Aug 18, 2022 - News

D.C.'s “new” neighborhoods, and how they came to be

Illustration of a construction crane lifting another crane, which is lifting another crane, which is lifting another crane.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

For those of us who’ve called D.C. home for a decade or more, it sometimes feels as if we’re living in an entirely new city. 

The leafy Southwest quadrant used to feel off the grid to many Washingtonians, prized by members of Congress and a couple of Supreme Court justices who wanted to stay out of the spotlight. Today the neighborhood is home to Arena Stage’s cutting-edge architecture and a mini city-within-a-city along the waterfront at The Wharf. 

  • And look at Ivy City. The area off New York Avenue in Northeast has morphed from an industrial zone to the home of multiple Michelin-recognized restaurants.       

Why it matters: The transformation of our cityscape has really changed how we live, work, and socialize.  

How did this happen? Low-density zoning laws and D.C.'s NIMBY culture.

  • A large portion of D.C. is exclusively zoned for single-family housing. Most lots in Tenleytown, Woodley Park, and Cleveland Park, for instance, don’t even allow rowhouses, let alone high-rises or multi-family housing, senior Brookings Metro fellow Jenny Schuetz tells Axios. 
  • Most of the District, she says, is “off-limits for new development.”

Meanwhile, persistent NIMBY-ism on the part of longtime residents with political capital has kept this kind of restrictive zoning intact.

  • “There’s relatively strong opposition to new development,” says Brookings Metro fellow Tracy Hadden Loh. “One of the ways to deal with that opposition is to just channel all of the new development into places where very few people live, or places where people with very little power (live).”

Between the lines: Even when Washingtonians lose the battle against new developments, they’re often able to stall construction for years.

  • Since 2018, Dupont Circle residents have fought plans for an apartment building behind a historic Masonic Temple in Northwest.
  • In Ward 3, residents spent years using a lawsuit and appeal to stop plans for a homeless shelter planned for the area.

Zoom out: D.C. desperately needs housing – the mayor set a goal to build 36,000 new units by 2025. Newly developed areas in Southwest, for example, have brought in thousands of units over the last few years.

And besides housing, new neighborhoods stimulate tourism and economic growth.

  • Once it’s completed, The Wharf is projected to bring in $75 million in annual tax revenue.

Yes, but: The growth routinely displaces existing residents who can’t afford the new sky-high rents and housing costs. 

At the same time, places with restrictive zoning like Cleveland Park are stagnating by way of aging and declining populations, which negatively impacts commercial corridors, Schuetz explains.

  • “The current residents have essentially chosen to preserve the neighborhoods as they are with the cost that it’s just going to become a dying neighborhood in some sense,” she says.

The bottom line: D.C.’s unique development climate has meant that “new” neighborhoods can only be built in certain areas with available land and flexible zoning. Enter places like Navy Yard and Union Market.

Here's a crash course on D.C.'s newest neighborhoods.

Navy Yard: A city on the water

A group at Takoda's rooftop bar.
The rooftop bar at Takoda Navy Yard. Photo by Craig Hudson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

History: The Southeast neighborhood has housed the Navy’s oldest shore establishment since 1799. 

  • In the ‘70s, the area was home to a number of LGBTQ bars.

Turning point: In 2004 the Nationals announced they were moving in, triggering an eventual development boom. But some argue that the area was already destined for big changes after the city demolished the Ellen Wilson public housing and pushed its residents to other parts of D.C.

Who lives there: It was a safe space for millennial Trumpers during the former president’s administration. And it’s still a popular hangout for young, conservative Washingtonians. 

Clutch amenity: The water feature at Yards Park is a swell spot for meditating or reading in the off-hours. In the summer months, it’s a go-to splash pad for the toddler-and-up set. 

Gripe: Game day traffic. 

1 newish thing: Once known as the Blue Castle, the former car barn that repaired the District’s streetcars is now Capital Turnaround, an event venue.

Noma/Union Market: Wholesale to high end

People eat outside of Union Market.
Union Market, the former wholesale food market turned food hall in Northeast. Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

History: While it’s been the home of Gallaudet University since 1864, much of the area was largely industrial and home to a massive market that supplied restaurants. 

Turning point: XM Satellite Radio and ATF moving to the neighborhood sparked development, and the 2012 opening of Union Market turbocharged that development.

Mainstay commerce: A. Litteri, a little Italy under one roof.  

Claim to fame: The area is a culinary mecca, with two food halls (Union Market and La Cosecha), a Stephen Starr restaurant (St. Anselm), and a distillery (Cotton & Reed).

  • Yes, but: “Everything is fancy … sometimes you want something regular,” says ANC commissioner Sebrena Rhodes.

Gripe: Dave Thomas Circle. The city has plans in place to redesign the headache of an intersection. 

Always changing: The murals, the art

Ivy City: Don’t dump on me

The Hecht Warehouse and water tower.
The Hecht's department store’s former warehouse is now a high-end apartment building. Photo: Lindsay Ferraris/The Washington Post via Getty Images

History: In the 1960s the city threatened to build a highway through the Northeast neighborhood and many residents moved away, which led to an increase in abandoned buildings. 

Turning point: Nearby Union Market’s completion plus Douglas Jemal’s redevelopment of the Hecht's Co. warehouse in 2016 sparked many of the recent changes. 

New neighborhood staples: Target, City Winery, and Ivy City Smokehouse, a Michelin Bib Gourmand winner. 

Millennial magnets: The Lane (an indoor play space for kids and adults, with a ball pit and a bar) and Kick Axe – a new neighborhood staple.

Gripes: Longtime residents have many, but they haven’t lost their neighborhood pride, says Rhodes. 

  • Affordable housing is an issue. 
  • People still come in and illegally dump trash. 
  • A chemical plant in the area is also a big concern for residents.

Coming soon: Plans are in the works to redevelop the long-empty, historic Crummell School, which closed in the '70s. 

The Wharf: Everything’s new

Two people kayak by the Wharf with the Anthem in the background.
Redevelopment on the Southwest waterfront opened up a lot of eyes to this formerly sleepy neighborhood. Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

History: The former industrial shipyard is still home to the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the country.

How we got here: The Wharf is the result of decades of planning, multiple acts of Congress, and hundreds of community meetings. Developers worked with the city to create the mini-city on the water while preserving its longtime fish market. The first phase opened in 2017. Phase 2 is opening soon.

New neighborhood landmark: The Anthem. The I.M.P. music venue has housed big-name performances from Meek Mill to the Foo Fighters. Developers reportedly spent $300,000 soundproofing the space.

Neighborhood obsession: The fish market. 

Gripe: The high-traffic area is pretty pricey. For outsiders, parking is a colossal pain. 

Transportation: Metro, smetro. The coolest way to access the neighborhood is by water taxi.

What’s next: Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has two restaurants coming to the Southwest waterfront: Hell’s Kitchen is coming this fall and Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips’ opening is around the same time.

Buzzard Point: Neighborhood goooaaaaaaals

The exterior of the Point restaurant at Buzzard Point.
Waterfront restaurant The Point is one of Buzzard Point's first. Photo: Nicholas Johnston/Axios

History: It was once the site of an arms manufacturer, the hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, and a factory that boiled animal carcasses for fertilizer.

Turning point: Interest in developing waterfront property spilled over from other new neighborhoods. But the real catalyst for developing the Southwest neighborhood was its selection in 2013 as the home for D.C. United’s soccer stadium, Audi Field.

The draw for potential residents: Views, views, views. 

  • There’s little commerce at the moment, beyond the waterfront restaurant The Point.

Gripes: There’s no Metro. And traffic issues balloon on game days.

  • Also, similar to other rapidly developing areas, there are few family and inclusionary housing options.

Shaw/Blagden Alley: Old made new

A mural showing a young kid drumming on everyday objects.
A Kaliq Crosby mural celebrating go-go music marks the area near the origin of the Don‘t Mute D.C. movement in Shaw. Photo: Paige Hopkins/Axios

History: Shaw was known for being home to a number of Black businesses and notable Black Washingtonians, including Carter G. Woodson.

  • Civil unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 led to widespread destruction that required a years-long rebuilding effort.

Turning point: A reduction in crime in the '90s and early 2000s led to increased development and an increase in new people moving to the area who quickly priced out Shaw’s longtime residents. An influx of new jobs after the 2008 recession led to white millennials moving to the area “in droves,” Washington City Paper reports.

  • Development on 14th Street also spilled over into Shaw, ANC Commissioner Amanda Farnan says.

Gripe: Strict zoning and historic preservation laws can make it difficult to build the affordable housing necessary to retain and get back residents who’ve been pushed away from the area, Farnan adds.

Fun fact: The area was first called Shaw because of its proximity to Shaw Junior High, which was named after Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who led the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War.

One thing to see: The DC Alley Museum. Exploring the outdoor collection of painted garage doors in Blagden Alley is a great way to support the neighborhood, and they make for fantastic photo ops.


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