Redeveloping Columbia Heights



The net financial change to the city resulting from the currently planned revitalization of Columbia Heights will, per se, be a drop in the bucket, albeit a good drop in the right bucket. More important, if this revitalization has the anticipated catalytic effect, then more developments should spread out for several blocks from the Metro station as recommended in DC's recently published brochure on "transit-oriented development". But in many instances, DC's financial problems will remain only partially solved unless DC authorities directly address some of their own outdated policies re affordable housing, historic preservation, importing low-paying jobs, height limitations beyond the city core, surplus school properties, zoning, and civic disrespect.


Catalysts are some of the more extraordinary substances in our world. Like warm smiles, they can dramatically change the chemistry of those around them, without changing themselves at all. Rocket scientists (!) long ago discovered that if one passed hydrogen peroxide and gasoline through a silver mesh screen, high-level combustion resulted that could be shaped in a nozzle to propel rockets, missiles or aircraft. And the silver screen was not changed or eroded at all.

Columbia Heights is the central neighborhood of Cluster 2, a convenient collection of four neighborhoods (and eleven Census tracts, three ZIP Codes) in the upper part of Ward 1 used for planning and development purposes. The other three real estate developments that became neighborhoods include Mount Pleasant, Park View, and Pleasant Plains. Together they include almost 47,000 people (2000 Census) of all ages and races, about three times as populous as the average DC cluster. By any measure, Columbia Heights should become the economic center of this cluster.

Centrally located in the larger, northern portion of the city, Cluster 2 is bounded on the west by Rock Creek Park and on the east by The Soldiers and Airmen's Home and the McMillan Reservoir complex. As if in a valley (a commuters' valley at that), its busy major numbered streets (Georgia Ave (7th), 11th, 13th, 14th, and 16th) run north and south, while cross-traffic is much more difficult. Cluster 2 is bordered on the south by Florida Ave (originally the northern boundary of the city), and crossed diagonally by Columbia Road from the well-known crossroads of Adams Morgan to the lower southeast toward Fort Totten to the upper northeast.

Cluster 2 Demographics

Perhaps more interesting, this central cluster of primarily residential properties lies on the "fault line", if you will, between the predominantly black tectonic plate of Northeast DC, and the almost entirely white plate of Northwest DC. Only here, and in a few clusters north and south of it, is the population truly "diverse", and becoming more so as a large number of Hispanics arrive. In contrast, diversity appears to be dropping in the rest of the city. Between 1990 and 2000 the Cluster 2 black population dropped by 6800, while white residents increased by 2000, and Hispanics by 5800.

In 1990 the population distribution was two-thirds black, one-sixth each white and Hispanic. By 2000 it had shifted to half black, one quarter each white or Hispanic. Overall, Cluster 2 population grew by about 1000, while it dropped overall in the District by about 30,000 (mostly East of the Anacostia River). If these trends continue thru 2010 (pure speculation), whites will become 24% of the population, while Hispanics take the lead at 39%, and blacks drop to 37% as shown on the chart to the left.

More pertinent to those interested in whether or not the cluster is a net financial drag on DC's tax base, there has been a significant reduction (-2100) in the number of kids over the past ten years, and in the number of seniors (-1300). Together, the share of adults (and potential taxpayers) rose from 61 to 70%, and the public school-age population dropped 17% to about 6500. If this trend continues, by 2010, the ratio of adults-to-kids would virtually double from 2.3 to 4.5 in 20 years. According to NARPAC education statistics, this would improve the kids' chances of gaining a better education, and by its census tract analyses would improve the cluster's chances of paying its way in the city.

Public Schools

There are currently six elementary schools, one middle school, and three high schools in Cluster 2 (though public education is ignored by DC's Office of Planning). Enrollment in the Lincoln Middle School, designed for 1200 kids, dropped from 700 to 400 in the '90's and is currently boarded up. It has become an eyesore on upper 16th Street. It occupies over two acres of prime real estate backing up on the currently planned developments near the Metro station. Across the street is the very small Bell Mutlicultural High School crowded onto one acre with an enrollment of almost 700, exceeding its desired capacity. Both are slated to be replaced by new schools according to the current DCPS Master Facilities Plan, the new middle school estimated to cost $18M, the new high school about $40M. All the other schools in this cluster are slated for major modernizations. Snapshots of Lincoln and Bell are shown below:

If, in fact, the school-aged population continues to drop, NARPAC believes that at least two or three of these schools should be scheduled for closure and their properties freed up for more productive use. The other two high schools in this cluster (Banneker and Cardozo) are operating at about 42% of capacity and are each currently slated to be substantially rebuilt for that much smaller capacity, thereby making even less productive use of the 22 acres they occupy.

Housing, Zoning, and Metro

The median household size has remained at 2.67. Similarly, even though the median household income has risen from $22,300 to $29,900 in ten years, it remains constant at 1.7 times the poverty level for a family of four. Cluster 2's household income remains 30% below the District average, and is only 10% above that earned by single workers in the retail, maintenance, and food service sectors. These are essentially the "working poor". According to Census 2000, there are still over 4400 households persons below the poverty level in this cluster, some 26% of the total.

Housing is a serious problem for Cluster 2, and the subject of many high-priority action items in its Strategic Neighborhood Action Planning (SNAP). The number of occupied housing units increased by only 100, and home ownership shifted little from its discouraging level of 26% (compared to 41% citywide). The median housing unit value remains at $187,000, roughly--and typically--six times the median income. The "upscale" sections are in the northwest of Cluster 2, nestled in against Rock Creek and Piney Branch Parks. Those two census tracts, which comprise the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, provide 25% of the cluster's population and 30% of its households, but generate 39% of the total household income, 42% of the real estate value, and only 17 of the kids. Zoning is overwhelmingly "R-4": i.e., "row dwellings and flats", typical of so much of DC's residential areas. Such units along Park Road in Mount Pleasant (left), and Irving Street in Columbia Heights (right) are shown below:

Along 16th Street above the famous old Meridian Hill Park, residential zoning increases to "R-5B and D" which allow moderate and high density apartment houses. An example of a handsome R5D building, the Kenesaw Condos, is shown to the right, just behind Francis Ashbury (1745- 1816), a prominent early Methodist minister immortalized on horseback.

There has been limited "C-2A" ("community business center, medium density") along the two major thoroughfares, Georgia Ave and 14th Street, but what few shops there have been in recent years hardly qualify for even that minimal commercial designation. There have long been about four blocks worth of "C-3A" which would allow "medium bulk major business and employment", but most of that has been fallow for many years. It is bounded by the long-empty Tivoli theater at the north end, and Columbia Road at its south. It is here that new development is about to begin.

Transit-Oriented Development

With over 2000 acres of vacant or abandoned land within a 10-minute walk of excellent transit service, there is a significant opportunity to enhance DC's traditional neighborhood centers with displacement and without threatening existing neighborhoods or historic resources. The region is growing and change is inevitable. At issue is not whether to grow or change, but how and where it occurs. (DC Office of Planning brochure on transit-oriented development).
Right in the center of Cluster 2, with exits on each side of 14th Street, lies the relatively newly- opened Columbia Heights Metro Station on Green Line North, as NARPAC dubbed it in its 2000 essay. At last, there will be some higher density development at least in the C-3A zone--around this key station, halfway between the Shaw/Cardoza station to its south, and Georgia Ave/Petworth to its north. After three full years of operation, the Columbia Heights metro station has grown to an average week-daily boardings of some 5400 people. This equates to about one-fifth of the activity of the "top ten" stations, but somewhat better than twice as many as the "bottom ten". It remains a seriously under-utilized station.

NARPAC still questions whether these neighborhoods will really take advantage of this valuable urban asset a major potential engine for economic development. The diagram of Cluster 2 below shows the three metro stations in red, with half-mile radius circles around each, equating to about 4 (long) city blocks. This is the distance in which the Office of Planning is now urging "transit- oriented developments (TOD)" with medium to high density mixed commercial/residential zoning.

The slightly darker tan areas on the chart (within Cluster 2's black boundary line) show the only areas presently zoned for anything approaching medium density commercial activity. Clearly, the zoning realities and the TOD tutorials are worlds apart. Well over half of the 142 blocks and 334 acres of Cluster 2 are within the notional TOD zones, but surely less than 5 blocks and 10 acres encourage even "medium-density" commercial development. The deeper tan right behind the name "Columbia" is where the major new developments are planned. It is quite apparent from both this chart and the demographic statistics that Cluster 2 will not soon come close to paying its own way as an autonomous "profit and loss center" for DC's financial needs.

Using the same "productivity" calculations developed for various census tract groupings, Cluster 2 cost District taxpayers in 2000 some $121 million per year more than its tax base provided in revenues. This is not as bad as, say, the Anacostia grouping (not its official cluster), but it places a very substantial burden on DC's taxpayers. This is shown on the graph below:

It might be noted that by these very approximate NARPAC calculations, the relatively "upscale" Mount Pleasant neighborhood actually generated $2.2M more in revenues than it consumed in city service expenditures, but this did little if anything to offset the $123M loss in the other three neighborhoods.

Rejuvenation Is On the Way

In February, 2003, the National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCRC) presented their plans for revitalizing several RLA parcels along the 14th Street Corridor. Its subsidiary, the RLA Revitalization Corporation (RLARC) inherited the portfolio of 88 properties worth $280M formerly held by the largely dormant Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA). After years of organizational and neighborhood bickering (laced with the usual trepidations over the Gentrification Boogeyman), developers have been found for eleven parcels of decrepit properties, and designs and uses have been agreed upon by the neighbors and the city functionaries.

The good news is that at least $275 million development dollars will be invested around this severely under-utilized Metro station in the noisy, dusty, immediate future. Starting in the Spring of 2003, major construction efforts will return to Main Street, Columbia Heights, to build several classes of properties as indicated on the summary table below. The results will include over 700,000 sqft of commercial space, including at least one "big box store", and over 1800 parking spaces. Some 377 "higher-end" apartments and 191 "affordable" housing units are planned, which may house about 1500 residents, including perhaps 200 school-age kids. Also included are a dance institute, day care center, and renovation of an imposing old funeral home building as offices for Washington's non-profit Urban League. Important to the neighborhood, if not the economy, will be the creation of about 2200 jobs.

The major attractions will include a totally revamped Tivoli Theater and surrounds (see NARPAC's early photographs); two major apartment complexes by Donatelli & Klein adjacent to the Metro subway entrances; and some 500,000+ sqft of commercial retail and other attractions at "DC USA". There seems to be 'something for everybody' in this mix, and surely Columbia Heights and Cluster 2 will benefit from this initial infusion of capital, attractions, and favorable publicity.

Improving Financial Productivity The bad news, if any, is that these developments will, per se, make only a small dent in the net tax costs of Cluster 2 to the DC government. Almost all of the 2200 anticipated jobs are at best 10% over the nominal poverty level. The lucky occupants of the badly needed "affordable" housing units do not, in general, cover their costs in public services. More kids will raise school costs, and if current statistics hold, some of them will require very expensive special ed costs.

Moreover, a goodly number of the lower income residents will leave behind substandard , if not abandoned, rental housing for the city to cope with eventually. This is, in fact, one of the areas in the city that already has a very significant number of vacant/abandoned properties, as shown in the map to the left developed by DC'sOffice of Planning. The hope, then, is that the customers brought into DC USA and the Tivoli Square complex, plus the taxes paid by the 377 owners of the upscale apartments will more than offset the costs of the less affluent. NARPAC can only speculate on the actual mix of new residents to be attracted, and the success of the business ventures, but the limits on "net productivity"are probably reasonable to estimate:


  • the 191 affordable housing units all result in household incomes of $30,000;
  • and all those housing units are assessed at $180,000;
  • and the owners of the 377 upscale apartments all have household incomes of $80,000;
  • and their apartments are all assessed at $400,000;
  • and only 150 kids are added to the school system;
  • and the net result is 200 less households in poverty;
  • o and each of eight acres of new commercial property generates $1 M annually;

then the city could realize net revenues of almost $20M against the current Cluster 2 annual shortfall of $121M.


  • the 191 affordable housing units all result in household incomes of $25,000;
  • and all those housing units are assessed at $150,000;
  • and the owners of the 377 upscale apartments all have household incomes of $50,000;
  • and their apartments are all assessed at $300,000;
  • and 250 kids are added to the school system;
  • and there is no net reduction in the households in poverty;
  • and each of eight acres of new commercial property generates $500K annually;

then the city would realize net revenues of less than $7M against the current Cluster 2 annual shortfall of $121M.

DC's Own Worst Enemies

In either event, the Columbia Heights revitalization projects produce a modest, but very real improvement in Cluster 2's deficit to the city. However, NARPAC feels compelled to point up several circumstances which seriously limit the "net productivity" of this rejuvenation effort:

o The quite understandable demand for affordable housing will assure the continued presence of households who are by definition a net drag on city coffers. Until their lot can be improved, city taxes are unlikely to be lowered to the regional norm. NARPAC would point out in this regard that within these eleven developments, there is no attempt by the city planners to provide public service spaces for health care clinics, adult education, job training, or other poverty-dispelling mechanisms.

o Importing near-minimum wage jobs may seem like the humane thing to do, but it is not a particularly revenue-productive approach. Bringing in more lucrative commercial (not non- profit) office space would surely be more revenue-intensive over the long-haul. More fundamentally, however, one of the significant uses of public transit is to connect less-skilled workers to other, less land-limited areas of the metro area where lower income jobs already abound. Surely public transit should equalize job opportunities across the metro area and not concentrate the lesser ones in DC.

o The nostalgic historic preservation of the long-deserted Tivoli theater, and the aesthetically-limited development of the block around it (see left), deny the fully productive use of the second largest parcel to become available (after the 'DC USA' commercial site). There is little doubt that starting from scratch, this well-shaped block could have become several times more revenue-productive. NARPAC does not know if the shack under the trees is also historic. But perhaps the neighborhood can take heart from the fact that they will not be required for to tear out their indoor plumbing, tear up the street paving, expunge electricity from their homes, or revert to using horses instead of cars to satisfy the seemingly limitless passion for preserving outdated urban artifacts.

o Parcels 15 and 26, with their upscale apartments, (see Donatelli and Klein architect's rendering at right) are likely to be the most productive units in the current revitalization plan. Nevertheless, their productivity is significantly reduced by a) the obligatory inclusion of 20% affordable units in every new housing development, and b) the obligatory building height limit to avoid dwarfing the capitol dome (or the Cairo Hotel!) fully two miles away. For instance:

A more practical approach to the affordable housing demand would be to allow the trading of "housing rights", which would allow trading off fewer units in some developments for more units in nearby developments. In Columbia Heights, taking these eleven parcels together, 34% of the new housing units will be "affordable" for poorer city residents, but unaffordable for city taxpayers.

Second, Columbia Heights lies outside the original L'Enfant city boundaries. A good argument could be proffered for biting another historic legislative bullet and gradually relaxing building height limits outside the original city boundaries towards to current District boundaries. This would help "level the economic playing field" and avoid the growing number of edge city "bluffs" where buildings just outside DC are twice as tall (and productive) as those across the streets inside DC.

o The failure to include changing public school requirements within community revitalization efforts is a serious mistake. Soon-to-be surplus schools are a potential source for integrating the educational needs of fewer kids with the increasing needs of left-behind adults. DC planning efforts are still overly compartmentalized.

o Additional blocks around the Metro station (at least between 11th and 16th Streets) should be re-zoned for eventual higher-density development. If necessary, the current landlord property owners (and perhaps their tenants as well) should be encouraged to consolidate their properties into holding companies of some sort to make sure that they benefit from the future developments: a capitalistic solution to an existing socialistic problem. One way or another, sooner or later, many of Cluster 2's row houses must become history.

In addition, right across the streets from both Metro entrances, (at the heel of the backwards "L"), lies a recently completed two-story drug store complex sorely wanted by the neighborhood. Surely, there should be some way to develop "air rights" above that store for some highly productive use, and convert and rezone--that entire block into a substantial revenue source, perhaps an office tower.

o Finally, excessive tolerance of civic disrespect is a formula for institutionalizing squalor. Many Third World cities are forced to put up with shanty-towns that make up for lack of adequate housing. DC, on the other hand, has an extraordinary number of handsome homes in various states of self-indulgent disrepair, and Cluster 2 has a surprising number of these. There are either insufficient city laws, or insufficient enforcement of existing laws, to significantly reduce the thousands of real or apparent vacant and abandoned housing units that besmirch the city, and Cluster 2 has its full share of these as well. The disparities in condition of the two once-stylish homes that face each other across one Columbia Heights street is evident in the comparative snapshots below. Sooner or later, neighborhood pride will have to be exerted before community revitalization can be completed.



In short, the net financial change to the city resulting from the currently planned revitalization of Columbia Heights will, per se, be a drop in the bucket, albeit a good drop in the right bucket. More important, if this revitalization has the anticipated catalytic effect, then more developments should spread out for several blocks from the Metro station as recommended in DC's recently published brochure on "transit-oriented development". But in many instances, DC's financial problems will remain only partially solved unless DC authorities directly address some of their own outdated policies re affordable housing, historic preservation, importing low-paying jobs, height limitations beyond the city core, surplus school properties, zoning, and civic disrespect.

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This page was updated on June 5, 2003



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