District’s population and image soar

December 21, 2011

The District has gained more than 16,000 residents since last spring, growing at a pace that outstripped anything seen in the boom years preceding it.

Census figures released Wednesday estimated the city’s population was 618,000 in July, up 2.7 percent from the census figure in April last year. The current growth spurt is so rapid that the District is on track to draw more newcomers in two years than it did in the entire decade before.

The District’s expansion is all the more remarkable when compared to the rest of the country, which is experiencing its slowest growth since the end of World War II.

The District’s population figures cap a decade of success in maneuvering a turnaround in the city’s fortunes, and its image. Barely 15 years ago, the District had a widespread reputation for having streets that wouldn’t get plowed after a winter storm and that were crime-ridden in any season. Now, the District routinely shows up on lists of cool cities where young people gravitate, and it is drawing as many young adults as ultra-hip Austin and Portland.

Three in four newcomers in recent years have been between the ages of 18 and 34. They have zero interest in the suburbs.

“We’re still young. We don’t think of ourselves as suburban people yet,” said Kristina Montanero, 26, who moved to the District from Nashville a year ago after her fiance got hired by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. They settled in a one-bedroom apartment near Chinatown. They expect to remain in the city when their lease ends in February, and they want to explore looking for another apartment in Dupont Circle or Logan Circle.

City officials could barely contain their enthusiasm over the population growth.

Harriet Tregoning, the city’s planning director, pronounced it “epic” and noted that if the pace continues, the city will crack the 700,000 mark before the end of the decade.

“I kept saying, please let it not be a bubble,” she said. “Let it really be about growth in the city.”

There are signs that the city is poised to keep getting bigger. In the first nine months of this year, the city approved building permits for 3,000 new housing units, which Tregoning called an all-time record.

But some demographers warned that federal budget cuts could slow or even stall growth in the region. Maryland grew nine-tenths of 1 percent, the same as the nation, and Virginia was up 1.2 percent.

“If there are significant cuts to federal spending, positions could be cut and fewer people will come here,” said Lisa Ann Sturtevant, a researcher with George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis. “That’s as true for the Virginia suburbs and Maryland as it is for the District.”

The leap in population came almost nine years after former Mayor Anthony Williams set a goal of attracting 100,000 new residents to the District over a decade. He took over the city at its low point of 572,000 residents. At 618,000, the city is not quite halfway there and is farther still from its high of 802,000 residents in 1950.

But many long-time residents say they can see the city’s transformation every day.

“It’s fantastic, for the city and for American cities in general,” said Patrick Phillips, head of the Urban Land Institute and a 25-year resident of the District. “To have recovered population and to be in a position of growth after such a long period of urban decline is really encouraging. New people mean new energy, new ideas, new enthusiasm and new money. It’s stunning these days to drive across the District and see how it’s changed.”

The population estimates made public Wednesday used recorded births and deaths and the addresses on IRS tax forms to determine how much an area has changed since the 2010 census. Counts were made only on the state level, so it’s not possible to determine how much of Virginia and Maryland’s growth was in the Washington suburbs. Nor can the District, which is treated as a state because of its unique status, be compared to other cities.

The census numbers, like those of recent vintage, were symptomatic of the economic and demographic state of the country. All but three states had some growth, but the rate had slowed in 41 states.

William F. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, said low growth rates were the result of an increasing number of people aging beyond childbearing years and the lowest immigration rates in decades.

“There are a couple bright spots, and the District is one of them,” he said. “It’s in a region where the economy is able to survive all the downturn we’ve seen, because of government-related employment and universities attracting young people who want to jumpstart their careers.”

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) cited the economy in a press release noting that the District’s growth rate was bigger than that of Texas.

“It’s no secret that the District is one of the most dynamic cities in the country and that we have made significant efforts to grow and diversify our economy,” he said.

While the District’s growth rate is impressive, in raw numbers Virginia still gets the lion’s share of the people who move to the region. But the District is rapidly gaining ground.

Ebonie Johnson Cooper, 28, moved from Brooklyn to the city’s Chevy Chase neighborhood after accepting a job offer at KaBOOM, a nonprofit organization that restores play areas for children. As a part-time graduate student at New York University, Cooper had often visited friends in the District before becoming a resident.

“It’s still growing on me,” Cooper said of the city.

The District must find more ways to retain residents like Montanero and Cooper to keep growing, said Peter Tatian, an Urban Institute researcher.

“A lot of younger people are going to be renting, not buying,” he said. “They’re people who came here on a whim and could leave on a whim if they decide there’s a better place to be in the future. The city needs to think ahead to make sure a lot of those folks coming now are going to stay long term.”

In other words, after they marry and have children approaching school age. Sturtevant called schools the Achilles heel of the District’s growth.

Phillips of the Urban Land Institute predicted that many newcomers will stay, get involved in their children’s schools and demand more resources for those schools.

“At some point, this growth will lead to some improvement in the schools,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re all enjoying better restaurants, more convenient local services, safer streets and the feeling that we have a community that’s healthy and growing and attractive.”

Database editor Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

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