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This is the first of a two-part series on the relationship between gentrification and access to transit in Washington D.C.'s rapidly changing neighborhoods. Part 1 examines the Shaw and Pleasant Plains neighborhoods in the Georgia Avenue corridor in Ward 1.
This two-mile stretch of Georgia Avenue NW, sandwiched between two Metro stations, looks like a construction zone. Every few blocks a new apartment building with ground floor retail space is under construction, surrounded by scaffolding or heavy equipment. A neighborhood that has changed dramatically in the past decade is in store for further gentrification.
"There were eight major development projects that were in various stages of planning," says Sylvia Robinson, 51, a community organizer who helped form a neighborhood task force to monitor proposals for new development over the past two years.
According to data compiled by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, the 20001 zip code, which includes the Georgia Avenue corridor in Ward 1, was the sixth fastest gentrifying zip code in the entire country last decade, based on the change in the share of the white population. In 2000, whites were only 6 percent of the population; by 2010 the white population had increased to 33 percent in the zip code, according to U.S. Census data. Washington has several of the fastest changing neighborhoods in the country.
"Gentrification an attitude"
While gentrification is often simplified to mean the displacement of poorer black residents by wealthier white newcomers, Robinson says the change is more complicated where she lives.
"I consider gentrification an attitude," Robinson says. "It's the idea that you are coming in as a planner, developer, or city agency and looking at a neighborhood as if it's a blank slate. You impose development and different economic models and say that in order for this neighborhood to thrive you need to build this much housing, this much retail."
Robinson does not oppose gentrification; she wants her community to have a voice in the inevitable changes. "We are primarily an African-American, low-income community. Typically, we are not asked about changes that are coming," she says. For instance, in addition to new market-rate condominiums, neighborhood advocates are lobbying for new affordable housing units to prevent the displacement of long-time residents when property values ultimately rise.
Changes here have been dramatic. The Shaw and Pleasant Plains neighborhoods are safer, have seen property values increase and shopping opportunities multiply.
"It's an extraordinary change," says Peter Tatian, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. "I've been in D.C. over 25 years and I remember when that part of town was considered off limits by many people, that you wouldn't want to even go there. And now it's become one of the priciest areas." The median price of a home is over $500,000 in many parts of Ward 1, Tatian says.
The transportation angle
"The development of our community is really going to hinge on people being able to move up and down that segment of Georgia Avenue freely and easily," Robinson says.
The congested corridor connects two Metro stations in Northwest D.C: Petworth in the north and Shaw/Howard University in the south. Significant new development is being constructed close to the Shaw Metro station, leaving Robinson concerned that hundreds of new apartment units and thousands of square feet of retail space will focus economic activity there at the expense of older neighborhoods further away.
"[Developers] don't have a sense of what the natural boundaries are for the neighborhood," Robinson says. "Neighborhoods were here before the Metro Stations came in, so it's not like you are creating a new neighborhood. You are already in a neighborhood and that neighborhood can really benefit from that Metro station, but not if you are only focused on the station as a center of development."
When a "thriving neighborhood" is measured largely by how much money people are spending or how high rents are climbing, Robinson says gentrification causes damage.
"That is my main issue with all of this: everything is looked through the lens of shopping," she says.
Just a mile or so north of the Shaw Metro on Georgia Avenue, one will find shops and restaurants that are long-time establishments in the neighborhood. To get to them, Robinson says residents and Howard University students will have to rely on the 70 bus line.
"It's just notoriously unreliable and always has a very interesting set of characters on it," she says. "They're supposed to run every ten minutes, but what you'll get is three buses in a row and then nothing for half an hour."
Anika Rich, a Howard University senior who has witnessed the neighborhood's transformation, doubts the current bus service is adequate to connect people to different parts of the Georgia Avenue corridor.
"I don't think that people are going to be connected to it. I know that there are plans that Howard University has to lure us to the other side of the street, and have us patronize a section that doesn't necessarily get much attention from other people," Rich says.
Robinson worries that "isolated" pockets of economic development will be the result. Moreover, as the population of this part of the city continues to grow (14 percent increase in the 20001 zip code between 2000-2010), so will pressure on the existing infrastructure to efficiently move people between work and home, home and shopping.
"We're talking about improving the bus lines. We're talking about the circulator bus... moving up this corridor. We're talking about possibly working with Howard University to have shuttles circulate further north," she says.
While Ward 1 has the look and feel of a dramatically different neighborhood, other areas of the city have not seen development follow access to transit. In part two of this series, we will visit the Deanwood and Kenilworth neighborhoods in Ward 7 to examine why development has been slow to rise up in an area that has had four Metro stations for many years.
[Music: "A to B" by The Futureheads from The Futureheads / "Everybody's Changing" by Keane Karaoke Tribute from Karaoke Mix"]
Photos: Shaw and Pleasant Plains, D.C.