More than a year and a half ago, I climbed into a Ford Taurus with D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and toured some of his ward’s most notable landmarks.
Among them: The crumbling Alexander Crummell School, whose grounds were then set to be used as a bus lot. The car repair shops along West Virginia Avenue NE. The salt domes of the D.C. Department of Public Works. The concrete plants of Fort Myer Construction Co. The Ivy City rail yards. And a pair of particularly foul private trash-transfer stations, both located a stone’s throw from people’s homes.
D.C. never contained the vast and relatively well-isolated factory and warehouse districts seen in other East Coast cities, whether Philadelphia or Baltimore or New York. The bulk of the city’s industrial land is located adjacent to rail lines, and Ward 5 contains half of it. What takes place on that land is crucial to the functioning of a major city, but those uses also tend to be at odds with the ideals of great urban neighborhoods. How many grocery stores or coffee shops have you seen open up next to a garbage dump?
The realities of D.C.’s land uses have been expressed in a particular political pathology: Ward 5 as “dumping ground” — a phrase trotted out any time any sort of undesirable use has been proposed for the ward, whether it’s a strip club or a marijuana dispensary or an industrial lot, never mind that Ward 5 might be the only part of the city where those businesses might legally locate under current zoning restrictions.
So give credit to McDuffie and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) for looking to go beyond the rhetoric by convening a task force of residents and city officials to study land use in the ward and find ways to reconcile the needs of a bustling city with the legitimate gripes of Ward 5 residents. The end product — a 156-page report titled “Ward 5 Works” — makes a host of recommendations on how to do that.
They range from making new efforts to shield neighborhoods from industrial sites — especially trash transfer facilities — through landscaping, sound barriers and other measures; creating a “good neighbor” program to voluntarily encourage compliance by industrial businesses; explore consolidating several municipal facilities on one site, DPW’s West Virginia Avenue lot; create “make/live” spaces where light manufacturing and residential uses can co-exist; and hiring an “industrial advocate” with the D.C. government to bring together public and private sectors to oversee and coordinate all these efforts.
Implied in the report is that there are good industrial uses and bad industrial uses. The latter are noisy and smelly and ugly, like the Rodgers Brothers trash transfer station off Queens Chapel Road NE. The former are quiet and nondescript and perhaps even cool, like the New Columbia distillery in Ivy City, where Gray and McDuffie unveiled the report Wednesday in front of a towering still.
McDuffie said the plan represents an opportunity to change the conversation from what residents in Ward 5 don’t want to what they do want. “What this is about, and the mayor understood … was that we had to take all of those years of frustration and turn it into something that we actually do want,” he said.
Gray said the plan would make the best use out of what he said was less than 5 percent of the District zoned for industrial enterprises. “Not many cities have such a small percentage of their land for industry,” he said. “In some respects that’s a good thing, but on the other hand that limits jobs in specialties and manufacturing.”
Some of the transformation envisioned in the Ward 5 Works plan is already underway: Developer Douglas Jemal has broken ground on his overhaul of the old Hecht’s warehouse on New York Avenue, a project that could catalyze development along that corridor in a way that more than three decades of discussions and planning have not. Union Market has grown into a major attraction, replacing the old Florida Avenue farmer’s market with an upscale warren of vendors. Cottage businesses like New Columbia Distilling, and even marijuana dispensaries are filling spaces with kinder, gentler industrial uses.
But a growing city of 650,000 needs places to fix its cars and park its dump trucks and haul its trash, and there may never be enough landscaping to make those things compatible with residents’ wishes. There is now, however, a plan in place to try.
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this post.