It is not an exaggeration to characterize the District of Columbia and the greater Washington region as a cosmopolitan, world-class capital. Yet when I first moved here from Boston in 1967, such a characterization would have been, well, laughable.
Fifty years ago, many viewed modestly sized Washington as a sedate, straight-laced, Southern-flavored city. Its inhabitants were believed to be government bureaucrats. Only by living and working in Washington for more than a half-century have I experienced and borne witness to the city’s radically transformative evolution from company town to big city.
Among the most telling evidence of such change are real estate values.
In 1968, my wife and I paid $110 per month for a one-bedroom apartment two blocks west of Dupont Circle. In 1970, houses for sale in Cleveland Park and Capitol Hill were priced at $45,000, and we wondered whether we could ever afford to buy one.
In 1971, as a neophyte architect and developer, I designed and built six new houses in the Palisades-Kent neighborhood. Land and construction costs totaled $60,000 for each house, which then was sold for $75,000. The market value of each house today exceeds a million dollars.
In increasingly desirable locations, many new, one-bedroom apartments today rent for more than $2,000 per month, while some one-bedroom condos sell for a half-million dollars. In Maryland and Virginia subdivisions, houses once marketed for $70,000 are today appraised at $700,000.
In addition to tens of millions of square feet of new commercial and residential real estate, many other indicators point to the transformation: increased economic diversity and nongovernment employment; dramatic personal and household income growth; rising demographic and ethnic diversification; and an extensive expansion of tourism and the hospitality industry.
Fifty years ago, you could count the number of really good restaurants on one hand. Now, hundreds of quite respectable restaurants, bistros and cafes are situated throughout the city and region, many offering memorable, food-critic-worthy cuisine.
The advent of the subway system in the 1970s and its subsequent expansion have been a primary catalyst in Washington’s cosmopolitan transformation. Metro has not significantly eased traffic congestion, but it has spurred billions of dollars in new public and private investment in transit-oriented, multiuse, environmentally sustainable real estate development.
And how many large cities are served by three international airports? The ability to fly nonstop to destinations throughout the Western Hemisphere and around the globe is yet another attribute justifying characterization of Washington as a world-class, cosmopolitan city.
Revitalization of strategically located real estate near the Anacostia and Potomac rivers has contributed significantly to making Greater Washington more cosmopolitan. Waterfronts in Alexandria, Prince George’s County and the District — Georgetown, Southeast and Southwest — have injected new life into the cityscape. All of these have become animated destinations for locals and tourists.
Another factor contributing to Greater Washington’s cosmopolitan status is the many outstanding universities in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, as well as the numerous Washington-based research institutions. Each year, tens of thousands of undergraduates, graduate students and scholars descend on this region from all over the nation and the world to study, earn degrees or conduct research. Having a substantial, annual population bump attributable to higher education and research boosts urban vitality as well as economic activity.
The transformation into a cosmopolitan, world-class city can create challenges for less-affluent residents, however. Sharply increasing real estate values mean many low- and moderate-income households cannot afford the city’s market-rate housing. Neighborhood gentrification can set in as rising demand and occupancy by more affluent owners and renters drives up housing costs, making it less affordable for longtime residents.
Beyond housing, low-income residents are less able to afford the basic costs of city living: transportation, health care and groceries. For them, most cultural, culinary and recreational benefits of inhabiting a cosmopolitan city are beyond reach.
These challenges exist in every city and are not unique to Washington. But shouldn’t America’s capital become known as a cosmopolitan city effectively addressing this persistent, socioeconomic shortcoming?
Making affordable housing available requires subsidies to cover the difference between a dwelling’s fair-market value and what low-income households can afford to pay. Because the private sector can provide only a fraction of the needed subsidies, the public sector must be the primary source. But increasing low-income housing availability remains a low-priority public policy and fiscal goal.
Until we taxpayers are willing to reorder our priorities, this problem will not be solved, no matter how cosmopolitan Washington becomes.
Roger K. Lewis is a retired practicing architect and a University of Maryland professor emeritus of architecture.