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How A Developer-Led Task Force Is Working To Save Downtown D.C.

When Monumental Sports & Entertainment CEO Ted Leonsis announced in December he would be moving D.C.’s NBA and NHL teams across the river to Virginia, it seemed like a death knell for an area of downtown that was already gasping for air. 

Reading the tea leaves, Mayor Muriel Bower quickly mobilized a plan. Hours after Leonsis’ surprise press conference, she announced that two real estate veterans with a history of developing vibrant mixed-use communities in the city would spearhead a new task force to reimagine the area. The group would formulate two plans — one if the teams ended up leaving and another if they stayed. 

“People were sad about a potential change,” Bowser said at Bisnow’s Washington, D.C., State of the Market on Wednesday. “They turned a little bit mad as well, a little bit scared. And we decided that this was the time to act.”

Bisnow founder Mark Bisnow, Uplands Real Estate Partners' Deborah Ratner Salzberg, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Edens' Jodie McLean

Leonsis reversed course in March and agreed to stay in the District until 2050. But the task force is still working on big plans for a sector of downtown that has been especially impacted by crime, retail and office vacancy, and declining foot traffic.

Last month, the task force, led by Edens CEO Jodie McLean and Uplands Real Estate principal and former Forest City Washington President Deborah Ratner Salzbergunveiled its first big-picture ideas for the 130 acres that make up the downtown district. 

The co-chairs spoke about the strategy that guided their first ideations while sitting next to Bowser at Bisnow's event, held at BGO’s office building at 777 Sixth St. NW, just steps from Capital One Arena.

McLean and Ratner Salzberg have developed some of the largest neighborhood repositioning efforts in the city, Union Market in northeast and The Yards in southeast, and this undertaking was informed by those feats.

“Jodie suggested we use a process that they used at Union Market,” Ratner Salzberg said.

That process began by amassing an enormous amount of information and viewpoints from the local community. 

“It’s important as we think about placemaking to start with both local and regional communities,” McLean said. “We talked to literally hundreds of people, we had roundtables, we engaged with people who were OK with what was happening and people who were really not happy and needed their voices to be heard.

“We tried to take all the information in, we tried to synthesize it, and we tried to share with planners before they came in.” 

The pair shared that information with a group of local, national and international planners and architects, such as London-based designer Ibrahim Ibrahim and urbanist Richard Florida. Then they convened a 36-hour marathon of meetings with those visionaries to imagine what a new Gallery Place-Chinatown could look like.

“It was a remarkable session,” Ratner Salzberg said.

The task force leads said they also brought in their own experiences working in planning neighborhoods across the U.S. and the drivers that create successful downtowns. 

McLean said there has been an “untethering” of workers to their offices across the country, and successful cities are driven by tourism. 

“What is driving vibrant downtowns is 60% visitors,” she said. “That’s just a global stat."

Prioritizing tourism was a priority for the team, as it is increasingly clear that office workers won't return to their pre-pandemic levels of in-person work. 

But attracting visitors to the region means the neighborhood needs to feel safe and clean, the task force leads said, adding that the mayor and other public officials are working diligently on those efforts.

“I just want everyone to understand the attention that is being paid to public safety and know that the government is working together in a remarkable fashion to make sure this is all addressed,” Ratner Salzberg said.

Ratner Salzberg presents one of the task force's initial eight big ideas for the Chinatown-Gallery Place neighborhood.

The deal with Monumental to keep the teams at Capital One Arena came with promises from the city for an increased security presence on game days. In February, the city opened the first of its Safe Commercial Corridor Hubs steps from Gallery Place. 

Crime in the 2,000-foot radius surrounding the arena is down 66% year to date from last year, according to D.C. police data.

Ratner Salzberg spoke about a coalition put together by Bowser focused on safety and cleanliness. It is made up of “every group that you can think of that touches downtown” and meets biweekly, she said. She doesn’t actively participate but listens in to make sure the task force stays up to date. 

“We get to hear how many garbage bags are picked up on a regular basis, and there’s a lot,” she said.

Ratner Salzberg said the task force had a meeting earlier this month to begin addressing its next milestones. 

“Neither one of us are interested in a report,” McLean said, adding that they want to see tangible actions taken because of their work. 

Those actions will likely center around the eight “big ideas” they released last month, including replacing vacant offices with residential units, lining streets with trees to provide shade, and creating a pedestrian walkway on Eighth Street and a “spine” on Seventh Street that could bring visitors up from the National Mall. 

Asked if the task force will eventually turn into an implementation body, Bowser said she sees an end to the team’s work with the handoff to the city. 

“The way I see task forces is they shouldn't live forever,” Bowser said. “They have a specific job to do. They do their job, and then the government apparatus takes over, and I see this task force in the same way.” 

But the task force is planning so that when that handover happens, the work it has done sticks.

“One of the things that we’re working really hard on as a task force is to make sure the things that are stood up during this time of the task force are stood up in a way that they are a permanent and long-term transition for downtown,” McLean said. “So that [when] we extract ourselves to go back to our paid jobs, that we can make sure that the work that’s happening is being set up for really long-term success, not just immediate quick hits.”