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Last November, the District of Columbia came as close as it has in a century to gaining a degree of control over its skyline. Marcel Acosta, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission, had just released a draft report recommending changes to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, fulfilling a request by Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House committee with oversight of D.C. affairs, for NCPC and the city to review the law that restricts the city’s vertical reach.
Acosta didn’t want to alter height limits within the historic L’Enfant City surrounding downtown, but his report did call for allowing the District to lift height constraints elsewhere through the Comprehensive Plan process. That wouldn’t exactly mean full D.C. autonomy on the matter—any changes would still need to be approved by NCPC, a federal body, and would then go to Congress for review—but it would at least allow the city to propose height changes, a power currently held by Congress alone.
Two days after Acosta published his report, it went to the commission for a vote. As soon as the prevote debate began, Peter May, representing the U.S. Department of the Interior on the commission, moved to strike the recommendation giving D.C. the ability to weigh in on Height Act revisions. Calling control over D.C. building heights a “matter of national interest,” May introduced an amendment that would leave that power in federal hands. His amendment passed, and the NCPC recommendations delivered to Congress called for leaving the Height Act almost entirely intact. (So far, Congress has listened.)
In July, prolific D.C. architect Shalom Baranes went before the Zoning Commission to pitch his design for a K Street NW office building. The commission took issue with a rooftop embellishment, included by Baranes to add visual interest to a commercial corridor whose architecture stands out only for its blandness, and rejected the design, leaving Baranes to grumble that the conservatively regulated D.C. skyline is “kind of a leftover.” But as one commissioner told Baranes, “This is not a matter-of-right project, so we get to be the ones doing the interpreting.” That commissioner was Peter May.
The National Park Service, admired elsewhere for maintaining some of the country’s most iconic natural sites, has a sometimes difficult relationship with the District, where it controls 6,832 acres that bear little resemblance to the Yellowstones and Yosemites that are governed by the same strict rules. In Dupont Circle, that’s meant labyrinthine permitting processes for events and denials of Dupont Circle Citizens Association attempts to conduct volunteer work there, leading the group’s president to call her interactions with the Park Service “miserable.” On the National Mall, it led to a Park Service rejection of Capital Bikeshare stations there, though that was later reversed. In decrepit Pershing Park on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the Park Service’s complicated rules for vendor services resulted in a lack of those services altogether and a state of disrepair. The man in charge of the Park Service’s planning, design, and land-use changes for the D.C. area? Peter May.
May’s formal title is Associate Regional Director for Lands, Planning, and Design for the National Capital Region of the National Park Service. (His title, he notes, isn’t quite the longest one at the agency, since his deputy has the word “deputy” tacked onto the front.) But he has a hand in far more than parks.
May is one of five members of the Zoning Commission, which approves or disapproves any changes to the city’s zoning and is currently reviewing the first comprehensive update to the D.C. zoning code since 1958, with far-reaching implications for the future of the city’s neighborhoods. He’s technically the third alternate for the Interior Department on NCPC, but in practice he’s been the only representative to serve on the commission since he started at the Park Service in 2007. He also sits on the Board of Zoning Adjustment periodically as part of a rotating system, weighing in on developments that seek exceptions to zoning regulations, and is a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board, which plans major road and transit changes for the region.
The federal government has a hand in a wide swath of D.C. affairs, making May less an anomaly than a particularly prolific embodiment of the fluid boundary between federal and local authority. May didn’t seek these positions as some sort of power grab, nor is his juggling of these many D.C.-oversight duties all that unusual. The Park Service always has a representative on the Zoning Commission, for instance, and May’s predecessor in his job held that seat for 34 years. His other positions are likewise reserved for Park Service or Interior Department officials and often fall to those occupying his role of associate director.
And May views his duty as speaking principally for the Park Service, not for himself. Asked whether his Height Act amendment aligns with his personal views on D.C.’s growth, he responds, “I don’t really see a need to answer that. I’m doing a job, and I’m doing it to the best of my ability. And whether I personally agree with it or not is not really that relevant.”
“He doesn’t get to personally decide, ‘This is the way I’m going to protect the federal interest,’” says Carol Mitten, who leads the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s headquarters consolidation efforts and served with May both on the Zoning Commission and in the District government. (In a different kind of example of how federal and local politics intertwine, Mitten’s romantic partner and cohabitant is D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.) “He has all kinds of guidelines and laws and regulations that he has to follow.”
Yet May, whom current and former colleagues describe as deliberative and devoted to the Park Service’s mission, is often the most outspoken and passionate member of the boards on which he sits. On the Zoning Commission, arguably his most influential role, he’s usually the first commissioner to question witnesses, and the most voluble one, drawing deference from his colleagues. And as many of the issues veer from questions of preserving D.C.’s parks and streetscapes to broader philosophical debates or minute design details, there’s much left to his discretion. He’s full of ideas for how to improve, or preserve, elements of the city he’s called home for 37 years, only some of which fall under his Park Service brief.
And so May, a bureaucrat who insists he’s just doing his job in accordance with his guidelines, and who was neither elected by D.C. residents nor appointed by the D.C. government, has come to wield tremendous influence over the city’s affairs. When it comes to shaping the District’s growth and development, he just may be the most powerful person you’ve never heard of.
In 1973, Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, granting the District the right to self-governance with a big asterisk known as Title VI. This portion of the law, under the heading “Reservation of Congressional Authority,” laid out all the things the city government wouldn’t be allowed to do: tax federal property or non-District residents; alter the Height Act; enact laws without congressional review; or assume greater authority over the National Zoo, NCPC, or any other federal entity. And in case it wasn’t clear enough that Congress could revoke the city’s local authority whenever it saw fit, the law included a reminder that “the Congress of the United States reserves the right, at any time, to exercise its constitutional authority as legislature for the District.”
Even so, this limited form of home rule represented a substantial improvement from the almost colonial relationship between the federal government and the District earlier in the century. Rep. John McMillan of South Carolina, who chaired the Committee on the District of Columbia for nearly three decades, was an adamant segregationist who treated the majority-black city with outright hostility and, according to legend at least, sent the city’s first mayor, Walter Washington, a truckload of watermelons as a manifestation of his racial disdain. His fellow Democrat, Rep. William Natcher of Kentucky, led the House appropriations subcommittee in charge of the District, which he called “probably the most wicked city in the world,” and used his perch to withhold funding for the planned Metro system unless the city agreed to build a series of unpopular highways and bridges Natcher wanted. (The D.C. Council initially gave in, but Natcher was eventually overruled by the courts and a rebellious vote by his fellow House members.)
Last week, D.C. officials and residents packed a Senate hearing room for the first congressional hearing on potential D.C. statehood in more than 20 years. For all their testimony accomplished, they might as well have stayed home. Other than Delaware’s Democratic Sen. Tom Carper, who called the hearing, the only other senator to show up was Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who belittled the effort before taking off, leaving statehood advocates to preach to a one-man choir. “Until D.C. residents have a vote in Congress,” pleaded Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “they will not be much better off than African-Americans in the South were” before the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
For the immediately foreseeable future, though, the District will remain under the precarious anvil of Congress’ whims, and the veto power of partially federal bodies like the Zoning Commission and NCPC. And the Park Service’s representative on these bodies will continue to have a much greater say over city affairs than the District’s one non-voting House delegate.
Fortunately for the District, that representative harbors far more fondness for the city than did the McMillans and Natchers who once held sway here. May, 55, grew up in Ridgewood, N.J., and moved to D.C. in 1977 to attend Georgetown. He quickly fell for the city and its modest scale.
“My experience with cities had always been New York City, which can be kind of intimidating,” May recalls. “But Washington was just so much more comfortable. I felt at ease everywhere I was going.”
At Georgetown, May met his future wife, Tina. When she graduated in 1982, a year after he did, they moved to Capitol Hill and never left. May worked as a bartender and eventually manager at the Warner Theatre before taking a job at the National Building Museum. He received a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Maryland in 1993 and worked at private firms until 1999, when he moved to the Architect of the Capitol, the federal agency in charge of the U.S. Capitol grounds. Along with the Park Service, the Architect of the Capitol always has a representative on the Zoning Commission; when that representative retired in 2001, May was chosen to replace him.
Mitten was chairing the zoning board at the time as a D.C. appointee, and she says May quickly made himself useful. “When Peter came on the commission, he was the only architect,” she recounts. “So on design issues, we looked to him not to tell us what to think, but to help us articulate our feelings, or if everybody was in alignment on something, we might defer to him to explain to the applicant what we didn’t like about it.”
So when Mayor Anthony Williams appointed Mitten to direct the city’s Office of Property Management in 2003, she brought May along as her deputy, a role that required him to quit the Zoning Commission. “It’s not like we were spending tons of time together,” Mitten says of her zoning days with May. “It was maybe two days a week. But he’s just a very impressive person.”
When Adrian Fenty was elected mayor in 2006, he didn’t reappoint Mitten. May decided to leave too, “in part because Fenty did not keep Carol Mitten on, and I was not particularly interested in working in a new administration under a different boss,” he says. He took his current job at the Park Service in 2007 and landed back on the Zoning Commission. There was occasional friction with the administration that had dumped his old supervisor, as the Park Service opposed overhead wires for the city’s planned streetcar system and initially prevented Circulator bus service to the National Mall because it would conflict with the Park Service’s concession contract with Tourmobile.
“I think that there may be people in the Fenty administration who felt that I was taking something out on them,” May says. “I can understand how they might feel we were particularly hard on them. But we have rules that we have to follow. We have laws that we have to follow.”
May says the Park Service was “asked by the Fenty administration to kind of look the other way about some of the legal requirements we had to follow,” a request May couldn’t oblige. “If they attribute that personally to me, I think that’s a mistake. I wasn’t doing anything without fully briefing my superiors and getting guidance from my superiors on how to handle things.”
The Park Service’s one-size-fits-all rules that treat Farragut Square like a wilderness area and make it hard to bring in uses other than grass, trees, and benches on its D.C. territory have drawn criticism in the District. In other cities, outdoor cafes, public restrooms, and playgrounds have helped revitalize parks, but Park Service regulations often make it nearly impossible to install these amenities here. “The reason why Lincoln Park gets treated the same as Yellowstone is that in terms of the basic legislation that established the Park Service, there isn’t really any differentiation,” May says.
“It’s a very valid criticism,” says John Parsons, May’s predecessor at the Park Service and Zoning Commission. “The only true metropolitan park system that we manage is in the District of Columbia. What’s probably needed is legislation that would set up regulations to give the Park Service more flexibility. But it always goes into the ‘too hard’ pile, unfortunately.”
In December 2008, a year into May’s tenure at the Park Service, David Alpert, editor of the smart-growth blog Greater Greater Washington, published a post on the site titled “Who is Peter May, and why is the National Park Service anti-urban?” He slammed May’s support for requiring more off-street parking in new buildings and opposition to a planned nine-story building in Shaw for excessive density.
“It’s ridiculous that the National Park Service is meddling in D.C.’s decisions about how tall buildings should be when those buildings aren’t near national parks,” Alpert wrote. “May’s dislike of density cuts against good public policy, good environmentalism, and everything else a planner for our national parks should support.”
Six years later, May has no trouble recalling the blog post. “My nieces and nephews, when they Google me, they see that,” he says. “And they say, ‘Oh, you’re famous!’”
May defends the Park Service’s right to regulate development in the District when it could interfere with views across the city, which he calls an “important national resource that flows from the L’Enfant Plan.” But more than that, he’s bothered by the anti-urban label.
“I am totally pro-urban,” he maintains, noting that he sent his three children to D.C. public schools and ticking off a catalog of street cred: “I’ve had my house broken into twice. I’ve had my garage broken into twice. I’ve had attempts to break into my garage twice. I’ve had three bicycles stolen. My wife was mugged. I’m not going anywhere. I love Washington, and I’m all about living in the city.”
On the Zoning Commission, May is sometimes a defender of walkable (and bikeable) urbanism. May, who says he started biking in the District in 1980 and now bikes everywhere (or at least did before a volleyball injury necessitated knee surgery earlier this month, placing his leg in a cartoonishly large cast), has playfully clashed with Chairman Anthony Hood on a couple of occasions when it comes to cycling. In a 2012 hearing, Hood expressed skepticism about the prevalence of car-free living, stating, “I haven’t seen too many people go to the grocery store and come back with their groceries on a bicycle.” May cited himself as evidence to the contrary, telling Hood, “I’ll call you out. You can watch.” Last November, Hood again mentioned the difficulty of biking around town, particularly going uphill on the (relatively flat) Metropolitan Branch Trail. May ribbed him, “I would just suggest that you don’t try to do it with a fixie. You need gears.”
May has also stood for urbanist principles on weightier matters. In a November hearing on the zoning update, May ruthlessly attacked controversial AAA spokesman John Townsend’s logical inconsistencies in his argument for more parking spaces, forcing Townsend into dialectical corners and shredding his every attempt at explanation.
“Giving them a really good crit is what we call it,” May says, referring to the design critiques to which architecture students are subjected. He admits he’s not shy about challenging witnesses. “I usually have things to say. I review all the materials thoroughly. I would be very happy if some of my colleagues asked more questions.”
Alpert, for his part, has taken a more favorable view of May since his 2008 scolding. “I think the federal government should have less influence, but meanwhile, with Peter we have someone who cares about D.C. and isn’t trying to push some explicitly federal agenda,” he says in an email. “Rather, we have a longtime D.C. resident who is in a position of great power and who has certain views, some of which I agree with and some I don’t.”
As big a say as May has on critical issues facing the District, many of the matters he weighs in on are the stuff of petty neighborhood email list battles. At a 2010 Zoning Commission hearing, he shared his thoughts on whether Bloomingdale’s Big Bear Cafe should be able to serve alcohol or have outdoor seating (“The existing use seems to be a very comfortable fit…but gee, a liquor license there, or a sidewalk cafe? I’m not sure”). In a series of zoning rewrite hearings in November, he tackled drive-through eateries (“Do we really need to permit drive-throughs anymore? I mean, new ones, can they grandfathered under the existing ones?”), garbage-can location (“Trash receptacles appear to be permitted in front yards or in public space under the control of a property owner, so in that, you know, that front yard space. And I’m not sure that that should be universally permitted”), bike-rack spacing (“Bike parking racks, generally speaking, they’re 30 inches apart? I mean, the only place where I really have problems with the racks being too close together was that zoo over at Union Station”), and poultry regulations (“There have been cases on Capitol Hill where somebody wanted to have chickens. So do you plan for that eventuality, or do you plan against it and create another hurdle?”).
Is there a legitimate Park Service or federal interest in these matters? That would be a hard case to make. Likewise with some more substantial debates in which May has participated, like a proposal to allow new corner stores after decades of effective prohibition.
But for every chicken-coop discussion, there’s a debate where the feds do claim an interest, and questions of D.C. home rule are often at stake. Few topics of conversation make federal officials with power over the District more uncomfortable. Tom Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the federal design review agency for projects in D.C. (an area of some overlap with other bodies), has known May for 20 years and sings his praises at length, calling him “one the hardest-working, most dedicated public servants that I work with.” But when it comes to questions of federal control over D.C.? “I’d rather not get quoted and drawn into a big conversation about home rule,” Luebke says.
May, like Luebke and Mitten and others, inhabits a strange middle ground: Much as he might sympathize with D.C. and its push for greater autonomy, his job depends on some degree of federal control, and his duty is to the federal government.
“I’m sure there’s that feeling of being torn between those two things,” says Mitten. “He wouldn’t be on the Zoning Commission if we had complete home rule, right? But I think it’s a question for him of, better I should be here than someone else.”
Many D.C. residents would likely agree. Unlike both his predecessor and his fellow federal representative on the Zoning Commission, May lives in the District, and in defending the values and priorities of his walkable Capitol Hill neighborhood, he argues that the Park Service’s goals of preservation and environmental stewardship “align well with what the District is trying to achieve.” In that sense, D.C. is lucky—but legally still not all that much better off than in the watermelon days. May tries to use his authority for the city’s benefit, much as Issa did in challenging the century-old Height Act orthodoxy. That doesn’t change the fact that congressional overlords still have the sole power to propose certain types of changes in the city, and that federal appointees like May have wide discretion over other D.C. realms. Even if May does sometimes serve as an advocate for the city, his primary obligation is to the Park Service, whose interests don’t always coincide with those of D.C. residents. A benevolent ruler may be better than malevolent one, in other words, but is that enough to overlook the basic lack of democracy?
“I think he needs to play his role there, which is to protect the federal and the Park Service interest,” says David Zaidain, who used to serve with May on the Board of Zoning Adjustment and worked as a planner at NCPC until last year, when he moved to Amtrak to spearhead the Union Station redevelopment plan. “But within that context, he always thinks about the community interest as well.”
“Obviously he is the representative of the National Park Service, so one of his primary responsibilities is to ensure that the Park Service’s position is fairly represented,” says NCPC’s Acosta. But he adds, “One thing that Peter brings to the Commission, which is an important role, is that he’s a long-term resident of the District, and he’s also worked for District government.” On a body where only two-thirds of the members speak for the federal government, that background can serve D.C. well when its future is being debated.
Mina Wright, who represents the General Services Administration on NCPC, has known May since they both worked at the National Building Museum in the 1980s and is sufficiently confident in their friendship to describe herself as “a pain in his ass” on the record. Calling May “much more conservative than I am” when it comes to allowing change in the city, Wright was disappointed that May didn’t embrace a Height Act compromise. But she understands why he acted the way he did.
“I think that working inside the Park Service is a really difficult place to be,” she says. “He navigates the process really well. I would probably last about a nanosecond in the Park Service because I’m not as patient as he is.”
Perhaps May is simply playing the long game. He insists he won’t match Parsons’ 34 years in his role (“I told you how old I am—do the math”), but maybe the only way to effect change at an organization as structurally conservative as the Park Service is from within, and slowly.
“I feel like I am bringing a perspective to the Park Service in our internal discussions and to the Department of the Interior, and I can bring up some of those issues that are important to District residents,” he says. “Occasionally I will speak up for something I think is important because of my sensibilities as a city dweller or a District resident. And they don’t necessarily resonate. I’ll push those perspectives, and sometimes I persuade people, and sometimes I don’t.”
Mitten says there are two kinds of people at the Park Service: those who imbue the agency’s regulations with “biblical importance,” and those who follow the rules but try to find ways to remove obstructions to progress. “I think that Peter at least is open to the philosophy of the latter group,” she says. “I can’t say he employs it all the time.”
That may not sound like the most passionate ally the District could have. But with 12 of the 13 members of the D.C. Council having voted last year to urge Congress not to grant the District any additional autonomy on building heights; with the city’s most effective friend in Congress, Issa, a staunchly conservative Republican whose political views hardly ever align with those of most D.C. residents; with the transgressions of our current and former elected officials constantly being used against us when we seek statehood and other rights, perhaps, as long as federal control over the District remains what it is, a cautiously open-minded, self-described pro-urban, incrementalist longtime D.C. resident is about as much as we could ask for in a federal gatekeeper.