Large, neighborhood-scale development projects, often called “instant neighborhoods,” can struggle to create authentic, livable urban experiences compared with neighborhoods that evolved over time with a mix of uses. Looking at DC’s older neighborhoods and streetcar suburbs can reveal great examples of what more granular, ad-hoc development looks like. The question is how we can create an environment for new neighborhoods to grow in a similar way.
One good example of this kind of organic development in DC is what I like to call a “shopfront” building. This is slightly different from a shophouse, a small- to mid-sized building generally designed with the intent of having retail on the ground floor and a handful of apartments above. A shopfront was originally built as a single-family house — in DC’s case, often a rowhouse on a major arterial — and later had a commercial component added to the front.
Shopfronts are common in some of DC’s older neighborhoods, particularly along commercial corridors that were originally more residential. You can spot them along Lower Georgia Avenue and on Florida Avenue in Bloomingdale/Truxton Circle. They’re a great example of how some of our best neighborhoods grew to accommodate different demands and adjust to new zoning laws.
Dan Reed weighs in on why this building typology may have become common, especially along Georgia Avenue:
These row houses on Georgia Avenue are, in many ways, a response to the row houses built as live-work units along the corridor during the 1920s and 1930s, like Georgia Ave between Ingraham and Jefferson, or Georgia between Decatur and Delafield. Those buildings were built speculatively as mixed-use (shop on the bottom, apartment above). These later conversions are often found on adjacent blocks, filling in the gaps between commercial districts, or extending them.
Looking back at Washington, Present and Future, a comprehensive planning document written in 1950, shows how the changing nature of zoning may have also influenced the emerging of shopfronts.
As DC grew organically through the 19th and early 20th century, commercial corridors like H Street or Georgia Avenue were prominent, but interiors of neighborhoods had a lot more scattered commercial structures than they do now (as seen in the well-documented “Houses that Used to be Stores”).
The idea of Euclidean, single-use zoning was coming into prominence in the 1950s, which imposed a more rigorous separation of commercial and residential structures. In places like Georgia Avenue, this had the effect of focusing retail development towards designated commercial corridors, even when those streets had pre-existing residential buildings.
Payton Chung wrote in 2017 about the “instant neighborhoods” throughout the region:
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...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.
The difficulty of creating new small-scale, piecemeal development in established neighborhoods means that a lot of urban development is increasingly starting to look like the Wharf or other upcoming mega-projects. Neighborhoods like this may hew close to good urbanist principles on paper — a mix of uses, active street fronts and public spaces, and connections to transit — but they come with an inescapable lack of authenticity.
“Neighborhood Character” is a common refrain and an important consideration (when you leave aside the term’s often charged usage). But what does it say about our economy and our cities when so many new neighborhoods have their character designed and focus-grouped by a corporation, rather than develop out of the people that come together to form a community? I’m looking at you, North End Shaw.
More importantly, the massive investments in infrastructure required for these neighborhood-scale megaprojects mean that they often have to charge high rents to make the numbers add up. While efforts have been made to try and incorporate different levels of residential affordability in new projects with Inclusionary Zoning, this isn’t often a consideration for commercial space.
On the other hand, shopfronts are much less expensive to build out, and are often the most affordable retail in the neighborhoods they’re in. This allows for more experimental, inexpensive, and/or neighborhood-serving businesses to flourish — a defining feature of neighborhoods with a strong character.
It seems rare for this kind of organic growth to happen any more — most of the mixed use buildings we get now are in larger apartment or condo developments, which often don’t provide affordable retail space or create a streetfront that is as engaging as a place that grew more slowly. In fact, these newer buildings struggle to find retail tenants and often remain vacant. How can we learn from the shophouse to create more welcoming (and affordable) urban neighborhoods?