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Williamsí city planner pick has big job ahead

(Published September 6, 1999)


Special to The Common Denominator

After languishing for four years with a series of acting directors, the cityís planning department has a new chief. Andrew Altman, until recently director of city planning in Oakland, Calif., was chosen by a five-member committee. He started work Aug. 2.

The selection committee was chaired by Tersh Boasberg, attorney and head of the Committee of 100. The national search yielded about 50 applicants, Boasberg said.

Filling the job was a hard sell in part because itís well known around the country that the Districtís plannerís role is complicated by federal oversight. Many candidates for the job didnít realize that the city has a new mayor. Another real negative, Boasberg said, is that "the staff of the planning department has been decimated. There are now about 18 when there used to be about 40, which was low for a city of this size. Montgomery County and Fairfax both have over 150 (planning staffers)." Turnover is high among city planners nationwide with most staying only three or four years in a job, said George Oberlander, a Montgomery County planner who was on the board of the National Capital Planning Commission for 31 years.

Turnover has been nearly constant in the D.C. offices concerned with planning, zoning and economic development ó even at the top level. Deputy Mayor for Business and Economic Development Doug Patton, who took office in February, will leave in October. Prior to Patton, the slot was held for three years by acting directors who often were subdivision chiefs at the same time. Department of Housing and Community Development chief Richard Monteilh was fired in June after one of the longest tenures in the division: 18 months. He was appointed by former Mayor Marion Barry in December 1997.

The job of city planner in the District is unique. "In most cities the mayor is chief planner. The mayor doesnít have to have professional knowledge of planning but has to have an office of planning to advise him. Here, we have an unusual situation because under the home rule charter, land-use decisions can be enacted by the council only after the National Capital Planning Commission has reviewed them" commented Oberlander. In the current administration, planning could be more important than in others because, "Tony Williams sees himself as a planner but he needs good information and the new person (Altman) has great potential," said professor Stephen Fuller, who teaches political economy at George Mason University in Fairfax but was a planner in New Jersey and Memphis, Tenn.

Altman has started work but he must be confirmed by D.C. City Council. The hearing for Altman is scheduled for Sept. 28 and confirmation will require a simple majority of the council, according to Lisa Bell, general counsel for Deputy Mayor Patton.

Why would Altman want to leave the desirable Bay Area and Oakland, which at least has the economic advantage of a port and isnít strapped with federal oversight? In January 1999, while Altman was on leave for his Loeb Fellowship at Harvard, Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown became mayor of Oakland and to the surprise of many, initiated a distinctly non-populist, pro-real estate development, anti-crime regime. But Altman says itís the job itself and the District of Columbia that he wants because it affords "one the greatest opportunities in a world-class city." He is particularly drawn by the prospect of the new administration and Mayor Williamsí "commitment to planning." He sees himself as an "urban person" who enjoys living in a diverse city, having grown up in Germantown, an inner-city section of Philadelphia. He said he plans to "be out in the neighborhoods, not reactive sitting in the office."

"Andyís not driven by politics," according to Oakland community activist, architect and University of Washington professor Michael Pyatock. "That may make him more difficult to own. He did his job and people knew they could trust him to come up with an honest answer, not what people wanted to hear."

Still, some voice reservations and many insist that the confirmation process demands deliberation and debate. Shaw activist Beth Solomon pondered, "What is the internal power structure in the Department of Business and Economic Affairs? I wonder what his (Altmanís) function is vis á vis Doug Patton?" Solomon said the Committee of 100, of which she is a member, is "taking a close look at this appointment and taking it very seriously because itís a key position we care deeply about. Washington is the greatest planned city in the U.S. and it seems he has most of his experience in redevelopment and economic development rather than a focus on planning and preserving the city."

Another criticism is that Altman is not a certified city planner. Among those this troubles is George Washington University planning professor Dorn McGrath. Altman has a masterís degree in planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a Loeb Fellow in the Design School at Harvard University. He headed Oaklandís planning office for three years, managed comprehensive planning under economic development for one year and worked in redevelopment in Los Angeles for six years. But McGrath points out that certified planners are preferable to non-certified ones because they are bound by a code of ethics. The first rule in their code is, "A plannerís primary obligation is to serve the public interest." However, the code does not define "public interest."

Among those who dispute McGrathís argument for certification is Ellen McCarthy, planner and former president of the local D.C. planning organization. McCarthy contends Altmanís lack of certification is inconsequential. The District doesnít require certification as a condition of practicing planning; only two states do so. About a third of the countryís planners are certified, according to the American Planning Association. Certification requires passing a test and paying dues, which, according to Oberlander, can be "substantial."

But perhaps most disturbing for McGrath, and many others interviewed for this story, is the legacy of years of those with little expertise or training running the D.C. planning office.

"It is in a most unfortunate secondary position with respect to economic development. Planning has been played down....We have a deal-by-deal driven city and weíre very vulnerable to economic swings," he said.

The composition of the Altman selection committee also rankles some. McGrath lamented the absence of planners or representatives from the local or national planning organizations. However, professional planners were not the only ones left out. A broad range of community groups were not on the selection committee, nor were they consulted by the committee Ė and, for the most part, they were unaware that a new planning director was not only nominated but on the job.

These included the Anacostia Coordinating Committee, the Anacostia Economic Development Coalition, H Street Community Development Corp., Peopleís Involvement Corp. and the Downtown Artists Coalition. None of the groups expressed outrage at their exclusion; most said they were used to being left out of decision-making.

This lack of community representation in the Districtís land-use planning has even been noticed by a national figure who rarely weighs in on local issues: consumer advocate, and sometime presidential candidate, Ralph Nader.

Earlier this summer when Nader decided to fire off a salvo about the cityís latest maladroit land-use scheme ó the intermodal transit center/baseball stadium proposed for Mount Vernon Square ó he put the responsibility squarely on city council. In his missive to Council Chairman Linda Cropp, Council Public Works Committee Chairman Carol Schwartz and David Catania, chairman of the Local and Regional Affairs Committee, he admonished: "Eminent domain funded by corporate welfare to further the corporate over the peopleís domain using secretive, fast-track, unsubstantiated and other roughshod modes of unilateral decision-making are not what many District residents expect from their new Mayor and administration...Rest assured, council members, that a mobilized citizenry will emerge to set such priorities right. The greased wheels will not be so easy this time. Do not judge the present by the past. Represent the people who live and work in your city." According to Naderís office, the July 7 letter was unrelated to Altmanís appointment, which occurred at about the same time. The mayor ultimately backed away from the ITC-Mount Vernon Square plan.

So what is the city plannerís position in all of this? One outside observer, Joel Garreau, author of "The Edge City: Life on the New Frontier," perhaps cynically, perhaps pragmatically suggests, "Government planners and economic development types have little effect on the outcome of what happens in urban areas; itís great in theory but it doesnít amount to a hill of beans in practice. The most powerful force right now is the marketplace."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator