There’s a gold rush under way just east of the NoMa Metro tracks.
In May, the first mixed residential/retail building planned for the Northeast DC neighborhood around Union Market is slated to break ground. And if all goes as planned for the five big developers invested in the area, at least eight more such projects will follow.
The momentum has been growing since 2009, when the District published a framework for future development of the 45 acres bounded by Florida and New York avenues and Penn and Sixth streets, Northeast, near Gallaudet University. Then in 2012, the developer Edens opened Union Market on the site of DC’s historic Capital City Market (which still has active wholesalers, distributing mostly produce, meat, and ethnic foods). It wasn’t long before millennials in Logan Circle and suburbanites alike were making weekend trips to the new part of the market to stock up on small-batch bourbon and to brunch on Rappahannock oysters in a part of town they’d previously considered desolate and dangerous (if they considered it at all).
Now it seems the tipping point has been reached. Spurred by the popularity of the market, proximity to Metro, and the rapid building-out of adjacent NoMa to the west, major developers—in addition to Edens, there’s Douglas, JBG Companies, LCOR, and Level 2—have bought into the neighborhood and meet regularly to confab about how they intend to shape it.
The Union Market housing boom is poised to explode. And the result could be a brand-new residential and retail hub that does double duty of helping make adjacent NoMa feel less like an office park and more like a real neighborhood.
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The rest of us should see the effort start to take root this month with the project at 340 Florida Avenue, Northeast. The property has a winding history, dating to 2003 when Sang Oh Choi, whose family runs many wholesale businesses in the old part of the market, was awarded development rights from the city.
In 2006, Choi began the rezoning process to allow for a mixed-use building on the site. He won approval in 2008—just in time for the financial crisis to hit and his funding to dry up. Edens joined Choi as an owner in 2012, and finally, last May, LCOR bought the project from them, reportedly for more than $9 million, with Edens retaining control of the ground-floor retail portion.
With the zoning approvals already in place, LCOR headed straight to construction, so its residences will be the first in the Union Market district.
Senior vice president Harmar Thompson says LCOR wanted a stake in the neighborhood—340 Florida is thus far the company’s only property there—in part because of its “human scale.” He’s referring to the existing old market’s mix of low-rise commercial structures and industrial buildings, which he and other developers say contribute to a gritty, warehouse-style vibe unlike anywhere else in DC. They point to New York City’s Meatpacking District and Portland’s Pearl District as influences—both of them industrial areas made over into residential, shopping, and dining destinations. It seems that such an area, with lower-rise structures and historic architecture, could offer much-needed character to the surrounding neighborhood, currently dominated by NoMa’s glassy high-rises.
That industrial character is what initially attracted Edens. In addition to its role at 340 Florida, the developer has two other mixed-use projects in the works, including one on Fourth Street, Northeast, with as many as 500 apartments, which will incorporate an existing 1950s warehouse, and another that will rise above the actual Union Market, with an Angelika movie theater and either office or residential space.
Paul Pascal—an attorney who for nearly 50 years has represented wholesalers in the historic Capital City Market and whose family owns five properties there—says he’s pleased with the plan for the neighborhood. That wasn’t the case the last time newcomers wanted in, back in 2006, when an initiative called New Town was introduced essentially to level the old market. Pascal headed an association of wholesalers that helped stop it.
He remembers how lively the market was in the 1960s and ’70s, before larger wholesalers relocated to places like Landover in Prince George’s County. He says he’s hopeful the future changes won’t come at the expense of older businesses: “I think for the wholesalers that want to stay, the trade will still be there. The smaller restaurants and embassies can’t go out to Landover or Jessup to buy their products.” As more foot traffic comes through, he anticipates that some wholesalers will begin to develop retail businesses.
DC Council member Kenyan McDuffie—who represents Ward 5, where Union Market is located—says an anticipated 20,000 permanent new jobs will come with the development of the Union Market district.
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Even with the old market as a backdrop, because LCOR’s building at 340 Florida—called the Edison—will be brand-new, some grit will have to be manufactured. The design, by SK&I architects, has evolved to look more obviously industrial. A rendering published in 2013 depicts a slicker structure with white siding. The current version features wide, nine-paneled windows characteristic of an old warehouse. Its 187 rental apartments will be loft-like.
One unusual feature is that 20 percent of its units will be affordably priced for households that earn no more than 80 percent of Washington-area median income. The current requirement for new buildings in the District is that 8 to 10 percent of units be priced according to this definition of affordability. But the higher percentage for 340 Florida was part of the deal originally approved by the Zoning Commission back in 2008, and it endures today. LCOR anticipates that the Edison will open in the second quarter of 2017.
Next door at 320 Florida Avenue—where a Burger King now sits—Level 2 is in the early stages of a 315-apartment project it’s calling the Highline, named after the elevated park that goes through New York’s Meatpacking District. The developer closed on the property for about $9 million last July and, though it’s still awaiting a zoning hearing, expects to break ground by July of next year.
The property’s location is significant, because the building will be the very first on the east side of the train tracks that pass over Florida Avenue and divide the Union Market district from NoMa. On the NoMa side, you have a Courtyard Marriott that could fit in any soulless office park in America. A new luxury apartment building, Elevation, abuts the tracks, too. It’s a vast improvement over the vacant lot it replaced. But when you add the towering, angular building to the busy thoroughfares of New York and Florida avenues that border it, plus the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives behemoth across the street, you get an imposing pocket that pedestrians rush through only out of necessity to reach Metro.
Level 2, working with architect Eric Colbert, has an opportunity to change the tone east of the tracks. For his design, Colbert was directly influenced by the location. The columns and steel I-beams of his building’s facade mimic the structure of the Metro underpass. Colbert says he was thinking of “shipping containers stacked at a port” when he devised the way sections of the building are staggered.
Just as important as the actual structure, however, will be the small parcel sandwiched between it and the underpass. The city-owned land is currently a dumping ground for potato-chip bags and soda bottles. Level 2 wants to turn it into a park with a pedestrian walkway that leads to Union Market. The developer is requesting that DC dedicate the land as green space. Level 2 principal David Franco says his company will work with the city to hammer out a plan for maintaining it.
• • •
Green space is something the area sorely lacks. NoMa, now 50 percent built out, has almost none—one reason the neighborhood can feel sterile and not so much like, well, a neighborhood. Ride the Red Line into the NoMa station and you’re greeted by what is essentially a shiny new city of offices and apartments. Parks would go a long way toward softening the landscape, and with a $50-million city grant, the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) is planning six.
The parks would also lead to more walkability. One, called the NoMa Meander, is a three-block pedestrian promenade, including green areas and water features, that will break up some of the area’s extra long “super-blocks.”
Another is an effort to build art parks beneath four underpasses created by the Metro and Amtrak tracks that divide up NoMa. As they are now, the underpasses are dim, dirty, and often riddled with puddles. By turning them into art installations and improving lighting and other safety elements, the BID aims to encourage pedestrian traffic to and from surrounding areas, including the Union Market district. Construction on the new parks is slated to begin by the end of 2015.
So in five years, when you exit the NoMa Red Line stop, will you disembark into DC’s own Meatpacking District? Not quite, says Edens managing director Steve Boyle, a leader of the developer’s Union Market efforts: “DC compares itself all too often to other places. It has its own personality that will emerge on the back end of all of this.”
Senior editor Marisa M. Kashino can be reached at email@example.com.
Think DC—with its population of 659,000—is crowded now? Imagine the city crammed with nearly 900,000 people. That’s the number of residents the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments projects by the year 2040. It’s a staggering proposition, one that would shatter the historic high of 802,000, set in 1950.
Look around at all the cranes and new apartment complexes and you could be tricked into believing we won’t have a problem housing all these new neighbors. The reality: We’re set to run out of space in less than 30 years. And if we do, the consequences to the region could be dire. Here’s a look at what’s holding us back and how we can start to fix it.
First, we have a fundamental problem with our zoning code, which hasn’t been comprehensively updated since 1958.
Sixty years ago, the thinking was that the best way to design a city was to silo industrial, retail, and housing into separate areas. That’s no longer the case. Urban planners know they can create vibrancy by commingling different parts of life. But rather than conducting a big-picture analysis of changing housing needs, the zoning code has been amended in piecemeal, ad hoc ways.
Take the recent debate over “pop-ups”—rowhouses expanded upward—in which the DC Office of Planning is advocating for a zoning change to cut the standard size of pop-ups in some areas, and therefore the amount of housing. Though doing anything to deplete the housing supply seems crazy, maybe it’s not. Perhaps there really is a way to meet housing demands while reducing heights in places and, say, creating new residential areas in industrial zones that were bustling in 1958 but now are half empty.
Unfortunately, we just can’t know for sure which rules make sense to change until the city takes full stock of its land and future population—something it hasn’t done in years.
The way it does that is by drawing up what’s called the Comprehensive Plan, an overarching document that guides all planning, zoning, and development. The last such stock-taking was in 2006. Stop for a second and think about how drastically different this place is compared with 2006. Nine years ago, nobody knew what NoMa was. Nationals Park hadn’t opened. Dupont Circle was hipper than Logan Circle.
The city says it will begin another update to the Comprehensive Plan within the next year. But even though all it has now are the nine-year-old guidelines, it’s evaluating some major changes to zoning rules. It sounds like a case of cart before horse. Actually it’s worse than that—it’s cart way after horse, because it’s just now getting around to weighing changes pitched in response to the 2006 plan. We’ll have to move faster than that to keep up with the District’s evolution.
The most likely zoning updates would be trendy smart-growth tactics like reducing the number of parking spaces required in new developments within a half mile of a Metro station, or making communities more walkable by allowing new corner-store-style businesses in residential neighborhoods, or making it easier for homeowners to convert basements into rentable apartments.
Good stuff? Sure. But none of it goes far enough toward increasing housing.
Worse still, we’re already running out of room.
Consider some numbers buried in a 2013 city report on the impact of the Height Act, which restricts DC buildings to 130 feet tall. Under current building conditions, the report found that the District has approximately 189.8 million square feet of remaining capacity for development.
If we grow in line with the most bearish scenario in the report—acquiring 2,440 households and 6,640 jobs annually—by 2040 we’d need 157.6 million square feet to accommodate everybody. But if we expand just a little more than that, the amount of buildable space we’d need would jump to nearly 200 million. Now say we meet the most bullish growth projections and gain 5,850 new households and 10,143 jobs a year: We’d need 317 million square feet, or 67 percent more than what’s available.
The takeaway? DC has less than a 30-year supply of land that can be developed.
But the District hasn’t shown much nerve when it comes to making big changes.
The very idea of lifting the height limit sent much of DC into a collective freak-out in 2012 when Congress gave us the chance to reconsider it. This despite the fact that safeguards would have been in place to protect things like historic districts and views of the monuments. It seems people get sentimental about DC’s low skyline; the thought of upping density strikes fear into residents who cherish street parking and (sometimes) manageable lines at Whole Foods.
So even though Congress, for once, was prepared to let us change something for ourselves, the DC Council said no.
Which brings us to the unusual power wielded by the city’s NIMBYs.
Skeptical resident groups aren’t unique to DC, but unlike elsewhere, they’ve been institutionalized in the form of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Each of the city’s eight wards is divided into smaller areas represented by ANCs made up of elected residents. Savvy builders know they must ingratiate themselves with these hyper-local powerbrokers. If an ANC takes issue with a proposed development, it can cause major delays.
The concept of neighborhood-level advocates weighing in on city decisions sounds idyllic, but in practice it tends to guarantee delays. Just as you’re more likely to read Yelp reviews panning a restaurant than you are raves, the folks who typically take the time to turn out for weeknight ANC meetings are the ones who want to say (or yell) no.
Combine it all and you get a cumbersome, business-unfriendly building process.
Consider what it takes to build a large mixed-use project, one that might have some offices, some condos, and some retail. It’s the kind of thing a city would want, right? But in DC, getting an okay often requires obtaining something called a Planned Unit Development. To do this, the developer has to convince several bureaucracies—such as the planning office, the transportation department, or the environment department—to give the Zoning Commission a thumbs-up, something that might take months, even years. If the development is in a historic district, tack on a few more months. And that’s just what it takes to get a hearing.
Of course, even if that hearing goes well, the process isn’t over. Only in Washington can something as seemingly mundane as an apartment building involve the federal government. Zoning’s recommendation gets sent to the National Capital Planning Commission, which weighs the effects on federal interests.
All in all, it’s not a system that gives you much confidence the capital can absorb its new residents.
These things contribute to our high housing costs, too.
Before developers run the gauntlet of regulators, they generally assemble a team of consultants (for environmental, transportation, engineering, and in many cases historic-preservation concerns) plus at least a lawyer or two to shepherd them through the tangle of rules. The consultants typically bill by the hour, so time literally is money. Hard citywide statistics don’t exist for the cost per housing unit that can be attributed to the resources spent navigating this process, but there’s no question renters and homebuyers help foot the bill.
Now for the million-dollar question: How do we fix DC’s space problem?
Thorny as it is, the Height Act has to go—not in places where losing it would interfere with the beauty of the monuments and the historic character of the nation’s capital but in places like New York Avenue, Northeast, a mostly industrial and commercial zone today.
Second, we need common-sense zoning that makes it easy to do the right thing. Consider what’s happening at the Takoma Metro parking lot, where—even if it gets WMATA’s approval—a plan to build some 200 residential units will then have to endure a fight against reigning building rules. Though the land in question is next to a subway station, it’s discussed by local NIMBYs as if it were a serene cul-de-sac where any concession to the future is out of bounds.
Third, we’ll have to think creatively about repurposing existing land and buildings. For instance, more of us will likely telecommute in the future, freeing up office buildings to be converted into housing. The trend is already under way: A Dupont building and another on 16th Street just north of the White House are both planning to turn office space into residential. In Southwest DC, an impressive reimagining of 15 mostly federally owned blocks that include agencies such as the Energy Department could serve as a model for the creative thinking that’s needed across the city. The proposal will turn 110 acres into a mixed-use, highly sustainable “ecodistrict” atop underused space.
Finally, DC has to find new ways of bringing potential “yes” voices into the debate. Technology could be one approach. Renaissance Downtowns, a developer on Long Island—another NIMBY bastion—is using what it calls crowd-sourced planning to give more residents a say in development. By setting up websites where neighbors can comment on a project whenever it’s convenient—not just during weeknight meetings—the company’s VP of marketing, Brandon Palanker, says more people who want to say yes are participating and helping usher his projects through approvals. The result: Renaissance built up community support to get the go-ahead for 3,500 residences and 2 million square feet of commercial and retail—one of the largest projects ever approved on Long Island.
Maybe something similar could work in the District. But we’ll have to begin by adapting our mindset. Think of it as a kind of reverse Field of Dreams: If you can’t build it, they won’t come.
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
The architecture firms tasked with renovating the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library are out with new renderings of what the District's flagship public library could look like in the future. The designs, by the Dutch firm Mecanoo and the DC-based company Martinez + Johnson, show what how the library might appear with an overhauled interior and—more noticeably—a one-story addition including a rooftop garden.
DC Public Library officials announced in January that they were nixing earlier plans to expand the 1972 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe building by three stories, bowing to pressure from historic preservationists and reports that such a large expansion would not be fiscally viable. The single-story addition offered today suggests a glassed-in area up top, surrounded by a terrace covered in green space and seating areas, with an expansive lawn covering the roof of the new floor. Another rendering shows the library's second-most controversial plan: a ground-floor retail space, now presented as a sunny café populated by families and mobile workers with their laptops.
Elsewhere the Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson team envisions a "maker space" with 3-D printers and woodworking equipment, a children's room with play areas for the tykes who get bored by books, traditional reading rooms, and a sunken performance space that the architects project as the perfect venue for—gasp!—TED talks.
These renderings are still marked as preliminary, DCPL says in a press release, but they do give the most detailed images so far of how the city plans to remake the landmark library.
In recent years, it seemed like every DC developer was busy converting an out-of-use historic schoolhouse into luxury condos. The Gage School turned into Parker Flats. Georgetown’s Wormley School became high-end Wormley Row. On Capitol Hill, the Edmonds, Pierce, and Lovejoy schoolhouses all were upcycled into chic apartments. And so on—at last count, there are at least ten of these transformations around town.
Perhaps they've run out of old schools, because we've moved into the next phase of repurposed real estate: Churches. Two weeks ago we showed you this old Howard County church that was rehabbed into the headquarters for an interior design firm. Last week this Georgetown Tudor, once a neighborhood chapel, hit the market in its new iteration as a multi-million-dollar residence. And then there are two new projects that are still in the works: In Capitol Hill, a former Art Deco church constructed in 1941 by the Salvation Army is part of a project dubbed Cambridge Row, which features petite condos—some as tiny as 264 square feet—outfitted with contemporary amenities such as wide-plank hardwoods, high-gloss cabinets, and quartz counters. Over in Georgetown is Alexander Hall, which will restore and convert the 1908 Alexander Memorial Baptist Church into a trio of über-luxe apartments set to deliver in the fall—and which will include such high-end detailing as open-tread staircases, whitewashed hardwood floors, top-of-the-line appliances, and Porcelanosa tiling. The three-bedroom condos start at $2.5 million. Still unknown is whether the developer will need divine intervention to snag those prices.
Walk into the Ascent and you’ll find all the spiffy features you could ask for in a 21st-century apartment tower. There’s a pet-grooming salon and a bicycle-repair station, as well as a wi-fi-enabled lobby where you can check the flat-screen TV for potential delays at the Metro stop a three-minute walk away. The 24-hour concierge will sign for your grocery deliveries and store them in the walk-in fridge.
Every apartment has dark hardwood floors and floor-to-ceiling windows. On the 26th floor, you can lift weights in the fitness center, shoot billiards in the lounge, or relax on the roof deck. There’s a fire pit to huddle around in the winter, a swimming pool for summer, and an earth-friendly feature that won’t leave you feeling guilty about your carbon footprint: A rain garden prevents the first inch of precipitation from polluting nearby streams. Plus, because the apartment building is the tallest for miles, panoramic views stretch from Washington National Cathedral to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Ready to move in? There’s one more thing you need to know: The Ascent is in Tysons Corner, a 4.3-square-mile tangle of parking lots and office parks that’s long been considered one of the least habitable parts of Washington. Until—maybe—now. “This is the difference between what’s been done in Tysons,” says developer Aaron Georgelas, “and what will be done in Tysons.”
He should know. His grandfather built homes in Fairfax County in the 1960s, and his father constructed high-rise offices in Tysons Corner in the 1980s. Now Georgelas is helping realize the next major phase of the area’s evolution. When he submitted designs in 2009 to turn 28 acres of commercial towers and industrial parks into a bustling urban center of restaurants, shops, and apartments, including what’s now the Ascent, he became a pioneer in what may be the most ambitious suburban redevelopment project not just in Washington but in all of American history.
Thanks to shopping malls and federal contracting dollars, Tysons Corner exploded from an empty cow field in the 1960s to America’s 12th-largest employment center in 2008. Along the way, it attracted Fortune 500 companies and some 120,000 total employees, becoming a textbook example of what’s known as an “edge city,” a concentration of business activity outside of a traditional downtown. But all this growth created so much congestion that by the early 2000s, it became clear Tysons wouldn’t survive if it didn’t transform itself from a car-clogged commuter drop zone into a vibrant, livable city.
County officials launched a sweeping initiative and drafted an urbanization plan defined by walkable city centers, seamlessly integrated public transportation, and acres of parkland. Politicians rewrote land-use rules, developers invested billions of dollars, and residents shouldered new taxes in an all-or-nothing bet that the transformation would convince people—by the tens of thousands—to move to an area best known for having more than 160,000 parking spaces. By 2050, proponents of the effort are banking on a population surge from 19,600 people today to as many as 100,000.
While other suburbs have undergone similar retrofittings, none has attempted anything on this scale; Tysons is almost as big as College Park. Already, urban planners from China and Russia have arrived to see the project for themselves.
“The redevelopment of Tysons is the most important urban redevelopment in the country, possibly in the world,” says Christopher Leinberger, a professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “If they do this right, it’ll be the model. Just as it was the model of edge cities, it will be the model of the urbanization of the suburbs. It’s that big.”
The making, unmaking, and remaking of Tysons Corner is about much more than a single suburb. It’s also the story of how modern Washington itself came into being as a region, and it offers a unique window into where it’s going, too.
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The Tysons of today was founded by a man who would become one of Washington’s most influential real-estate developers, Ted Lerner. One day in the early 1960s, Lerner drove his wife, Annette, to the site of his next big conquest. The two had met at a GW fraternity dance in the 1940s, and it was her $250 loan he’d used to launch his Rockville firm, Lerner Enterprises. Today it’s one of the area’s largest private real-estate developers. But back then, Lerner was still getting started. He’d recently built Wheaton Plaza, a smart bet on America’s budding infatuation with shopping malls. Now he was thinking about wagering on Fairfax County, a fast-growing area with no major shopping centers to speak of. First he needed his wife’s opinion.
Annette wasn’t so sure. Looking around the area where Lerner wanted to build, she saw nothing but farmland: cows, a tractor, a log-cabin grocery store. Who on earth would come to a shopping mall out here? “You know, you’ve done rather well up till now,” she told her husband, according to Lerner. “But you’re going to blow it with Tysons Corner.”
The site looked much as it had in the mid-1800s, when William Tyson owned a modest farm at the corner of two sleepy roads, now Route 7 and Route 123. Farmers like Tyson used Route 7 (also known as Leesburg Pike) to transport wheat, hogs, and dairy products to the markets in Alexandria. They took Route 123 (Chain Bridge Road) into Georgetown. Although neighboring parts of Montgomery County had filled out with tree-lined subdivisions and two-car garages, Tysons Corner remained a backwater into the early ’60s. Children walked barefoot around its gravel pits and dairy farms. Residents used back-yard latrines.
But all that was about to change, and Lerner knew it. Washington had begun building the Capital Beltway to ease traffic jams and facilitate the mobilization of the military in the event of a Cold War attack. The highway would be 64 miles long and encircle the city at a roughly ten-mile radius from the White House—planners wanted the Beltway far enough out so the capital wouldn’t be destroyed if, God forbid, Soviet missiles targeted the capital. And this radius, it turned out, was going to arc less than a mile east of the interchange at routes 7 and 123—Tysons Corner. Lerner understood the implication: The Beltway’s completion would put that undeveloped farmland smack in the middle of a three-road triangle accessible to every car owner in the area.
At the same time, Tysons was about to become a hub for a whole new industry—defense contracting. After World War II, the Defense Department had begun hiring private companies to research how the military could use its weapons more effectively. Tysons was an ideal locale for these firms because the Pentagon, built in 1943, was 13 miles down the road in one direction, and the new airport at Dulles, which opened in 1962, was 14 miles in the other.
The first research companies arrived in the mid-’60s; other types of defense contractors soon followed. Fifteen years later came the Reagan Revolution and the conservative crusade to shrink government. That led to the wide-scale outsourcing of work previously handled by federal employees. From 1980 to 2000, according to George Mason University, Uncle Sam’s spending on Washington-area contractors ballooned more than six-fold, to $29 billion a year. It was upon this pile of cash that Tysons Corner as we know it was born.
By the late 1980s, Tysons was the fastest-growing white-collar job market in North America and Europe for four straight years, according to Edge City, a cultural history of US suburbs written by Joel Garreau. Eager to embrace this surge in new workers, Fairfax County welcomed developers to pave over grasslands and throw up office towers. Cars by the tens of thousands filled employee parking lots, and just as Ted Lerner predicted, shoppers from all over the Beltway flocked to Tysons Corner Center, the mall his firm opened in 1968.
But in their frenzy for investment returns and new tax revenue, developers and politicians neglected to plan for anything resembling a community. Tysons had very few houses or apartment buildings, given its massive workforce, and its tiny residential population couldn’t support parks or restaurants, let alone schools. As a result, even as Tysons matured into an economic triumph, nobody actually wanted to live there.
The so-called edge city was a soul-sucking and chaotic jumble of used-car lots, strip malls, and office complexes. It had 167,000 parking spaces crammed into four square miles of land. And because the army of workers at Tysons operated on identical commuting clocks, its rush-hour traffic was among the region’s most horrific. By the beginning of the 21st century, Tysons had become a shrine to anonymous suburban sprawl. Or, as Clark Tyler puts it, “the blob that ate Northern Virginia.”
• • •
It was Tyler’s job to help shape the blob into a full-fledged city. In 2006, Virginia congressman Gerry Connolly, who was then chairing the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, tapped Tyler to head the committee to transform Tysons. A retired consultant with Leidos, a defense contractor in Reston, Tyler had zero experience in urban planning or real-estate development. But after living in the county for almost a half century, he understood that something radical needed to be done. Tysons would “kill you if it keeps going the way it is,” he says.
Besides traffic, the list of other intractable problems was long. Because half the land was covered by parking lots and other impervious surfaces, untreated stormwater was leaching into nearby streams and carrying sludge to the Potomac River. Meanwhile, businesses were starting to flee for downtown DC—a shift in demand that threatened the very foundation of Tysons’s existence. On the flip side, Metro was going to build its 23-mile Silver Line to Dulles Airport and put four of the new stops right in the middle of Tysons. This meant that Tyler and his colleagues had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine its map—to redraw it, and, in effect, create a whole new city.
The 36-member task force was composed of all kinds of traditional adversaries with competing desires. Landowners and developers wanted to build larger structures than the county’s zoning ordinances allowed. Environmentalists wanted greener buildings. Homeowners wanted less traffic. Office workers wanted coffee shops and fitness centers, teachers and firefighters wanted homes they could afford, and residents wanted parks, gridded streets—neighborhoods. Some critics opposed any development at all.
Tyler’s job was to get them to work together, an undertaking of overwhelming magnitude, he says. But the group didn’t have to travel far to see what a redeveloped Tysons might look like. Right next door was Arlington County, a national model of dense, transit-oriented development known as “smart growth.”
After World War II, Arlington was a classic midcentury suburb, a place whose residents were so dependent on cars that the shopping mall was named Parkington Shopping Center. (It’s now Ballston Common Mall.) In the early ’60s, however, Arlington’s population growth slowed as new federal highways made more distant suburbs increasingly popular. Officials decided to launch a revitalization effort to attract new businesses and residents.
While Metro had originally proposed to run the Orange Line above ground along the median of I-66, Arlington successfully lobbied to have the trains routed underground and through the county’s key commercial districts, from Rosslyn to Ballston. Next, officials adopted a “bull’s-eye” strategy of concentrating larger buildings around Metro stations and tapering down density as development moved out toward neighborhoods of single-family homes. In the buildings near Metro stops, Arlington County pushed developers to accommodate a mix of uses—a restaurant or store on the ground floor, condos upstairs, office space next door—in order to give each neighborhood the feel of a city center. Parks, bike paths, and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes were prioritized.
The holistic approach worked because Arlington had leverage over developers. “We used our zoning tool,” says Bob Duffy, the county’s planning director. Bureaucrats couldn’t force the private sector to construct the skyline it wanted. But if a developer agreed to build in accordance with Arlington’s urban, mixed-use vision, the county would lift its density caps and allow a larger or taller structure than regulations typically permitted. Bigger buildings, of course, mean greater profits; the developers bit.
The urban villages that proceeded to sprout up around the Clarendon, Court House, and Ballston Metro stops became magnets for an emerging generation of residents: commuters fed up with Washington traffic, car-spurning millennials, empty-nesters downsizing from cul-de-sac homes to condos. By 2014, the county’s population had jumped 50 percent from 1980, to 229,302. Property values surged, and new businesses opened.
Today, Arlington has more office space than downtown Dallas, as well as the country’s highest concentration of 24-to-34-year-olds. Despite all this growth, the county’s figures show that traffic has actually declined—by as much as 23 percent on some key thoroughfares—because 40 percent of those living in Arlington’s urban corridors take public transportation to work.
Clark Tyler was impressed. And despite their competing interests, so were the other Tysons task-force members. “It was an eye-opener for them,” Tyler says. “They could see that those kinds of principles could control growth.” In 2008, after 3½ years of work and more than 300 meetings, the group agreed to a 40-year development plan guided by many of the same concepts that proved so successful in Arlington.
To spur a massive increase in housing, Fairfax County is allowing developers to put up taller buildings in Tysons, if they agree to deliver on a few things for the community. That might mean building to strict environmental standards, such as planting a rooftop garden to prevent runoff. Or setting aside a certain number of units at reduced prices for working-class residents. It could mean laying the groundwork for surrounding neighborhoods by installing grids of streets and sidewalks, building parks and bike paths, and someday—when the Tysons population hits specific thresholds—constructing schools, fire stations, and other public facilities.
While none of those are hard-and-fast requirements, builders who aren’t willing to provide enough enhancements to the neighborhood are unlikely to receive permission to bust through the density caps. This arrangement hands the bulk of the project’s multibillion-dollar infrastructure costs to developers. But residents and businesses will also have to chip in for transportation costs through additional real-estate taxes, which are expected to bring in about $250 million over the next 40 years.
It’s a blueprint of staggering ambition. Planners expect eight distinct neighborhoods, each with its own identity. They see 160 acres of parks and open spaces, venues for arts and culture, a restaurant-and-nightclub scene. And because 75 percent of new development is set to take place within walking distance of public transit (either Metro or internal “circulator” buses in the works), Tysons could even be carbon-neutral by 2030. All this as its workforce potentially doubles in size and its population increases up to five-fold. By 2050, there will be as many as 100,000 people living in Tysons. That is, if the forecasts bear out.
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Walking through Tysons Corner today, you can see the outlines of this new city starting to fill in—cranes carrying metal beams to the tops of half-finished buildings, men in hardhats everywhere. Developers have broken ground on 12 projects so far. Capital One’s new 470-foot-high headquarters will be the region’s second-tallest structure, trailing only the Washington Monument, when it’s completed in 2018. Local developer Cityline Partners plans to restore portions of Scott’s Run—a trickling stream ruined over the years by erosion—and make it the centerpiece of a 40-acre community of high-rises and urban plazas.
With each new project comes a fresh slug of enthusiasm. But the Ascent was the first building of tomorrow’s Tysons to be completed, and not everything has gone according to plan. Rising 26 stories, the tower is a soaring island unto itself, incongruously stranded in the morass of sprawl it was supposed to correct. The high-rise stands alongside a McDonald’s, an Exxon gas station, and the Container Store. Through their floor-to-ceiling windows, residents can watch traffic jams on Leesburg Pike and shoppers marching into Best Buy.
The Ascent was designed and built by Greystar, the nation’s largest apartment manager. (It bought the land from Aaron Georgelas’s company several years ago.) Headquartered in South Carolina, Greystar liked the prospect of getting in on a bullish market with such a significant “housing gap,” says Brandon Henry, a managing director of the firm.
But there’s no denying it’s been a rocky start. The area is so bereft of energy that Henry didn’t see the point in leasing the first-floor space in the Ascent to stores, as smart-growth design mandates. Instead, Greystar took advantage of flexible zoning regulations that county officials provided for the early redevelopment phase of Tysons and used the room for additional apartments.
Most troubling has been the weakness in apartment demand. Henry says that although the Ascent is meeting its goals—the building opened last April and has 60 percent of its 404 units rented—Greystar reduced rents at one point and has had to offer concessions to get leases signed. A 775-square-foot apartment with one bedroom and one bath is going for about $2,425 a month, and the Ascent is throwing in up to three months of free rent on certain units. Henry blames the glut of supply in Washington’s rental market. “There’s no real sense of urgency to make a decision,” he says.
The sluggish debut makes you wonder: When the Tysons task force came up with such an ambitious development plan, what exactly was it figuring would fuel the explosive growth the plan depended on? Their predictions were underpinned by two fundamental assumptions. First, that the Washington area’s economic engine would remain vigorous well into the future, creating nearly 75 percent more jobs—about 2.4 million—by 2050. And second, that Tysons would attract an outsize portion of these jobs.
Washington’s economy has always benefited from its special relationship with Uncle Sam. While national unemployment spiked during the recession, federal spending kept our local economy alive. The relative strength of the job market brought young, well-educated workers to the area and helped Washington shake off the economic slowdown long before other major cities.
But around 2010—just as politicians approved the blueprint for the new Tysons—things started to change. Budget pressure put the government-contracting industry in decline; federal procurement spending in the region dropped by 16 percent from 2010 to 2013. Average wages fell for three straight years. And during 2011 and 2012, Washington’s job growth ranked second to last among the nation’s 15 largest cities, behind even Detroit’s.
The deceleration has had a chilling effect on Tysons. Office vacancy rates nearly doubled, to 20 percent, in the fourth quarter of last year, from about 10 percent in 2007, according to the commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. Add that to the region-wide oversupply of rental housing and there’s reason to ask if there’ll ever be enough demand for all the new construction in Tysons.
George Mason University professor Stephen Fuller is the resident scholar of the regional economy, the economist who supplied the Tysons task force with its growth forecasts. He expects the area to rebound as local companies expand into new industries and the region becomes less dependent on the federal government and emerges as a standalone center for global business. That’s already beginning to happen in Tysons. It’s no longer just a hub of defense; today it’s home to a mix of Fortune 500 companies, including mortgage-finance giant Freddie Mac, hotelier Hilton Worldwide, and the financial-services company Capital One. Meanwhile, firms that once specialized in contracting have moved into emerging private-sector businesses like cybersecurity and health-care information technology.
“They’re planning for a different type of an economy,” Fuller says. “Not a government economy but a gold-plated economy, with business transactions nationally and globally.”
Gerald Gordon, CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, singles out another reason for optimism about Tysons: “The Silver Line is the change agent.” Metro, Gordon says, will make the area more accessible to workers than it is now, and therefore more attractive to employers.
Some new businesses have already moved in. Last year, the event-planning software maker Cvent left McLean for an office by a Metro stop in Tysons, where it plans to add 400 new jobs. And the satellite-communications company Intelsat moved its headquarters from the District to a new 22-story office tower in Tysons, just a couple of steps from a Metro platform. “We were not going to move here if we didn’t have mass transit for our employees,” CEO David McGlade told the Washington Post.
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It’ll take more than just transplanting jobs from one Washington community to another for the region as a whole not to suffer, however. And there are still other challenges, like luring new residents. Tysons, after all, needs a total image makeover.
That job belongs to Michael Caplin. As president of the Tysons Partnership, a nonprofit association partly funded by developers and local businesses, the former prosecutor, public defender, Smithsonian program director, and arts producer has led the effort to rebrand Tysons as “America’s next great city.” He has arranged for a weekly farmers market on the parking lot of the National Automobile Dealers Association, created a Tour de Tysons bicycle race on a loop of streets near Tysons Galleria mall, and organized a live-music and food-truck festival one Saturday last September. “We’re changing perception as much as reality,” he says.
Developers are getting into it, too. Lerner Enterprises, for example, has allowed a vacant ten-acre grass lot to be used for community events (at least until it figures out what to build there). This summer, Lerner Town Square, as it’s being called, will host the 2015 World Police & Fire Games.
All this creativity aside, there’s one key handicap Tysons still must remedy: its utter unfriendliness to the very pedestrians who are so crucial to its growth plan. Take the crosswalk situation. According to Navid Roshan-Afshar, a civil engineer who runs a blog about the buildup of Tysons, you’re rarely more than 200 feet from a crosswalk in DC, but in Tysons, you’re often some 1,000 feet from one, meaning you have to walk six or eight minutes on a “superblock” to cross the street. What’s more, the crosswalks that do exist are death-defying. They span up to ten lanes of traffic and pit pedestrians against late-for-work commuters coming from every direction. Another problem: The walk signs “only last 20 seconds,” Roshan-Afshar says. “I’m an able-bodied 30-year-old person, and I have to sprint across the road.”
There’s also an issue with the Metro stations that stems from a fundamental mistake made early on in the overhaul. Instead of building the Silver Line underground, planners chose the less expensive option and put the rail line above ground. Smart-growth experts decried this decision, arguing that it would prevent the seamless integration of transit and development that Arlington achieved. Blocking the flow of pedestrian traffic effectively splits the corridors surrounding Metro stations—the beating hearts of walkable urban communities—into two separate neighborhoods. It is, as Caplin says, “a bit like having a river run through your city.”
Tysons redevelopment is far from perfect, and it may very well prove a historic flop. But for the politicians, developers, and bureaucrats who engineered it, there was no other choice. The days of the sizzling-hot office market—the vacancy rate in Tysons dipped to 1.7 percent in the late 1990s, Gordon says—are gone. And they’re not coming back. The era of the suburban office park is over. A multibillion-dollar wager on walkable city centers was the only chance Tysons had for long-term survival. Aboveground Metro or not.
Despite his bumpy start, Greystar’s Brandon Henry is certain that the Ascent—indeed, the entire redevelopment—will pan out over the long haul. After all, it took Arlington some 40 years to create its urban corridors, and Fairfax County has a similar timeline for Tysons. Henry is so confident of the project’s ultimate success that his firm has already purchased a second plot of land from Georgelas. He says it’ll be for another residential high-rise: “We broke ground in August.”
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
The DC Zoning Commission is reviewing a contentious proposal from the Office of Planning to drop the maximum height of pop-ups—rowhouses expanded upward, usually to become condos—from 40 to 35 feet in residential neighborhoods zoned R-4, such as Shaw and Columbia Heights. (The city could grant exceptions to the rule in some cases.) The plan would also prevent single-family homes in the zone from turning into condos or apartments, by allowing such conversions only by permit in non-residential buildings.
Here, both sides of the argument, distilled.
Critics say pop-ups hurt the appearance of neighborhoods, plus many have damaged adjoining rowhouses. Tracy Hart, a resident of DC’s 16th Street Heights and a leader of the grassroots group Stop the Pop, says some of her neighbors’ chimneys can no longer ventilate properly, while others’ rooftop solar panels have been obstructed. She believes that increasing housing density in neighborhoods like hers—made up primarily of single-family homes and, in her estimation, far from downtown DC and Metro—is inappropriate and destructive to the area’s character.
Others take a more measured view, such as the American Institute of Architects’ Washington chapter, which supports reducing the height of pop-ups but disagrees with limiting condo and apartment conversions to non-residential buildings.
Washington is growing. The Urban Institute predicts that DC’s population of 658,893 will boom to 718,499 by 2030. Real estate here is already among the nation’s most expensive, and prices will continue to skyrocket if the housing supply can’t keep up. We must increase density, and popping up and out is one way to accomplish that.
This is the crux of the argument in favor of pop-ups. Harriet Tregoning, former director of DC’s Office of Planning, believes so strongly in it that she has publicly opposed the office she headed until last year. In a letter to the District’s zoning commission, she points out that the city predicts that more than 75 percent of DC households won’t have school-age children by 2030, meaning our current housing stock is too weighted with single-family homes.
Pop it! It’s unfortunate when a developer turns a rowhouse into something akin to a middle finger towering over the block. But walk around DC and you’ll see plenty of buildings that have popped up in an inoffensive way, while adding to a housing pipeline that’s lacking. As for pop-ups that damage nearby buildings—that’s a problem, but not one the proposal resolves. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the agency that issues building permits, ought to be more mindful of how renovations will affect adjoining homes.
Tregoning suggests piloting a panel of architects to advise builders on how to create tasteful additions. The idea of developers lining up for more review may sound idealistic, but consider that two of three units at 1013 V Street, Northwest—the notorious “monster” pop-up in the U Street corridor—have, as of press time, languished on the market for ten months. Surely, the lag is a reflection on the building’s obnoxious appearance—there’s an economic incentive to develop aesthetically pleasing buildings.
Senior editor Marisa M. Kashino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
The vision to remake the District's flagship Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library with a multi-story addition potentially featuring commercial and retail space met its end Wednesday night when the DC Public Library's board of trustees adopted a resolution endorsing a plan to keep the building only as a library with a one-floor addition.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1972 building is a landmark of modernist design, but it is in shoddy condition after 43 years, needing extensive renovations to both its public spaces and its infrastructural systems. In 2014, the library selected a design by Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo and DC-based Martinez + Johnson, that proposed fixing up the original structure and adding up to four new stories that could have been used as leasable office space, plus ground-floor retail where the library's expansive lobby now occupies.
Historic preservationists, often egged on by Ralph Nader, revolted, while the District's chief historic preservation review officer wrote in a December letter that the four-level addition "would have an adverse effect on the building due to loss of historic fabric." The complaints apparently took hold: at a meeting last week of DC's Historic Preservation Review Board, DCPL submitted two revised proposals, both featuring just a one-story addition.
"After months of listening and learning, the Board had several goals," Gregory M. McCarthy, the library board's president, said in a press release. "First and foremost, it was essential to make possible additional space for programming in a spectacular central library. We also wanted to create a hub for educational, cultural and civic expression for the whole city and we wanted contribute to the social and economic activation around MLK in downtown. The concept we're advancing does all of that."
The revised renovation plan will involve remaking all 400,000 square feet of the original structure—including classrooms, reading rooms, experimental learning spaces, and a DC history center—while the new fifth floor will be used for reading programs, library events, and a rooftop terrace. More importantly for the city's bean-counters is that adding an additional three or four levels to the MLK Library was projected to generate 10 to 15 percent less revenue than what it would have cost.
The District government is scheduled to commit $208 million toward the library's capital budget over the next five fiscal years.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
The DC Council gave final, unanimous approval to the plan for a soccer-specific stadium for DC United to be built on Buzzard Point, putting to rest any lingering doubt that the Major League Soccer franchise will find a permanent home in the city.
The plan calls for the District government to spend up to $150 million to acquire the nine-acre stretch of Southwest DC and upgrade its infrastructure, with the team itself paying another $150 million for construction of the proposed 20,000-seat park. The combined expenses will make the future stadium the most expensive venue in MLS history, according to a city-sponsored study published in November.
In order to pay for the city's end of the deal, the Council voted to take out another $106 million in new debt, and to move $32 million from funding for other capital improvement projects, including school construction and transportation upgrades. Council member and mayoral runner-up David Catania raised objections over taking money out of those items before ultimately voting in favor of the stadium plan.
"It is a victory for the team and its fans, the city, the region, and the sport of soccer in this country," United's managing partner, Jason Levien, says in a statement from the team. "Our new stadium will add to the positive development already taking place along the Anacostia waterfront. It will be a venue that makes its neighbors proud; it will help our city become the nation’s soccer capital."
But United can't stick its picks in the Buzzard Point dirt just yet. While arrangements are in place for the District to acquire land from Pepco, Mark Ein, and an industrial junkyard, the city still needs to make a deal with the development firm Akridge. The first plans for the stadium proposed swapping Akridge's two acres at Buzzard Point for the rights to redevelop the Frank D. Reeves Center at 14th and U streets, Northwest. That component died last week when the Council, led by Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, removed the Reeves Center from the bargain after concluding its enviable location was undervalued in the original stadium plan.
Even with Akridge's land still in flux, DC's soccer crazies are already celebrating. United is hosting a party to fete the stadium deal at Penn Social at 2 PM, because soccer fandom apparently includes getting drunk in the middle of a workday to toast a public-private partnership.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
After years of vision statements about subterranean galleries, theaters, and restaurants, the plan to liven up the abandoned trolley depot underneath Dupont Circle is finally taking shape. The Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground, a group of businesspeople with designs on turning the space into DC's next cultural hotspot, signed a five-and-a-half-year lease with the District on Tuesday to turn it into an arts and events venue.
The 75,000-square-foot space, a network of tunnels below Connecticut Avenue, has been mostly dormant since the District's last streetcars stopped running in 1962. It was used briefly as a fallout shelter in the late 1960s, and as a dingy food court in the early 1990s. The city picked the Arts Coalition in 2010 to eventually rehab the space.
Four years later, the organization has finally inked the paperwork, but the city won't be putting up any money of its own. Instead, the Arts Coalition is turning to a series of crowd-funding efforts, beginning with a $50,000 campaign on Fundable. It is also working with Destination Crowd Capital, a DC-based venture that seeks funding from established investors.
"The next five years will be a dynamic time of showcasing new artists and designers, new technologies, and the exciting possibilities this space presents," the group's founder, architect Julian Hunt, says in a press release. "We see the Dupont Underground providing cultural and economic benefits to Dupont Circle and to the District of Columbia."
It'll be a while before artists and entertainers take their shows below ground, though. The initial rounds of fundraising are just for cleaning up the tunnels and opening them to the public, with long-term exhibition plans still in the works, Hunt says.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
With its distinctive windows and pre-war architecture, the building that once housed the Central Union Mission is one of the most recognizable along 14th Street. But as its conversion (along with three adjoining rowhouses and a new rear addition) into 51 apartments nears its scheduled December completion, we were curious to see what it looks like on the inside, too. Project architect Eric Colbert agreed to give us a sneak peek inside a building that has had many lives: as an auto showroom, a homeless shelter, and soon, luxury rentals.