The Capitol Riverfront certainly fulfilled its designation as a Land Use Change Area. A more balanced approach might better encourage urban diversity. Image by the author.

In certain corners of DC, flocks of construction cranes are busy assembling dozens of apartment towers from scratch – while other neighborhoods look much the same as they have for decades. This imbalance is quietly undermining the character and continuity of DC's urban fabric by eroding the physical, economic, and social diversity within neighborhoods. Yet DC's planning policies explicitly encourage this pattern when they single out a few areas to develop all at once, while exempting other areas from growth.

There are subtle reasons why it's not a great idea to funnel all of the District's growth into just a few central-city areas. From an urban design standpoint, “instant neighborhoods” rarely have the visual or social diversity that many people enjoy about urban places. Great neighborhoods evolve as a mixed collage of uses, buildings, activities, and people over time – resulting not just in a more interesting place, but also a more enduring one.

One common complaint about areas like Southwest Waterfront, Crystal City, Golden Triangle, and even Capitol Riverfront is that they “look generic.” They're filled with large, boxy buildings that were all built within a relatively short period of time, and thus responded to the real-estate market pressures of that one particular era. Suburban tracts filled with identical houses, whether in Olney or Bowie or Chantilly, face similar criticisms.

The Tiber Island residential complex in Southwest DC replaced eight blocks of rowhouses. Image by the author.

The renowned urban theorist Jane Jacobs sternly warns against building “instant neighborhoods” in her classic text The Death and Life of Great American Cities – not because they look generic, but because they stifle the diversity that she felt was the defining characteristic of cities:

Large swatches of construction built at one time are inherently inefficient for sheltering wide ranges of cultural, population, and business diversity… It is hardly possible to expect that many really different types of dwellings or their buildings can be added at any one time… There are fashions in building. Behind the fashions lie economic and technological reasons, and these fashions exclude all but a few genuinely different possibilities in city dwelling construction at any one time… As soon as the range and number of variations in buildings decline, the diversity of population and enterprises is too apt to stay static or decline, instead of decreasing.

Even some of the Modernist architects whose work Jacobs abhorred shared her skepticism about applying redevelopment in sudden and sharp bursts. Cloethiel Woodard Smith, one of the chief architects of the Southwest Urban Renewal Area, echoed Jacobs' understanding of architectural fads, saying, “This whole business of a large-scale urban renewal program reflects a moment's thinking in time.”

U Street's many small buildings were built over many years. Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

Our greatest neighborhoods grew up over time

By contrast, beloved urban neighborhoods like Old Town and Shaw evolved slowly, as generations of both small and large buildings layered over centuries into a fine-grained urban fabric. A mix of buildings of different sizes, uses, and ages display the eclectic handiwork of different architects, builders, and owners. This makes for a livelier experience than an area laid down by a handful of big firms. These mixed areas also turn out to be better at fostering the economic and social variation that defines great cities.

A diverse building stock also accommodates a fuller diversity of human activities, which ultimately turns out to be a significant economic strength, according to research from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In its “Older Smaller Better” report, since expanded into an “Atlas of Reurbanism,” the Trust found that older neighborhoods had better economic performance across a range of factors: “The higher performance of areas containing small-scale buildings of mixed vintage suggests that successful districts evolve over time, adding and subtracting buildings incrementally, rather than comprehensively and all at once.”

The report compared blocks that generally had smaller buildings of mixed ages to blocks that had larger and newer structures (a category that also includes both much of downtown and the single-family areas at DC's fringe). In DC, the report found that smaller, mixed-age blocks had 80 percent higher population density and 93 percent more jobs in small businesses – even though the larger/newer areas are home to most of the District's jobs.

Diverse buildings can more easily adapt over time

That same lack of building type diversity makes instant neighborhoods less resilient to change than more slowly developed neighborhoods just as a monoculture tree farm is less resistant to pests, drought, or fire than a biodiverse forest that's constantly regenerating itself. Jacobs writes:

Neighborhoods built up all at once change little physically over the years as a rule… The neighborhood shows a strange inability to update itself, enliven itself, repair itself, or to be sought after, out of choice, by a new generation. It is dead. Actually it was dead from birth, but nobody noticed this much until the corpse began to smell.

For example, Crystal City's forest of high-rise office buildings proved to be a convenient place to house the booming defense industry in the 1980s, but left the neighborhood highly vulnerable when the Pentagon decided to move its offices elsewhere. To fill that gap, local planners and developers want to fill in the area with different uses and smaller buildings.

A tree farm. Image by Gnome J via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

A similar problem applies to housing: Just as people inexorably age, so do the neighborhoods they call home. All of the units under construction today necessarily respond to the demands of today's housing market, owing to what Jacobs called “fashions in building.” In 2017, this means small high-rise apartments, aimed at young renters living in small households. These are certainly needed to house today's burgeoning population of singles, but may not be what the housing market demands 20 years from now – but by then, today's hot neighborhoods will be built out, and infill development of future housing types will be that much more difficult.

This “cohort effect” means that homogenous neighborhoods tend to rise and decline together, which is not a recipe for neighborhood stability. Currently, 42 percent of Capitol Riverfront residents are Millennials, almost twice the national rate. That makes sense, given that its apartment buildings began signing leases just as thousands of Millennials began moving to the District. The Millennials are the children of a previous demographic bulge, the baby boomers, whose attachment to their large suburban houses is also creating challenges for the communities where they live.

Crystal Drive in Arlington. Image by Daniel Lobo licensed under Creative Commons.

DC's comp plan tried to stop neighborhood evolution

If communities are better with mixed building ages, then why does DC build so many “instant neighborhoods”? That turns out to be exactly according to plan. The District's comprehensive plan set out to “encourage and facilitate new development” within 25 designated “Land Use Change Areas”. Most of the rest of the city was designated as “Neighborhood Conservation Areas,” where the plan “anticipated… maintenance of existing land uses and community character.” In other words, their existing buildings will be joined by very few new buildings — and certainly no substantially different buildings. Perhaps not coincidentally, the homes of the most vocal citizens are usually slated for “conservation,” rather than “land use change.”

This policy keeps new buildings from refreshing the Neighborhood Conservation Areas to help them adapt to new circumstances, preventing their building stock from gaining diversity. This policy has also steered most new buildings to the Land Use Change Areas, many of which have seen so much new construction all at once that their building-stock age diversity has diminished as well.

Instead of bifurcating the city into lots-of-change and no-change areas, Jacobs urged that the built environment in both established and growing areas should gradually and continuously evolve:

Some of the old buildings, year by year, are replaced by new ones—or rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is, therefore, constantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types… Densities should be raised—and new buildings introduced for this purpose—gradually rather than in some sudden, cataclysmic upheaval to be followed by nothing more for decades. The very process of increasing densities gradually but continually can result in increasing variety too, and thus can permit high ultimate densities without standardization.

A broader and more balanced approach to growth would accept that all neighborhoods – like the world around them and the people within them – are always going to change. It would make sure that all neighborhoods share the rewards and responsibilities of growth and change, including new and denser buildings. It would admit that no amount of intelligent design can ever match the beauty of evolution when it comes to creating a forest, or a neighborhood, or a city.