New Mixes Well With Old In Columbia Heights

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, March 29, 2008

In 1968, deep-seated anger over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to rioting, looting and arson in neighborhoods including Columbia Heights, the area flanking 14th Street north of downtown Washington.

Block after block of buildings and businesses were destroyed, and for nearly four decades, the area lay fallow. Now Columbia Heights has come back to life.

Less than a decade ago, Columbia Heights along 14th Street was a sad-looking, unsafe zone of vacant parcels sprouting weeds, parking lots, chain-link fences and neglected structures. A couple of aging, historically noteworthy buildings -- the Mediterranean-style Tivoli Theatre and neoclassical Riggs Bank building -- were intact but looked forlorn.

Going back a century or more, Columbia Heights was among the District's most upscale addresses. Washington notables -- Duke Ellington, Sinclair Lewis, government leaders -- lived there. In 1822, George Washington University started there as Columbian College. During the early 20th century, Henry Wardman built more than 600 rowhouses in the area.

Today Columbia Heights is back, but not because it's being repopulated solely by the affluent and influential. It is an ethnically diverse, predominantly middle-class community that has waited many years for redevelopment. It promises to be a strong example of thoughtful urban and architectural design, as well as of successful economic revitalization.

The rebirth of Columbia Heights was preceded by years of rancorous political controversy, countless public meetings and negotiating sessions, endless debates and delays, and many cycles of planning. Happily, the city, property owners, developers, designers and residents finally reached consensus. Hundreds of millions of dollars of public and private investment began flowing. Indeed, one component of public investment was an essential catalyst: Metro's Columbia Heights station, opened in 2001.

Ride the subway to Columbia Heights -- just take the Green Line after a Nationals game -- or drive there and park in the dollar-per-hour parking garage, and you will discover a radically transformed piece of the city.

The pedestrian-friendly environment encompasses several blocks of renovated and new buildings, some still under construction; enhanced, animated streetscapes and well-configured public spaces; and, key to revitalization, an extensive, reasonably dense assortment of residential, commercial, cultural and institutional uses.

Streets are lined by buildings with visually porous ground floors, ensuring psychological as well as functional access. Sidewalk-level store windows invite strolling, window-shopping and money-spending. With the arrival of spring, people will eat outside, further animating the scene.

New and old buildings happily coexist, as do buildings of different sizes, scales and styles. All the new architecture is at least competent, if not cutting-edge. Building facades contribute positively by appropriately framing and shaping the public realm, calling as much attention to streets and exterior spaces as to themselves.

The most architecturally dominant edifice is DC USA, a 540,000-square-foot complex fronting 14th Street between Irving Street and Park Road. It has underground parking and Target's first D.C. store, plus Marshalls, Best Buy, Lane Bryant, Bed Bath & Beyond, Staples, and several other retail and entertainment tenants. Fortunately, it faces the 14th Street sidewalk with storefronts, instead of a blank wall.

Other new mid-rise buildings along 14th Street have sidewalk-level restaurants, convenience and specialty shops, banks, and a drugstore. Upper floors contain apartments and offices, including community service organizations such as the Greater Washington Urban League, the Latin American Youth Center and the Shaw-Columbia Heights Family and Community Support Collaborative.

The Tivoli Theatre -- which is on the National Register of Historic Places -- at 14th Street and Park Road, has become Tivoli Square. The theater's exterior has been substantially preserved, but its once-capacious interior now accommodates four floors of office space, street-level retail and the GALA Hispanic Theatre. Tivoli Square also includes a Giant Food with rooftop parking. Across the street from Tivoli Square is the Dance Institute of Washington.

Columbia Heights is likely to succeed because it is beginning its new life with a critical mass of mixed uses. Its day and night year-round potential is enhanced by the sheer quantity of shopping opportunities, eating and entertainment destinations, cultural and social activities, and jobs and dwellings.

Proclaiming the new Columbia Heights a home run is premature, because many of its establishments have been open only a few weeks. But as urban design, it's clearly a hit, and I predict that it will be an economic hit, as well.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company