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, you 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.
Note the fine grain of the urban fabric, almost all of the buildings occupy narrow lots with zero setback from the property line – and 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.
In 1988, things have changed a great deal. Obviously, lots of surface parking lots here. 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 Sq, Shaw-Howard, and U St stations all opened in 1991, just prior to the taking of the opening photograph in this post.
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 significant parcels in key downtown locations occupied with vacant lots or surface parking.
Gallery Place is taking shape, the new convention center is done, and other vacant lots fill in. Still some significant vacant lots to the North of Mass Ave.
The old convention center has been removed, just about all of the once vacant lots in old downtown (i.e. 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 finer grained 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 prevents preserving that kind of 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 Greater Greater Washington