When Elizabeth Price became president of the the NoMa Business Improvement District in 2007, the country was headed toward a financial crisis and many Washington area executives hadn’t heard of the place, much less considered leasing there.
By the time Price announced this summer that she was leaving the BID, NoMa had become an established office market that is now adding hundreds of units of housing each year.
NoMa is short for “North of Massachusetts Avenue,” a neighborhood north of Union Station. The district is bounded by Massachusetts Avenue to the south, New Jersey and North Capitol Street to the west, and Q and R streets to the north; it also extends eastward just beyond the CSX/Metrorail tracks
Price managed and marketed NoMa for four years, through two District mayors, two trips to the International Council of Shopping Centers conference and one financial crisis. Via e-mail from her new home in Germany, she offered some lessons learned from her work.
What were a few key turning points that allowed NoMa to evolve?
In one week in April 2008, we landed two major anchor tenants — the new National Public Radio headquarters and 600,000 square feet for the Department of Justice, which put us on the map for a lot of people.
Second, Constitution Square. Nothing accelerates neighborhood development better than a mega, mixed-used project delivering 1.6 million square feet of office, hotel, residential and retail space. It brought a critical mass of people and retail amenities to the heart of NoMa. The most important component of that project was the 50,000 square-foot Harris Teeter. It has become a magnet for the neighborhood and a huge selling point to new residents.
Many people did not know what “NoMa” meant when you started, or where it was. What did you do to educate people?
It took time and the BID is still working to expand awareness. The BID became a hub for NoMa development information and kept the community and press updated about the steady stream of groundbreakings and lease announcements. We met with hundreds of tenants, brokers, investors and developers, wrote articles for industry newsletters and spoke on panels — we took any opportunity to share the vision for NoMa.
We also did unconventional things, like hosting Artomatic in 2008 which brought 1,000 artists and 50,000 people to the neighborhood for the first time, and hosting outdoor movies that attract hundreds each week from across the region.
Was there a moment in time when you thought to yourself that NoMa might not become the robust place that it has?
The early days were tougher. Many people were skeptical; they didn’t know or believe in the vision for NoMa. We had big ambitions but we didn’t have much to show for it. Once the first tenants moved in and retail leases starting getting signed, it got easier.
There were some anxious moments, though, when we had about 3 million square feet under construction and the economy started crashing in fall of 2008. A lot of our office buildings were spec, so you had to wonder if we could get all of that space leased. Today those spaces are occupied and new projects are under way. If we were not in D.C., it would have been a different story.
Do you think NoMa will get a park?
I am confident it will happen. The BID board is committed to creating parks and open space to support the thousands of new residents and employees that are moving to NoMa. We also have great support from our councilmembers, [Tommy] Wells and [Harry] Thomas [Jr.], who have shown strong leadership in moving forward legislation that creates [tax increment financing] funding for the park. I hope the legislation will pass this fall.
Was there anything you really hoped to accomplish but weren’t able?
Of course, NoMa’s park initiative has been very important to me and I would have loved to have seen that through. Next year, [the city] is finally going to start reconstructing First Street, NoMa’s main street. I had hoped we could have gotten that project started and even finished by now, but things take longer than you want sometimes.
How close is NoMa to getting a movie theater?
There is definite interest. I was at ICSC in Las Vegas the last two years and met with several theater companies that were very interested in the NoMa market, particularly the Uline Arena. It would be great to see Uline come back to life with vibrant retail and entertainment uses.
NoMa and Capital Riverfront emerged at nearly the same time. How direct was the competition?
Very direct. Every tenant that toured NoMa was also touring Cap River. I think NoMa’s superior transportation access (Union Station and two Red line Metro stops) gave it an edge with office tenants in the early stages. However, both submarkets now have a critical mass of residents and employees and tenant attraction will get even easier as the retail, park and cultural identities of both continue to mature.
New BIDs are being considered for others areas of the city, among them U Street, Anacostia and Southwest. What advice would you give their organizers?
Take some risks, be authentic and it’s all about people. In NoMa, I think some of our most important contributions were events that brought people in the community together and deepened their connection to the place. The people that live and work there should be your ambassadors.