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Changes are coming to 16th Street Heights

Yet the Northwest Washington neighborhood remains a diverse, friendly enclave

Bordering Rock Creek Park on its northwest corner, the Northwest Washington neighborhood of 16th Street Heights contains multitudes. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Sharla Rivera as Charlotte. Also, Denise Champion has lived in 16th Street Heights for 37 years, not 47 years. The article has been corrected.

No one can deny that 16th Street Heights is changing fast.

Home values, steep almost anywhere in D.C., shot up 7.5 percent in the past 12 months, causing renters and those looking to buy a home in the Northwest neighborhood to lament its lack of affordability. Commercial development, historically limited in 16th Street Heights, is poised for dramatic growth — to the consternation of some — with a proposed affordable-housing project set to add 101 apartments in a five-story, mixed-use dance-studio building on upper 14th Street.

Yet amid sky-high demand for housing and ever-increasing interest from developers, longtime residents of 16th Street Heights say it has retained the characteristics that first attracted them: a low-key, friendly enclave where neighbors sit out on big front porches, and catch up with one another while walking their dogs at Hamilton Street Park, the neighborhood’s largest green space.

“My dearest lifelong friends are now in the neighborhood; we raised our kids together,” said Maria Barry, who has lived in several 16th Street Heights homes since 1994. “This community, it feels very intentional, and it feels very much like a village. So we’re like a village in the city.”

The neighborhood of 16th Street Heights “contains multitudes.” Sixteenth Street has stately mini-mansions and a handful of embassies overlooking Rock Creek Park, on the area’s northwest corner. Georgia Avenue, the area’s eastern border, is a busy urban thoroughfare, with auto-parts stores and Ethiopian and Latin American restaurants. The quieter, tree-shaded side streets feature a mix of rowhouses, detached frame houses and Victorians, some of them dating back to the early 1900s.

“There’s a house around the corner from me that was built in 1875,” said Denise Champion, a real estate agent with Long & Foster who has lived in 16th Street Heights for 37 years. “We should be considered historic.”

In its early days, the neighborhood was a favorite spot among downtown residents for weekend and summer homes, Champion said. A few landmarks from its past remain. Best-known are a century-old streetcar turnaround and car barn on 14th Street, now both used by Metro buses.

Moreland’s Tavern and the Atxondo tapas restaurant, which both opened within the past five years, are unofficial neighborhood hangouts. A mural by popular D.C. artist Rose Jaffe and collaborator Kate Deciccio is a hidden treasure on the Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc. building near 14th Street and Arkansas Avenue. The homage to sisterhood celebrates the legacy and history of the historically Black sorority, founded at Howard University.

On Farragut Street NW, the freshly renovated John Lewis Elementary School — formerly West Elementary and recently renamed for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon — gleams in bright primary colors.

Felix Pages moved with his wife, April, to the neighborhood in 2013, five years before the birth of their son. He said he’s already seen how the school has had a transformative effect on its surroundings.

“It’s just so beautiful and modern and gorgeous inside,” he said. “Suddenly, the neighborhood has become a little bit more desirable as people flock to this newly constructed, state-of-the-art school.”

Despite the pandemic, neighbors have striven to keep community events going — holding a socially distanced Easter egg hunt for kids across the yards of 15 houses. But many are eager to return to larger gatherings. Cindy Morgan-Jaffe, mother of Rose Jaffe, said she’s planning a block party on 14th Street this summer to get to know new neighbors and catch up with old ones.

“There’s been so much turnover and lots of new young families,” Morgan-Jaffe said. “Most of us haven’t really met or talked for two years.”

The neighborhood is frequently listed as one of D.C.’s most diverse, a quality that holds part of its appeal for many residents.

Alberto Rivera, chair of the 16th Street Neighborhood Association, said he and his wife, Sharla, were drawn to the area as buyers about three years ago because it offered bilingual education at Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School (LAMB PCS) and Powell Elementary. Originally from Honduras, Rivera said he felt the diversity of the area would remain a highlight as the neighborhood evolved.

“I just really like that there’s this broader kind of historical context, that there’s this blending of languages and different experiences,” he said.

Living there: The neighborhood boundaries vary depending on whom you ask. Two local groups, the 16th Street Neighborhood Association and the 16th Street Heights Civic Association, represent smaller areas inside what is generally considered the neighborhood. Military Road/Missouri Avenue NW is the northern boundary, 16th Street NW is the western boundary and Georgia Avenue NW is the eastern boundary. Most consider the slanting Arkansas Avenue NW the southern boundary, but Champion points out that tax assessments extend the neighborhood farther east along Upshur Street NW. Depending on how you draw the neighborhood, population estimates range as high as 70,000.

In the past 12 months, 32 detached homes have sold. The average price was $1.275 million. The least expensive was a three-bedroom bungalow for $840,000; the most expensive was a five-bedroom, five-bathroom Craftsman for just over $1.9 million. Seven properties are on the market now, including three condominiums — a scarce commodity in the area, Champion said. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,725.

House-flippers and developers, she said, are increasingly interested in 16th Street Heights as neighborhoods to the south become “tapped out.” They aren’t above knocking on doors in hopes of negotiating a steal. Longtime residents, many of them seniors, may be particularly vulnerable to this strategy.

“They may have only paid $40,000 or $50,000 for their house when they bought it 50, 60 years ago,” Champion said. “So when someone comes and offers them $300,000, they think they’ve won the lottery. But in the meantime, that house … is probably worth $700,000.”

Schools: Brightwood Education Campus, John Lewis and Powell elementary; Ida B. Wells, Deal and McFarland middle; Coolidge and Roosevelt high.

Transit: The closest Metro stations are Columbia Heights and Georgia Avenue-Petworth on the Green and Yellow lines; both are about 2½ miles away. Metro buses also serve the neighborhood.

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