On Building a Neighborhood ‘From Scratch’

The Washington Business Journal recently published this interesting article about the baseball stadium district in Southeast, asking “How do you create character where there is none, without replicating Disney-esque environments found at suburban town centers?”

N Street NEIn the article they talk to quite a few planners and developers and it’s clear the district will be resoundingly pedestrian and urban, although it’s less clear if it’s possible to avoid an artificial feel with a neighborhood where everything will be so new. In the words of DC Director of Planning Ellen McCarthy, “It’s very hard to point to a great neighborhood that was created from scratch.” (The building pictured, like most in the neighborhood, is slated for demolition.)

One of things the new neighborhood has going for it is that there’s not just one big rich developer, but many big rich developers with properties down there, which will inevitably lead to at least a bit more variety than a suburban lifestyle center. Another potential upside? Thanks to the lack of existing structures and a modern glass-and-steel stadium, the city hopes the neighborhood could be a showcase of some creative “contemporary design.” I think whether or not this will come true is an open question: some developers they talked to mentioned the nearby 19th century structures at the Navy Yard as inspiration, and historical kitsch is almost always a safer investment than the avant-garde.

This brings me to a larger question about DC architecture: what will be the architectural legacy of today’s modern buildings? It seems there’s not much being written about all the glass and steel going up around town that I know of, and if there is I’d be interested to hear about it. Whether or not we like it, the sheer number of new buildings alone means we’ll be living with the contemporary styles for years to come.

> WBJ: “Erase the past, see the future

Author: Rob Goodspeed