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The Renewal of Post-Urban-Renewal Southwest Washington DC

The Renewal of Post-Urban-Renewal Southwest Washington DC

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Published by Matthew Steenhoek
A paper focusing on the urban renewal history and future of the Southwest neighborhood in Washington DC. It looks particularly at the redevelopment of Waterside Mall, Arena Stage, the Southwest Waterfront/Wharf, and the plans for the SW Eco District
A paper focusing on the urban renewal history and future of the Southwest neighborhood in Washington DC. It looks particularly at the redevelopment of Waterside Mall, Arena Stage, the Southwest Waterfront/Wharf, and the plans for the SW Eco District

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Published by: Matthew Steenhoek on Jan 31, 2013
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Matthew Steenhoek -- The Renewal of Post-Urban-Renewal Southwest Washington, DC -- Page 1
The Renewal of Post-Urban-Renewal Southwest Washington DC
 
Matthew Steenhoek
 
2011-05-09
 
Southwest was going to change the world.
 
The ambitions of the planners and real estate men who set out in the mid-twentiethcentury to remake Southwest, DC into a model city, unmatched in form or in concept, weregrand and of bold intention. However, it was not meant to be. The urban renewal effort inSouthwest ended up being something of a boogey-man story that urban planners, socialactivists, and city leaders tell to their children at night. Stories of local streets to nowhere, major highways that scar the urban fabric, lifeless street-levels on high-rise buildings, brutal concretearchitecture, and lonely, monotonous sidewalks serve as a lesson of what can happen whenplanners decide to design from an airplane instead of focusing on the pedestrianexperience. As the memories of this process begin to fade into the collective fog, a new andgrowing interest in reconsidering and reconstructing much of Southwest has been gainingsteam over the past decade.
 
Four planning and development projects typify this recent resurgence. First is thedemolition and reconstruction of the Waterside Mall. This development demonstrates thatsuburban typologies have no place in the vibrant urban fabric. It is an example that illustratesthe importance of connectivity and porosity in the urban fabric through the reconnection of 4
th
StSW. Next is the renovation of the Arena Stage which is illustrative of how fresh new ideas canbreathe life into older structures. The Arena Stage experience is evidence of the power of cultural institutions to be a driving force in an urban renaissance. Third is the plannedredevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront. In a city with miles upon miles of shoreline but noreal waterfront community, the redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront highlights hownatural amenities, which were neglected in the past, can be revisited and recognized as drivers
 
Matthew Steenhoek -- The Renewal of Post-Urban-Renewal Southwest Washington, DC -- Page 2
of significant investment and redevelopment. Finally, the planning of the Southwest Eco-District
along L’Enfant Promenade shows how modern building systems and a renewed focus on the
pedestrian experience can provide a framework for revitalization and sustainability. Takentogether, these four projects, each in a different state of planning, design, or completion,demonstrate the various methods by which the sins of urban renewal can be absolved. All four of these projects involve significant government intervention, with both local andfederal influence and funding instrumental in all.
Despite being located on “The Island,” these
projects are also the product of the larger political, social, spatial, and conceptual frameworkwithin which they were conceived. When viewed through this lens, these four projects offer areflection on the development environment in not only Southwest but also elsewhere in theDistrict of Columbia and around the United States.
 
A History of Renewal 
Long known as “The Island,” the Southwest, the smallest quadrant in DC, has
a historyof being isolated from the rest of the city. At first it was the Washington Canal, which ran whereConstitution Avenue currently sits, and separated SW from the northern portions of theDistrict. Then in the 1870s, the construction of railroad tracks along Maryland Avenue created anew barrier. Finally, as almost insult to injury, the Southeast/Southwest Freeway cut the SWquadrant off from the rest of the city in the 1960s (National Capital Planning Commission,2011). This isolation created a dynamic in Southwest that permeates today, as residents and
visitors of the city are again beginning to “discover” Southwest DC.
 
Having roots back to 1790, when it was established as a military outpost, and beingcompletely uprooted and reestablished in the 1950s
 –
1970s through Urban Renewal,Southwest DC is simultaneously one of the oldest and newest communities in DC. After theCivil War, the Southwest was settled by both African Americans and European immigrants of Italian, German, Irish, and Eastern European Jewish heritage, all of whom lived in coexistence--
 
Matthew Steenhoek -- The Renewal of Post-Urban-Renewal Southwest Washington, DC -- Page 3
not integration. The African Americans largely inhabited alley dwellings on the east side of Fourth Street SW while the European immigrants lived on the west side of the street. FourthStreet became a main commercial hub of Southwest; and while blacks and whites shoppedthere it also stood as a dividing line between the two groups (National Capital PlanningCommission, 2011). This line, while perhaps not as stark as it once was, seems to largely holdtrue today as all of the public housing, and place-based Section-8 housing in Southwest islocated between Fourth Street and South Capitol Street.
 
Over time the populations in Southwest shifted, and a majority African Americanpopulation remained. This was a stable community, with most residents living in the communityfor more than ten years; but the physical fabric of the neighborhood began to degrade (NationalCapital Planning Commission, 2011). Sitting in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, thenei
ghborhood was determined to be a “slum” and the shame of the nation.
It was slated for razing as early as the 1920s and 1930s by the Alley Dwelling Authority and later by the NationalCapital Housing Authority (National Capital Planning Commission, 2011).
 
Ultimately, Southwest became the site of the first urban renewal effort in DC. It was one
of the first efforts in the United States and, to this date, the city’s only full
-scale attempt torevitalize an entire neighborhood through urban renewal. The urban renewal era began when,in 1945, the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) began to acquire property that the NationalCapital Park and Planning Commission designated for redevelopment. It was further cementedin the 1954 case of 
Berman v. Parker 
when
 
the Supreme Court upheld eminent domain and the
right of the RLA to “condemn, in the public interest, land occupied by ‘miserable anddisreputable housing.’”
This process resulted in the demolition of 4,800 structures and thedisplacement of 23,000 residents and 1,500 businesses (National Capital PlanningCommission, 2011). Southwest emerged from this renewal as the only cohesive collection of Great Society (or Brutalist, depending on your architectural predispositions) Architecture inWashington DC.
 

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