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Photo: Trent Johnson

Andrew Trueblood Brings Energy, Earnestness and Millennial Outlook to DC Office of Planning

There is an earnestness that exudes from Andrew Trueblood. The 36-year-old director of the DC Office of Planning (OP) – the first millennial tapped for that role by Mayor Muriel Bowser last November – has already made quite an impact on the city, garnering praise from his peers committed to preserving the cultural heartbeat of the District. With 15 years of city life and six of District government experience under his belt, he brings deep understanding of and affection for the nation’s capital to the table. Though his ultimate goal is to overcome the city’s growing housing gap and produce affordable housing across all wards, Director Trueblood is also an advocate for preserving the city’s authenticity through initiatives like those born from the first-ever DC Cultural Plan, released by Mayor Bowser in April. I sat down with him to dig into how being an “elder” millennial – his words, not mine – uniquely positions him to connect with the local community, how to tackle tougher issues impacting the city like gentrification, and his love of cycling, theatre and trying Michelin star restaurants.

On Tap: How would you describe your experience running the DC Office of Planning thus far? What have been the biggest challenges? Successes?
Andrew Trueblood: I’m excited to see Planning take the role that I think it ought to take given all of the challenges that we’re facing across the city. I’m excited to work closely not only with the Mayor but also be hand-in-hand with [other agencies]. Those connections have helped elevate our work and make sure that what we’re doing is aligning across the government but also achieving results that are important. We do have to think about all of these tradeoffs between growth and equity – between what we’re asking of residents and what we need to get things done. Because we can take that broader view, we can provide other agencies the needed information for them to make long-term decisions that are moving us in the right direction.

OT: So you get to be a little higher level and think big picture.
AT: Yeah. What we’re trying to do is both [high-level] work, which is incredibly important, but then tie it to tangible deliverables that residents can feel. Some of that is by thinking about how we engage residents, but it’s also about continuously engaging, releasing intermediate results and findings. [For example], we’ve released a map, which shows where affordable housing is and is not in the city. As we find things, we want to keep sharing them and keep the conversation going. The beauty of the way that media works today is we can have that kind of ongoing dialogue with the community.

OT: How does being director-level in District government as a millennial uniquely position you to support the city through the lens of younger professionals and city dwellers?
AT: My goal is to be able to hear from, understand and articulate the needs and values of every resident. That is the mandate and it requires a degree of empathy. The other thing that is different in the workplace now than before is iterating [and] being okay with trying things and maybe failing. That idea of quicker turnarounds, iterating and building is something I’ve always found to be a valuable way of getting things done, and I’m trying to bring that to this office.


Can’t Live Without
Outdoor activities with family and friends
My bike
The District, especially its amazing arts and culture
Coffee in the morning and nachos in the evening
Podcasts and audiobooks from DC Public Library


OT: How do you connect with the local community to make sure you’re keeping a pulse on what’s happening and stay relatable?
AT: What I’ve learned – actually more since I took this role than when I was [Chief of Staff at the Deputy Mayor’s Office] – is a lot of people appreciate that I am accessible and available, and will listen and try and make the mechanics of government move. I am trained as a planner, I have a degree, I’ve been in the city for 15 years. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I know all the things. I think being authentic and honest when I engage with residents or stakeholders is really at the base of how I’m trying to do this. I’ve gone out to groups that have been very critical of the Office of Planning. My goal is to be honest with them about what we want to try to do [and] try to find places of commonality that we can work together in. Sometimes, honesty means saying hard things or saying when we disagree.

OT: How important is it to you to make those connections in the community and keep them, and how do you integrate that into your role and decision-making process in local government?
AT: One thing I learned early in my public service career is often times, it’s very easy to say something that will make someone happy now but will make that official a liar in the future. [If I] say something now to take the heat off today but then in the future, people might feel like I was not honest with them. It’s more important to be honest today than to potentially lose that trust. So building that trust across the different groups I think is really important, especially in Planning where we are balancing all of these competing interests.

OT: The District has changed so much in the past decade – we’re on the foodie map nationally, plays are coming here to make their pre-Broadway debuts, venues like The Anthem are opening. From the OP perspective, do you see anything problematic about how this impacts our economic landscape or do you view it as exciting and embrace the changes?
AT: It is problematically good. The health of a city is about its ability to have amenities and grow and serve its residents. I think having good restaurants, entertainment and arts and culture is all critical. Our schools have improved over the last 15 years. Our [health care] facilities are top-notch. Our libraries are amazing. We as a city need to grow in order to utilize the infrastructure we have. We can control structures, but we cannot control souls. We can [choose] not to build things, but that doesn’t mean that people who have wealth won’t want to live in the city. If you have the same number of structures and more people with wealth coming in, that exacerbates gentrification. We need to figure out how we grow as a city. We have the chance to be very thoughtful about what growth and development look like.

OT: Do you have concerns about DC becoming gentrified and up-and-coming neighborhoods losing their heartbeat, affordability and accessibility of the locals as younger, wealthier professionals move in? How can the city combat that through OP initiatives?
AT: I am very worried about housing costs and the ability for residents – especially low- and moderate-income residents, residents of color, longtime residents – to be able to keep their homes. Gentrification is a lot more challenging to discuss because it is multifaceted. We’re trying to produce 36,000 housing units by 2025 [and] we think 12,000 of those need to be subsidized. I worry that by focusing on a few neighborhoods, we lose sight that the forces happening are often broader. The discussion about gentrification could take us away from thinking [about] the programs and policies we need across the city.

OT: What initiatives are you supporting or leading to create affordable housing options for locals?
AT: The Mayor made the funding and programs around housing the cornerstone [of her first administration]. I think for [her] second term, [we’re] taking a step back and addressing some of these more systemic, structural questions. Why haven’t we been able to produce the housing across the income spectrum? How do we make sure our programs are aligned to produce the housing we need for the residents who need it most and what are those needs? We are working on a housing framework for equity and growth. We’re looking to see how we [can] address these housing needs in different parts of the city.

OT: Walk me through your involvement with the DC Cultural Plan. Why do you view it as important to the city?
AT: I think culture is […] what makes a city what it is. It’s part of its DNA. I think recognizing culture as its own important value and concept is what this plan seeks to do and then also to build on that. I think that, as a touchstone, is really important. I think it’s also fascinating that this came out about a week before a lot of the #DontMuteDC protests started happening. There’s a two-page opening about black culture, for example, as an important piece of the city’s authenticity. I think as a broad statement, [preserving authenticity] is what the Cultural Plan is about. It’s stating why we are vibrant and a unique place and not just any other city.

OT: What value do you think the plan’s funding recommendations bring to the city’s creative community?
AT: There are some very tangible recommendations put in place around different ways to think about funding. I don’t think it was ever meant to say we shouldn’t use grants. Grants are obviously an important piece of any support for the arts. There are untapped resources that we can tap if we create these new programs, and so there were different loan funds proposed. I’m hoping that it’ll continue to be an important guiding document and help guide how we think about culture in the city and cultural investments.

OT: Are there initiatives you’d like to pursue in the coming year that may not be on the public’s radar yet, but that you feel passionately about and would like to share?
AT: The thing I spend the most mental energy on is housing. It touches everybody. I’m trying to help have a two-way conversation. Everyone has their own housing story [so we are] thinking about how we use those stories and experiences to drive our analysis and to drive our policies. It’s clear that there’s a deep housing gap. We’re not producing the housing [that we need to] as a growing city. If in the next six months, we can do things to think about how to overcome that gap and bend the curve of housing and affordable housing production, I think that’s the biggest win we could have.

OT: What do you do for fun in DC when you aren’t working?
AT: It’s amazing to see the growth of the food scene. I have my food tracker. I track how many of the Michelin star restaurants that I’ve been to, and that’s fun. The biggest thing I do outside of the office is cycling. I love long rides and seeing the world, but I also love riding around the city – whether it’s on a Capital Bikeshare or my city bike. I love the theatre scene in DC. I’m a Woolly Mammoth subscriber. I love Fringe. I love that Fringe is growing and bringing a whole other crew of people and interest to theatre.

Stay in the loop with OP initiatives at www.planning.dc.gov and follow Director Trueblood on Twitter @atrueblood.

Monica Alford interviews Mayor Muriel Bowser at Culture House DC // Photo: Rich Kessler

Mayor Muriel Bowser Talks DC’s Grit, Growth and Cultural Authenticity

Mayor Muriel Bowser lights up when I ask about her 1-year-old daughter, Miranda. I’m curious about what mom-and-daughter adventures they embark on around the District, but more importantly, I want to know how she juggles being at the helm of DC government with motherhood. She urges moms to give themselves a break and do the best they can, but she’s honest that it’s a balancing act. Striking that constant balance extends beyond carving out quality time with her baby while leading DC. It’s apparent that she is simultaneously supportive of the city’s longtime residents while also embracing the changing economic landscape. From releasing the DC Cultural Plan and creating the Office of Nightlife and Culture to hiring bright millennials ready to lead in director-level positions, it’s clear that she strives for forward-thinking initiatives. As I sat across from Mayor Bowser on the stage of community art space Culture House DC, I caught a brief but powerful glimpse of what our city’s cultural heartbeat means to her and how she plans to preserve it. 

On Tap: How have you watched the DC economic landscape shift over the past decade as the city’s become a foodie destination and arts and culture hub? Do you view this as a positive impact on the city overall?
Mayor Bowser: I think it’s outstanding that many, many more restaurants have located and created more jobs in hospitality. We have welcomed Michelin star ratings to the city and people are definitely talking about how the food scene has exploded. I think it’s all positive.

OT: How do you predict the arrival of Amazon will impact the DC area? Do you have concerns that we’ll experience a shift in affordability and accessibility due to the surrounding tech areas and overall tech industry?
MB: We’ve been focused during my entire tenure on how to create more affordable housing for Washington, DC and I’m very proud that we’ve been able to add thousands of new units. We have 20,000 units in the pipeline. But we know we have to do a lot more. By the year 2025, we have to add 36,000 new housing units to DC alone. For us to continue to be competitive and track down people and keep and retain families in the District, we know we have to [provide] competitive housing. 

OT: What measures are you taking to support long-time residents with concerns about gentrification? How can the city protect the local community while also embracing growth?
MB: Well, it takes everybody, right? It takes the government. It takes the community. It takes people who’ve lived here for five generations like my family, and people who are just moving to DC. Everybody finds something that they love about our town – that it’s growing, we’re improving [our] schools, parks, recreation, walkability, public transit – you name it, we have it. But there is a certain grit about Washington, DC that’s beloved and should be treasured. 

OT: Almost one year into your second term, what are your core priorities for the city? What high-level initiatives are you currently most focused on? What are some of the biggest impacts you hope to make over the course of the next three years?
MB: We continue to be laser-focused on housing. I see making DC more affordable as one of the most important things I can do in my second term. We have been focused on affordable units. We’re also focused on creating new jobs that are paying good, sustaining salaries. And that’s not just in tech, even though we’ve made a big play in tech and we were named again one of the best places for women in tech, and we’re attracting founders in startup companies and capital to come help those companies grow. We are also going into our fifth year of 202Creates. That’s where we promote the creative economy in DC and make sure people know that you can really earn a living in the arts here in DC. We’re talking about all art forms, housing, [and] affordable [and] creative spaces, and making sure people know that they can make a living in the arts. 

OT: How do you stay connected to the local community? How do you make yourself accessible to locals to make sure voices are heard, especially minorities and communities in need?
MB: We have very robust outreach [programs]. Last year, we formed a new Office of Nightlife and Culture (MONC). We do find that a lot of our newer residents don’t connect in more traditional ways to government, and so going to them where they are and connecting to them in many ways is super important. Our Office of Nightlife and Culture works with the business community and community groups to make sure our nightlife economy is thriving and forward-looking.

OT: MONC Director Shawn Townsend certainly had stiff competition, with 500-plus other applicants. Why was he the right fit for the role, and why did this office feel necessary at this time for our city?
MB: There were a lot of applicants. It has been kind of a maiden voyage as an office. It was important for us to focus its mission – and the mission is not all business, it’s not all community. It’s focused on how we can promote our nighttime economy. We have people from around the region coming to Washington to enjoy the restaurants, theatre, [neighborhoods like] The Wharf, sports, [etc.] that we’ve developed here. 

OT: It seems the focus of the office is two-fold: supporting the business aspects of nightlife and cultural preservation. Can you speak to Director Townsend’s plan for the cultural components a bit, as those seem to be grayer area with less tangible outcomes?
MB: I wouldn’t put that responsibility solely on him. We also have an office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment that does a lot to attract artists to DC and give them various ways to showcase their talent. We have an arts commission [the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities] who is responsible for helping to fund artists, including preservation projects and documentary projects. Our documentary on go-go is an award-winning documentary. 

OT: Tell me about citywide effort 202Creates’ celebration of the local creative community in September. Why is the census important?
MB: It’s a monthlong extravaganza, really. In all eight wards, there will be some kind of showcase of the arts including our creative hair stylists and makeup artists. 

OT: What impact do you think tapping Andrew Trueblood as the first millennial to direct the Office of Planning has made thus far?
MB: What’s important to me is to hire the best, and he was the best. He also represents a group of people who are in the government who had earned a promotion. He was in a group of about four or five people who had been serving in various capacities who at the start of my second term I appointed as directors. I think it’s important for all of the people that I manage – 37,000 people – that they see that their hard work, creativity and fresh ideas will be rewarded. I couldn’t be happier about those decisions.

OT: Do you see unique value in the ways millennial directors can connect with younger generations in the DC community?
MB: I think it’s important to have diversity of voices. Age diversity is one. I think sometimes younger people are overlooked because somebody will say, “Well, you don’t have the experience” or “It’s not your turn, wait your turn.” My view is if they have demonstrated hard work ethic and ideas, and have the propensity to lead, then they should be given the opportunity.

OT: What about local theaters or music venues? Are there any spots you really enjoy?
MB: We recently held my inauguration activities down at The Anthem, at The Wharf, and I’m reminded sometimes that people are introduced to new venues because I’ve invited them to some event, or the city has hosted something there. We really do try to go around the city to different venues to invite DC residents to make sure they’re checking out those venues. A lot of times, it’s [their] first time there. For a lot of people, The Anthem for our swearing-in activities was their first-time experience of the music venue, but also of the hotels and restaurants nearby. 

OT: As a mom devoted to her career, do you have any advice for women who are not in traditional 9 to 5s, that have more demanding career paths and want to truly excel as leaders in their field and also be wonderful, hands-on moms?
MB: I wish I was an expert, but I’m not. I’m doing the best that I can, and I suspect most people are. My biggest piece of advice is to give yourself a break and know that everything is not going to be perfect. Do the best you can and love your child and manage your time as best you can. I also try to protect our time together. When I have that scheduled time, I try not to let anything interfere with it.

For more on the DC Cultural Plan, go to www.dcculturalplan.org.

Learn about Mayor Bowser’s other initiatives at www.mayor.dc.gov and follow her on Twitter @mayorbowser.