Downtown Revitalization: Washington, DC

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.

Published August 30, 2013 in Cities -

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.

Tale of the Tape:

Washington, DC City Population 2012: 632,323 (City); 5,703,948 (Metro 2012) - (incorporated in 1790)

Jacksonville City Population 2012: 836,507 (City); 1,377,850 (Metro 2012) - (incorporated in 1832)

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

City Land Area

Washington, DC: 61.4 square miles
Jacksonville: 757.7 square miles

Metropolitan Area Growth rate (2010-2012)

Washington, DC: +3.98%
Jacksonville: +2.40%

Urban Area Population (2010 census)

Washington, DC: 4,586,770 (ranked 8 nationwide)
Jacksonville: 1,065,219 (ranked 40 nationwide)

Urban Area Population Density (2010 census)

Washington, DC: 3,470.3 people per square mile
Jacksonville: 2,008.5 people per square mile

City Population Growth from 2010 to 2012

Washington: +30,600
Jacksonville: +14,723

Convention Center Exhibition Space:

Washington, DC: Walter E. Washington Convention Center (2003) - 703,000 square feet
Jacksonville: Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center (1985) - 78,500 square feet

Connected to or across the street from Convention Center:

Washington, DC: Washington DC Marriott Marquis - 1,175 rooms
Jacksonville: N/A

Tallest Building/Structure:

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

Fortune 500 companies 2013 (City limits only):

Washington, DC: Fannie Mae (12), Danaher (152), Pepco Holdings (483)
Jacksonville: CSX (231), Fidelity National Financial (353), Fidelity National Information Services (434)

Urban infill obstacles:

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

Downtown Nightlife District:

Washington, DC: Chinatown
Jacksonville: The Elbow, The Jacksonville Landing

Common Downtown Albatross:

There are no clear common ailments.

Who's Downtown is more walkable?

Washington, DC: 96 out of 100, according to
Jacksonville: 78 out of 100, according to

Mass Transit

For many years, downtown Jacksonville's terminal was the largest train station south of Washington, D.C.'s Union Station.  With plans to restore rail service back to downtown Jacksonville, Union Station can provide us with a glimpse of what could possibly be in our old station's future.

Attracting over 32 million annual visitors, Union Station is one of the busiest train stations in the country. Completed in 1907, the intermodal center is served by Amtrak, MARC, VRE commuter rail, local buses and the Washington Metro subway trains. Today, the station's original concourse features multiple levels of retail shops and restaurants.

The DC Circulator is downtown's latest addition. At just $1 and with buses arriving every 10 minutes, the Circulator provides daily bus service connecting downtown with Adams Morgan, Woodley Park, Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Rosslyn, Navy Yard, and Potomac Avenue.

Interior of Union Station

Bike Infrastructure

Bicycling makes Washington, D.C. one of the nation's most multimodal friendly cities. As of 2013, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has created 56 miles of marked bike lanes, installed 2,300 bicycle parking racks. In recent years, DDOT has also launched the country's first public bike share program, built Bikestation DC at Union Station and installed the first separated counterflow bike lane on 15th Street NW.

One innovative bike facility that stands out is the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track.  Completed in 2010, separated bike lanes run in the center of the street from 15th to 3rd Streets NW.  Plastic bollards separate the lanes from general traffic where appropriate and major intersections include bicycle signals.  In a compact setting, utilizing existing roadway medians for alternative forms of mobility may be worth exploring locally.


Being a walkable city, Washington, D.C. provides cities like Jacksonville with a variety of examples of how to engage pedestrians at street level.  Everything from building signage, food trucks, shade trees and sidewalk seating to the architectural diversity of the surrounding buildings and unsynchronized traffic signals can work together to stimulate a vibrant pedestrian scaled setting.

Downtown Washington, D.C. is the area of the city that extends roughly five to six blocks west, northwest, north, northeast, and east of the White House.  In general, it is bounded by 4th Street NW, Constitution Avenue, 22nd Street NW and P Street NW.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at

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Metro Jacksonville