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Which Comes First: the Neighbors or the Neighborhood?

April 11, 2011

The stretch of land has all the attributes to warm the cockles of a city planner’s heart. Bordering the west side is a major sports venue and the nescient development that often accompanies such a facility. At the eastern edge is a moderate density mixed-use federal government property having a significant historical presence and value. At the center of it all is a transit stop and a large office building.

Not enough? Add a river running along the south side of this urban landscape. For good measure, include a multi-million-dollar public park.

Surely this gem of a place hums with energy and all the vibrancy of city living that fills the dreams of every new urbanist. Alas, such is not the case; at least not yet.

On a map, this portion of Washington, D.C., is called Navy Yard, referring to the historic federal property of the same name.  It’s presently being rebranded as Capitol Riverfront although it could just as easily be called “The Yards,” connecting the place to its newest asset, The Yards Park.

The 42-acre park is a genuine attraction unto itself.  Nestled beside the river the landscaping smoothly connects land and water.  Graceful undulating benches and a central water plaza are distinctive features. A geometric bridge and a light tower are striking design elements that add to the parks’ uniqueness.

The one thing missing is people!  Loft apartments are under construction with occupants expected by year-end. Office workers may stroll around but the only retail offering of interest for the lunch crowd is a sandwich shop and a coffee shop.

Perhaps it’s a neighborhood in the making. Washington is a growing city with a population now over 600,000. As an example of deliberate and purposeful transit oriented development, The Yards is as reasonable a model as any.

But The Yards also offers lessons in patience and in tempered expectation.  Patience because even with the proximity to a baseball park which opened in March 2008, The Yards neighborhood has yet to fully emerge. Tempered expectation because even with all the amenities created by $3 billion in public and private investment, The Yards has yet to qualify as a significant place.

It’s a wonderful thing to have attractive neighborhoods and city leaders can take steps to help create the infrastructure for great neighborhoods. At The Yards, all that is needed now are some neighbors.  And some street trees.

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