Transforming the D.C. Navy Yards with Transit Oriented Development

Existing Navy Yard BuildingAs one of the country’s oldest cities Washington has a lot to see and, as a result, a lot one can miss. Amidst the migrating swarms of people milling around for the 4th of July festivities, the nation’s capital recently provided me with some top quality dining, refreshing beverages, art museums, monuments and even some transit oriented development complete with dash of adaptive reuse. I was fortunate enough to walk around the evolving landscape of the D.C. Navy Yard. This post-industrial area continues to undergo a series of remarkable changes that have been in the works for over two decades and will hopefully make it a great example of maximizing transit-oriented sites for a new generation of walkable urban streetscapes.

The site on the shore of the Anacostia River had been originally commissioned for Naval Operations in 1799 and was once the largest naval shipbuilding facility in the country. Industrial activity caused the site to grow well into the 20th century where it peaked at hosting over 26,000 employees in 132 buildings on 127 acres of land. After World War II, the site experienced a number of familiar eventualities for American industry. Manufacturing constricted. Administrative operations consolidated to small facilities. The quality of the river deteriorated, including the site’s own designation as a EPA Superfund Site in 1998. Jobs moved, buildings closed and the neighborhood became known for crime and illicit activity.

This left the Navy Yards in a condition that we see across America, ripe with both risk and opportunity. The location had waterfront access and a wealth of spatial assets (buildings) whose industrial heritage made them flexible for possibilities of future use. At the same time, the problems were not small. In the short time I was in D.C. there were numerous cabbies that said they would not have made trips to the area 15 to 20 years ago due to the prevalence of crime. Similar to many of our post-industrial cities, the question for areas like this can be where to start?

Despite the site’s relatively close proximity to downtown D.C. it was not until recently that it had access to the vein of alternative transit. Though the Navy Yard stop that exists today was included in the original 1976 plan for D.C.’s metro system, the station was hounded by delays from budget woes and public criticism. It wouldn’t be until 1984 that the present day route for the Green Line was approved and seven more years until the station finally opened in 1991.

The Next Naval Campaign

History shows that one of the first catalysts to restoration became the siting of the new Washington Nationals stadium on the edge of the neighborhood, but the promise of the new destination alone did not prove to be enough to entice more construction. District planners sweetened the pot by relocating the headquarters for the Department of Transportation to the neighborhood in 2007, constructing a new LEED Gold Certified office facility with over 2 million square feet. Designed by Michael Graves & Associates, the building sports the architect’s colorful, post-modern flare along with a number of sustainable design initiatives including a 2-acre green roof and the purchase of 100% renewable energy. A new green building makes for a great neighbor, but what the project really brought was jobs; 5,500 workers cementing their commute to the neighborhood everyday that help foster more consistent support for activity and local business.

DC Park Tavern BarOn the other side of the spectrum is an example like Park Tavern. When we think of adaptive reuse for existing buildings our focus often moves to large structures or complexes whose size lends an inherent aspect of flexibility for new uses, but creative designers can find uses for even the smallest of urban relics. Found in a strip of public green space, the one-story structure is a former bus depot, but the utilitarian concrete walls are now complemented with swaths of warmer wood and white marble bar tops for a restaurant and bar that now operate inside. With walking paths that slope up from either side for access, the building is now covered with a sedum green roof that helps mitigate heat gain and stormwater runoff. All told, the sustainable efforts for the new restaurant earned it LEED Certification. After all that, their beer list is decent as well. The project may not bring 2 million square feet and 5,500 jobs, but it creates a unique, working destination that is bound to the site in a way that no others can be.

While isolated building projects with some green flare are a positive addition to any neighborhood, there were other, more convincing, signs of legitimate community creation as opposed to some isolated notable proposals in close proximity. The growing Navy Yard has one key component absent in other projects like the University Station development in Westwood, Massachusetts: a balanced program mix in walking distance including small scale, local restaurants and retail. Whether it was by design or simply natural evolution, a short walk around the neighborhood brought coffee shops, a dry cleaner’s, bars and restaurants. One of the final key components, a grocery store within walking distance, is in the process of being completed. This kind of mix of nearby program lends possibility to a neighborhood being locally grounded, allowing for residents to actually “live” near their home rather than needing to drive for ten minutes to do most of life’s necessities.

Another example of community commitment was the investment in well-designed public space. In addition to the green spaces that were distributed liberally around the area the waterfront was seized as an asset to the site. A new boardwalk integrated with gardens, retail space and a children’s wading pool has transformed the forgotten industrial coastline that was there only a decade ago. Runners and bikers seemed at home as they moved along the path that took in both views of the river with downtown D.C. beyond as well as the mixture of new development and converted industrial buildings on shore.

The prevalent mixture of chain retail, high end condos and lots of parking is a trap that too much new development keeps falling into. From the perspective of the creators it’s a great play. The archetypes are ones that everyone knows how to build, constructed with enough glitz and flash to make an attractive image for someone who needs somewhere to sleep, but not necessarily somewhere to live. Chain retail offers healthy least amounts for long durations at the meager cost of any contextual individuality and parking helps people ignore the lack of pedestrian culture by perpetuating an auto-dependent system.

In the case of the Navy Yards, the final recipe for community stock seemed more real than the flash-in-the-pan developer specials that revolve around snazzy retail
and high-end amenities meant to cater to the top 1%. The project started with the existing industrial fabric that added to the authenticity of site and fed directly into the result of a unique outcome: a neighborhood that differentiates itself from stock, speculative square footage off the shelf. This came with the added benefit of the energy and resources saved by redeveloping old infrastructure rather than trekking out to build on greenfields outside the urban core. Add to that: local jobs, pedestrian activity from small business, public space, a sports destination, affordable housing options and access to both the metro and local bike sharing. I think all of these components are helping the district succeed where other development efforts with similar promises fall short.

Photos by Author