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Foggy Bottom: One Of D.C.'s First 'WalkUP' Neighborhoods

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Pedestrians outside the new Whole Foods near the Foggy Bottom/GWU Metro station.
Martin Di Caro
Pedestrians outside the new Whole Foods near the Foggy Bottom/GWU Metro station.

This is the fourth and final part of 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. Part three focused on Northwest D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

The neighborhood around the Foggy Bottom/GWU Metro station is one of the most bustling places in D.C., but it wasn't always that way. 

Four years ago, there was a surface parking lot across the street from the station on Metro's Blue and Orange lines. Now, the space is occupied by a Whole Foods grocery store and restaurants topped by several floors of high-end office space.

"Twenty-five years ago this was a sad little place. It was a light industrial area where you would have trucks parked. Fifty years ago it was a slum," says Chris Leinberger, a real estate expert and smart growth advocate, as he walks by the new building. 

Foggy Bottom-West End has gone from slum to a much different category, what Leinberger dubs a WalkUP — walkable urban place. Leinberger recently published a report for George Washington University on D.C.'s success at creating walkable neighborhoods. 

Like 80 percent of the regional WalkUPs designated in his study, Foggy Bottom has access to transit. But Metro was only one factor that spurred the neighborhood's comeback.

"The real spur is that in the mid-90s the real estate market, the market for how we live and work and play, began to fundamentally change," he says.

Slowly, real estate developers returned to cities, especially in areas around universities. They exploited the demand for walkable, vibrant neighborhoods among young professionals who didn't want to spend two hours a day commuting from the suburb.

"A lot of folks are saying … I don’t want to spend 25 percent of my household income on a fleet of cars. I want to get out and walk. I want to be part of our community,'" Leinberger says.

What made Foggy Bottom and West End even more attractive was their proximity to downtown. That made them valuable commodities for not only residents who want to live close to work, but for office tenants. (The U.S. State Department, George Washington University and the World Bank are all located there.)

"This is, in essence, evolving into the Upper East Side of D.C. which is a good news, bad news story," Leinberger says, referring to one of New York City's most expensive neighborhoods "The good news is it is doing phenomenally well economically. The bad news is it is gentrifying rapidly."

A neighborhood of affordable town houses west of GWU used to be home to predominantly black residents; now, the neighborhood is predominantly white and those houses cost in the neighborhood of $1 million, "out of reach of most working class, even middle class people," Leinberger notes. 

But he argues that D.C. planners are now able to see when and where most gentrification is going to happen, and are capable of limiting its effects. In order for a gentrifying neighborhood to retain its economic diversity, exploding real estate values should be used to subsidize housing for the middle- and low-income people, he said.

"We can use gentrification to pay for affordable housing. If we can't get 20-30 percent of that up side and have that pay for the affordable housing, shame on us for our lack of imagination," he says. 

That imagination will be needed in D.C. going forward, because in the end, Leinberger says, transportation drives development. And with plans for buried highways, streetcars and more bus lines, the D.C. region's transportation system only continues to expand.

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