Letter from Washington DC: the projects getting the green light in a city of red tape

Letter from Washington DC: the projects getting the green light in a city of red tape

Every presidential election throws Washington DC into demographic flux. Politics aside, though, the city is also welcoming young families and graduates by the trainload as it gradually repositions itself as a great all-rounder of a place. With breakneck gentrification and a foodie revolution introducing Washingtonians to New York-style living, you’d think the city fabric would be turning itself inside out.

Yet it’s remarkably difficult to get things built here. Red tape is a fact of life, as are conservative old-timers galvanised against change. It took a new baseball franchise to kickstart the redevelopment of the crumbling Navy Yards, and David Adjaye’s lauded National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last year, was a century in the making.

In a bureaucratic city characterised by government office space, local designer/developer Brook Rose saw potential in a rare landmark warehouse once used to manufactured some of the first rotary gyrocopter engines. Meanwhile, New York architect Steven Holl’s Obama-era infrastructure project will open in much less certain times, no less for the arts. Two blocks south of the National Mall, Detroit-based SmithGroupJJR has transformed a landmark transport warehouse into a museum to rival the Smithsonians in splendour. 

What does go up tends to be overwhelmed with mirrored glass. Yet there are exceptions. While planners have greenlit a redesign of Constitutional Gardens by Rogers Partners and PWP, as well as a delicate glass office complex by REX Architecture, there have been a handful of exemplary projects come to fruition.