Born of Transit, a Young D.C. Neighborhood in Full Bloom

Seven years after a celebrated public-private partnership, NoMa proves a smart growth success, write Rachel MacCleery and Jonathan Tarr.

When we reported on the completion of a new transit station in Washington, D.C.'s languishing North of Massachusetts neighborhood some seven-odd years ago, stakeholders already recognized its massive development potential. Just blocks north of Capitol Hill and the bustling Union Station Railway Hub, the neighborhood was dotted with empty warehouses and vacant lots at a time when the federal government was looking to move out of Downtown in search of lower rents. Now, the neighborhood is coming into its own.

But NoMa's bright future wasn't always so clear. Early development depended on the collaboration of federal and local decisionmakers, as well as private landowners. Urban Land Institute trustee James Curtis said the project required a "leap of faith" for all involved. "No one, I think, could have foreseen at the time what NoMa would become." According to MacCleery and Tarr, even the local transit authority "initially was not enthusiastic about the project."

With the help of a nonprofit corporation formed "to organize and leverage private investment," stakeholders raised $120 million to build the station, which was the critical first step in moving federal offices into the area. Now, five years after the formation of a local business improvement district, NoMa is home to 40,000 jobs and $7 billion in private investments.

"For a long time, no one was sure if anyone would live in NoMa's new buildings," said BID President Robin-Eve Jasper. "But now we know who is here, and it's at just the right time to think about things like parks and the public realm."

Full Story: NoMa: The Neighborhood That Transit Built



success, sort of?

As a local, I've been watching the NoMa development for several years now. Although I stand to gain a lot as my home's land value goes up, I can't say that I'm too happy to see people call NoMa a success.

From my humble view on the ground:

1.) It would appear (via the article) that the developers have made money hand over fist, but all they've done is made a less-than-perfect affordable neighborhood into yet another place where only the exceptionally wealthy can afford to live. The developers seem to have given the finger to the poor and working classes. The new condos sell for $450k+ apartments rent for over $2k a month. Rents around the area have skyrocketed. The cost of land has gone up so much as well. In short, NoMa's going directly from impoverished ghetto to convenient spot for the unusually wealthy to rent/own/work. It would be nice to see devs put in some housing for the middle class and non-profit workers. Considering the massive cash windfall everyone's making, it seems like they could afford to do it.

2.) Most of the people I've seen come into the "new" neighborhood aren't exactly community-minded... they're the people that live in gated towers, shop at the store in their building, run at the gym in their building, and drive to their social lives situated much further to the west, where they joke about the "horrors" of living in a secure building in a dangerous neighborhood.

In the 6 block walk to my home from the NoMa metro, one thing is painfully clear: The developments (and the people they're attracting) aren't really meant for walkers and transit-users. The ground level facades are cold and imposing. The sidewalks are bare and unfriendly to walk on. The metro feels like it opens up into back sides of buildings rather that the fronts of buildings. The buildings are all built with ample parking, implying that buyers/renters/workers won't likely be using transit or their feet as primary modes of transportation.

In the end, I suspect that the high cost of land and rent that results from these developers cashing in on short-term markups will sabotage any hope the area has of becoming a prosperous community by pricing out long-term community building residents and businesses before such entities even have a chance to take seed. I fear that this neighborhood will at best resemble the identity-less struggling parts of SW DC that were built up in a similar fashion to NoMa not too long ago. There's only so much a flashy slogans and mediocre corporate chain businesses can do. A CVS, Pot Belly, and 5 Guys is not a commercial strip that anyone's going to rally around. I'll be here for a few more years, but expect to use my increased home equity to cash out and move to somewhere with some legitimate neighborhood culture, ie one of the more desirable & long term neighborhoods like those around Dupont and Logan Circle, or perhaps back out to H St, where developers are making a fantastic little walkable community -before- putting up giant buildings and convenience chains. I suspect that most other people will do the same.

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