Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.
Despite some bruising battles in Upper Northwest, big changes are underway. Over the next two years, a large number of residential buildings that are opening may change the area’s politics for good.
Upper Northwest has a reputation for being full of people who hate new buildings, are suspicious of cyclists, and worry that students will die chasing ping-pong balls into the street. After seeing their neighborhood commercial strips reduced to mattress stores while others thrived, many residents started looking for another way.
They saw how progressive urban design made other neighborhoods safer, more lively, and better for people of all ages. Already, we’re starting to see the effects: dense mixed-use areas and walkable blocks of single-family homes can be good neighbors. The new residents will probably like the new vitality even more.
New buildings make good neighbors and better neighborhoods
Cathedral Commons symbolizes the area’s anti-development reputation. In 1999, Giant Food proposed rebuilding the midcentury shopping center at Wisconsin Avenue and Newark Street in Cleveland Park. Some residents were fiercely opposed, and the fight dragged on through multiple revisions, an attempt to landmark the dreary building, and an expensive lawsuit against the final mixed-use proposal.
Still, a strong enough coalition of people who were frustrated with opponents’ demands formed to push the project through. Cathedral Commons will finally open by the end of 2014, and even at 15 years after the start of this fight, the development’s arrival is better late than never. It’s undoubtedly an improvement on what was already there, and new families that move into the neighborhood will likely see the project as an amenity and wonder why anyone ever opposed it.
Up Wisconsin Avenue, the Tenley View apartments are also under construction. First proposed in 2004, the current scheme surfaced after the financial crisis in 2011. After a lengthy “Planned Unit Development” review, DC’s Zoning Commission approved the building in 2013.
One condition of the approval for Tenley View bans not only stores selling pot and porn but also mattresses and picture frames. That may seem odd, but those low-volume destination stores represented a low point in Tenleytown, before the new library and the Cityline building that added new residents atop a historic Sears. As new buildings have attracted foot traffic, restaurants and stores that serve local needs have returned.
On Connecticut Avenue, new projects like Woodley Wardman and the 212-unit 2700 Woodley Road delicately add density to established neighborhoods. And despite an expensive legal challenge from well-connected neighbors, a rental building at 5333 Connecticut broke ground last winter and will open next May.
In Van Ness, the Park Van Ness building is replacing a strip mall. The large, well-designed building promises to bring much-needed street presence in an area that suffered from banal midcentury design.
Academic villages bring activity, if not ideal design
Also in Van Ness, the University of the District of Columbia is constructing a new student center where a large plaza once sat empty most of the week. The new building will make UDC’s brutalist campus more extroverted.
American University is making even more dramatic changes. It’s about to replace a large surface parking lot with a new residential complex. Bowing to opposition, AU set the buildings back far from the street, which isn’t ideal for putting eyes on the street. But it’s a step in the right direction for a long-term construction project.
Closer to Tenleytown, AU’s Washington College of Law is constructing a large campus that will discourage car trips and bring new activity to Tenleytown. The law school is currently on a relatively isolated stretch of Massachussetts Avenue in Spring Valley, and the move will make the campus more accessible to downtown. That’s crucial for a law school that relies heavily on practicing teachers.
For development to work, the political process needs to change
There is a common thread between all of these projects: getting them into the neighborhood required a lot of work on the ground. But more and more residents are recognizing that Upper Northwest can grow without losing the characteristics that make it so desirable. The strife has even created networks of people favorable to Smart Growth, like Ward 3 Vision.
The downside of the fight is that it makes the process of planning a community feel piecemeal and time consuming. Facing a lawsuit against something the ANC approved can feel hopeless. Neighborhood meetings during dinner time make it hard for residents to get involved every time. And the negotiations over individual projects often get too bogged down in details for people who haven’t been following a project since the beginning.
At the heart of it is that each process lacks guidance. For development in upper Northwest to continue in a way that benefits all parties, decision-makers need to engage the public at a more basic level. I’ll address that process in my next post.