In December 1980, Elizabeth Blakeslee packed her few things into a Datsun and set off from a seaside town in North Carolina for the nation’s capital.
She came looking for Rosslyn but got turned around and ended up at a pay phone downtown. Lost and with nowhere to stay, she dialed the only hotel she had heard of: the Hay-Adams. It had no space and directed her to the Days Inn a half-mile east.
It wasn’t what you would call welcoming. The sidewalks were dark, prostitutes worked the hotel, and strip joints circled Franklin Park nearby. There was no place for a single young woman to eat dinner, much less meet anyone. But the next morning she steeled her nerves, opened the classifieds and found a studio apartment on N Street NW.
“I didn’t know anyone,” Blakeslee said. “I didn’t have a job. I came up here and rented an apartment, but I had no idea I was moving into a nest of prostitution and whatnot.”
She found a position taking inventory at the Woodward & Lothrop department store. And shortly thereafter she fell in love — with downtown Washington, all its grit, grime and unbecoming reputation.
In that she arrived with little more than a freshly typed résumé, Blakeslee’s story mirrors that of generations of young adults who show up in Washington hoping that somewhere in the boxy office buildings on either side of the Mall is a desk for them. Downtown today, however, could not be more different than the one Blakeslee encountered.
Fewer than 500 people likely lived in the 138 blocks between Massachusetts and Constitution avenues then; today there are 8,500, and 1,000 others could arrive in the next two years, living in condos stacked among offices, museums and theaters. Where prostitutes once roamed are sidewalk cafes and food trucks. The roads are filled not just with commuters but also with bicycles, shared cars, Uber vehicles and, soon, streetcars.
Downtown has not finished its blistering evolution: Boosted by a closer relationship with the federal government, it is poised to add new neighborhoods behind Union Station, above the entrance to Interstate 395, in place of the FBI headquarters and in Southwest Federal Center, southeast of the Ellipse, where condos may rise to overlook Independence Avenue and the Mall.
Southwest Federal Center may become an ecodistrict with experimental urban design. A robust debate has begun about whether to lift building height limits. And downtown is primed to reestablish itself as a shopping destination for the entire region.
Blakeslee wants to be here to see it all. Thirty-three years after arriving, she has moved three times but never more than a few blocks from where she started.
Although many cities are enjoying a migration downtown, planning for D.C.’s boom began while Blakeslee was living in her first apartment.
A committee of District stakeholders, chaired by former acting Secretary of Commerce Luther H. Hodges Jr., produced a report calling for a “Living Downtown.” The report warned that without adding housing, arts and entertainment to the office buildings and jobs, downtown would be an urban office park where no one remained after work.
But the District had a promising new mayor and activist, Marion S. Barry Jr. Three lines of the new Metro system had opened, and 70 buildings had been completed or begun downtown during Barry’s first term. Shoppers flocked to downtown department stores: Garfinkel’s, Hecht’s, Kann’s and Woodies.
The report went largely unnoticed.
Crime, however, had begun to take hold, and the District dropped from about 757,000 residents in 1970 to 607,000 in 1990. By 1990 — the year a judge sentenced Barry to six months for cocaine possession — many middle-class residents had scurried to the suburbs. The savings and loan crisis had stifled development, leaving long stretches of Seventh and 14th streets NW abandoned since the 1968 riots. Garfinkel’s, once the pride of Washington, went bankrupt and closed the year Barry went to jail. The next year the District would earn the moniker “murder capital” when 479 people were murdered. Four years after that, 108-year-old Woodies closed.
“When I was a kid, Seventh Street was the main street in the city, then it went to 14th Street when I grew up, and then it went to the suburbs,” said Herb Miller, a local who founded a real estate company, Western Development, in 1967. In the 1980s, he said, “nobody lived east of Dupont Circle.”
Days after Barry again became mayor in 1995, Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards, called to say he planned to move his team downtown from Maryland, in a deal that would become MCI (now Verizon) Center.
A new task force led by developers, lobbyist David Carmen and philanthropists Sidney and Jane Harman pressed Barry to do more. A few years before, the Zoning Commission had adopted, 3-2, a controversial rule requiring developers in certain cases to include housing, theaters or retail in their developments.
Miller, a member of the task force, had already completed one of the city’s first major mixed-use projects, Market Square, which included 220 condominiums, by the Navy Memorial. Ever the promoter, he had the group map out a vision for the rest of downtown that included a baseball stadium along Massachusetts Avenue, a sports museum along New York Avenue, a Washington opera center on 11th Street, an underground “intermodal transportation center” and a Smithsonian arts museum on Mount Vernon Square.
He says the point was to draw attention to the possibilities downtown, and it did. “They thought we were nuts,” he said. “ ‘Who wants to live on Pennsylvania Avenue?’ ”
When Anthony Williamsbecame mayor in 1999, development was roaring back, but the city was woefully unprepared to shape the growth. One of Williams’s early hires, Ellen McCarthy, walked into the decrepit North Capitol Street planning offices, one of only 18 professional planners. Downtown was in danger of becoming a dull collection of boxy office buildings haphazardly erected to meet demand. “People would just throw them up, and people were willing to pay unbelievable sums of money,” she said.
During Williams’s eight years in office, the number of planners swelled to 65, and McCarthy’s husband, Richard Bradley, was named head of the first business improvement district, funded by a levy on downtown property owners. Developers handed Bradley three goals: that downtown be clean, safe and friendly.
He responded by putting red-uniformed staff on the streets to do work the city government had long failed at: picking up trash, removing gum from sidewalks and giving tourists directions. He introduced more welcoming park benches, street lights and crosswalk timers.
Williams and developers poured money into downtown, eventually developing all but 15 of 100 surface parking lots. Restaurants began to line every block, rolling out 147 sidewalk seating areas by 2012. As of March 2013, there were 7,800 market-rate apartments and condos under construction downtown and its neighboring areas.
But one of the central long-term goals for the downtown — reviving it as a regional shopping magnet — remains elusive. The task of finding shops interested in opening in the Woodies building, at 11th and F streets, fell to local developer Doug Jemal and his son Norman, who set their sights on up-and-coming clothing seller H&M.
The first time H&M execs came to town they canceled after just driving by the building. “They wouldn’t even stop to look at it on their way out to the suburbs,” Norman said.
The following summer, the father and son practically begged H&M to open a store — offering to build one out of their own pockets and asking that H&M pay only a percentage of sales in return. Stunned, H&M agreed.
Jemal followed that deal with a string of others — Zara, Forever 21, J. Crew, Guess and Anthropologie — demonstrating that downtown was on the comeback. But it required years of getting laughed at while showing the family’s buildings around Verizon Center. “In 2000, we began showing people spaces on Seventh Street, asking for $35 a [square] foot, and they thought we were smoking crack,” Norman said. Last year the Jemals inked a deal for Walgreens at Seventh and H streets — now one of the busiest intersections on the East Coast — that topped $160 per square foot.
Whether downtown will become a shopping mecca again won’t be known until Hines Interests and its partners on CityCenterDC, the mammoth project on the site of the old convention center, unveil their plans for nearly 300,000 square feet of shops and restaurants to accentuate the new offices and high-end housing this fall. Bradley said that by introducing a luxury shopping district, CityCenterDC has a chance to elevate the city to “global class.”
“When you come to Washington, it should be like going to London or New York,” he said. “CityCenter is how that happens.”
Now Bradley, D.C. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning and federal officials are taking what has become a very popular downtown and preparing to push back its borders, dismantle remaining dead zones and extend the hours deep into the night.
The federal government is treating the District’s planning vision less like paperwork and more like blueprints, with profound implications for downtown. The top official overseeing federal real estate is Daniel M. Tangherlini, former city administrator for the District who in short order inked a lease with Donald Trump’s company to turn the flagging Old Post Office Pavilion into a luxury hotel. Tangherlini has proposed overhauls of two other monuments to sterility: the J. Edgar Hoover Building and 22 acresof dated office buildings along Independence Avenue. Ten developers have expressed interest in the Mall properties and 35 in the Hoover building. Both could be opened up for colossal mixed-use projects. Picture shimmering condos and hotel rooms overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall.
And both projects present opportunities for experiments in urban innovation. The office canyon south of the Mall has been pegged by the National Capital Planning Commission as an ecodistrict where new design will halve greenhouse gas emissions and slash water consumption by 70 percent.
Three other daring projects — above the tracks behind Union Station, atop the entrance to I-395 and on the Southwest Waterfront — are set to spread the vitality outward. Museums and memorials are being plotted in neighborhoods farther from the center, giving the 18 million annual tourists a reason to leave the Mall. The city is planning 22 miles of streetcar tracks to get them there, connecting downtown to Union Station, Georgetown and Nationals Park.
“You look around, and it’s been phenomenally successful, this mix of arts and retail and residents and commercial development,” said McCarthy, now a private consultant. “But the focus used to be just north of Pennsylvania Avenue. Now we’re looking south of Penn — that’s really actually the center.”
All the fancy ideas will be for naught if downtown doesn’t continue to improve the living experience for the future Elizabeth Blakeslees — adding schools, parks, transportation. And for all the improvements, the chasm between the District’s haves and have-nots has increased. Blakeslee, 60, says she worries about the city focusing too heavily on fueling its late-night scene. “I don’t want to turn into Adams Morgan,” she said.
But she walks to Whole Foods for groceries and Macy’s for clothes, and owns a car only because she’s a real estate agent. This after spending years working to keep prostitutes out of the park near her home. “People ... would be accosted by these prostitutes and homeless people,” she said.
She would like to see the city continue to improve the little things that make living downtown special: parks, the grocery store, the sidewalk. “When I get up some days and I walk to Whole Foods and I walk to the dry cleaner, I feel like there’s no place in the world like my little urban village.”
Jonathan O’Connell is a Capital Business staff writer. To comment,
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