Last year, I stood with Doug Jemal on a portion of a derelict lot on New York Avenue NE that he was planning to turn into a major commercial and retail development. The site of the former Hecht Company distribution center—-which Jemal, Douglas Development’s founder and president, has since decided to turn into residences instead of offices—-didn’t look like much at the time, but Jemal had grand visions for what it would do to the poor, industrial surrounding neighborhood.
“This could be the Meatpacking District,” Jemal told me, eight months before breaking ground on the project. “This could be the coolest part of town.” Then he turned and gestured at the city-owned parking lot full of garbage trucks across the street. “But this,” he said, “is a mistake.”
Residents of the stretch of Ward 5 along New York Avenue have complained that the city has used their neighborhoods as a dumping ground for facilities that other parts of town don’t want. But with increased demand and development coming to the area, new and more desirable buildings and businesses are starting to emerge. For residents, that’s great news; for the city, which is quickly losing its remaining industrial land, it’s a mixed bag.
At New Columbia Distillers on Fenwick Street NE, D.C.’s first distillery and a prime example of the new uses taking over old industrial spaces, Mayor Vince Gray and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie unveiled a plan today for managing the future of Ward 5’s industrial spaces. The five-year strategy, titled Ward 5 Works, was produced by a task force consisting of McDuffie, former Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, former Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor Hoskins, and a dozen other government officials and Ward 5 residents. Its proposals reflect a need to walk the fine line between satisfying neighbors’ concerns and preserving space for industrial functions.
On the one hand, Ward 5 is home to half of the District’s industrial land. While such space comprises less than 5 percent of the city’s total land, it makes up 15 percent of Ward 5. There are 1,030 acres of industrially zoned land in the ward with 508 active industrial businesses, employing more than 10,000 people in industries like wholesale trade, transportation, and construction. D.C. has lost a quarter of its industrially zoned land since 1975, and industrial space has grown more expensive: It now rents for an average of $10.35, versus $9.31 in the D.C. suburbs.
The task force report aims to slow these trends. Among the proposals are the creation of an “Industrial Advocate” position to promote industrial uses, perhaps under the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and a revision to the zoning code to make it harder for developers and businesses to use industrial land for “higher value uses” like hotels, educational institutions, and self-storage facilities.
Of course, most neighbors would consider these uses preferable to, say, garbage-truck lots. And so the strategy also seeks to reduce nuisances to residents—-for example, by installing sound barriers along a waste transfer station and consolidating public-works uses on West Virginia Avenue in a new facility—-and encourage more desirable industries, like food and drink production, arts spaces, and small-scale manufacturing.
McDuffie, whose 2012 legislation spurred the creation of the Ward 5 Industrial Land Transformation Task Force last year, says the report represents a more proactive approach to the problematic industrial uses that have long bothered neighbors. “We have to take all those years of no’s and turn it into something we actually do want,” he said at today’s ceremony.
There are plenty of hurdles to transforming Ward 5’s industrial areas into places that both appeal to neighbors and maintain D.C.’s industrial production. Nearly half of the industrial land in the ward is owned by the federal government, Amtrak, or the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, so the city has little control over that. And while portions of the industrial land straddle Metro’s Red Line, most of it is concentrated along New York Avenue, which despite adjacent railroad tracks has poor transit connections and walkability.
The report suggests a couple of fixes, including new bike lanes and sidewalks, as well as streetcar lines along both Rhode Island Avenue NE, as proposed in the city’s long-term streetcar plan, and Bladensburg Road NE, as a spur off the H Street line. It also proposes allowing more hotel and commercial uses along New York Avenue to create a “gateway district” and promoting the “Ward 5 Works” brand through publications and signage to “improve the Ward’s image.”
Here, from the report, are the task force’s visions of how two Ward 5 corridors could be transformed to become more engaging and pedestrian- and bike-friendly.
New York Avenue (with the Hecht property on the right):
West Virginia Avenue:
Additional reporting by Will Sommer
Images from the report