Historic aerial photos offer a glimpse into the evolutionary history of some of DC’s neighborhoods, showing decline, redevelopment, and the ever-changing urban fabric of the city.

DCist takes note of a great photo of the Mt. Vernon Square area from 1992, looking south towards the Portrait Gallery and what’s now the Verizon Center:

View SE over Mount Vernon Square, 1992.

It’s amazing to realize how much the area has changed over the past 15-20 years.  Looking back at the historical images available from Google Earth, we can piece together the evolution of the area over the years.  Google Earth’s imagery isn’t universally available over time, so there are some rather big gaps between some aerial sets.

North is to the left in all the images.


Mount Vernon Square - 1949 (image from Google Earth)

Note the fine grain of the urban fabric. Almost all of the buildings occupy narrow lots with zero setback from the property line. There are virtually no vacant lots.  You can see the beginnings of site clearance at the top if the image for the enormous Government Accountability Office building.  That structure would be dedicated in 1951.


Mount Vernon Square - 1988 (image from Google Earth)

By 1988, things had changed a great deal.  Obviously, there are lots of surface parking lots.  Though the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station opened in 1976 with the first operable segment of the Red line, the North-South connection along the Green-Yellow lines wasn’t yet open when this picture was taken.  The Mount Vernon Square, Shaw-Howard U, and U Street stations all opened in 1991, just prior to the taking of the opening photograph in this post.


Mount Vernon Square - 1999 (image from Google Earth)

In 1999, the (now) Verizon Center has been open for business for about a year and a half.  Site preparation is well underway for the new convention center, but there are still some key downtown parcels vacant or occupied by surface parking.


Mount Vernon Square - 2004 (image from Google Earth)

Gallery Place is taking shape, the new convention center is done, and other vacant lots fill in.  There are still some significant vacant lots to the north of Mass. Ave.


Mount Vernon Square - 2009 (image from Google Earth)

The old convention center has been removed, just about all of the once vacant lots in old downtown (the right side of this image) are filled in, and stuff to the north of Mass. Ave. is beginning to see some real development. There’s a little error in image stitching between L and M streets, with the aerials to the right taking a slightly more oblique angle, showing the heights of the buildings in Old Downtown.

Watching this section of DC devolve and then redevelop shows some clear trends.  The newer buildings are all much bigger than their predecessors, both in terms of heights and footprint.  The fine-grained urban fabric of the 1949 image is largely gone from the downtown portions of the images, aside from a few stretches where the original facades have been retained behind newer developments or a few blocks in Chinatown, where the smaller structures remain.

The interesting thing to note is how much of downtown DC turned first to surface parking before redeveloping back into urban forms.  This intermediate, destructive step hinders preserving the fine-grained urbanism.  Nevertheless, the redevelopment of the area is a rousing success, showing the versatility of the traditional city grid, particularly when reinforced with urban rail transit.

Cross-posted at City Block.

Alex Block is an urban planner in Washington, DC. Alex’s planning interests focus on the interactions between transportation, land use, and urban design.  He also blogs at City Block and currently lives in Hill East.