“Hip” and “cool” are attributes not traditionally associated with the U.S. capital. But over the past two decades, Washington, D.C., has undergone rapid revitalization, attracting more than 120,000 new residents and billions of dollars in private and public investment. Fast-growing walkable neighborhoods are located throughout the city and beyond its borders into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Some D.C. neighborhoods are rising from the ruins of the 1968 riots. Others occupy former industrial land, train yards, warehouses, federal tracts, and a sprawling wholesale food market.
Many factors have spurred this transformation. Relocation of federal and city agencies from within D.C. and Northern Virginia brought thousands of jobs to areas that had little commercial activity. Development has been spurred by improvements to public transportation, theaters, sports venues, and even an enormous new sewer tunnel that has improved the Anacostia River’s water quality.
Despite its benefits, this rapid urban growth has a downside—displacement of longtime residents due to skyrocketing housing costs and other factors. In Washington, this phenomenon has a distinctly racial aspect: according to the Urban Institute, the African American share of the city’s population fell from 70 percent in the 1970s to 48 percent by 2016.
Mayor Muriel Bowser has set a goal of adding 36,000 new homes, one-third of them affordable, in the District by 2025. The mayor’s affordable housing investment includes $100 million in annual funding for the city’s Housing Protection Trust Fund. Public, private, and nonprofit groups including ULI Washington have launched initiatives addressing housing affordability.
This article focuses on larger neighborhoods within the city limits that are on a growth curve with substantial new housing, retail space, and amenities. Not included are more-established neighborhoods such as Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and Foggy Bottom. Nor does the article cover the many walkable urban nodes in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs or the evolving office market.
A person strolling down city streets could find young workers on scooters gliding past construction cranes, anticipating the next new chef-driven restaurant, yoga studio, or Trader Joe’s grocery store. D.C.’s iconic go-go music, as pioneered by the late Chuck Brown in the 1970s, could be pumping from storefront speakers, with high energy and a throbbing beat that goes and goes. But the funk might be drowned out by jackhammers clearing ground for a new apartment building with the latest innovations in pet care and package storage.
Above and below: Union Market, a 45-acre (18 ha) historic urban development, is anchored by an eclectic food hall that opened in 2012. It draws nearly 3 million visitors annually. (Tim Brown / Alamy Stock Photo)
It has kombucha, Korean tacos, ramen, oysters, fish, crepes, wings, sushi, empanadas, vegan falafel, Neapolitan pizza, Venezuelan arepas, craft beers, an 88-year-old butcher shop, fresh produce, and lots of coffee. You can go there to watch art movies in a pop-up theater with a classic vibe or attend a book signing at the Politics & Prose bookstore. Watch Venus Williams play tennis on the world’s first professional sports rooftop stadium, or dine at one of two Michelin Guide restaurants—Masseria and Bidwell. Discover African fashions, rent creative coworking space, or live in new apartments minutes from Metro transit stations.
This is Union Market, a 45-acre (18 ha) historic urban development anchored by an eclectic food hall that opened in 2012 and now draws nearly 3 million visitors annually.
“In 2007, a friend called me to look at an empty lot here, where wholesale food vendors had operated since 1931,” recalls EDENS chief development officer Steve Boyle. “Just across the train tracks, we could see 22 cranes in NoMa [the North of Massachusetts Avenue area]. We felt that this site, as large as New York City’s Meatpacking District, could have a micro impact on the local community and a macro impact on the city.”
EDENS started investing in the area that same year, when some 90 separate property owners were in place. In 2009, the D.C. Council created a small area plan allowing for 8 million square feet (743,000 sq m) of mixed-use development.
Union Market provided a “laboratory” for EDENS chief executive officer Jodie McLean to actualize the vision that she explained in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article co-written by urban theorist Richard Florida.
“Inclusive prosperity is the idea that the opportunity and benefits of economic growth should be widely shared by all segments of society,” they wrote. “The Union Market district would need to create jobs, engage the surrounding community, inspire connection between the existing neighborhood and the broader city, preserve historical identity, and incubate entrepreneurship—all while making economic sense as a development.”
It is working without displacing residents, because none were living there. Already the Union Market district has created over 700 new jobs, launched more than 50 businesses, and added over 900 new residences. EDENS takes pride in the numbers of minority- and women-owned businesses, internships and apprenticeships, community events, and an extensive arts program that includes a mural by Yoko Ono. The district maintains an authentic feel, with preservation of the market’s historic core and many wholesale vendors still operating there.
The Edison, LCOR’s 188-unit apartment building with a street-level Trader Joe’s grocery store, opened in 2017, followed by two more projects that opened this year—the Highline (315 units) and the Batley (432 units). On the ground floor of the Batley is La Cosecha, EDENS’s contemporary Latin market with over 20,000 square feet (1,900 sq m) of culinary, retail, entertainment, and community space.
More than a dozen additional projects are in the development pipeline. Four parcels totaling over 1 million square feet (93,000 sq m) will be developed by JBG Smith in partnership with adjacent Gallaudet University, an institution of learning, teaching, and research for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The project will follow DeafSpace principles such as creation of wide sidewalks that accommodate pedestrians conversing in sign language.
The Union Market effect is spreading in all directions. About a block south of the area’s Florida Avenue boundary—technically in NoMa—the 1940s-era Uline Arena was being used as a trash transfer facility when it was acquired by Douglas Development in 2004. Famous for hosting the Beatles’ first U.S. concert in 1964, the barrel-shaped behemoth was redeveloped in 2016 as office and retail space and now is home to outdoor-gear retailer REI’s fifth flagship store.
Douglas Development, headed by Douglas Jemal, also paved the way for revitalization of Ivy City, just one mile (1.6 km) up New York Avenue from Union Market. In 2011, charmed by the glass block and elaborate cupola of its streamline moderne design, Jemal acquired a six-story, 74-year-old shuttered department store warehouse. Now, Hecht Warehouse features 300 apartments and 125,000 square feet (12,000 sq m) of retail space, anchored by a MOM’s Organic Market. Ivy City’s new restaurants, breweries, and concert venues draw lively nighttime crowds. Car-sharing services fill in for the dearth of reliable public transportation.