When LOEBlogger Margaret Scott stopped in to chat with Marcel Acosta during her summer in DC, she learned something about the multiple constituencies, layers of government and imperatives he manages in his role with the National Capital Planning Commission. He approaches it all with openness, curiosity and deep respect for the historical and symbolic significance of the nation’s capital.
As an urban planner and the executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission, Marcel Acosta has an unusual jurisdiction. Rather than the boundaries of a city or a county, he is instead the steward of a federal dominion: the nation’s capital. He worked previously in a variety of capacities, including as senior vice president of planning and development at the Chicago Transit Authority and as deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development. As a Loeb Fellow from ’01, Acosta’s connections to the GSD remain strong, through the Loeb network, as a studio critic for planning students, or working alongside a number of GSD alumni at the NCPC.
Acosta assumed his role with NCPC in 2001, and he sees a dual responsibility, to the national and symbolic significance of the district and equally to DC as a “living city.” He is adamant that the federal government must assert itself as a “good neighbor.” Accordingly, NCPC has a unique mission, protecting and enhancing the “narrative of America’s history,” while also balancing change in a city experiencing growth and expansion after a long period of decline. In the District of Columbia, the local and federal converge and in many ways mirror one another. Just as DC was home to a new democracy several centuries ago, now with just over four decades of “home rule,” the District has also welcomed a new local government.
Input on capital planning comes from across the nation and even from international capital cities. DC is part of the “Capitals Alliance” with the likes of Canberra, Brasilia, and Ottawa, which share planning and development insight across borders. Acosta’s curiosity and openness enables him to pull guidance and inspiration from a variety of sources for his work with NCPC. He pointed to a new initiative focusing on “America’s main street,” referring to Pennsylvania Avenue.
In directing the initiative, Acosta considers the street’s symbolic and historical significance within the L’Enfant plan, while also integrating the needs of DC’s unique character as an active city and home to a growing population. Pennsylvania Avenue is indicative of a dynamic that has historically taken place across DC, in which monuments and government buildings find themselves in disinvested areas. As the city continues to revitalize and incorporate new investment, the initiative aims to reclaim Pennsylvania Avenue’s initial purpose as a clear and accessible link between the Capitol and the White House.
Acosta remarks that as planners, “we all talk about authenticity in our cities.” The uniqueness of the District’s identity is most fundamentally seen in the “city’s civic skyline” and Acosta speaks powerfully on the importance of preservation. “One high-rise building in the wrong place could change that,” he notes simply. The discussion of the skyline came to the fore as the result of a congressional-requested study, the “Height of Buildings Master Plan,” which ultimately revealed citizen support for federal building height restrictions and identified minor changes to the 100-year-old law.
The study brought Acosta face to face with Harriet Tregoning, a longtime friend, a Loeb Fellow, and planning director (at the time) for the District of Columbia. The public and controversial discussion placed Acosta and Tregoning at opposing sides of the debate, each representing distinct constituencies within the District. In spite of this divergence, the pair recognized their respective planning priorities and led an informed and reasoned discussion through which residents, businesses and government leaders were able to engage and respond. Their leadership, particularly in light of the very public debate, speaks to the unique character of Loeb Fellows and their ability to articulate and advocate their priorities with integrity, respect and good humor.
Even beyond DC, Acosta notes the powerful role and impact that Loeb Fellows have in their home cities, stating that the places “where they sit speak for themselves. Loeb Fellows have done remarkable things for their cities,” contributing to the ultimate aim of the Loeb Fellowship “to make our cities and regions better places.” For his own part, after many years in DC, Acosta says that he intends to remain, believing strongly in the ethic to “live the consequences of your plans.”
Acosta attributes the continuing success of the Fellowship to Jim Stockard, a “tremendous person,” who shepherded the program through the years and has done a “incredible job.” Acosta declares with a hearty laugh that Jim would be welcomed back at the National Capital Planning Commission, where the outgoing curator spent time as an intern in the 1960s. “He’s always welcome.”
In the Loeb and GSD community and more broadly, Acosta is a continually welcoming and thoughtful planning professional. His ongoing work in the District of Columbia shows his capability to bridge a multiplicity of perspectives and priorities with creativity and a careful attention to detail, no matter the planning boundaries.