainly, at some point we do have to look back at programs and decide if they worked or not. There has to be a point where we judge a pilot program, or else we can't learn from the experience. But, as Tregoning is saying, if some of the programs are failures, that's not a sign of mismanagement or waste. We can't respond to everything not being perfect by calling for "heads to roll" or something of that nature.

"Fail fast" is a hot concept in technology startups. The idea is to try a lot of things, but quickly decide whether they are working or not. Many startups have gone through 2, 3, 5, or 10 different products before they hit on a good one. Twitter arose when its founders were building a podcasting service.

A startup is not the same as the government, though. The startup can squander investors' money and it's only the investors who lose out. A government program uses taxpayer money, and people hold that to a higher standard.

The problem is that it doesn't actually save money to do everything extremely slowly. Take procurement, which Mayor Gray promised to fix in last night's State of the District address. We have enormous layers upon layers of controls and approvals to make sure that government contracts aren't being given out based on bribes, or frivolously, or at unreasonably high rates.

We do need to guard against this, but the effect is a system so ponderous that important initiatives can sit around for a year just waiting to go ahead. A simple study of the H and I Street bus lanes took about 9 months to go through procurement at WMATA. I was hearing about moveDC for a long, long time before it happened, because of procurement delays. There are some exciting things folks in DDOT have told me about that I'd love to see move ahead yesterday, except they have to sit around for an indeterminate length of time.

Some things you can't easily redo if you do them wrong. Design a building with poor architecture and you're stuck with its flaws for a long, long time. What governments need to get better about doing is distinguishing those projects where you have to get everything right the first time, like building a bridge, from the ones you can scrap or modify much more easily, like a bike lane or CaBi, or an education initiative, or even a lot of zoning changes.

Meanwhile, we're fortunate to have a planning director who would say this. A lot of great officials have nonetheless decided to prioritize job security over boldness, maybe with good reason. We need to particularly value the ones who still want so badly to make the city better that they are willing to take risks.


Tregoning, Sebastian, Alpert talk bike/ped issues live

I'm on a panel at this morning's Washington Post "Conquering the Commute" symposium to talk about how people get around on foot and by bike, along with DC planning director Harriet Tregoning and chief DDOT bike planner Jim Sebastian.

You can watch the panel live here:

Immediately afterward, Stewart Schwartz from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the most influential smart growth group in the Washington region and a small charity I hope you will support financially, will debate lifelong Outer Beltway booster Bob Chase on a panel with Transportation Planning Board head Ron Kirby. It should be exciting so stick around!

After the event, I will replace this live stream with embedded videos as soon as the Post gets them up.

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