News & Politics  |  Real Estate

Meet the Women Shaping Two of DC’s Hottest Neighborhoods

A chat with Union Market and Yards developers Jodie McLean and Deborah Ratner Salzberg.

Jodie McLean and Deborah Ratner Salzberg. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Jodie McLean, CEO of Edens, and Deborah Ratner Salzberg, president of Forest City Washington, have reached the top of Washington real-estate development, an echelon populated almost exclusively by men. While they’re up there, they happen to be building two of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in the District: McLean in Northeast DC’s Union Market district and Salzberg in Southeast’s the Yards.

I met them at Edens’s new corporate headquarters, in a former warehouse whose aesthetic is best summarized as “millennial catnip”: exposed-brick everything, neon signs, verdant rooftop hangout. There’s a brand-new Politics and Prose below us and a trendy sushi joint next door.

A few years ago, it would have been hard to conceive that such a setting could exist here between New York and Florida avenues. But McLean has led the reimagining of a once-isolated pocket of wholesalers into a 24-hour neighborhood—just as Salzberg has spearheaded the transformation of 18 acres of old Navy Yard land and structures into a mix of shops, restaurants, apartments, and the hugely popular Yards Park on the Anacostia waterfront. We talked about the good and the bad that come with dramatic change, and what’s next for the District.

What can be done to get more women into positions like yours?

Jodie McLean: I spend a lot of time—I know Deb does as well—out speaking to colleges and young-professional groups because I think it’s our responsibility. If we want to have more women in the industry, they need to see that there are people like them.

In 2007, Forest City broke ground at the Yards. What did you see there that you wanted to be a part of?

Deborah Ratner Salzberg: It was a waterfront property that was 42 acres, that was walking distance to the US Capitol. We said, “This place is amazing. Look at the bones. It has historic buildings.” To be able to control that amount of acreage in a city that has a height restriction?

Similarly, Union Market was not a residential neighborhood. Jodie, what convinced you it could become one?

JM: In 2004, the Metro station opened at NoMa-Gallaudet, so for us that was key. We felt like a lot of Northwest had been built out. What we were looking for was: Where was that central community place? Where was that place that was soulful to the city? Not to the federal government, not to the people who were here temporarily, but where was that real soul of the city? When we came upon this place—and the beautiful buildings and the beautiful bones that are here and the fact that there are 45 contiguous acres—where else would we have the opportunity to put together something like this?

How do you remake a place and keep it from feeling like a movie set? How do you make it feel real?

DRS: Yards Park opened without a building there. It was the first time in the history of Forest City that we’d s a place before we had a building. People started coming into this park from all over the neighborhood. What we learned was that by creating that place, the buildings and retail that followed were more authentic.

What do you love about the way the city has changed in the last decade?

DRS: I love the waterfront neighborhoods—the fact that we were able to engage the waterfront again. I love H Street. I love how DC is spreading out through unique neighborhoods like Ivy City. There’s just a vibrancy and an excitement. I love the business community that’s finally recognized we can’t continue to just be a government town.

So what’s the downside?

DRS: We are losing our affordable neighborhoods. I have 20 percent affordable units for people earning up to 50 percent of median income in all my rental deals. I made that deal with the District of Columbia well before there was an inclusionary zoning requirement. Mixed-income neighborhoods are what people want. To me, that’s what a city is. But I worry that no matter how hard we’re trying, we’re losing our affordable housing.

JM: The downside, I agree with Deb, is affordable housing, especially being somebody who’s really focused on retail. We want density and growth, but how do we do that while making sure the people who make the city what it is, the workforce, have places to live?

Some people would say you’re the problem. You’re just gentrifiers.

JM: I don’t shy away from that. I’d be crazy to tell you we’re not doing gentrification, but we are very intentional about what we’re doing. We’ve really led with jobs and said: How can we make this a place that is the beginning of an economic cycle? We’ve created 1,200 jobs since we started here. At the end of the day, we’ll create 20,000 new jobs in the Union Market district that didn’t exist.

DRS: We’ve also focused on jobs. We worked with 30 nonprofits throughout the District to get people trained, so that when Harris Teeter opened, there were residents largely from Wards 6, 7, and 8 who were willing, ready, and able to be employed. We had an over-80-percent retention rate after six months. When the Yards is complete, we’ll have over 10,000 employees.

Jodie, what will the Union Market district look like in five to ten years?

JM: We’re not going to try to build new structures that look old. I think that’s really hard to pull off. You’ll see [taller buildings near] the boundaries of the Union Market District. You’ll see alleys come alive in a way they haven’t for decades. You’ll see a lot of green.

Debby, what about the Yards?

DRS: We will have Yards West, which is 18 acres with another park. It will be an established neighborhood in the District of Columbia for people who want to be on the water. You’re going to be able to take water taxis across to Poplar Point. The 11th Street Bridge Park will be open.

What do you think when you look at what you’ve built so far?

JM: The biggest joy to me is when those people who’ve been here long before us say, “Oh, my grandmother would be so proud,” or “My father—this is really what he wanted to see happen here.” When I walk Union Market, I still see everything that has to be done. But I do think those are great moments.

DRS: There was one day when I parked much farther away than usual. First, I walked by DC Water, and I bumped into George Hawkins, who was head of DC Water at the time, and then I bumped into our DC Council member, Charles Allen. I walked by Philz Coffee and looked at how many strollers were out there and how many mothers were inside and how many people in Navy uniforms were inside. I watched a trash truck pull up. It was like: Oh, my God—there’s actually a neighborhood here!

This article appears in the November 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.