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Amid Development, Working To Keep Balance In Columbia Heights

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14th Street NW in Columbia Heights, which is now anchored by a Target and other stores at the DC USA shopping center, is also becoming home to pricey apartments and condos.
Martin Di Caro
14th Street NW in Columbia Heights, which is now anchored by a Target and other stores at the DC USA shopping center, is also becoming home to pricey apartments and condos.

This is the third part in an ongoing series about the increased walkability of the Washington region's changing neighborhoods. The first part highlighted Southeast D.C.'s Capitol Riverfront neighborhood; the second outlined the big plans developers and transit planners have for Arlington's Columbia Pike.

 When Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham sits down for lunch at Red Rocks pizzeria, it's easy for him to remember what the neighborhood around Park Road and 11th Street NW used to be.

"Where we are sitting right now was a house that was taken over by squatters who lived here without running water," Graham says. 

Red Rocks is situated between the Columbia Heights and Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro stations on the Green Line.

"A few years ago this would have been unthinkable, unimaginable," Graham says. "You wouldn't have had any daytime restaurant opportunity. In fact, these restaurants and bars that are around us right now weren't open."

Columbia Heights has come a long way since the Green Line opened in 1999.

"The Green Line made an enormous difference obviously, in terms of transforming the vacant lots with chain link fences, which gave rise to crime and other undesirable activities," Graham says. 

Columbia Heights was named one of the region's WalkUP neighborhoods by George Washington University professor Chris Leinberger in a report [PDF] issued last month. The neighborhood falls into the 'urban commercial' category, meaning that even though it has large swaths of for-sale residential property, it also has significant blocks of commercial space and some rental housing.

The Metro station is the hub for that commercial district, known as the DC USA development, which includes a Target, Best Buy, Marshall's and Bed Bath & Beyond, among others. Tons of restaurants have sprung up on adjacent blocks as a result.

As with all of these new walkable neighborhoods, property values have risen with the quality of life in Columbia Heights. The area's zip code, 20010, is the 10th fastest gentrifying zip code in the country, according to data compiled by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

This gentrification creates affordability issues. But Graham argues Ward 1 has maintained more than a token amount of affordable housing.

"We’ve obviously brought a lot of newcomers into this neighborhood with the new apartment buildings, "Graham says. "But it is very useful to keep in mind that we have the whole length of 14th Street starting at W [Street] and running all the way to Oak [Street], we have 3,000 units of very low-income affordable housing." 

Ward 1 is known for its ethnic diversity as the center of the district’s Latino, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese communities. That racial and ethnic diversity is priceless, Graham says, which is why the D.C. government has actively worked to resist of the real estate pressures brought by gentrification to preserve those communities.

"Each and every one of those could have been a condo easily because of the real estate pressures," he says of the buildings with apartments for low-income residents.

Change would have come without the Green Line, Graham says, but not at the same pace. And large retailers like Target might not have arrived at all, he added.

“It took a determined effort. It just didn’t happen willy-nilly. What you see at 14th and Irving and 14th and Park was something very carefully understood and bought into by everyone who was a stakeholder,” Graham says. 

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