DC 2040

Imagining What the Nation’s Capital Will Look Like In 20 Years

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Illustration by Shawn Henderson ©

The bullet train pulls into Union Station around noon. I look up from my laptop-phone and see people grabbing their Smart Bags before shuffling to exit the brightly lit car. The novelty of high-tech luggage never gets old for me, what with its air-compression and efficient-storage capabilities. Perhaps it’s the journalist in me who enjoys observing the outlines of these bags, the shape of people’s stuff, and wondering what’s inside.

I’m back in DC for a media conference, slated for tomorrow. It’s been a few years since I last visited, for a series of talks at several independent bookstores across the city. There are more such stores now than I recall there being when I lived here, from 2014 to 2020—the former the year I moved to the city and started covering it as a reporter; the latter the year coronavirus hit and upended much of the world as we knew it. I’m surprised by this business expansion, given online retailers’ outright dominance in book sales, not to mention the fact that most of us are  pretty much constantly glued to our laptop-phones.

Then again, it’s 2040, and our remaining bookstores largely serve as event/co-working spaces that sell audiobooks, food, and drink, in addition to the usual literature. At some stores, drones fetch ordered books from nearby storage facilities, as customers sip on shots of espresso and glasses of wine. Bless the readerly Washingtonians who keep the checks coming!

I walk into the main hall of Union Station by way of the Amtrak concourse, redesigned 10 years ago. The concourse is much bigger and more welcoming than it used to be, though the project was delayed for years and went over budget by tens of millions of dollars. Same as it ever was in Washington.

Except that it’s not. So much has changed about this city, and I can’t help but feel both amazed and a little wistful about the differences.

Tent Encampments and A Reliable Metro
The main hall is as beautiful as ever, with its arched ceilings and perched statues. Now, though, the floor space is like a bazaar. It’s occupied by vendors whom the station’s directors brought in to enliven the atrium or, as activists alleged, keep out homeless folks. Every time I pass through, I’m disheartened by the jarring contrast between all the commerce inside Union Station—people buying candles and soaps and cannabis products made in DC—and the privation right outside. Tent encampments cover the sidewalks surrounding the 1907 Beaux-Arts building. They extend tent by tent into NoMa, downtown, and Capitol Hill.

I walk by them as I make my way to the Metro station below. The shortage of affordable housing was the most pressing issue facing the region when I lived here, and it’s clear that it hasn’t gone away. Mayor after mayor pledged to see more homes built while lifting low-income residents out of poverty, but none of them moved swiftly or vigorously enough to meet the true need. By 2030, nearly 20,000 people were recorded as unhoused, according to the city’s major hometown news outlet, and the median rent for a two-bedroom unit was more than $3,500. The District’s shelters became so crammed that a coalition of nonprofit advocacy organizations sued the city over their abhorrent conditions, including unhygienic bathrooms and lax security. It didn’t help matters that DC’s stock of public housing, long underfunded and neglected, went by the wayside in favor of mixed-income developments that failed the city’s poorest, who had few living alternatives, if any.

It was harrowing to watch, even from afar. A spate of homeless deaths caused by disease and violence, along with a critical mass of constituents fed up with exorbitant real estate prices and visible penury, led the then-mayor (the city’s first white one) and councilmembers to build extra shelters and rewrite the zoning code. The latter action allowed for denser development not only near Metro stops but in residential neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes. Yet, while the zoning update helped stabilize overall housing costs in the next decade, it wasn’t enough to reverse the exodus of large families from the city—some of which had begun after the outbreak of COVID-19, with more people switching to teleworking—or the surge in homelessness. In this respect, even San Francisco and California at large took bolder measures to assuage their own housing crisis than DC and its neighboring states did to alleviate theirs.

I wait a couple of minutes for a train to arrive on the Red Line as I ponder this recent history. I’m headed to the hotel I’ve booked in Dupont Circle, my old haunt. It’s incredible how quickly Metro runs these days, especially compared with my first years as a DC resident. Service meltdowns were common, and phrases like “arcing insulator” became part of the lingua franca. Today, the trains come frequently, if not on time, thanks in part to additional funding Metro secured from the local jurisdictions and Congress roughly 12 years ago. In the 2020s, the traffic congestion got so bad that the politicians had no real choice but to invest more money in Metro, lest they look as if they didn’t care about suffering suburban commuters or greenhouse gas emissions.

And it’s free to ride. As it should be: I always found charging fares for public transit to be morally indefensible. (Most places don’t charge access for public parks or roads.) While commuters still have to walk through individual entrance gates so Metro can track ridership, it’s a relief that the contemporary gates open in under a second and don’t cause as many bottlenecks as the gates of yesteryear did. I absolutely hated having to come to a near-halt to tap my SmarTrip card at a gate and then hold back as the gate retracted. This was the 21st century—not the 20th—in one of the most prosperous cities in the world. After the coronavirus pandemic abated, I was glad to see ridership bounce back and eventually grow. It meant that people still saw the value of cities.

Climate and Built-Environment Changes
The oncoming Metro train pulls into the station and I board. It’s only midday, but there are a ton of people in the car. “Cherry blossom season,” I think. No wonder the hotel rate was so high.

The groups of tourists around me look either excited or like they don’t know what to expect of the nation’s capital in a presidential election year. I bet they don’t realize that for most District residents, it’s basically the same as any other year. Maybe I’ll turn out to be wrong, and 2040 will be a huge deal for DC after all: Congressional hearings on statehood are occurring while Democrats control both the House of Representatives and the White House. I do hope they’ll get it done before November, but I’m not holding my breath with this Senate. You’d think 2016 (and, ugh, 2020) ingrained in us the reality that elections have consequences. I’m honestly not so certain, given the dysfunctional nature of our two-party politics, which seem as American as apple pie. (Lest we forget, even Obama cut a deal with Republicans that frustrated the District’s independence.) Perhaps it’s the journalist in me who’s a cynic. Or at best, a stubborn skeptic.

I wonder how many of the visitors I see know what they’re in for as they go to the Mall. They’ll be prohibited from walking near where the old cherry blossoms used to be, before rising tides forced the National Park Service to relocate the trees away from the Tidal Basin. Many of the Yoshinos have been carefully replanted nearby at the Ellipse, and the remainder have been transported to the Arboretum out of an abundance of caution. When flooding is particularly bad along the basin, water reaches the stairs of the Jefferson Memorial. That isn’t so rare anymore, unfortunately.

At least DC tourists can still scale the Washington Monument, via glass elevators gifted by the late philanthropist David Rubenstein. There, they can gaze out at the District’s skyline. It hasn’t changed much in the downtown core since I was a reporter at a scrappy local newspaper (RIP, community dead-tree editions), but if they look far enough they’ll see pockets of taller buildings to the northwest, northeast, and southeast.

Although the controversial Height Act remains in effect, limiting the scale of buildings based on the width of their streets, new multifamily apartment buildings are going up on once low-density thoroughfares: Wisconsin and Georgia avenues NW, Rhode Island Avenue NE, Benning Road NE, East Capitol Street, and Pennsylvania and Martin Luther King Jr. avenues SE. The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium was demolished in the early 2020s and has since been replaced by a patchwork of recreational fields, riverfront parks, mixed housing types, and office buildings. The Armory was repurposed into a multi-use events/entertainment venue, including for e-sports exhibitions. When I was growing up, these were called video game tournaments.

What’s happened across the Anacostia River simply stuns me. The St. Elizabeths Campus was completely transformed, by the mid-2030s, into a walkable enclave featuring townhouses, small businesses as well as big-box stores, and public plazas. While it took a few years after the initial redevelopment phase for people and employers to move there in significant numbers, the name “St. Elizabeths” now has the kind of buzzy draw that The Wharf did after debuting in 2018. (Like the Tidal Basin, The Wharf also experiences high tides. The project’s developers erected five-foot seawalls several years back, but this exigency didn’t discourage others from continuing to build up the Buzzard Point waterfront—nor did the swarms of mosquitoes. What can withstand grand ambitions coupled with the pursuit of the almighty dollar?

Poplar Point and the old Kenilworth Dump are the next hot spots to redevelop: They’re the only major plots in the city left to fill in, now that the McMillan Sand Filtration Site has finally cleared the courts. Shovels probably would be in the ground already, had the area not recently entered a recession due to federal budget cuts and the diminished government sector. Manifest destiny when practical, in other words.

Economic and Population Growth
As the train glides through the tunnel, my mind wanders west. Across the Potomac River, Amazon’s second headquarters gleams in the sunshine, attracting newcomers and college graduates to its lucrative jobs. I remember covering all the hullabaloo that emerged after the company announced it was looking for a new headquarters site, and the elation and worry born when it chose Northern Virginia. Its total footprint spreads farther out than publicly proposed at the time, encompassing about a dozen buildings and a handful of satellite offices.

No doubt Amazon’s presence has driven economic growth. But as many people expected, it’s also gentrified what used to be vibrant communities of color in South Arlington and Alexandria. When the tech giant unveiled ferries that would shepherd its employees and others across the area’s rivers, community activists organized protests on the grounds of the headquarters’ main towers. (The protests subsided shortly thereafter because it had become obvious that Amazon, one of the region’s largest employers, had plenty of allies—and customers—among residents.) Still, the ferries were signs of other Amazon-led changes to come: In 2036, Nationals Park was officially renamed Amazon Field. The name-switch was said to be a multimillion-dollar deal that entailed Jeff Bezos receiving private stadium suites connected by secret tunnels to his massive estate in Kalorama.

My train finally reaches Dupont Circle and I hop off the Metro. The neighborhood bustles with delivery workers riding electric scooters and bikes, and even novel hoverboards being piloted under a city transportation program. I guess they’re on their way to pick up or drop off lunches with office employees, or groceries for people’s homes. At first, I’m astonished to notice only a few ride-hailing vehicles around the circle, but then I recall DC enforces congestion pricing in its business districts, which effectively takes many such vehicles off the streets. Thank the Lord. The driverless cars and trucks on the arterial roads and highways are enough to back things up. Luckily, downtown curbside parking has been supplanted by dedicated bus and bike lanes. The transportation network still has gaps, but it’s good that more people can get around more easily because of these improvements.

I check into my hotel, a former embassy with podlike rooms. My non-smart luggage is whisked away by a pneumatic tube in the lobby. When I enter my room, it’s standing there in the corner. That never gets old for me either.

I should prepare for my conference in the morning—I’m supposed to give remarks. However, I can’t resist the urge to explore this city I once called mine. DC’s population is now well over one million people, and I want to see how they’re shaping the place. Pausing for a moment, I muse on a simple question: How many of them recall the District’s days as either the “Murder Capital” or “Chocolate City”? A shrinking number, I imagine.

As I head downstairs, it strikes me that I likely won’t be back again for a while. Then I summon an electric bike with my laptop-phone, and I’m off.

Andrew Giambrone is a freelance writer who has covered local Washington since 2014. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewGiambrone.