Highest and best may not be tall, but it’s still higher and better.

Urban neighborhoods have been changing considerably over the last decade, and, in many locations, income levels have risen steadily. When we hear about gentrification, the coverage often reaches us through a few recurrent tropes: data-driven accounts of demographic and socioeconomic change; journalistic interviews of individuals who have either left or feel threatened by the rising cost of living; a sardonic look at how the retail climate has shifted to reflect increasingly affluent tastes, morphing from pawn shops to yoga studios, or the like. Nearly all of the coverage on this topic reveals at least a vague tenor of negativity—rarely, if ever, does the narrative simply impartially chronicle what’s taking place. It’s usually a bad thing. Other advocates have already completed the aforementioned exposés on gentrification—individuals with more commitment to the topic than I have. It’s a divisive subject that, in my opinion, has yet to play itself out enough to form any solid conclusions, so it is and long will remain a tempest in a teapot.

Even my first statement here was a bit disingenuous: sure, urban neighborhoods have been changing considerably in recent years, but how is that different from previous decades? The only difference is, for the first time in half a century, many of them are not getting poorer. Regardless of what one thinks about gentrification, it’s happening in cities large and small, though often to varying degrees. But it doesn’t take demographic research, or community interviews, or survey of primary commercial tenants to find out. Sometimes a few snapshots are all you need.img_4717It’s the Near Northeast of Washington DC, just a bit north of the much more established Capitol Hill neighborhood. As recently as a decade ago, it was a rough part of town. These days?img_4719Most of the tidy rowhouses look great but still have fences out front to impose a minor barrier to the potentially criminally minded passers-by. But those are wrought iron gates—which take a fair amount of money to install. No chintzy chain-link fences.img_4715The owners of these homes aren’t poor. And, in a few instances, they’re breaking from the routine.gentrification new DC housingThe brand-new, three-story home sticks out like a sore thumb, and, in a fancier area like Georgetown, the neighborhood would likely shoot down its nonconforming massing and jarring architecture. But the Near Northeast hasn’t yet secured a culture were preservationist dogma can assert itself. So this home protrudes like a whack-a-mole. If there were even just a few more of these—for example, every fifteenth home—this wouldn’t look so jarring. And, as real estate prices steadily climb in the neighborhood, I expect that the demand will only increase for teardowns: to replace a small and potentially dilapidated older home to with something much larger. And, as the neighborhood gentrifies, the armchair architects will surge in both number and influence. But will they have much ground to stand on? Nonconforming uses are already widely visible. Elsewhere on the same block, for example, we encounter this:img_4716It’s a tiny church, made out of what appears to be a converted rowhome. It’s unlikely the original architect of this home ever imagined it would serve as a chapel, but as the neighborhood changed, the demand emerged to serve a congregation of no more than two dozen. The pastor did not need (and probably could not afford) an edifice originally intended as a freestanding church, so a simple rowhome would suffice. And a reused home is in almost all respects a preferred condition than a vacant one, though it’s not something we expect to see in areas with rising land values. Then again, land values in this part of DC weren’t rising for most of the second half of the 20th century.

The times are changing, and the residential scene isn’t the only indicator. Turn the corner and we face an emergent main street.img_4725H Street Northeast is a far cry from some of the hipper, more established creative class corridors in the city: U Street always comes to mind. Gentrification is obvious, though.img_4722But I promised I wouldn’t focus on all the new juice bars, tap rooms, or places that sell a $6 cup of coffee. Let’s look at something a little less glamorous:img_4721It’s a fundamentally automobile oriented strip mall with parking out front, in an otherwise sidewalk-oriented neighborhood. And it’s less than a mile away from the US Capitol, as the crow flies.

And it’s empty.img_4720img_4724But it’s not the aftermath of blight and disinvestment. Quite the opposite. As of July 2016 (when I took these photos), the strip mall was awaiting demolition, to be replaced with a larger development that combines residences with street-level retail and services.  More gentrification.

I think we can guess the narrative. At one point in time, both sides of H Street probably claimed the variegated, two- and three-story commercial buildings that currently only line the north side. As the neighborhood declined by the middle of the 20th century, many of those 19th century structures struggled to retain tenants, further contributing to the visual decay. In an attempt to shore up what remained a densely populated (albeit increasingly poor) neighborhood, a developer purchased an entire block of those old, seemingly obsolete buildings and razed them. (I suspect that the city even vacated the right-of-way for a block of the perpendicular 9th Street so that the developer could build that land too.) Across these two blocks, sometime in the early 1980s the same developer constructed the retail strip, in keeping with the demand of the time for convenience-oriented shopping, drive-thru opportunities, with free (or very cheap) easily visible parking out front.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, as the young professionals move into a formerly depressed neighborhood, they bring their taste culture with them—one that includes a far greater fondness for restored buildings and the urbanism of a continuous street wall. Easy parking seems passé. As a result, the two-block strip mall seems like an ersatz intrusion on H Street’s integrity as a commercial corridor. And, with higher incomes encroaching, the land is worth more—much more than would justify a one-story, unimaginatively adorned row of cheap shops. Look at the array of buildings further down H Street in the direction of the US Capitol.img_4723It was only a matter of time before someone recognizes that something better deserves to go up here. And, just a few months after my photos, a Google Street View reveals that the entire shopping center has come down.

As most people who have visited Washington DC already know, the nation’s capital has strict height limitations: that nothing can be taller than the tip of Washington Monument. Bearing in mind this constraint coupled with the high value of land across much of the city, the value conferred to a development by raising it from a mere one story up to three or four is, no doubt, far greater than it might be in cities that lack such regulations. And anything is better than zero stories (i.e., a vacant lot). In all but the most impoverished neighborhoods—which are far fewer in number in DC than they were just twenty years ago—land values have increased to the point that even the smallest vacant lots are finding buyers. Take this one, directly across the street from the now-demolished strip mall, on the north side of H Street, taken in 2011. The graffitied orange fence doesn’t look like much. But that tiny patch of land, probably less than one-twentieth of an acre, found a buyer. Here it is from earlier this year.

Though often synonymous with displacement, gentrification can assert itself in the humblest of ways, often lacking any sort of ulterior motive. In fact, the word “gentrification” itself typically carries a negative connotation, though my guess is that’s a new phenomenon; the Latin etymology of the word is far more neutral. (Why not call it “revitalization”?) These tiny, almost boring little developments take place in the background amidst the higher profile transformations that elicit public outcry about insensitivity to the poor: i.e., the public housing coming down, the long-term tenants evicted because of escalating rents. But the forces animating gentrification are more powerful than the most committed affordable housing advocates. The whack-a-mole analogy from earlier seems all the more apt: no matter how hard we try to tamp it down in one location, it asserts itself in another. And then an organic juice bar leases the storefront next door.

13 thoughts on “Highest and best may not be tall, but it’s still higher and better.

  1. Robyn

    Great idea that gentrification be re-labeled “revitalization”. I don’t recall any negativity about suburbanism and sprawl when the wealthy were fleeing cities, and, whether or not you like suburban style, suburbanism in the way it was done for the past 30-40 years is simply not financially sustainable and should garner TWICE the negativity “gentrification” is. Furthermore the strip mall from this post is a great example of what is happening to this car-centric type of development which is all too common in the typical suburb – only it will be less likely to be redeveloped the further it is away from vibrant city neighborhoods and walkable businesses and services!

    To be fair, gentrification has unfortunate effects for previous residents and businesses that can no longer afford to live or do business in gentrified areas…but what is the solution for a natural cycle that actually reflects positive economic growth?

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Robyn, thanks for your comment, and I can’t help but think you answered your own question through your eloquent phrasing of “a natural cycle that actually reflects positive economic growth”. Just as economic decline of urban districts seemed inevitable in the 1960s and 70s, it now seems inevitable that some districts will gentrify. But in 1975, such a prospect no doubt seemed unthinkable: at that point in time, we didn’t really have any evidence that certain urban areas would ever experience a comeback. All we could think about then was how we could stave off the decline.

      The best example of how financially unsustainable certain practices can be is in the suburbs who declined right along with the inner city. The eastern side of Washington DC has plenty of examples of this, some of it merely outside of the District by coincidence, but sharing much of the same aging housing stock and infrastructure. But the real icing on the cake are the fully suburban areas that sprung up and declined over the course of 25 years: areas that emerged in the height of suburbanization of the 1960s and were already depressed by the late 1980s. New Orleans East and the Bannister Mall area of Kansas City MO are two of the most powerful examples that come to mind. In many respects, these areas are more depressed than some of the worst “inner city” areas, and they show little to no evidence that they’ll ever experience a real comeback.

      1. Brian M

        Even in California, with its still intense population pressures (due to immigration now, largely) one really wonders about the long term viability of some of the horribly cheap 1960s and 1970s snout house ranchers as the particle board decays, the absentee landlords milk the properties, and there is nothing but a 1970s commercial strip of body shops and Dollar Stores nearby to hang renovation on.

        “Buy my 1100 square foot snout house. Have quick access to Jiffy Lube and Pepe’s Ptomaine Tacos in the former Taco Bell location!”

        I see no easy solution.

        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Thanks for your comment, Brian. I wasn’t familiar with your term “snout house” but it aptly describes a lot of the homes built even in the 1990s and early 2000s where I’m from. They won’t last: in one particularly sad neighborhood, approximately 15-year-old homes are already starting to look dilapidated.

          Incidentally, I don’t have a good vision of the 1960s and 1970s snout home. At least out the east, that was a relatively slow period for home-building, so, while the walkability in 60s/70s neighborhoods is usually quite poor and the lots are very large, the quality of the home itself tends to be higher. But most of the east wasn’t booming the way California was at that time.

  2. Paul

    I have been wondering a lot lately if the recent forces of revitalization/gentrification can ever bring back an urban middle class lifestyle to America. In Indianapolis that seems to have gone completely extinct by about the 1970’s. Do you think this is possible with the way things are trending now? There seems to be larger split forming in who inhabits these revitalized districts. I think some of it is out of control costs but it also seems to me these efforts don’t bring back the original day to day livability of these areas. I am worried some places will never make it beyond entertainment districts and then fade back out when tastes change instead of making a lasting impact in how we live here in the US.

  3. AmericanDirt Post author

    Hi, Paul–thanks for the comment. You’ve touched on an issue that I fear portends the eventual slowing and possible reversal of the urban regeneration we’ve seen. At this point, I just don’t know what is going to happen in 25 years, or even in 15.

    Here are the indicators I see that are the most unpromising:
    1) Over-emphasis on apartments, creating an extension of the “dorm-style” living for young millennials who aren’t ready to commit to homeownership or starting their own families. It works right now, but what will happen when they’re ready to settle down? Can we convert these apartments to condos, or will there even be demand for condos?
    2) As you wisely noted, retail depends heavily on entertainment as the essence of urban lifestyle: restaurants, bars, distilleries, painting studios, etc. Much of this is due to the fact that an escalating amount of conventional shopping takes place online, and that is unlikely to change. But we still have far too much storefront space to accommodate all the entertainment oriented commercialism.
    3) What if, in ten years, the millennials still haven’t settled down? While that might bode well for them remaining in multifamily urban structures, it could result in a broader demographic concern–another baby bust–with far reaching implications for education and the labor force.
    4) High office vacancy rates. With the exception of the cities that never truly abandoned an urban middle class life style (i.e., Chicago, New York, etc), most city centers still struggle with above-average vacancy levels, even in their Class A office space. Downtowns are becoming more of a place to play than they are a place to work.

    At the very least, here are the more auspicious indicators that this urban regeneration might be something more than a fad:
    1) Retiring baby boomers. Developers have overwhelmingly marketed the urban apartments to young professionals, but the aging baby boomers–albeit overwhelmingly anti-urban–may still seek to retire and enjoy their sunset years in a more walkable environment, probably as homeowners in condos.
    2) Aging Gen Xers. Since they aren’t as suburban-minded as their parents are, and their kids are often starting to get ready to leave the house, they’ll soon be confronted with a few extra bedrooms they don’t need and a thirst for a more walkable setting. And they won’t depend on high quality school districts anymore.
    3) Retiring baby boomers (again). While they’re deferring retirement thanks to their robust health, at this point they still dominate corporate leadership, and their anti-urban mentality has resulted in many HQs remaining in the unwalkable exurbs. But, when they’re finally handing over the reigns to their successors, will these Gen Xers still want to work in suburban office parks in Carmel? We might finally witness a re-absorption of Class A office space, as well as extensive adaptive re-use of older urban structures into creative office settings.
    4) Specialized retail as leisure expands the possibilities. Our urban main streets that still offer decent retail generally focus on a certain niche environment, where shopping is part of the recreational experience. The most successful retailers have extremely selective tastes that they align with very choosy spenders. We could see more of the tiny shops devoted exclusively to selling mayonnaise, or non-fiction books, or macramé. Who knows–a Spatula City may someday actually be the real deal.

    This is my incredibly superficial take on the forces that will shape urban America in the decades ahead. In all likelihood, there’s some other force that none of us will be able to predict right now, which will influence revitalization initiatives far more powerfully than anything we’re currently witnessing. Whether that force will be positive or negative remains to be seen…

    1. Chris B

      One gentle correction: I believe Xers are the most-suburban generation by percentage. This is so mostly because a fair percentage of Boomers live in rural and small-town settings instead of suburbs. (These can probably be divided into the “stayed behind” and the “5-acres-and-a-barn farmette” types.)

      We continue to agree on the over-building of street-level commercial in New Urban development, and it seems acute at the edges of downtown. In Indy, the “marquee” commercial space in The Cosmopolitan development sat empty for many years after completion. On the opposite side of downtown, The Hudson condo features professional offices at street level. Buckingham’s Library Square will bear watching…there’s enough office space and resident population within walking distance that it may thrive.

      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Thanks Chris–you could be right on the Gen Xers in terms of quantities and proportions. I still suspect, however, that they aren’t as averse to urban living as their parents, and their predominance in the suburbs right now may have to do with the fact that so many Gen Xers are raising school-aged children, so they depend heavily on those high-performing public schools. I suspect they’ll be more open to moving to urban settings when their nests are empty–far more, at least, than most Boomers, who witnessed the decline of urban America firsthand and understandably harbor distrust toward the idea of moving into what was long referred to as “the inner city”. The fact that we hear that label far less frequently than we did 20 years ago shows that its lost some of its cogency, though it probably lingers among those who witnessed the decline during their formative years.

        As for retail, it kills me to think we overbuild, and as recently as three years ago, I still felt that most urban developments should saturate their first levels with storefronts, regardless of their success in finding tenants. I still think that an occupied retail space helps endow an urban apartment building with an identity it otherwise might not have (e.g., the building in downtown Indy that hosts Bürgerhaus and Quills, versus what it’d be like if it was a mere apartment building). But I also recognize how devastating it can be for a developer to watch that first-floor retail space remain vacant for years, even when the apartments are nearly fully leased. A fair compromise seems to be dedicating a portion of the first floor to retail, while other parts get reserved for resident-only, extroverted uses (fitness centers, well appointed lobbies, maybe even a laundry room).

        1. Chris B


          We had dinner with friends this week at Vida (the old Amici’s site). He is a middle boomer who has lived outside 465 since coming to Indy 35 years ago.

          They were looking longingly across the street to Lockerbie as we stood on the curb waiting for Uber afterwards. 🙂

  4. Carin

    Stopping by to correct a persistent myth about the height limit. It has nothing to do with the Washington Monument. If the Washington Monument, at 555′, were the measuring-stick, we’d have a much, much higher-rise city. The Height of Buildings Act of 1910 generally restricts building height to the width of the street it fronts plus 20 feet. This amounts in most cases to a limit of 110′-130′ on major avenues, with higher limits in a few places. The Act caps residential street heights at 90′, though zoning makes row house and SF zones much lower (typically 40′). Whatever one thinks of the merits of the Act, it has a proportional rationale. It’s an interesting 3D formula for regulating height across the street grid.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks Carin. Since writing this article last winter, I learned firsthand about this common misconception, largely through independent research on the National Capital Planning Commission. Obviously you’re right about the Height of Buildings Act and its stipulations.

      Interestingly, my misconception (which usually calibrates the height in DC to either the Washington Monument or the much more conservative U.S. Capitol) came directly from grad-school-level research, which was using the limitation to understand why the street walls in downtown DC become so chunky and redundant. Academic writing on real estate finance still didn’t get the history correct, in terms of the height restrictions.

      1. Carin

        The effect of 100-year-old attempts at form-based building regulation on what actually gets built today are definitely an interesting subject. Sometimes ancient and obscure legal underpinnings result in completely charming effects, as with the deep front gardens on Capitol Hill, where most people’s front yards are actually public space – “the parking” – which can be fenced but not built on. Which I see you observed in another post. (Forgive me for digging through old posts. I’m so happy to have found your blog!)

        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Agreed. I never knew the legal prescriptions behind it, but I always wondered about the generous setbacks among homes in Washington DC–virtually absent from the Mid-Atlantic’s other two largest cities (Philadelphia and Baltimore). I appreciate your feedback!


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