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Washington DC: Lessons about Failed Urban Renewal

12/29/2014

Before the 1950s, it was common to see businesses owned and operated by African Americans to be thriving. However, as members of the Federal government along with Caucasian business owners starting pushing their way in around 1952, many of the neighborhoods were cleared for new development in the downtown area.

To design, monitor, and finish the redevelopment of the Southwest area of DC, under the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act of 1950 the Redevelopment Land Agency and National Capital Planning Commission was established by the Federal government. As part of this urban renewal project were major concerns regarding downtown congestion coupled with dilapidated buildings and slum type conditions.

During the New Deal and WWII, the Federal government’s major expansion created pressure for residential space to be freed up to make room for employees of the Federal government who worked downtown jobs. In addition to this, there was a stipulation under Title 1 of the National Housing Act of 1948 whereby funds for renovating blighted areas to include slum neighbors, as well as uninhabitable and unsafe buildings would not be made available.

In 1958, the acts received judicial support when the US Supreme Court ruled that to benefit the general public, condemnable property could be overtaken by the Federal government. As a result, many African Americans in the Southwest area of Washington DC were displaced, 4,500 families had to relocate, and roughly 99% of buildings were leveled.

The entire culture and history of those African American neighborhoods were destroyed. At the same time this was going on, critics felt the urban renewal project was nothing more than a program to remove African Americans, which lead to it being called the Negro Removal Program.

This program was similar to what happened during the 1920s and 1930s and echoed development trends in downtown development. Simply put, there were many lessons to be learned from this failed urban renewal project. With people still contrite, Washington DC has moved forward to make changes such as the refreshed waterfront.

Once a symbol of the high hopes associated with urban renewal failure is the Potomac waterfront. This area of Southwest DC has undergone tremendous redevelopment, which is expected to make this stretch along the river a more vibrant community used for multiple purposes.

This past March ground was broken in this area and construction to remake the wharf began. Being developed by PN Hoffman in conjunction with Madison Marquette, the hope is that the legacy left behind by the urban renewal project will be transformed, making this a world-class destination.

As stated by the Washingtonian, the development project comes at a cost of $1.5 billion, with the first phase scheduled for completion in 2017. The project will consist of two office buildings spanning more than 435,000 square feet, 230 condominiums, 655 rental apartments, three hotels, 20 restaurants, banks, a rum distillery, commercial shops, a concert hall, a 450-slip marina, and 1,600 underground spaces for parking.

Learning from the failed urban renewal project of the 1950s, the goal is to breathe new life into this area of DC and create tremendous equal opportunity while retaining as much authenticity possible.

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