Downtown Revitalization: Washington, DC

August 30, 2013 15 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Is it too late for a downtown Jacksonville turnaround? Many were asking the question about this city's downtown 20 years ago. Today, Metro Jacksonville looks at the rapid revitalization of Downtown Washington, D.C.

The Rapid Revitalization of Downtown Washington, D.C.

Today, Downtown Washington, D.C. is a busy beehive of activity anchored by retail, theaters, museums, restaurants, and new housing. However, things have not always been that way. In 1950, Washington, DC had a population of 802,178. Like most of America's cities, the next few decades were a period of urban decline as the city struggled with the loss of its middle-class tax base.

By the 1990s, the city had been labeled the murder capital of the United States leading to a population of 572,059 by the 2000 Census. In an article by Urbanist, downtown's 120 commercial blocks contained 70 surface parking lots and 50 abandoned buildings in 1995. The downtown area of the Nation's capital had officially become what many consider downtown Jacksonville to be today: a place devoid of vibrancy.

However, a number of coordinated events in late 1990s ultimately resulted in the city's rapid turnaround. For example, in 1997, a downtown Business Improvement District (BID) began operations to help spur redevelopment.  That same year, the heavily subsidized MIC (now Verizon) Center opened along with a new subway entrance, attracting thousands of sports fans and suburbanites. Under the Clinton Administration, the federal government also assumed the City's $4.5 billion unfunded pension liability through the passage of the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997.  A year later, construction of a new convention center was approved after the hotel and restaurant industry agreed to a tax increase to fund the $850 million project. Furthermore, on a national level, people taking a liking to walkable cities began to pick up steam.

To say the least, downtown Washington, D.C.'s revitalization has been breath taking. Despite losing 22,000 federal jobs since 1990, the area has experienced a gain of 6,000 jobs since 2005. Annual murders have dropped from a peak of 479 in 1991 to 88 in 2012.  Washington, D.C.'s decades-long fight with population decline has also ceased.  In the last 12 years, the 61.4-square mile city has added 60,000 residents. In the last two years, it's added twice as many people as Jacksonville has, despite having 700 square miles less land area to work with.

This growth has created new challenges, such as affordability. According to a recent Kiplinger report, Washington, D.C. is now the sixth most expensive city in the country, with a cost of living 44.7% above the national average.

Also, despite the city's rapid revitalization, the number of downtown residents (8,449 in 2010) has only increased by 4,449 since 1990. This is due to the Heights of Buildings Act in 1899, limiting structure heights throughout the district. Today, the tallest commercial building in Downtown is the 210 foot One Franklin Square. By comparison, Jacksonville has 17 taller edifices, with the Bank of America Tower leading the way at 617 feet.

With growth in the district now bursting at the seams, the merits of raising the height limit have become a hot topic. In July 2013, a study was released indicating that boosting the height limit would encourage developers to construct taller buildings, creating up to 14,000 new jobs and 7,900 new residential units over a 20 year horizon, while easing office and residential prices.

To the common eye, there's not much to compare between the downtowns of Washington, D.C. and Jacksonville. For example, we can't rely on the federal government to play the role of John Gotti and sweep our unfunded pension obligations away.  We also can't count on the federal government to assume the maintenance of our public spaces.

However, there are things happening in downtown Washington, D.C. that are applicable to Jacksonville. These include the pedestrian interactivity of buildings at street level and the incorporation of alternative mobility choices within a dense environment. In this Metro Jacksonville photo tour, these stand out visually.  Regardless of the amount of money (or lack of) flowing into the Downtown Investment Authority, these are examples of affordable solutions that can be utilized to change the atmosphere and image of Downtown Jacksonville for the better.

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