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Small lots to parking lots to big buildings: The evolution of Mt. Vernon Square

Historic aerial photos offer a glimpse into the evolutionary history of some of DC's neighborhoods, showing decline, redevelopment, and the ever-changing urban fabric of the city.

DCist takes note of a great photo of the Mt. Vernon Square area from 1992, looking south towards the Portrait Gallery and what's now the Verizon Center:

View SE over Mount Vernon Square, 1992.

It's amazing to realize how much the area has changed over the past 15-20 years. Looking back at the historical images available from Google Earth, we can piece together the evolution of the area over the years. Google Earth's imagery isn't universally available over time, so there are some rather big gaps between some aerial sets.

North is to the left in all the images.


Mount Vernon Square - 1949 (image from Google Earth)

Note the fine grain of the urban fabric. Almost all of the buildings occupy narrow lots with zero setback from the property line. There are virtually no vacant lots. You can see the beginnings of site clearance at the top if the image for the enormous Government Accountability Office building. That structure would be dedicated in 1951.


Mount Vernon Square - 1988 (image from Google Earth)

By 1988, things had changed a great deal. Obviously, there are lots of surface parking lots. Though the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station opened in 1976 with the first operable segment of the Red line, the North-South connection along the Green-Yellow lines wasn't yet open when this picture was taken. The Mount Vernon Square, Shaw-Howard U, and U Street stations all opened in 1991, just prior to the taking of the opening photograph in this post.


Mount Vernon Square - 1999 (image from Google Earth)

In 1999, the (now) Verizon Center has been open for business for about a year and a half. Site preparation is well underway for the new convention center, but there are still some key downtown parcels vacant or occupied by surface parking.


Mount Vernon Square - 2004 (image from Google Earth)

Gallery Place is taking shape, the new convention center is done, and other vacant lots fill in. There are still some significant vacant lots to the north of Mass. Ave.


Mount Vernon Square - 2009 (image from Google Earth)

The old convention center has been removed, just about all of the once vacant lots in old downtown (the right side of this image) are filled in, and stuff to the north of Mass. Ave. is beginning to see some real development. There's a little error in image stitching between L and M streets, with the aerials to the right taking a slightly more oblique angle, showing the heights of the buildings in Old Downtown.

Watching this section of DC devolve and then redevelop shows some clear trends. The newer buildings are all much bigger than their predecessors, both in terms of heights and footprint. The fine-grained urban fabric of the 1949 image is largely gone from the downtown portions of the images, aside from a few stretches where the original facades have been retained behind newer developments or a few blocks in Chinatown, where the smaller structures remain.

The interesting thing to note is how much of downtown DC turned first to surface parking before redeveloping back into urban forms. This intermediate, destructive step hinders preserving the fine-grained urbanism. Nevertheless, the redevelopment of the area is a rousing success, showing the versatility of the traditional city grid, particularly when reinforced with urban rail transit.

Cross-posted at City Block.

Alex Block is an urban planner in Washington, DC. Alex's planning interests focus on the interactions between transportation, land use, and urban design. He also blogs at City Block and currently lives in Hill East. 


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The interesting thing to note is how much of downtown DC turned first to surface parking before redeveloping back into urban forms.

Well, there were reasons for that... like fires, riots and greed.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 23, 2009 10:16 am • linkreport

Well, yes. I guess what I was getting at is that you didn't see the same kind of evolution from finer grained urbanism directly to larger structures as you would see in New Downtown, for example.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2009 10:23 am • linkreport

I'm not so sure it would be much better in terms of design. Aesthetically, it would be much better, but we might just be facing more facadecomies with large floor plates behind.

But damn Metrotech is a load of ugly.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 23, 2009 10:38 am • linkreport

I wasn't really arguing that it would be better in terms of design. My point was that if you tear that fine-grained stuff down, you have no option to preserve it - regardless of the reasons for tearing it down in the first place.

What I like about the MVS area is that there still is some of that fine-grained urbanism left - even if it's a bunch of facadeomies.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2009 10:42 am • linkreport

There's a little error in image stitching between L and M streets
I'm not sure I'd characterize that as an error, it's just they had to stitch photography from two different dates/times in the same image. The South side of the image is the morning of the Obama Inauguration, if I'm not mistaken. (Can't you see the crisp hopefulness in the air?)

by Steve on Nov 23, 2009 10:44 am • linkreport

nice posting & good work Alex B.

by w on Nov 23, 2009 10:51 am • linkreport

A lot the 'fine grained urbanism' was little more than slums, even when the first picture was taken. While keeping some historic structures is nice, keeping a small urban grid would ultimately impede growth. As horrible as it is, the '68 riots allowed much of the rapid redevelopment, dense development we've seen over the last decade.

by ms on Nov 23, 2009 11:03 am • linkreport

Great post Alex B. I like the way the new dome on the portrait gallery looks.

This is ultimately a hopeful post; I can't envision DC ever regressing to its earlier forms. I do wish, however, that we could see a return to better parceled blocks. The stock that we've lost over the past 60 years is irreplaceable. It would be great for future development plans to be limited to no more than 1/3 of a block per developer or something to incorporate a greater diversity of structure.

by JTS on Nov 23, 2009 11:06 am • linkreport


Even if those areas were 'slums,' they'd still have a chance to revitalize via renovations and so on, as we've already seen in many other rowhouse neighborhoods across the city. Revitalization does not just mean redevelopment.

I also don't think keeping that finer grain of urbanism means impeding growth - it certainly hasn't impeded growth in other parts of downtown that weren't first leveled by riots. Kent's earlier post from 1609 K St shows that.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2009 11:12 am • linkreport

"A lot the 'fine grained urbanism' was little more than slums"

While those areas where run-down, no more so than portions of Georgetown at the time. Georgetown wasn't "cleared" because it still had some political clout (Roosevelt era folks where moving into the older homes). And the urban grid wasn't altered, it was the building stock that disapeared. That being said, cities do evolve and it's incredible how much of DC has come back.

by Thayer-D on Nov 23, 2009 11:21 am • linkreport

not all of these areas were slums

you have to remember that DC 's population peaked in 1950 and the city was still very densely populated.

The effects of WW2 had not yet worked their way out of the system and DC was probably at it's pinnacle as far as walk ability, transit[ streetcars] density, and popularity.

And F street NW was still the shopping center for the entire region..

by w on Nov 23, 2009 12:12 pm • linkreport

My grandfather periodically worked in the vicinity of 5th and K in the late 50s. He recently told me that the 5th and K side of Mt. Vernon Square was by then already ruined by blight, poverty, and crime. The blight was so bad, so he said, that the buildings were not capable of being salvaged, and that it would have been better had the neighborhood been totally burned down.

by Disgusted in DC on Nov 23, 2009 2:55 pm • linkreport

Rather than commiserating about the "tragic" loss of slums, it would be more worthwhile to focus on what caused that housing stock to literally be paved over: riots, poverty, skyrocketing crime, the exodus of middle class families, decrepit schools, and a dysfunctional government.

I'm all for oohing and aahing over photos of old DC. But a building is nothing more than a building. If its residents aren't safe or just don't give a damn, then that's far more likely to cause that building to be knocked down and paved over.

And so what if most of that area was paved over as a parking lot? It's a heck of a lot better than row after row of slumhouses. And parking lots are also a natural "breather" stage between stages of development. Keep in mind that in 1992 the county was not in great economic condition and that the DC government was a few years away from bankruptcy and a federal takeover.

by Fritz on Nov 23, 2009 5:14 pm • linkreport

Again, the designation of slum came from people who didn't know, understand, or care for the comminities they where paving over. Also, many of those areas with out adequate political clout where deemed unsalvagable for the benefit of certain realestate and business interests. There's no conspiracy here, but let's not take some beaurocrats definition of what was blight before actually asking the American Citizens who actually lived there first. I've seen the most decrepit shell of buildings brought back to life, so I know where there's a will, there's a way.

Finally, if buildings don't make a community but people do (agreed), then where to the "slum" people go when you tear down their neighborhoods? Where's the property rights guy when you need him?

by Thayer-D on Nov 24, 2009 6:59 am • linkreport

Leaving aside the politics of designating 'slums' for a minute, let's just consider the effects.

What if that old rowhouse-scale building stock had remained in place, even if dilapidated? How different would a revitalized MVS look? Parts of it weren't torn down, and you've got some beautiful old rowhouses that have been nicely restored.

by Alex B. on Nov 24, 2009 8:47 am • linkreport

Death and Life has a great section about how planners of the time were absolutely convinced that the North End of Boston was a "slum." That was just because the population density was higher than some threshold, and because people hung laundry outside, which wealthy people didn't do as much.

Even if this area was much worse than that, blight isn't a permanent condition. It's not like a tree disease that inevitably eats out the tree eventually. Lots of areas that seemed hopelessly blighted, like much of Capitol Hill, are now super upscale.

by David Alpert on Nov 24, 2009 8:48 am • linkreport

So I guess the solution is to leave slums alone and hope that in two or three generations, the neighborhood will be turned around so that we can all admire the pretty buildings.

Kinda sucks for those who will have to live in that neighborhood for several decades until the neighborhood gets better, but at least one day they will get to appreciate the pretty neighborhood they can't afford to live in anymore.

by Fritz on Nov 24, 2009 12:59 pm • linkreport

And the alternative is to tear down all the houses so that nobody can live in the neighborhood at all? How is that better for residents?

by David Alpert on Nov 24, 2009 1:11 pm • linkreport

Fritz has half a point where in situations where they built projects instead. Even though renewal committees were quick to jump to demolition and relocation, the raw financial analysis came down to: do nothing, renovate them at substantial cost, or demolish them and rebuild. To a mayor who's afraid of the moral and physical decay of a city, the third option is more appealing, especially when planners are pushing slum clearance as a way of saving the world.

Problem was, they built those buildings on the cheap and they were ugly and anti-urban. Now they're being demolished as well. Oh and they also ripped apart functioning communities. Oops.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 24, 2009 1:50 pm • linkreport

@David: Sometimes a neighborhood is so far gone that the easiest option is to, literally, blow it up and start over again.

Other times, a government will just ignore a slum b/c the degraded housing stock provides some affordable housing, and although it generally comes with an increase in crime, so long as the crime is limited to the slums area, everyone just goes along with it.

And other times, an area will be highly desirable, fall into bad condition, and then be resurrected.

Bottom line: It's the people living in the buildings and in the neighborhoods that matter more than the buildings that look pretty in a photograph or on a satellite photo.

by Fritz on Nov 24, 2009 4:58 pm • linkreport

Fritz, You're of course correct that 'It's the people living in the buildings and in the neighborhoods that matter more than the buildings that look pretty in a photograph or on a satellite photo." BUT, as I remember reading somewhere, 'It may be man that initially makes a city, but in the end it's the city that makes man.' I.e., our surroundings influence us profoundly. That is why when people are concerned about saving buildings and neighborhoods, it is not per se the buildings and neighborhoods they are concerned about saving, but instead the benefit those saved buildings and neighborhoods have on 'man' and his environmental setting.

by Lance on Nov 28, 2009 10:50 pm • linkreport

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