DC’s few old warehouses

My trip back to Minneapolis offered a great chance to see and experience some great old urban warehouses.  Warehouse districts are common in many old industrial cities.  In Minneapolis, the old industrial aesthetic abounds – these massive brick structures hulk over the street, but offer a fantastic level of detail and craftsmanship.


These warehouses sit along 1st Avenue in Minneapolis, probably the most prominent nightlife district within downtown.  That wasn’t always the case, as these warehouses were used as artists lofts and other more marginal uses (looking for cheaper rents) just 10 and 20 years ago.  They’re extremely versatile buildings.  Compared to their contemporary structures in the suburbs, I think it’s safe to say that we don’t build ’em like we used to.

As I was admiring these structures in Minneapolis, it was fitting that Noah Kazis had a series of posts about one of the few areas in DC that has a similar aesthetic.  DC never had the industrial legacy that Minneapolis did, thus it doesn’t have the same kinds of legacy buildings and warehouses.  There are a few exceptions in Georgetown, the Navy Yard, and along the rail lines behind Union Station – which was the focus of Kazis’ posts.  They are divided into three parts, focusing on the Government Printing Office, the Gales School, and a concluding post.

Kazis lays out the basic premise for these posts:

Between North Capitol and Massachusetts Avenue, G Street NW is a block of urbanist paradox. Two sites, the Government Printing Office and the Gales School, pose difficult to answer questions about the proper place for older, grittier urban uses in districts of modern office buildings. In a series of posts today, I’ll explore a block of D.C. that gentrification somehow passed over.

I’m not sure framing this as an example of spotty gentrification is the best approach.  For one, the entirety of this block, full of surface parking lots and the GPO, is all controlled by government interests.  A search on DC’s Citizen Atlas shows this:

GPO Plat Map

Those dark blue dots are all DC properties, and the green properties between 1st and New Jersey are owned by the Feds.  Given government ownership, you wouldn’t expect these blocks to develop.

Furthermore, I don’t think the lack of development along this block is all that unusual.  Certainly, the location is close to Union Station, but there was (and is) plenty of undeveloped land nearby under private ownership.  Proximity to Union Station hasn’t helped those properties any more or less – and development happening currently is in too narrow of a timeframe to really draw any conclusions.

Likewise, Kazis implies that the block has been encircled by gentrifying properties.  I don’t think that’s the case, either.  To the north, development is sparse, and what does exist is relatively new.  To the west, the Douglas Development Building is more the exception than the rule.  To me, the defining characteristic of that area is the massive barrier created by 395.  The Douglas Development building is more of an island within the sea rather than a contigous growth of redeveloped properties.  Other developments along H St NW are growing from the Chinatown area towards the GPO block, not the other way around.  If you want to look at gentrification as a blob increasing in size, I would argue there are two blobs approaching this area (one from Chinatown, one from NoMA), rather than one that’s enveloped it whole.

Kazis continues on the GPO:

The building is visually interesting and quite historic, but it is also visually hostile to street life. I work a block east of the GPO and my coworker just described that block as “just dead and ugly.” Would this section of NoMa feel more with the GPO replaced by another sterile new office building? Jane Jacobs would weep. The GPO building is also lower-density than much of its surroundings. If density would be increased by exiling jobs to the suburbs (where the GPO would inevitably relocate) would that be a net positive or negative? How comfortable should sustainable transport advocates be with telling 500 transit-riders their jobs are moving out of the city? Is this the mixed-use that we want and or the underutilization of space that characterizes struggling blocks?

I’m not sure what he’s getting at with the density argument – the GPO buildings are each 8 stories tall – plenty dense for urban uses.  As a whole, the site isn’t all that dense, but the surface parking could be easily redeveloped without hurting the GPO’s current configuration.

Kazis concludes:

I don’t predict that either the GPO or the Gales School will survive another twenty years. The GAO will conclude that efficiency calls for selling the GPO to private developers and relocating out of the city. The Central Union Mission will get an offer that a social service agency can’t refuse. And that block of G Street NW will feel more inviting, draw more people onto public transit, send more tax dollars to the D.C. government, and be one more part of a revitalized NoMa. It will be regrettable, even though it will probably be for the best. But we should change zoning, lift height restrictions, and do all the other things that would help us make this area vibrant and put more jobs near transit without needing to bulldoze the past for a downtown that equates health with sterility.

I’m not sure what Kazis’ concern is for the GPO building.  Even if the GPO leaves the area, the building will undoubtedly remain and will not be bulldozed, as the great warehouse districts in Minneapolis and other places show.  These old industrial warehouses are tremendously adaptable spaces.

Urban health need not equal sterility, but urban health also isn’t immune from the larger evolution of industrial practices.  Not only do we not build warehouses and vertical industrial spaces like this anymore, it’s unrealistic to expect those industries to use these ‘outdated’ spaces when it’s not efficient for them to do so.

Nevertheless, I don’t think these changes will lead to the demise of the GPO building.  These kinds of spaces are cherished in other cities, and given DC’s relative lack of that type of building and style of architecture, they should be cherised spaces and development opportunities here, too.


3 Responses to “DC’s few old warehouses”

  1. Warehouse follow-up « city block Says:

    […] Kazis responds to my critique of his GPO-block […]

  2. More warehousing « city block Says:

    […] By Alex Block Building off the previous posts on warehouses and their districts, I have some more pictures from my most recent (and a few older […]

  3. kingston escorts Says:

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