Former Washington, D.C., mayor and urban leader is selected to receive the prestigious land use industry award from ULI.
Anthony “Tony” Williams, who served as the mayor of Washington, D.C., from 1999 to 2007, has been awarded the 2020 ULI Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. He is widely credited with leading D.C.’s comeback during his two terms, restoring the District’s finances while dramatically improving city services. He set—and achieved—an ambitious goal of drawing 100,000 new residents to the District within a decade, and led the revitalization of the urban core, attracting new recreational, commercial, and residential development, including expansive new mixed-use communities along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, reconnecting the city with its waterfront.
Williams is the current CEO and executive director of the Federal City Council, a nonprofit organization that draws upon the creative and administrative talents of Washington’s business and professional leaders to address major issues facing the U.S. capital city.
Thank you for agreeing to the interview—and congratulations on the award.
The turnaround that you led in Washington, D.C., was spectacular. This award is for visionaries in urban development. What part about your work would you say could be considered visionary?
From the very beginning, I came into office having worked in different cities and having worked in economic development and finance in different governments—state, local, federal. I had studied cities; I had been an elected official when I was a student in New Haven, [Connecticut], which was a struggling city. So, I learned a lot about the trials, the tribulations, the story of the American city. When I came to Washington, D.C., I was pretty well versed in what made cities tick, so to speak, and I saw that there were different roles that a mayor could play. The mayor was the chief constable; the mayor was the chief counselor to the people; the mayor was the chief of state representing the people.
I took very seriously Washington, D.C., was a planned city. It isn’t an organic city like Boston that’s been around since the original settlement of the United States. Washington really was a planned city that began with the experiment in American constitutional government. When I came along in the year 2000, I took seriously the fact that we had a plan for Washington, D.C.—the L’Enfant Plan—in 1800. We had the McMillan Plan, it’s called the Monumental Plan, [which addressed the District’s monumental core and parks] in 1900. And I recognized that I was in a position to really shape a vision for the city in the year 2000. So, I took the role of planning and development very seriously. And, [I asked] what were the tools that could really make that possible? The most important tool is your team, and I hired the very best people.
The way I have always thought about it is that you’re trying to rebuild a community. To me, the public realm is not only [the public space that is] coming up against the private space. We think of streets and parks as the public realm. But I think of the public realm almost metaphysically. It is really the public good, it’s a community. What constitutes a healthy community? And those were my building blocks. You start with public accountability and transparency, leaving things better than you found them. Public trust, faith and credit—you pay your bills, finances are strong.
To me, public trust and accountability are at the core of public accountability.
Then, of course, we had to rebuild our police department and public safety. And we had to rebuild services, so that if you call for public services something actually happens. We were building customer service.
Then, I thought public planning was really important—this notion of public participation and planning. We tried to involve everybody in the planning process. You know, I use the Japanese proverb: Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare. So you really need to marry the ability to execute, which is fundamental to a community, but then have a vision toward which you can execute. For me, I think what turns out to have been a stretch but really worked was a vision of looking at the finances of the city.
Those finances were in disarray before you assumed office.
Right. So, how could we rebuild the finances of the city? We could improve the finances of the city by improving our downtown; in our sales tax; we could improve the finances of our city by improving our income tax base by setting a goal of 100,000 new residents to the city, which dramatically improved our income tax collection.
I set a goal in 2004 of 100,000 new residents. We’ve achieved that goal; I think we’re now at around 600,000 to 700,000. The building blocks, in my mind, were another goal: We thought of building blocks of the city—the downtown, the great streets, like H Street. We worked on 14th Street.
For those who would be unfamiliar, H Street has historic significance in Washington, correct?
Right. Fifty-two years ago, it was site of the riots.
And before that, it was a cultural center.
Yes, so bringing H Street back, and 14th Street [which has become a vibrant corridor of trendy restaurants and entertainment] were examples of really investing in streets and neighborhoods. A really great example of neighborhood was what we did at Columbia Heights, which gained a Target, and the GALA [Grupo de Artistas LatinoAmericanos] Hispanic Theatre that now resides at the Tivoli Theatre [a grand 1920s-era movie house that had been abandoned since the 1970s, before extensive rehabilitation in the early 2000s]. In the downtown, a great example would be Gallery Place around what’s now called the Capital One Arena, around 7th and H streets. And the waterfront—we were trying to shift the focus of D.C. from exclusively the Mall to a broader lens that would encompass the city’s waterfront. Every great city has a geographic identity—it could be mountains, it could be a valley. In our case it’s a waterfront, and we really should embrace that and celebrate it. The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative was born out of that belief.
So many visitors would come to D.C. and never leave the federal properties; they would not stray a block or two beyond the Mall. Now there are things that entice visitors and residents to the waterfront and to other parts of the city.
How important was the baseball team to this resurgence? You were instrumental in bringing the Washington Nationals to D.C., correct?
It was a team effort I was proud to lead.
How important was that?
I think it was a symbiotic relationship between what we were doing on the waterfront and the accelerant of the baseball team. The other investments—all working together—really sparked the combustion that made it happen. Like a lot of developments, there’s an array of factors, but clearly a critical factor was the baseball stadium.
One of the side effects of all this growth and new residents has been gentrification. Last year, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition called D.C. the most intensely gentrifying city in the country. [This year, D.C.’s ranking dropped to 13th.] What are your thoughts about gentrification versus development? Is gentrification inevitable?
There are waves of development and we’ve learned from each successive wave how to do it better. The development we were doing in the first decade of the 2000s—obviously we were doing it better than we were doing some of it during the 1980s. And we were definitely doing it better than during the urban renewal period during the 1960s and 1970s with model cities, in terms of design and intentional displacement.
Here it was unintentional, but undoubtedly true. The way I look at it is that there are two sides of looking at the new investment. If you look at it as displacement, that’s bad. But if you look at it as new investment that we have harvested to support an unparalleled level of investment in human resources, it’s great. If you mean investment, that means that now the families that still live in these neighborhoods that are low- to moderate-income have role models now and are living amid diverse incomes. Every study shows that that’s better for the kids than living in an all-low-income neighborhood.
I think some concession has to be made that it would be better to bring [up] the neighborhood as it exists, with the existing population. Maybe that would be better. I actually think a mix of populations and incomes is good. But even if you allow that just taking the neighborhood where it is and providing the opportunities and the job uplift and doing that improvement, organically or intrinsically, so to speak, that’s really hard to do in the global economy. But, that said, I think we’re learning now a lot more about small-business generation, about business growth, about minimizing displacement. I’m still working in my current job on a goal of revitalizing the neighborhood around Langston Golf Course, and I want to put into play what we’ve learned from 20 years ago.
At the Federal City Council, the organization you lead now, there is quite an emphasis on preserving or increasing workforce housing. A lot of the development community is working with you on that. Can you talk a little bit more about your efforts there?
The Washington Housing Initiative is essentially an effort to get ahead of the real estate wave before prices become unaffordable and the cost of intervening and providing affordability becomes, itself, unaffordable or non-economic. We are trying to go out there and preserve affordability for working-class families. There are other programs out there that are doing the lowest-income housing and those programs are needed. We are addressing the workforce housing and trying to achieve a social purpose in an economically feasible, sustainable way.
But this involves going out there, being proactive, being anticipatory—being preventive as opposed to just reactive. Because right now a lot of the housing we do is right at the peak of the wave, and that’s when the costs are highest. If we can go out there and preserve affordability, we can cover a lot more ground and support a lot more families.
Do you have recommendations for ways other cities can emulate that?
When I have taught, I tell mayors and other city leaders that I think it’s important to understand the topology of the city you’re in. You have a demand economy or you have an incentive economy. If you have an incentive economy where there really isn’t a pent-up demand and prices aren’t rising in your city, then you have an affordability problem but a lot of it is an income problem. People just have income issues and therefore cannot support even the lower prices in your city. For example, not to pick on Youngstown, Ohio, but I would say that may be one of these situations.
Whereas if you’re in a situation like Washington or San Francisco where there’s demand for this housing and prices are high, then you have a different problem. In that case, you want to harness and galvanize the demand and the investment in your city and channel that into community benefits, positive multiplier effects, and the like. But as of yet, it’s really understanding the kind of city you have and not conflating the two.
When you’re running a city, you’re running an entity with a balance sheet, and you’ve got assets and you’ve got expenses and liabilities. You’ve got to try and do what you can to enhance and leverage your assets. You’ve got to understand what you have before you can do anything. You’ve got to understand your city in order to be able to lead your city. If you don’t understand where you’re starting from, how can you get to where you’re trying to go?
The pandemic is changing everything, for the short term and maybe for the long term.
How do you see the effect of the pandemic and shutdowns on cities?
Well, a good friend of mine, Ed Glaeser, the Harvard professor, curator, and analyst of cities, would say—and I would agree; everybody would say, all the way back to Lewis Mumford in The City in History —the gravitational pull of a city since ancient times is pretty much permanent. But it’s going to be broken up by war, famine, and, yes, plague. People are going to change their attitudes. In the long term, I think people are still going to want to be in cities because of the proximity and the benefits that cities have in terms of innovation, intellectual ferment, and exchange of scholarship, research, experimentation, worship, art, and performance, let alone the economies of markets, and personal contact and everything that comes from that.
All of that—the reasons why people want to be in cities—is going to continue over the long term. But over the short to medium term, I think there are some serious questions that cities have to face. Scenario one, even if we have a vaccine and it’s accepted and put into distribution and has an effect, we’re still talking probably another six to nine months, maybe a year. And, scenario two, if there isn’t a vaccine and this becomes the new normal, we will have a sea change in people’s attitudes about working, about commuting, about how they enjoy and entertain themselves. This is a serious question for cities. So, I think cities around the country have to do some serious thinking about what their recovery planning really looks like.
Reopening planning up to now has been, well, we simply open up the gates and the economic energy flows to the next level. But what if, as I suspect, this thing persists and there are permanent changes in attitudes and preferences? We have to start making concessions and allowances for that and do some serious thinking about different scenarios. This means, for example, remember when I talked about the demand economies, this is going to affect the economic demand for cities. You’re going to see this in everything from vacancy absorption rates, to the impact on retail and the economic metrics around retail. I mean, it’s serious, you know?
Is there anything you’ve seen in the reaction to the pandemic and shutdowns that has heartened or encouraged you? Things that might be worth keeping, if possible?
Yeah. What encourages me—and I think that it’s almost like a fundamental law of planning—is that people want to be closer. Controlling for public safety and health, people generally want to be closer to one another than farther apart. And I think that when you see that even now, with people frequenting restaurants even when they’ve got to go through hurdles and barriers, they’re still going to these places because of this attraction. That gives me hope and that gives me confidence.
Your current work is with the Federal City Council—a who’s who of D.C. and regional leaders. How much of your experience with that is specific to a city like D.C., which is unusual because of its federal relationship, and how much of this experience is replicated in other cities, or could be replicated?
One, it is not being replicated in other cities, and two, I think that it could be on an economical basis, with the right kind of platform. I think businesses will always have a need, under the First Amendment, to advocate their interests because they are employers, they are big taxpayers. They have every right to advocate their interests, and they should do so. But I think there is another role for business in this public realm that I’m talking about to have a voice in shaping the future of their cities, and for organizations like the Federal City Council to play a role. In every city there are big problems, with a big impact, where the biggest players in that community, working with others, can make a big difference. That’s the niche that the Federal City Council falls into, and I think there’s opportunity around the country to do the same thing.
So, this is not just a chamber of commerce or a business improvement organization. What makes the Federal City Council different?
Big issues, where the leaders can make a difference. Like the creation of the Metro [the Washington-area transit system]. Big issues where they can make a difference that are catalytic, like working with Congress to bring the Financial Control Board to D.C. Working to bring education reform to D.C. The Capital One Arena over on Seventh and H streets, the revitalization of Union Station—these are huge projects that provide economic and social uplift to the city. The direct business interests are not necessarily there, for these businesses. It is in their long-term interest to have a healthy, robust city, but they are not looking after their immediate interests. It’s in everybody’s long-term interest.
The council has been around a long time.
Yes, it was started back in the 1950s by the Graham family, Phil Graham [former publisher and owner of the Washington Post] who felt that the District faced a two-pronged problem. Even at that time, we had gross inequality and unacceptable conditions for much of the population in terms of housing and health and economic fortunes. We also had, in the aggregate, a declining economy. And he believed that we needed an organization to stand up and start providing a catalyst to start changing that story.
We manage to do this with very few people because we start projects and then spin off a separate organization. We created the Economic Club; we created the Police Foundation. Since my time, we’ve created a policy center, the Washington Housing Initiative, and we’re creating an organization to take over the management of the three [public] golf courses in D.C. So, a lot of good stuff happens.
We’re using the golf course as a fulcrum for community revitalization. Also, it’s about livability in a city; golf courses are a big part of livability. If your city’s not livable, that has economic ramifications. The city’s revenues are impaired, and then all the human services are thereby reduced and limited as well.
Is there anything that worries you? Anything that you see on the horizon as a problem that needs more attention?
I think we’re locked in right now, across some political firing line, so to speak, around the issue of police and public safety. Everybody needs the right group of people to sit down dispassionately and think about how we want to conceive—and over the long-term design, support, and sustain—the right kind of public safety in which the right kind of police department plays a role. It is a complex set of factors of which policing is just one part. Most sensible people aren’t talking about defunding the police department, but everybody would agree that we need to think about how to do public safety better so, one, we don’t keep seeing instances of George Floyd, and, two, in many cities the crime rate is unacceptable. And in many of these cities we are spending an enormous amount on policing, but it’s not having the intended effect. So, even from a mechanical, tactical point of view, we have got to think about doing something differently. But we’ve got to do it in an intelligent, responsible way.
ELIZABETH RAZZI is editor in chief of Urban Land.
Learn more about ULI’s extensive awards program as part of the 2020 ULI Virtual Fall Meeting.