Elements of Urbanism: Washington, DC

January 28, 2009 28 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

A brief tour around the downtown core of the nation's capitol: Washington, DC.

Tale of the Tape:

Washington, DC 2007: 591,833 (City); 5,306,565 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1790)

**587,868 (2007)

Jacksonville Pop. 2007: 805,605 (City); 1,300,823 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Washington DC (802,178)

Metropolitan Area Growth rate (2000-2007)

Washington, DC: +10.64%
Jacksonville: +15.86%

Urban Area Population (2000 census)

Washington, DC: 3,933,920 (ranked 8 nationwide)
Jacksonville: 882,295 (ranked 43 nationwide)

Urban Area Population Density (2000 census)

Washington, DC: 3,400.8
Jacksonville: 2,149.2

City Population Growth from 2000 to 2007

Washington, DC: +19,774
Jacksonville: +69,988

Convention Center Exhibition Space:

Washington, DC: Walter E. Washington Convention Center (2003) - 703,000 square feet
Jacksonville: Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center (1986) - 78,500 square feet

Tallest Building:

Washington, DC: Washington Monument - 555 feet
Jacksonville: Bank of America Tower - 617 feet

Downtown Fortune 500 companies:

Washington, DC: Fannie Mae (53), Danaher (239), Pepco Holdings (279)
Jacksonville: CSX (261), Fidelity National Financial (435), Fidelity National Information Services (481)

Urban infill obstacles:

Washington, DC: There are none.
Jacksonville: State & Union Streets cut off Downtown Jacksonville from Springfield.

Downtown Nightlife:

Washington, DC: Chinatown
Jacksonville: East Bay Street, located between Main Street and Liberty Street.  This four block stretch is home to four bars and clubs.

Common Downtown Albatross:

There are no clear common ailments.

Who's Downtown is more walkable?

Washington, DC: 97 out of 100, according to walkscore.com
Jacksonville: 88 out of 100, according to walkscore.com


Downtown DC

Downtown is the central business district for the District of Columbia.  Unlike other large cities in the U.S., Washington's downtown has a low skyline. With the advent of the skyscraper and the construction of the Cairo Hotel, residents were concerned that the city's European feel might be dwarfed by high-rise buildings. Congress therefore passed the Heights of Buildings Act in 1899, restricting any new building in Washington from exceeding the height of the U.S. Capitol. The act was amended in 1910 to allow buildings to be 20 feet higher than the width of the adjacent street.

As of 2006, the tallest building in downtown Washington – excluding the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol, Washington National Cathedral, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, all of which are outside of the downtown district – is the Old Post Office, whose 315-foot-tall clock tower looms far above the other nearby structures. Built in 1899, it was grandfathered past the Heights of Buildings Act. The tallest commercial building is One Franklin Square, at 210 feet.







Chinatown in Washington, D.C. is a small, historic neighborhood east of downtown, in the present day consisting of about 20 of ethnic Chinese and other Asian restaurants and small businesses along H and I Streets between 5th and 8th Streets, Northwest.

The area was originally populated by German immigrants.  Chinese immigrants began to populate the area in the 1930s, having been displaced from Washington's original Chinatown along Pennsylvania Avenue by the development of the Federal Triangle government office complex. The newcomers marked it with decorative metal latticework and railings as well as Chinese signage. At its peak, Chinatown was deemed to extend from G Street north to Massachusetts Avenue, and from 9th Street east to 5th Street.

Like other Washington neighborhoods, Chinatown declined sharply after the 1968 riots. Ethnic Chinese residents, as well as many others, left for suburban areas, spurred further by the city's rising crime and taxes, and deteriorating business climate. When the Washington Metro station serving the neighborhood opened in 1976, it was named simply "Gallery Place," ignoring Chinatown altogether.

In 2006, Chinatown went under a $200 million renovation, transforming the area into a bustling scene for nightlife, shopping and entertainment, with high-end restaurants, a deluxe movie theater and a number of new stores. Gentrification has produced a strange phenomenon in DC's Chinatown. Local laws dictate that new businesses in the Chinatown area must have signs in English and Chinese, to preserve local character.  Ironically most of the new businesses are national chain restaurants and stores, so that Starbucks, Hooters, CVS and Legal Sea Foods, among others, hang their names in Chinese outside their stores.




National Mall

The National Mall is an open-area national park in downtown, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol.  Although constructed in the early 20th century, it was originally designed by Pierre Charles L'Enfant in 1791.  The mall is home to a large number of prominent landmarks and memorials and this site of Presidential Inaugurations, protests and rallies.







Unique Washington, D.C.

- In 2007, Washington commuters spend 60 hours a year in traffic, which tied for having the worst traffic in the country after Los Angeles.

- The Citizens of the District of Columbia have no voting representation in Congress, despite residents and businesses paying $20.4 billion in federal taxes (2007); more than the taxes collected from 19 states.

- Washington, D.C. is one of only 13 cities in the United States with teams from all four major men's sports: football, basketball, baseball, and ice hockey.

- Washington, D.C. has the third-largest downtown in the United States, in terms of commercial office space, directly behind New York City and Chicago.

- Despite the national economic crisis and housing price downturn, Washington ranked second on the Forbes list of the best long-term housing markets in the country.

- As of November 2008, with an unemployment rate of 4.4%, Washington had the lowest rate among the 49 largest metro areas in the nation.

- Six of the top 10 buildings in American Institute of Architects' 2007 ranking of "America's Favorite Architecture" area located in the District of Columbia.


Foggy Bottom

Foggy Bottom is one of Washington, D.C's oldest 19th century neighborhoods.  The neighborhood is thought to have been named because, as a low-lying area, fog or industrial smoke tended to concentrate there.  Today, it is the home of George Washington University, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the infamous Watergate complex.







Georgetown is a neighborhood located in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., along the Potomac River waterfront. Founded in 1751, the city of Georgetown substantially predated the establishment of the city of Washington and the District of Columbia. Georgetown retained its separate municipal status until 1871, when it was assimilated into the city of Washington. Today, the primary commercial corridors of Georgetown are M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, which contain high-end shops, bars, and restaurants. Georgetown is home to the main campus of Georgetown University and the Old Stone House, the oldest standing building in Washington.



Dupont Circle

Dupont Circle is a traffic circle, neighborhood, and historic district in Northwest Washington, D.C.  The neighborhood's residential sections are dominated by late 19th century Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque revival style rowhouses.

Dupont Circle began to decline after World War II, but came back to life as a bohemian district in the 1970s.  Along with The Castro in San Francisco, Hillcrest in San Diego, Greenwich Village in New York City, Boystown in Chicago, and West Hollywood in Los Angeles, Dupont Circle is considered a historic locale in the development of American gay identity.  Gentrification in the 1990s has now converted the area into a mainstream trendy location with coffeehouses, restaurants, bars and upscale retail stores.





U Street Corridor

The U Street area is largely a Victorian-era neighborhood, developed between 1862 and 1900, the majority of which has been designated as a historic district. The area is made up of row houses constructed rapidly by speculative builders and real estate developers in response to the city's high demand for housing following the Civil War and the growth of the Federal government in the late 19th century. The corridor became commercially significant when a streetcar line operated there in the early 20th century, making it convenient for the first time for government employees to commute downtown to work and shop.

U Street has long been a center of Washington's music scene with the Lincoln Theatre, Howard Theatre, Bohemian Caverns, and other clubs and historic jazz venues.

While always racially diverse, the area was predominately white and middle class until 1900. As Washington became progressively more segregated, the neighborhood emerged as a fashionable neighborhood for Washington's African-American residents. U Street became the city's most important concentration of businesses and entertainment facilities owned and operated by blacks, while the surrounding neighborhood became home to many of the city's most prominent African Americans. Until the 1920s, when it was overtaken by Harlem, the U Street area was home to the largest urban African American community in the United States. In its cultural heyday, it was known as "Black Broadway".

While the area remained a cultural center for the African American community through the 1960s, the neighborhood began to decline following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The intersection of 14th Street and U Street was the epicenter of violent and destructive riots. Following the riots, and the subsequent flight of affluent residents and businesses from the area, the corridor became blighted. Drug trafficking rose dramatically in the mid-sixties and for many years the intersection of 14th and U Streets was the center of drug trafficking in Washington, DC. At times, hundreds of addicts would fill the streets in a carnival-like atmosphere, waiting for drug shipments to arrive.

Gentrification began in the 1990s, following development in Adams Morgan and later Logan Circle. More than 2,000 luxury condominiums and apartments were constructed between 1997 and 2007.





Union Station

Union Station was designed to be the entrance to Washington, D.C., when it opened in 1908.  As with many American railroad stations, the financial and physical condition of Union Station deteriorated after World War II as train travel declined and federal funding created a competitive interstate highway system.  After a period of consideration for possibly razing it or converting it into a museum, the station was renovated in the late 1980s. 

Today, it features a large food court in the former baggage-mail level and a variety of shops in the Concourse and Main Hall areas.  Today Union Station is again one of Washington’s busiest and best-known places, visited by 20 million people each year.  Passenger services include Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express, Regional, the MARC and VRE commuter railways, linking Washington to Maryland and Virginia, respectively; and the Washington Metro Red Line. From Union Station Amtrak also operates long-distance service to the southeast and midwest, including many intermediate stops to destinations like Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Miami. 




Metrorail and Transit Oriented Development

The Washington Metro is the rapid transit system of Washington, D.C.  During the 1960s, there were plans for a massive freeway system in Washington. However, opposition to this freeway system grew. Harland Bartholomew, who chaired the National Capital Planning Commission, thought that a rail transit system would never be self-sufficient because of low-density land uses and general transit ridership decline. Finally, a mixed concept of a Capital Beltway system along with rail line radials was agreed upon. The Beltway received full funding; monies for the ambitious Inner Loop Freeway system were partially reallocated toward construction of the Metro system. 

After opening in 1976, it has grown to become the second busiest heavy rail system in the United States behind the New York City Subway, averaging 798,456 riders a day in 2008.  The highest ridership for a single day was Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009 with 1,120,000 riders, breaking the previous record, set the day before, of 866,681 trips.

The network was designed with a spoke-hub distribution paradigm, which makes the subway ideal for getting from a suburb to any part of the city, or vice versa, but unattractive for suburb-to-suburb travel.  The system is also noteworthy as a system with a limited number of lines that makes extensive use of interlining (running more than one service on the same track).

History has proven Mr. Bartholomew's opposition against rail to be off-base.  However, the Metro's 86 stations have spurred billions of dollars in transit oriented development, giving the system a permanent built in ridership base.






For additional images of Washington, D.C. and Inauguration Day 2009 visit: