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D.C. Grows 'Five-Minute' Neighborhoods

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A view of the redeveloping Capitol Riverfront neighborhood's new office buildings and housing, with the Navy Yard Metro station in the foreground.
Martin Di Caro
A view of the redeveloping Capitol Riverfront neighborhood's new office buildings and housing, with the Navy Yard Metro station in the foreground.

The D.C. metropolitan region is a national pioneer in changing blighted urban areas into thriving, walkable neighborhoods, according to a report released by George Washington University professor of urban real estate Chris Leinberger. 

These neighborhoods demonstrate how developers are reassessing how people live and work, according to Leinberger, a real estate developer himself. And access to transit is fundamental to that model. 

Take New Jersey Avenue Southeast. It was not a place the city's young new residents wanted to be 15 years ago; there was violent crime, prostitution, and poverty in the heart of the city's light industrial landscape of oil storage tanks and trash transfer facilities. 

"We got this reputation of being a dirty and dangerous neighborhood and the crime stats bore that out," says Michael Stevens, executive director of the  Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District. 

But now, the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, as it's been dubbed -- five blocks from the U.S. Capitol, with two miles of waterfront and near the Nationals Park baseball stadium -- is a thriving "walkUP," or Walkable Urban Place. Urban planners define a walkUP as a place where residents can have most of their daily needs met within 1,500 to 3,000 feet of where they live.

"We call it the five-minute neighborhood. Within a five minute walk you can be at the grocery store, at the park where your kids are going to play or where you're going to hear a concert," says Stevens. "You can walk to your job. You can walk to a restaurant." 

How does one measure a neighborhood's walkability? Leinberger developed a zero-to-100 scoring system at walkscore.com.

"These walkable urban places that I have been studying have a walk score that is a minimum of 70," Leinberger says. "As [a neighborhood] gets more walkable we have found that its economic performance goes up, and this is why developers are so fascinated by these places."

The catalyst for the area's transformation was the completion of the Navy Yard Metro station on the Green line in 1999, Stevens says. In the years since, developers working with city government have created anti-sprawl: densely developed housing, office space and retail catering to young professionals who want to live car-free. 

"We survey residents living down here on an annual basis, and year-in and year-out the thing that they've said is the most important factor for them choosing to live in the neighborhood has been the access to multi-modal transit and the Metro station," says Ted Skirbunt the BID's director of real estate research.

In the past decade, the Green line corridor caught up to and exceeded the Rosslyn-Ballston Orange line corridor in attracting the coveted 18-34-year-old demographic, Stevens says. And what are they coming for? Stevens tours  the Yards project near the river as one example.

"Right here you see the Foundry Lofts, 170 units of loft-style apartments that are totally leased and totally occupied. Ground floor has two restaurants, one is built," he says. "The industrial building here is the Boiler Maker shops, an industrial shed where they actually made and repaired ships' boilers. It's being transformed into a restaurant cluster." 

Development that was unthinkable in this neighborhood less than a generation ago is now considered a national model, but there is a "down side," as Leinberger says: affordability. 

"Greater walkability, higher rents. But there is a down side to higher rents, and that is basic affordability," says Leinberger.

As D.C. rapidly changes, the city is working with developers to maintain some affordable housing units inside new high-rise apartment buildings. In the Capitol Riverfront area, the new housing is mostly market-rate, with around 10 to 15 percent of the units reserved as affordable housing. 

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