News & Politics

How Navy Yard Built Up One of DC’s Fastest-Growing Neighborhoods

Washington Navy Yard helped bring a DC neighborhood back to life by being an active part of the community. After Monday's massacre, will that still be the case?

Yards Park and the Boilermaker Shops near Washington Navy Yard. Photo by Flickr user Alex Ansley.

Most days, the streets that border Washington Navy Yard are as good a picture of DC’s current growth as any neighborhood. Barracks Row, a stretch of 8th St., SE, is around the corner full of theaters, pet stores, and crowded bars and restaurants. New parks delight visitors with curving architectural features, fountains for kids to splash in, and ice rinks in the wintertime. Residential and commercial developments scrape the District’s building height limits.

All of that can be sourced back to the creation, in the late 1990s, of a new headquarters for the Naval Sea Systems Command, that on Monday was the scene of one of the darkest moments in DC’s history, when a former Navy reservist working there for a contractor managed to get a shotgun into the building and started a bloody rampage that ultimately left 13 people—the shooter included—dead.

Two days later, life around Navy Yard is still inching back to normality—the streets are open, the offices across the street are buzzing, the food trucks are lined up at the curb—but the base itself is still emerging from the massacre. Access to the installation is limited to essential-mission personnel, FBI agents and police continue to sweep the area for evidence from Monday’s carnage, and the section of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail that cuts through the yard next to the Anacostia River.

A military base that after many years finally enmeshed itself in its surrounding community feels receded again. And some of the people who pushed to revitalize the Navy Yard by better integrating it into the city badly hope these conditions do not last.

“They jump-started the entire development of M Street,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s delegate in Congress, says about Sea Systems Command, the Navy’s largest arm and the one that oversees the design, construction, and maintenance of the US fleet.

Norton recalls the not-too-distant years when much of the Navy Yard had fallen into disuse. Opened in 1799 as the construction site for all US ships, it was eventually became the main manufacturing plant for the Navy’s ordnance. With the end of World War II, the industrial buildings were converted to less-than-ideal office space. By the late 1990s, Norton recalls, Navy Yard and the surrounding neighborhood were a “great federal waste.” Poisoned by decades of munitions work, it was declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The area outside the yard’s brick walls wasn’t much either. Aside from a cluster of nightclubs that catered to Washington’s gay community, the neighborhood was dominated by crumbling row houses, fading industrial plants, and a rising crime rate. The federal government controlled a large swath of land around the Navy Yard and was doing nothing with it. “It was the most valuable piece of undeveloped real estate,” Norton says. “Reagan’s administration talked about developing a mall.”

Obviously, the shopping mall idea never panned out, but Norton says a commercial district of a different sort started emerging in the 90s, when she suggested to the House’s Republican leadership an idea that synced with one of the GOP’s holiest shibboleths. “Why don’t we just let the private sector develop it?” Norton recalls saying. In 2000, the General Services Administration set about redeveloping the zone it called Southeast Federal Center by bringing in private developers to build up the land around a re-energizing Navy Yard.

“Almost spontaneously the other side of M Street developed into space for the contractors,” Norton says. Office towers went up, followed by apartment buildings. The Department of Transportation arrived in 2007. A year later, after seizing 23 properties, including the nightclubs, the DC government opened Nationals Park. More offices, apartments, and condominiums followed. The sky above the neighborhood is still filled with cranes putting up new glass-and-steel towers.

The Southeast Federal Center project was itself turned over in 2005 to Forest City Washington, which has continued to install amenities like Yards Park, a green space that overlooks the Anacostia just outside the Navy Yard’s walls. An old manufacturing facility is now the Boilermaker Shops, an industrial-chic complex of restaurants and stores, with a brewery on the way. The Washington Post’s former printing plant reopened this year as a sleek new headquarters for several DC government agencies.

Norton still traces it all back to the revitalization of the Navy Yard itself, now a complex home to 16,000 uniformed and civilian workers who seem like just another part of the daily bustle. The base is also home to a museum of naval history, and a vital corridor for the growing number of people who prefer to get around on foot or bike.

“All of this development shows how a secure facility can co-exist in a big city in an urban environment,” Norton says.

But the horrific events of Monday have officials rethinking everything about military security. “Where there are gaps, we will close them,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a press release. “Where there are inadequacies, we will address them. And where there are failures, we will correct them.”

The need to assess how people get the clearance to enter secured military facilities—especially ones in urban settings—is understandable, but it already has the DC government worrying that the shooting will lead back to a time when the Navy Yard was an isolated fortress irrespective of its surrounding environs.

“We hope they don’t become enclaves,” DC Mayor Vince Gray says. “I really think short of that there are ways we can ensure whose on these grounds.”

Gray isn’t just talking about Navy Yard. There’s also Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and Fort McNair. The Coast Guard just started moving into its new headquarters at St. Elizabeths Hospital. The Department of Homeland Security will follow over the next several years. And the city is banking on private development to grow up around St. Elizabeths the same way it did around Navy Yard. For her part, Norton is asking President Obama to take the Navy Yard’s role in Southeast DC into consideration when base security is reviewed.

“The Navy Yard has long been a part of the Washington, DC community, and the renovation of the historic Navy Yard to accommodate the Naval Sea Systems Command, among others, has helped reinvigorate private development along M Street SE, while making itself accessible to the DC community,” Norton wrote in a letter to the president. “[Monday’s] events, which apparently did not involve the outside community, should not change this relationship or lead to an overreaction that does not address the security concerns.”

For today, though, the Navy Museum is closed, and the gates around the Navy Yard’s section of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail are locked.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.