New neighborhoods like NoMa in Washington inspire a sense of deja vu. On the one hand, the street names remain largely the same, and the walk between Union Station and Union Market hasn’t changed all that much. On the other hand, if you were transported from 2003 to today, you would hardly recognize the developments around you today.
It’s become almost normal in Washington to see new neighborhoods spring out of nowhere, but in the early aughts, when the area around the former Uline Arena was nothing but warehouses, it took a strong vision and an innovative approach to funding neighborhood improvements to turn NoMa into the vibrant forest of shiny mixed-use developments that it has become.
This all started with an infill station on the Red Line mandated by the Capital Revitalization Act of 1997. Funding was secured for the station through a public-private partnership that included money from the federal and municipal government, as well as land donations and special assessment revenue collected from local property owners. With the arrival of the station, more and more tenants started looking to replace the empty warehouses and parking structures that dotted the 35-block area.
NoMa is one of many communities in recent years to create a Business Improvement Districts, known as a BID, to quickly change the character of a neighborhood. BIDs were created in the 1970s as a way for business owners to take basic maintenance of their neighborhood into their own hands, in an era in which cities were largely abandoning that responsibility. By essentially leveraging taxes on themselves, they were able to pay for things like trash pickup, road maintenance, and other basic functions that improved their quality of life.
Today, BIDs do much more than that. In NoMa, a special assessment on property owners within the area is helping fund everything from bike lanes to movie nights to public green spaces which, BID leaders realized, were in danger of being completely wiped out by the incredible speed of construction projects taking place in the area.
Of course, the heart of this development is the NoMa/Gallaudet Metro Station, accessible by the Red Line. The promise of an easy commute led to federal agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and NPR and private organizations like CNN and the American Psychological Association taking up residence in the neighborhood.
Because the initial investment in transportation included improvements to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which runs through the neighborhood, interest in more bike lanes soon followed. The prioritization of alternative modes of transportation not only encouraged car-less commutes, but eventually led to a high demand from people looking to move into and live in the neighborhood as well. This has led to a gradual readjustment of priorities as a growing percentage of new projects become residential and new businesses, such as laundromats, spring up to serve those residents. The addition of anchors like Harris Teeter and Angelika Theatre filled those needs as well, and made the area more livable. As it turns out, creating a balanced community with modern transportation options attracts exactly the kind of mixed-use interest that many communities are hoping for today.
NoMa is currently about 50% built out, so BID planners are taking a critical eye to their jurisdiction in order to plan for the needs of the community in the future. Their 2021 Strategic Plan calls for almost 12,000 new residential units and about 22 million new square feet of office space. They are also planning new public art installations and working with the NoMa Parks Foundation and the DC government to determine new sites for parks within the area.
Things change fast in a community where vacant lots are ripe for development, and many long-time residents are finding their land skyrocket in value. As the BID continues to bring in new offices, apartments, and retail space, it could be that in another fifteen years, the NoMa neighborhood will inspire even more double takes than it already does today.