Housing Complex

Not in My Condo’s Backyard!

Downtown D.C. Turns Becomes a Real Neighborhood, Complete With NIMBYs

There's a There There: Jo-Ann Neuhaus watched downtown D.C. grow. (Darrow Montgomery)

Folks who live in the District’s residential neighborhoods have a strong sense of entitlement to quiet, to parking, to darkness at night—all the things that come with the kind of house where you can have a driveway and a picket fence.

Living downtown is supposed to be different. This is the District’s public zone, after all, full of tourists and revelers. Aren’t noise and flashing lights what you sign up for when you rent an apartment or buy a condo in Gallery Place? The question practically asks itself: “I mean really, what did you expect?”

But downtown D.C. is still D.C., as Monumental Sports and Entertainment found out this past month. The company, which owns and operates the Verizon Center and its three pro sports tenants, wanted to add nine digital displays to the side of the building, advertising everything from iPods to insurance. All it would take is a tweak to D.C.’s special sign law, which Monumental argued would be a win-win for the city: $8 to $9 million in tax revenue over four years, plus a glitzier and more glamorous Gallery Place that would draw revelers at night.

“If you go to Times Square, people come there to see the signs,” said Randall Boe, Monumental’s general counsel, at a recent meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2C. “Tourists come, and that helps build the neighborhood.”

Times Square might not have been the right image to evoke when pitching a change to a neighborhood that’s increasingly full of people who just want a good night’s sleep. Census figures show more growth downtown, percentage-wise, than any place in the city: The core almost doubled in size, going from 4,900 people in 2000 to 8,500 in 2010. Although the condo association nearest to the Verizon Center approved the signs, residents from surrounding blocks quickly took issue with covering the arena with flashing lights.

“I don’t think any of the other residents who moved in here thought, ‘I want to see big billboards,’” says Downtown Neighborhood Association president Nanette Paris, who says she could see the lights from her apartment at 8th and E streets NW when the Gallery Place movie theater first opened. And she doubts that the kind of people coming in will benefit the neighborhood much either, like residents do by patronizing high-end restaurants (though, of course, plenty of non-residents come to her neighborhood from elsewhere to go to the high-end restaurants, too). “What are those people going to do, stand around and gawk at the signs?” she asks. “Are those the people who are going to Proof, to Rasika?”

The problem, Paris says, is that in its rush to foster an entertainment zone downtown, the city sometimes forgets that residents create jobs and pay taxes too—and there are now enough of them to look out for their own interests.

If the city’s priorities for Gallery Place conflict with those of residents, officials should have been able to see problems coming—mostly because the city caused them. Over the past two decades, the District government has worked hard to bring about the residential community that’s now asserting its rights.

It wasn’t easy. At first, starting in the 1980s, the federally-chartered Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation sold off land on the condition that developers use it to build housing. One of the first completed projects was the Lansburgh, a 400-unit apartment building (named for the department store that used to operate there) between 7th and 8th streets. Kevin Wilsey, who’s managed the building for the last 15 years, says it was a tough sell: Apartments didn’t rent, and they had to lower rates until they did. Wilsey himself had to move there from Arlington, which didn’t please his wife. I ask him what she was afraid of.

“I think nothingness,” Wilsey replies, laughing. And the city wasn’t doing much to help by fostering a club district along F Street. “You can’t set up a 5,000 seat nightclub next to a residential building; it just doesn’t work,” he says. (In fact, the 9:30 Club used to be right around the corner; it closed and moved to V Street about when the condos came.)

There were a few turning points. The privately-built MCI Center (now named Verizon) opened in 1997, drawing people downtown at night. Special zoning in the area took effect in 2000, giving housing developers the right to build more densely than usually allowed. Then-Mayor Anthony Williams even handed out tax abatements for residential development.

It worked. By the mid-2000s, condos were selling out, as the national real estate boom came to the District’s newest neighborhood. Jo-Ann Neuhaus, who had worked for the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation and is now executive director of the 23-year-old Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association, says she saw her annual holiday party swell from a small affair in the Navy Memorial to a full-blown gala in the National Building Museum. Residents don’t have the same feeling of abandonment as when there were only a few hundred of them scattered between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts avenues.

It’s taken the city a while to realize that downtown isn’t just a sterile office district, though. Until recently, Wilsey says, it would permit construction to start at 9:00 p.m., figuring that nobody would be around to hear it.

Who are all these new residents, and what do they want?

First of all, they’re wealthy. While early on it was possible to buy condos in the $100,000 to $200,000 range—“These weren’t people who were buying in the Watergate,” says Neuhaus of that misty past—the average cost is now $535 per square foot, which comes out north of half a million for the smallest of units. The city didn’t prioritize affordable housing downtown, figuring its subsidies would go further in cheaper neighborhoods. And since all the apartment buildings became residential after rent control went into effect, all of them are market rate. That means rents of $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom in some buildings. According to surveys conducted by the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District in winter 2011, a plurality of household incomes—35 percent—fall between $150,000 and $300,000 per year.

Downtowners are also childless. The BID’s data show 94 percent of respondents don’t have kids, which means there’s not much demand for things like playgrounds in the small parks nearby, which would be difficult to set up anyway.

All of that adds up to an awful lot of disposable income in the neighborhood. But in an area that’s a shopping and entertainment destination for the whole city, retail doesn’t really match the local demographics. Mid-market stores like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 are doing well, but TJ Maxx is moving into the Homer Building on 13th Street*—not the higher-end Nordstrom, which downtown residents ranked number two out of a list of stores they’d like to see in their neighborhood (number one was Target). Residents only got a grocery store in 2008, the CityVista Safeway at 5th and L streets—a planned Balducci’s on 7th Street fell through during the economic collapse—but now 67 percent of residents say they shop for grocery items in the area (up from 10 percent in 2007). Downtown isn’t quite dense enough for retailers to make money just by catering to local residents; offices still abound, driving rents up, so stores have to serve broader audiences.

Neuhaus and Paris are downtowners by nature. Both spent long periods of time in Manhattan (to Neuhaus growing up, “the only house in the city that had a lawn was Gracie Mansion”). So they say they appreciate the urban lifestyle. But while downtown has been growing, it’s still a different kind of community than the surrounding neighborhoods. Wilsey’s building has very high turnover; he says many residents came to work at the Department of Justice or Federal Bureau of Investigation, and might take another job in a few years. As much as those folks might patronize local restaurants and businesses, they don’t tend to get involved in local politics (which, from the Verizon Center’s perspective, isn’t a bad thing at all).

That transient constituency isn’t going away, and unlike other cities where buildings aren’t capped by height limits, it won’t be diluted by other kinds of residents, either. The last big piece of downtown is getting built right now: CityCenterDC, which will have 674 condos and apartments total. Only 150 units are in the pipeline after that, compared to 5,444 in NoMa and 4,624 in Capitol Riverfront, by the baseball stadium.

So it looks like downtown is pretty much as big as it’s going to get. And it looks like it’s finally grown up enough to ask for what it wants.

* Corrected from an earlier version; Filene's Basement is leaving the National Press Building, but a replacement hasn't yet been announced.

Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • Not to Nitpick but…

    The TJ Maxx is not going into the soon to be former Filene's Basement space @ 14th and F. Actually it is moving into the one time Ritz Camera space (1500 sf at street level and an additional 28,000 sf of former storage space below grade) at the Homer Building in the 1200 block of F Street. It is highly likely that Nordstrom Rack will take Filene's -- we'll see.

  • Lydia DePillis

    Goodness, you're right, thanks for the correction.

  • Jason

    I visited a friend who lived on the 2nd or 3rd floor of the apartment across the street from the P Street Whole Foods. The big Green sign was always visible with his blinds open. Both he and I thought that was very unique and sort of an urban amenity. And personally my dream view would not be of the Washington Monument - it would be of the Studio Theater. So these people who bellyache about neon do not represent all residents. They are primarily retirees with too much time on their hands and lawyers with enormous senses of entitlement. Nanette complained of light pollution from a sign at 7th & G for her condo at 8th & E? Gimmie an effing break!

  • John Dollop

    Do they even edit Lydia anymore at citypaper? I think she has good material but it just doesn't pop. I have to struggle through her work- get her an editor!

  • Sarah

    94% of the people living downtown are childless? I don't know what year that data is from, it would be great if you could quote your information.

  • brightwood35

    People need to use some common sense. Why would someone think they could live a nice quiet life next door to a SPORTS ARENA!!!!! If the locals don't like the lights and the noise then they should just move to a more residential area...

  • anon

    Maybe the current resident think it dillutes the value of their significant investment. Would THEY have purchased units for $584/sqft flooded by Times Square-esque lights and noise? No? Case closed.

    The sports arena next door argument makes absolutely no sense. It's not like the crowd noise or event noise is audile outside the arena. This wasn't something they'd bargained for.

  • Russ

    I have lived in Penn Quarter for five years, and I am for the new signs at Gallery Place.

  • http://DCQuilter Christine Demick

    I see no reason for additional signs on the Verizon Center. We are not Times Square. Let's not trash up what we have.

    This is a mixed-use neighborhood - residential as well as commercial and we need to co-exist.

    Does anyone recall what downtown looked like 10-15 years ago and this neighborhood in particular? Do you remember the peep shows, the hookers, etc.? The rest of downtown was "inhabited" by individuals who lived in the suburbs and only worked downtown. Companies, residents, museums, and even the Verizon Center have helped create this vibrant neighborhood. Don't trash it up - we can co-exist in a community that caters to everyone but can manage to keep some beauty and class.

  • http://www.DowntownDCKids.org Danielle

    Please do not so cavalierly write off Downtown DC's need for a playground. There are a growing number of families downtown. Most of the available data is from a few years ago, and the number of children that have been born into the neighborhood since that data was collected is staggering, and many of those families are planning to stay. Many believe, like myself, that there is no better place to raise children than Downtown DC. These children, however, need a playground, as do the tourist children whose parents infuse money into this area, as do the children who go to the playground-less elementary school downtown, as do the hundreds of children that are walked around the city aimlessly every day as they have no place to go during the legally mandated outdoor time.

    The need and demand for a Downtown DC Playground is quite strong and should not be ignored. The Downtown DC Playground Group has been working very diligently with various downtown groups, the Washington Interfaith Network, Kaboom, the DC/Baltimore Play Initiative, the city, the National Park Service and many others to address that need. You are correct that creating such a space in the downtown area is a difficult endevour, but there is great demand, and great effort is being put into realizing that goal.

  • Sarah

    Downtown DC families not only need playgrounds but they (and singles and DINKs) also need a library. As DC debates the future of the "central" MLK library, remember that the big change in the last 15 years is that MLK also serves a role as the "branch" for the downtown neighborhood.

  • Christy

    My husband and I moved downtown from Capitol Hill a year ago and we LOVE it! We're in our 40s, don't have kids, and wanted to be closer to good restaurants, retail, and entertainment to spend more of our disposable income (smaile!). And we walk to work now! You can get some of that on Cap Hill but it's different - more geared to families with children. If folks want a more family-friendly, quiet neighborhood, they can move to Cap Hill, which is still pretty close to the action. But if you live in the Penn Quarter, you have to accept the hustle and bustle -- and bright lights -- of the urban environment. That's exactly why we chose to live downtown. We live just one block from the Verizon Center and haven't been bothered by noise or lights at all. The only thing that's missing for me is some sort of gourmet grocery or specialty food store. This is the only thing I miss about Cap Hill (Eastern Market).

  • ceefer66

    Don't these people realize they live in the downtown area of a large city? Let's use some common sense here. People who want homogeny and bucolic quiet move to places where that's the norm.

    It's silly, picky NIMBYism like that displayed by those folks that's keeping DC a second-tier city.

  • OnlyMe

    As far as family friendly I would have to agree with Christy that there is a big difference between Penn Quarter and Capital Hill, or even Mount Vernon Triangle. The highest concentration of residential downtown is on the fringes along Mass Avenue, not in the heart of Downtown and given all the demands and possible uses of space, a kaboom type playground seems like a luxury use of public space.

    Rooftops, with buildings that want to cater to kids seems like a possible solution. When I lived in Philly, my school playground was on the roof. If NPS would ever do more with their spaces, the ice skating in the sculpture garden, could be complemented with a carousel or other entertainment/attraction. I see kids playing in Franklin Square sometimes, but reality is downtown is an adult playground. The one place I could see a playground at ground level is in the open space around the Library or on the national mall.

  • WhyNot

    I hate the special sign law that allowed all the huge cloth banners that hang from buildings obscuring the architecture with tacky static ads. See them all here:


    Unless they have changed the formula, all the city gets is the permit fee, no revenue share on any of them. This was a backroom deal of the worst kind.

    This does not sound like the case here, where there would be and extra 6-9 million over four years. I would be negotiating a community benefit agreement for a portion of revenue to specifically provide for amenities for residents downtown, balancing the benefits for everyone.

  • Urbaniste

    Some facts that present a different picture of the neighborhood and those living and working in it than the article's author presented.

    First, the 9:30 Club was never a problem and those who were in Penn Quarter when it was here would not have referred to it as a nightclub in the same breath as they would Platinum, VIP, The Ritz, Insomnia, Babylon, or Element. Thus, its mention as an example of what the residents saw as a problem is misleading at best.

    There is a real difference between urban nightlife as part of an animated environment that the many theaters, two cinemas, and restaurants provide and the issues that Penn Quarter’s residents had with several nightclubs that were regularly cited by MPD.

    Second, Bears Stern, which owned Balducci's, decided three times while the economy was booming, not to place a Balducci's store in the Clara Barton. These decisions were made years before the economic downturn and years afer the mid-1990s recession. It was Bears Stern that failed when the economy tanked; Balducci's was sold.

    Third, it was over 20 years ago when the first residential building in what was a tawdry part of town sold very small efficiencies for just under $100,000. What the area was like at the time and the fact that this was the first residential building in the area with units for sale definitely helped to determine the price at which units would sell. Many of the surrounding buildings were run down with artist studios tucked away on the upper floors, a couple of new restaurants would be opening, and a few new office buildings were not too far away. The Shakespeare Theatre, Jaleo, and 701 Restaurant were going to be pioneers along with the residents. Market Square was one of three initial residential buildings in an area that had no housing built for close to 100 years. Comparing the prices then to today's prices is absurd; the neighborhood has changed dramatically and we have had incredible inflation along with skyrocketing real estate prices. The only fair way to compare prices is to adjust the prices for inflation.

    Further, efficiencies in Penn Quarter don't sell for half a million dollars and neither do typical one-bedroom units that have not been combined with adjoining units. Comparing initial sales prices with today's sales prices without taking into account either inflation or the square feet of the units sold results in a distorted conclusion from which false inferences are made.

    There are several other errors of fact but details will only bore so briefly:

    “And since all the apartment buildings became residential after rent control went into effect, all of them are market rate.”

    Virtually all new residential buildings became condominium regimes after the rent control laws went into effect regardless of whether they become rental apartments or are sold immediately as condominiums. The rent control law had nothing to do with the need to build market rate housing.

    The reason that the residences downtown are market rate is that the land costs and construction requirements made residential in the C-4 zone economically viable only if the residential footprint was given no value or valued for residential not commercial use. Below market rate housing would have been totally infeasible without heavy, non-existent subsidies.

    "Residents don’t have the same feeling of abandonment as when there were only a few hundred of them scattered between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts avenues."

    I am not sure where this sentiment came from but it was not based on having only a few hundred scattered residents. The first new housing built in the planned mixed-use Penn Quarter resulted in 645 units completed in 1990 and 1991. They housed approximately 1,000 residents who were not scattered between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts avenues, but concentrated on four blocks along and just off Pennsylvania Avenue between 6th and 9th streets.

    Many of these early residents have made Penn Quarter home for over 20 years. Some commentators must not know the history of the neighborhood if they are telling these residents to move out if they don't like what may come to pass vis-a-vis signage for the Verizon Center. Or they commentators don't care if an apartment or an office building is worth less after signage is approved than it was before the signage went on the Verizon Center. What if over time the signage becomes tacky or the content is offensive, given there are no restrictions on size, location, media content, or on placement and integration with the building's architecture. Why should the neighborhood's residential, business, and cultural pioneers be told to leave their homes and community, and the proponents not be told to modify the legislation and include standards? And why did the article not attempt to see if this was even underway? That might have cooled a lot of heels!

    Those who live, work, and have businesses in Penn Quarter have worked together for twenty years to create a vibrant community; they want to continue this trend.

  • Lydia DePillis


    As I mentioned in the article, the 94% figure is from an online survey conducted by the Downtown BID in early 2011. Their previous surveys, which involved paper responses, returned a similar result.


    Thankyou for the additional background. You truly are the neighborhood's bedrock of institutional knowledge.

    I don't believe, however, that the article is as misleading as you make it out to be. While the inclusion of some facts may not have squared exactly with your experience--which isn't entirely that of a very long-term downtown resident, since didn't you tell me you moved there in 1995?--they are based on interviews and statistics.

    I'll go point by point:

    The 9:30 Club was mentioned as an example of an institution many people would recognize. It may not have been a source of problems, but it was part of an entertainment scene that pretty much doesn't exist anymore downtown.

    According to news reports I've read, it does look like Balducci's went back and forth on opening a store for several years, but final news of the deal's death came in 2009: http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/stories/2009/01/05/daily81.html

    I'm not sure what you're trying to say next. That absolute prices for homes downtown haven't risen over the years? Sure, many factors accounted for the fact that units may have been accessible to middle-class people then and largely aren't now, but on a per square foot basis, the cost of housing is higher downtown than pretty much anywhere in the city except for the neighborhoods directly north. (In a Zillow search for Penn Quarter's zip code, the cheapest condo for sale is $350,000 for 660 square feet--the price of a full house in many neighborhoods). The cost of housing all around the city has risen dramatically over the past decade because of the increased desirability of living here; downtown is no different.

    As for market rate housing, I explicitly said that because of land costs, the city didn't do much to incentivize affordable rentals downtown. If the buildings had been apartments before 1975, however, they would have been subject to rent control.

    On the feeling of abandonment: People may have been clustered in buildings that had their own sense of togetherness, but part of that is a feeling of being somewhat cut off from the rest of the city. "You feel like a pioneer," you told me. "It’s a much greater sense of community.” I think you're inferring something different from what I wrote.

    I do understand that changes may be underway to the proposed signage. But is that not evidence of a neighborhood that now has enough residents to really advocate for their priorities? Obviously it didn't happen just this year; a previous signage effort was fought off last year as well. It's hard to dispute, though, that 9,000 residents is a lot different from 1,000 residents when it comes to making the city realize that their needs should be recognized as well.

    If you believe the story has any other errors, I'd love to hear what they are, because I take accuracy very seriously. Thanks again for your comments.

  • Danielle

    I believe that you meant to respond to me, and I just want to take issue with two statements: "downtowners are childless" and "there's not much demand for things like playgrounds." Regardless of the results of an online survey, neither of these statements are true.

  • http://DCQuilter Christine Demick

    A viable neighborhood is all inclusive - singles, families, businesses, culture and in this case the Verizon Center. It also includes greenspace which is lacking in this area. I certainly hope that City Centre will have some greenspace.

    I don't believe the Verizon Centre is a bad neighbor and it helps bring all those suburbanites and their big SUVs into the city to add ti the income of the city as well as local establishments. However, neon signs are an eyesore and the Verizon Centre already has enough. The amount of money they claim the city will gain through this advertising adventure is piddly in comparison to the awful visual impact it will have on the surrounding area.

    We don't need a Times Square or a Las Vegas strip in our neighborhood.

  • red

    I was at Verizon Center on Monday, and the screens that they ALREADY have seemed like more than enough. I also noticed that those screens had lots of burned out pixels/sections - will the proposed signage be managed as poorly as the current signage?

  • PQ Dweller

    One of the most obnoxious neon signs in the neighborhood is the glaring pink "Balls" sign hanging above the new Meatballs restaurant on E Street between 6th and 7th. This is the type of sign that neighborhood residents need to collectively protest and oppose -- one that shines directly into existing residences in the Clara Barton condo in violation of building covenants. The sign epitomizes the type of disrespectful neighbor Penn Quarter does not need.

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