The National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Often in 2016, D.C. felt like a city set against physical change. Adams Morgan residents spent months opposing redevelopment of the SunTrust bank branch and plaza at Columbia Road and 18th Street NW in hopes of preserving the “spirit” of the bleak existing plaza. Since the spring, people across the city (but especially those in Wards 3 and 5) have fought against planned shelters for homeless families. The forces of “no” pulled off their final coup on Dec. 8, when the D.C. Court of Appeals delayed the plan to transform the McMillan sand filtration site into a mix of housing, stores, and parkland, thanks to a suit filed by activists.

But the truth is that we (and the local and federal governments) actually say yes to new buildings a lot of the time. This year brought a bumper crop of new architecture to D.C., much of it excellent. Here are five ways the city leaves 2016 better looking and more confident than before. 

The Mall got a museum for the ages. 

Without question, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) wins D.C.’s building of the year. The Modernist ziggurat is nestled beside the Washington Monument as if it’s always been there—and this in a city known for its wariness of contemporary architecture. 

Architects David Adjaye and Phil Freelon came up with a simple concept—a “corona,” or crown, of dark, glinting tiers—and kept it intact through many rounds of reviews and inevitable tweaks. Although the interior shows signs of cost-cutting, the power of the museum’s overall design is clearly a big part of its runaway popularity. 

In other good news, the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing by I.M. Pei got a deft $69-million renovation.  

We have more schools and libraries to be proud of.

Any city that cares about civic life should have high-quality school and library buildings, and D.C. does not disappoint. The 84-year-old Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School in Petworth reopened to be super-green, meeting LEED Platinum standards. Perkins Eastman architects completed the much-awaited renovation. Meanwhile, the city’s library system continues to roll out first-rate facilities. This year, it was the bright and exuberant Woodridge Library on Rhode Island Avenue and Hamlin Street NE. Tragically, its designer, Canadian architect Bing Thom (also responsible for the swooping Arena Stage), died soon after its opening. 

Our restaurants serve up design as exciting as the cuisine.

Locals know D.C. deserves its recent accolades from Michelin and Bon Appetit, despite the owner of a forthcoming restaurant in Donald Trump’s hotel asserting the food scene here is so bad he’ll have no competition. If anything has lagged in the profusion of imaginative dining options, it has been interior restaurant design—but no longer. 

Architects Brian Miller and Lauren Winter of Edit Lab, a studio within the larger Bethesda firm Streetsense, brought their knack for the perfect, space-defining detail to a number of 2016’s hottest new restaurants, like All Purpose in Shaw and Whaley’s in Navy Yard. And Haikan, which opened in Shaw in August, is an homage to Japan’s futuristic Metabolist school of architecture, with a show-stopper ceiling of deep, triangular coffers. 

Miller and Winter aren’t the only ones whose interiors please the eye as well as the palate. Credit is due to other local firms, especially CORE and HapstakDemetriou+, for pushing D.C. diners out of their banquettes-and-white-tablecloths comfort zone. 

We’re solving our memorial problem (maybe). 

After a years-long impasse, the Eisenhower family and architect Frank Gehry declared a truce this fall, and the memorial park to Ike on Independence Avenue may finally get built. Its revised design skimps on the experimental feature that riled family members and traditionalists—huge woven-metal tapestries—and offers up more conventional sculptures instead. This approach is not so different from that of the future World War I Memorial (design unveiled in January), suggesting that a polite blend of traditional and modern elements is the formula everyone can agree on. 

D.C.’s bigger problem with memorials, however, is that there is simply not enough space near the Mall to accommodate all the groups clamoring for it. So the Memorials for the Future competition held last summer was refreshing and timely. This thought exercise for innovative forms of memorials—sponsored by the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the Van Alen Institute—surfaced good ideas that require little to no physical space, such as audio memorials people could listen to on a walk around the city. 

Alas, there’s no funding to create the haunting winning concept, “Climate Chronograph,” which would visualize climate change through a grove of cherry trees off Hains Point, subsumed row-by-row by rising waters.

Our zoning caught up with the 21st century.  

No, zoning isn’t glamorous, but it guides every decision made about architecture and urban design in a city, and until September, the District’s regs were stuck in the past. The new, thorough update of the zoning code is the first since 1958. It nixes parking requirements for buildings downtown (hooray!), allows for corner stores in more rowhouse areas, and makes it easier for homeowners to build accessory apartments on their property. While not dramatic, these changes will allow for new housing in a city strapped for it and should enrich the urban fabric block by block. 

Who knows: Maybe there will be a flowering of progressive, small-scale architecture as people in less dense parts of the District build backyard cottages. That would be a nice statement of D.C. values when a developer of blingy, grandiose buildings is in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  

One of our smallest landmarks moved out of harm’s way. 

Built in 1876, the former Adas Israel synagogue—Washington’s oldest, and a diminutive 4,000 square feet—stood at Third and G Streets NW in the path of the massive Capital Crossing development above I-395. In November, workers carefully hoisted the brick structure onto dollies and wheeled it 40 feet to the west, where it will sit for a couple of years. Then it will move again, to become the centerpiece of a new museum for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington at Third and F. (The synagogue actually moved once before, back in 1969, to make way for WMATA’s headquarters.) 

If you still need inspiration to face 2017, think of this resilient little building and the people who care enough about it to keep saving it, time and again.