This is the third part in an ongoing series of reports about the metropolitan Washington region’s changing neighborhoods. Read Part I and Part II )A recent study by a George Washington University real estate expert called the D.C. region a pioneer in creating WalkUPs, walkable urban places. In this report, WAMU’s Martin Di Caro visits the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Ward 1.
When Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham sat down for lunch at Red Rocks Firebrick Pizzeria on a weekday afternoon it was easy for him to remember what the neighborhood used to be like here around Park Road and 11th Street, about three miles north of the White House.
“A few years ago this would have been unthinkable, unimaginable,” he says, considering his new neighbors.
The pizza place is situated in one of the D.C. region’s 43 WalkUPs designated by George Washington University’s Chris Leinberger, and in a zip code that has seen dramatic demographic changes through gentrification. The 20010 is tenth fastest gentrifying zip code in the country, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
“Where we are sitting right now was a house that was taken over by squatters who lived here without running water,” Graham said. “You wouldn’t have had any daytime restaurant opportunity. In fact, these restaurants and bars that are around us right now weren’t open.”
The opening of Metro's Green Line in 1999 was the catalyst for so many of the positive changes that include rising property values.
“The Green Line made an enormous difference in terms of transforming what were vacant lots with chain link fences which gave rise to crime and other undesirable activities. So the Metro was key,” the councilmember said.
In Leinberger’s study Columbia Heights is considered an urban commercial WalkUP, meaning it is dominated by for-sale housing but has significant blocks of office, retail, and rental space.
Columbia Heights has experienced the challenge of retaining affordable housing as prosperity took hold.
“We’ve obviously brought a lot of newcomers into this neighborhood with the new apartment buildings… but it is very useful to keep in mind that we have the whole length of 14th Street starting at W [Street] and running all the way to Oak [Street], we have three thousand units of very low-income affordable housing,” Graham said.
Ward 1 is known for its ethnic diversity, the center of the district’s Latino, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese communities. Graham said the government has actively worked to preserve those communities and resist the real estate pressures brought by gentrification.
“This is all quality housing that we now have for extremely low-income persons," Graham said of the housing 14th street housing stock. "Each and every one of those could have been a condo easily because of the real estate pressures,” said Graham who added D.C. has some of the most progressive affordable housing laws in the country.
“It took a determined effort. It just didn’t happen willy-nilly. What you see at 14th and Irving and 14th and Park was something very carefully understood and bought into by everyone who was a stakeholder,” Graham added, referring to the retail center built up around the Columbia Heights Metro station, including a large Target.