Not so long ago, a visit to NoMa—the northeast D.C. neighborhood north of Massachusetts Avenue—was inconceivable to many casual visitors and even longtime residents of the nation’s capital. At the turn of the century, the area resembled an urban moonscape without much in the way of commerce or willing investors. Commuting into the area meant riding the bus and, in the evenings, a daring cab driver.
Today, the neighborhood hums with energy, featuring walkable streets (93 walk score), bike-friendly lanes and trails, green spaces, and oodles of stores, retail outlets, restaurants, apartment buildings and commercial development. It was enough promise to earn NoMa the honor of being one of four proposed D.C. sites for Amazon’s East Coast headquarters. Anchored by two Metrorail stations, numerous bus lines, and Union Station in the south, NoMa is the archetype of D.C. neighborhoods that have thrived as they evolved to enhance mobility options for people who live and work there.
“We always talk about the different modes of transit that pervade NoMa two Metro stations, regional rail, Amtrak, great bus access, streetcar—there’s all that. But another characteristic is that it’s one of the truly mixed-used neighborhoods in the District of Columbia,” said Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District. “If you’re really looking for an urban experience that integrates residential and work and play, to be a little bit cliche, this is where it really happens.”
First, the commuting options. Accordng to the NoMa BID, 86% of the neighborhood’s residents are car-free—walking, bicycling or taking public transit to work. The area is served by the bookend Metrorail Red Line stations—NoMa-Gallaudet University in the north, Union Station in the south. Aside from Capitol Hill, few other D.C. neighborhoods are better positioned to leverage regional rail—Amtrak, Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) trains—at Union Station.
In 2016 as Metrorail passenger numbers plummeted during the yearlong SafeTrack maintenance surges, NoMa enjoyed the best ridership on the system. The NoMa-Gallaudet University Metro station had 8,991 entrances and exits last year and the Union Station Metro Station had 31,068. (Editor’s note: It’s safe to say many of those passengers were on their way to Union Station to use the commuter trains, but it’s impossible to determine what that percentage was. In any case, quite a few people went to the area as their ultimate destination last year.)
“Because NoMa is tucked behind Union Station and behind Florida Avenue, it almost seems invisible and doesn’t really get a lot of vehicular traffic,” Jasper said. “That contributes to the neighborhood vibe in that weird way. It’s a very protected neighborhood. (The neighborhood) is not separated by six lanes of traffic, and that contributes to a quality of life around here. From a mobility perspective, you’ve got all these modes converging, but the most important piece—the pedestrian piece—feels good too.”
Other sections of the neighborhood are pedestrian and bike friendly. The crown jewel will be the planned Meander promenade in the northwest section, which when complete will be lined with restaurants, bars and retailers. Meanwhile, plazas throughout NoMa feature easily accessible gathering spots for farmer’s markets, lawn yoga and open-air movie showings.
“NoMa is close to everything, sitting at the heart of some of the most exciting, rapidly developing neighborhoods in the District: H Street, Capitol Hill, Downtown, Shaw, Bloomingdale, Eckington and Union Market,” said Mark Carroll, executive vice president for development operations for Skanska, which is responsible for the 585,000-square-foot development Tyber Place on M Street, featuring the RESA retail-residential complex two blocks south of New York Avenue.
“At RESA, we are 800 feet from the Metro and we will have TransitScreen, a real-time display of transportation options, in the mailroom with information on Metro arrivals and Uber and Capital Bikeshare availability,” Carroll said. “The apartment building will also feature Zipcars, electric charging stations and bike accommodations—the kind of transit friendly amenities NoMa residents expect.”
“People want to live in areas with good public spaces, with mixed-use amenities and work there,” Jasper added. “We’ve actually seen people (make that) a consideration when they evaluate a job. For awhile we had some vacancies here, but now it’s been taken up. People didn’t overbuild space here. In fact, they under-built retail space” to manage the growth of the neighborhood.
Large cranes over construction sites are ubiquitous in NoMa—a sign of the booming times in the area. The opening of the NoMa-Galludet Metrorail Station in 2004 triggered the first salvo of investment into the area, but the building of a Harris Teeter supermarket was just as important to the neighborhood, said Doug Firstenberg, principal of D.C.-area developer StonebridgeCarras and chair of the NoMa BID board of directors.
“When you’re talking about an immersion neighborhood ... really believing the neighborhood was mixed-use, the (Harris Teeter) grocery store was the most important,” he said. “After that, the neighborhood evolved as you would expect. In 2010, you saw people walking into office buildings. In 2014, you started getting condos and apartments—beds and heads. Now you’re seeing, with REI, retail coming together in a major way.”
About 54,000 people work in the neighborhood, featuring an eclectic mix of employers including Google, SiriusXM, CNN, REI, NPR, the American Medical Association, Douglas Development and the Department of Justice.
Meanwhile, NoMa has about 7,400 residents in about 6,400 apartment units (including 1,600 currently under construction). Eighty-four percent of the residents work full-time, the NoMa BID said.
“This is the market that drives the dozen plus food trucks that show up on First Street every day, the bustling Wunder Garten beer garden, and the patio at Indigo,” Carroll said. “It has a gritty, homegrown vibe that we will expand by cultivating the right retail and restaurant options that see the real opportunity in this diverse workplace and community and appeal to the residents’ needs.”
Firstenberg said the public-private partnerships and shared vision for the neighborhood enabled coherent growth, although there’s still some room for improvement.
“We had great collective investment that made a lot of sense, but we need to get better bus connector services, continue to enhance the Red Line, and it’s getting better over time,” he said. “There’s bus service and it’s getting better over time. I think right now keeping up with infrastructure. We’ve been without parks, but we’ve been able to acquire key parcels to develop them. Great neighborhoods should have great spaces to allow people to be together.”
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