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December 22, 2010

Progress for People

Dear People:

I must admit that I’m surprised by the reaction to my introduction to the last issue of themail. I expected angry objections: “DC has to grow; the idea of green space in core cities is outmoded and ecologically unsound, and only old fuddy-duddies believe in it; skyscrapers represent progress, and the ideal of human-scaled cities that past generations held is antiquated; the Office of Planning advocates what is best for residents, but residents are so stupid that they don’t recognize their own best interests, and the fact that every policy the Office of Planning promotes maximizes profits for developers is just a coincidence.” Surprisingly, I got agreement instead.

So where do we go from here? How do citizens get control of the Office of Planning, the planning process, and the zoning process? All of these are well protected from our direct control. We have to make them part of the political dialogue and the political process; politicians’ success and failure in elections has to depend on whether they stand with citizens or not on preserving what is best in their neighborhoods, and we can’t let politicians convince naive and inexperienced voters that promoting developers’ large-scale plans for concentrated development represents progress.


I thank Ted Gest for pointing out my misspelling of Harriet Tregoning’s last name in the introduction to the last issue themail. I’ve made the correction online.


Merry Christmas to all.

Gary Imhoff


Planning for Profits
George Idelson,

No need for surprise that there weren’t more press questions about the Tregoning reappointment as Director of the Office of Planning at Gray’s press briefing. Zoning is a subject that doesn’t seem to interest local media, certainly not the Washington Post. The Office of Zoning has been orchestrating a rewrite of the city’s zoning laws for several years and who but the usual suspects knows about it? It’s the greatest uncovered story in the city of Washington. Even themail, which has picked up the mantle in recent issues, is late to the party. Let’s roll.


Planning for Profits
Margaret Lenzner, Cleveland Park,

I was very interested in Gary’s take on Tregoning [themail, December 19] and how much DC’s Office of Planning is all about profits for developers, under the guise of “smart growth.” This reality is almost a secret, as there is so little press about it. The Northwest Current had an article last week about DC’s failure to reveal information about tax abatements for new development (“Study Faults DC on Transparency,” But otherwise I’ve seen no press at all about the profound link between OP and developers at the expense of community interests. So, bravo to Gary for spelling it out so well!


Lack of DC Registrations
Denise Wiktor,

[Re: Stephen Miller, “Fewer Cars, Less Parking,” themail, December 19] While I am sure that there are people moving into the District without cars, and some even giving up their cars — I know few. Car registrations have dropped in my neighborhood directly in response to the one-year visitors permits. A couple who lives next door in a five-story apartment building with more than a hundred units have one car registered in DC. The other, with an out-of-state tag, “EFIZZY,” has been parking with visitors permits for the year and a half the program has been in place. We have repeatedly pointed this out to MPD officers and DPW ticketing persons who say they have no jurisdiction over it. Another resident of the building has expired South Carolina tags on the back of the car and 1983 Manitoba plates on the front. Across the street the Argyle apartments are going condo (oops, did we forget to build the parking that was supposed to go in?) Many of the new owners park their cars on the street with visitors permits. The visitors permit program has also provided a boom for those renting out their garages. Formerly these neighbors would keep their out-of-state tagged vehicles in their garages, but no more. Use the visitors permit and collect what the market will bear for the garage. Another thorn in the side, at least to me, are persons claiming District residency preference while keeping their cars registered elsewhere — a notable example is someone in the Office of Planning at DDOT.

Why did DDOT not follow the practices of cities with successful visitors programs? Why is there no enforcement? Finally, there is the sale of the permits going on and the rampant abuse of the Metropolitan Police Department program. Recently, for the first time in two years, I saw an MPD visitors permit with an actual signature on it. I also understand the 2nd District utilized a summer youth employment person to issue and sign them last summer.

So why register here if you can keep the cheaper insurance rates of Virginia, South Carolina, or those couple of states that do not require insurance? Fifteen years ago, the Lieutenant from MPD in charge of my Police Service Agency estimated that there were at least three hundred cars not registered in the district whose owners would be legally required to register them; but most were parked in garages, apartment lots, and the like. No more; in areas where there is no-zone parking they are right on the street. What does this do to our insurance pool for those who choose to be legal? Kills us. Putting an additional eighty to one hundred thousand cars on the rolls that are not there now would reduce everyone’s rates — not to mention the potential of being in an accident with someone who insurance company refuses to pay because they lied about where the car actually was driven and kept.

If there are so many fewer cars, why is parking worse? On my block, lower registration does not equate to fewer cars, just to less enforcement. I do not have off-street parking. I am not “disabled enough” to get reserved parking, but I am disabled enough that I cannot walk very far on a hot summer day, and the Office of Planning and Historic Preservation will not grant me the curb cut all my neighbors have, while they gave a commercial curb cut to a large infill. At the same time, DCRA will not enforce the required condo parking that was part of the plans to a building converted on shaky legal grounds.


Development in themail
Michael Bindner,

Until Friendship Heights, Woodley Park, and Cleveland Park residents realize that enhanced development authority is about their property rather than downtown, the developers will get free reign. By the time they figure it out, however, it will be too late for them. The Tenley Library was a clumsy shot across the bow. It can and will become much worse once the developers get the kinks out the process. Expect the Wisconsin Avenue corridor to look a lot more like Connecticut Avenue in the next twenty years — and expect them both to look like Manhattan in fifty.


Who Calls the Shots for the Growth Agenda?
Richard Layman, 

Gary, you were quoted in Siegel’s The Future Once Happened Here (a book about the decline of cities). Do you really not understand the reality of how cities work? As Molotch argues in “The City as a Growth Machine,”, despite seeming intra-elite competition, local political and economic elites are united around a pro-growth agenda focused on an intensification of land use, which increases developer revenues, as well as property tax revenues, which for most cities (DC collects income taxes, most other cities do not) makes up the bulk of municipal revenues. In DC, the growth agenda is coordinated by the Federal City Council (founded in part by Philip Graham when he was publisher of the Washington Post), the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and to some extent the DC Chamber of Commerce. Molotch’s argument is extended in the book, Urban Fortunes: Toward a Political Economy of Place. While local journalists Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood never read Molotch, and are not trained urban sociologists, their book Dream City: Race, Power and the Decline of Washington, DC, focused on the Barry years, is a case study explaining the growth machine thesis. Chapter 4 of the book is on development, and even if you have been an involved citizen, it is extremely eye opening (and disturbing), in how it explains how the process works.

To be fair to directors of planning offices, in DC and elsewhere, at the end of the day they do what they’re told. Your introduction makes it out that the office of planning provides cover for developers. The fact is that developers make very clear to the city’s elected officials what their agendas are, and the executive branch makes very sure that for the most part, the Office of Planning toes the line. Last fiscal year I worked for an Office of Planning for a county government in Maryland. This was my first formal job working directly for a government agency, and I was definitely schooled in how the system works, what agency personnel are allowed to say in public, how everything of significance has to be cleared with your supervisor and then up the chain of command to the executive. If you’re too progressive, your agency’s purview gets restricted (over time in that county, the permits office, community development office, and transportation planning units were removed from the office of planning and relocated to other government agencies).

It behooves every involved citizen to read Molotch as well as Dream City, which is out of print but available at local libraries (a review of the book in Washington Monthly is also available online here: And the no-longer-published Common Denominator did an award winning piece about the Federal City Council:


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