The District of Columbia, long by-passed by a development wave that swept across the suburbs, is now undergoing a resurgence of housing and commercial construction already described by some officials as likely to become the biggest boom for the city since World War II.
Long-postponed plans for redevelopment along Pennsylvania Avenue, the city's ceremonial thoroughfare, are moving ahead rapidly. New office buildings are going up in the western part of the downtown area. The West End, a long-dormant mid-city community between Washington Circle and Georgetown, has begun a commerical and residential revival.
In wealthy sections of Northwest Washington, developers are seeking to carve up estates for dozens of expensive, though less imposing, homes. In low-income parts of the inner city and of Northeast and Southeast Washington, town houses are being built and quckly sold, often at prices of $50,000 and much more.
Only last week, Mayor Walter E. Washington announced plans to seek $12 million in federal aid for six development projects, including a proposed shopping center on the site of the Hechinger Co. lumberyard and warehouse near a decaying strip of H Street NE. Across the city, 600 families who live at the moderate-rent McLean Gardens comples were told they must move out by Sept. 1. The owners have long sought to redevelop the complex.
"There is a major boom occuring in the city," R. Robert Linowes, president of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade and a lawyer who specializes in real estate development, said in an interview last week.
For the metropolitan area as a whole, Linowes added, the new trend marks a turnabout. Since World War II, he said, most major development has taken place in the suburbs. Now, he asserted, the city has become the focus of residential and commercial construction. "The interest and climate in the suburbs has been to reduced growth and no growth, while in the city is has been the reverse," Linowes said.
Although the upsurge in development here is described by many officials as a welcome sign for the city, it has also stirred bitter controversies, as home owners and tenants in both wealthy and economically depressed neighborhoods have fought to protect their homes from unexpected and unwanted encroachment.
A key issue is displacement - the eviction of por, mainly black residents lies to make way for higher-income families who can afford the rising costs of newly built or renovated housing. Although the issue has stirred widespread concern, several knowledgeable officials said last week that no systematic research has yet been carried out that would indicate the extent or severity of problems that confront displaced families.
"The families that you hear about - it is traumatic for them," Jame sH. Harvey, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning and Housing Association, noted in an interview. "A lot of quiet displacement takes place that nobody knows about. Some families leave the city, some double up and some move to lesser housing."
A spokesman for one civil rights group expressed fear that the city's current redevelopment trend may create what he termed "enclaves for the well-to-do" and may drive low-income blacks into deteriorating neighborhoods in nearby suburban areas. The official asked that his organization not be identified because it has not yet reached firm conclusions about theses issues.
The development revival in the city, after a decade marked by social unrest including the 1968 riots here and by a national economic recession, is still emerging, according to some analysts of city trends. How rapidly it will accelerate and how long it will continue are unclear.
J. Kirkwood White, assistant director for zoning and planning coordination in the D.C. Municipal Planning Office, cited a series of statistics last week that indicate the extent of the resurgence so far and its promise for the future.
Construction began last year, White said, on almost 2 million square feet of office space - only slightly less than what was built during the city's boom years of 1966 and 1967. This year, he added, the amount is expected to rise to 2.3 million square feet, equaling the 1967 peak, and in 1979 it is predicted to reach 2.8 million square feet, the largest amount in at least three decades.
These square footage totals, White said, mean that eight to 10 new office buildings are going up in the city each year. The statistics White cited were compiled for the city by a New York consulting firm, Howard P. Hoffman Associates.
Construction of apartment buildings and private homes has also increased, White said, although somewhat less markedly. Currently, he said, 2,000 to 3,000 housing units - private homes or apartments - are being built annually. The total, he added, is far larger than during the mid-1970s but less than half the amount built during peak years in the 1960s.
Significantly, moreover, some officials noted, construction is now taking place in almost evey major section of the city. "It's going on everywhere - in Far Southeast, in Far Northeast, in all the inner city areas of the city," said James G. Banks, executive vice president of the Washington Board of Realtors.
Banks noted, for example, that about 500 new town houses and apartments had been built in relatively low-income parts of Southeast Washington in the past two years - more, he said, than in any comparable period in the last decade.
Officials who described the city's current construction revival as promising the biggest boom since World War II said they relied on signs that redevelopment ventures would increase during the nest few years. "It's building," said White. "It's moving into a boom," Post-war peaks have apparently not yet been reached.
Officials cited a range of factors for the renewed construction, including the fading of the 1960s era of social upheaval and the ending of the nation's severe economic downturn. They pointed to a rise in the number of trade associations, law firms and other organizations, that have sought to open Washington offices for the first time in recent years. They noted the city's reputation for economic stability.
They cited the lifting of the Nixon administration's freeze on some low and moderate-income housing programs. They mentioned the recent popularity of condominium projects. They said that the city's "image" had changed, partly because of rising concern over gasoline and energy costs of reduced worry about crime and for suburban residents, partly because of an increase in cultural events in the city.
Despite its considerable low-income population, the District of Columbia appears to be at least moderately affluent. According to data compiled by Sales and Marketing Management Magazine, a respected publication, the average disposable income for households in the District, after taxes, was $17,492 in 1976, almost 34 per cent more than it had been in 1970. The city's average household income was higher than the national average - $15,895 in 1976 - but less than that of the metropolitan Washington area as a whole, where after-tax household income averaged $21,149.
While an upsurge of development has spread throughout the city, the growth of Washington's sprawling suburbs has not ended. New housing and other development is continuing, for example, in Fairfax County and along the 1-270 corridor in Montgomery County from Rockville to Gaithersburg. Negotiations over plans for additional suburban shopping centers, including a controversial second Tysons Corner complex, have taken place. The Mobil Corp. has annouced plans to open offices in Fairfax County.
Development in some parts of the city still faces considerate obstacles, officials noted. The District's plans for a convention center, regarded by some officials as a key to rapid development in the eastern part of the downtown area, have been stalled because of Senate opposition to its financing.
City planner White noted that little redevelopment has occurred along the semi-industrial New York Avenue corridor in Northeast Washington. He also said that efforts to bring new neighborhood stores, including supermarkets, into the city have only begun to gain headway. Harvey, the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association director,argued that the city has failed to take sufficient steps to make an estimated 600 vacant, city-owned dwellings and other properties available to low-and moderate-income buyers.
Nevertheless, most key officials express optimism.
As an initial step in the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. and the federal government took title in January to the historic Willard Hotel, which is to be renovated. Plans have been approved by the development corporation for construction of a new Canadian chancery at Pennsylvania Avenue and John Marshall Place NW and for a new 12 story commercial building at Pennsylvania Avenue and 13th Street NW.
In addition, a new $100 million complex - including a 1,000-room hotel, offices and shops centered about a glass-roofed atrium - has been planned for the block now occupied by the National Press Club at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue is also to e renovated.