What Will Happen When 4,500 SEC Staffers Are Dropped Next To D.C.’s Most Notorious Intersection?
A 6-acre parking lot on the northern edge of D.C.'s NoMa neighborhood is set to be developed into a new, 1.2M SF federal agency headquarters, a project that could have major ripple effects on the surrounding area.
The new, 4,500-person Securities and Exchange Commission office, expected to begin construction next spring, could dramatically change the landscape around one of D.C.'s busiest and most dangerous intersections.
Neighborhood leaders hope the influx of thousands of federal workers will spur much-needed safety improvements to the pedestrian infrastructure around New York Avenue and North Capitol Street, while also providing a boost to the neighborhood's businesses.
The relocation, announced Sept. 30, would shift the SEC from its current home next to Union Station to the Douglas Development-owned site at 60 New York Ave. NE. The new SEC headquarters will fill a gap in NoMa's built environment and bring an influx of daytime office workers that could provide additional demand for the retail businesses and apartment buildings in the northern part of the neighborhood.
The project could also create more urgency to accelerate street infrastructure improvements that have been considered for years but have yet to move forward.
Douglas Development Managing Principal Norman Jemal, who said the development team expects to break ground on the SEC project this spring, said the site likely would have ended up as a multifamily project if it hadn't landed a large office tenant, and he thinks it is important to have a mix of office and residential in the neighborhood.
"This is really spectacular for the neighborhood and the community, because it’s going to bring a lot more daytime population, and areas that have daytime population and residential density are typically really great areas, very vibrant neighborhoods," Jemal told Bisnow.
While the influx of workers could support the neighborhood's restaurants and retail, they would also put further strain on a road network that is already congested for cars and unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists.
While only about a mile up the road, the new site's immediate surroundings and potential commuting patterns represent a significant departure from the SEC's current location.
Rather than sitting steps from the city's biggest transit hub in Union Station, the new SEC headquarters will be about three blocks from the NoMa Metro station, a walk that requires a train commuter to cross the busy New York Avenue thoroughfare at the infamous "Dave Thomas Circle" intersection.
It is also within a half-mile of the Metropolitan Branch Trail, a popular commuting route for cyclists, but employees coming from the trail would also need to traverse the stretch of New York Avenue that doubles as U.S. Route 50. On the other side of the site is North Capitol Street, another fast-moving artery that fills with commuters coming and going into the city.
Many of the SEC headquarters employees won't be able to commute by car, as the project's parking garage will have spaces for only a fraction of its 4,500-person workforce. Jemal told Bisnow that the building is planned to have around 600 parking spaces.
The District Department of Transportation has been planning improvements to the pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in this area. Earlier this year, the District seized the Wendy's in the center of "Dave Thomas Circle" to allow it to redesign that intersection, and it is studying potential improvements to North Capitol Street. Neighborhood leaders hope the prospect of 4,500 SEC employees moving into the New York Avenue project will create more momentum to move these improvements forward.
"My hope is that the arrival of this big agency at this underused parcel will really focus the city’s mind on the need to make changes that will benefit everybody, especially those walking east to west across North Capitol Street and New York Avenue, because that's one of the main routes between the SEC and Metro," Eckington Civic Association President Conor Shaw said.
Shaw, whose Eckington neighborhood sits directly to the north of NoMa and the SEC site, also runs a Twitter account called "Fix Dave Thomas Circle" that advocates for street safety improvements. He said he thinks the District's planned redesign of the Wendy's intersection is a step in the right direction, but he would like to see it go further.
"I don’t think the city has done enough," Shaw said. "The city’s design doesn’t currently do anything to bus service, that’s a major shortcoming. There’s also a huge gap in terms of infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists between Dave Thomas Circle and First Street NW.
"So for residents along North Capitol Street and for office workers who will be going to the SEC, the question is: How will they move about safely in that part of the city?"
A DDOT spokesperson, in emailed responses to Bisnow questions, said the agency plans to begin construction on the Dave Thomas Circle redesign in the spring. The spokesperson said DDOT is also planning to start construction early next year on streetscape improvements to Florida Avenue, and it is conducting studies for further safety improvements along the New York Avenue and North Capitol Street corridors.
"Neighborhoods surrounding the intersection are among the fastest growing in the District," the DDOT spokesperson wrote in an email. "The redesigned intersection of Florida Avenue, New York Avenue, First Street, and Eckington Place will improve the safety of this area, particularly for pedestrians and cyclists."
The Dave Thomas Circle intersection, which sits one block east of the SEC site, is ranked among the 10 most hazardous intersections in the city, with more than 720 crashes between 2014 and 2018, The Washington Post reported, citing DDOT data. With New York Avenue being a main artery into the city, an average of 80,000 vehicles pass through the intersection every day, the Post reported.
During the 15 minutes Bisnow was walking around Dave Thomas Circle Sunday afternoon, one driver ran through a red light while another car was pulled over by a policeman for an unknown offense.
“Almost every Washingtonian has their own Dave Thomas Circle horror story. Now, we are taking the necessary actions to transform this confusing intersection into a multimodal project that supports the current and future needs of DC drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a Feb. 1 release announcing the city's seizure of the site via eminent domain, a move Bisnow first reported.
The overhaul of the intersection, still going through the design phase, would cut a new road through the Wendy's property to connect First Street NE with Eckington Place, while turning First Street and Florida Avenue into two-way streets. It would also add protected bike lines, create more visible crosswalks and create three separate parks.
Jemal said New York Avenue and Dave Thomas Circle would have needed improvements whether or not the SEC relocated its employees to his site, but he is glad to see the city moving forward with its plans.
"With the city taking the Wendy's, clearly they’ve got plans to improve the traffic pattern and the walkability of the street," Jemal said. "And I’m confident they’ll do a great job in executing it, and it will be a better place than it is right now."
NoMa Business Improvement District CEO Maura Brophy said she thinks this new design will improve the experience for everyone in the neighborhood, including SEC employees commuting to the new headquarters.
"The redesign of the circle will be transformative for this section of NoMa," she said. "In light of the fact there will be more people in this part of the neighborhood with all the new development, all of the new residents and the people working at the SEC, they will have a much more pleasant experience in that exchange."
While the redesign of Dave Thomas Circle was underway well before the SEC move was announced, the relocation could help spur a redesign of North Capitol Street, another heavily trafficked corridor that has been eyed for street safety improvements. Several developments are moving forward on either side of the street, and Shaw said improvements are needed to better connect them.
"North Capitol Street is really a physical and symbolic barrier between those two communities, and I think the hope is the arrival of the SEC and these other projects will really encourage the city to do things to soften those barriers," Shaw said.
Two of those North Capitol Street projects are from MRP Realty, which is partnering on the Northwest One development and the long-planned redevelopment of the D.C. Housing Authority headquarters. MRP Realty principal Matt Robinson said he thinks the SEC headquarters could help spur the much-needed improvements on North Capitol Street.
"That corridor could use some improvements in the streetscape environment," Robinson said. "This is one where a large tenant like this could help spur that kind of investment and upgrades along North Capitol Street."
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Sylvia Pinkney, whose 5E04 district includes the SEC site, said she sees the new plan for the Dave Thomas Circle as much more pedestrian-friendly, and she hopes it will encourage SEC employees to walk and take transit to work. A former federal employee, Pinkney said she remembers federal agencies offering incentives to workers who commuted on public transit, but they weren't always effective.
"The problem is even though you have all of these incentives to catch Metro or to bike, people are still going to drive," Pinkney said. "From what I’ve been seeing in the area, more people still drive than bike or catch Metro, and that is why we have such an issue on New York Avenue, because people are still insisting upon driving."
Pinkney said she thinks the SEC headquarters has several potential benefits, such as adding new jobs that could go to neighborhood residents and providing new customers for local businesses.
"The SEC employees will come here and spend money, they will be eating lunch here and sometimes staying in town for a nice happy hour, a dinner, and we need that," she said. "We still need that because a lot of restaurants have closed in D.C. and aren't going to reopen, plus the fact that some of the people in the community may even be hired by this agency."
MRP is also preparing to deliver the second phase of the Washington Gateway project two blocks east of the SEC site, and Robinson said the agency could create apartment demand in the nearby area from workers who want a short walk to work.
"Dropping this many employees up in northern NoMa where most of the projects going forward are predominately multifamily residential, it creates a diversity of product type, which is healthy for the neighborhood, but really healthy for the multifamily projects and the retail around it," Robinson said.
The SEC workers will have plenty of options if they choose to live in a nearby apartment or condo, as the neighborhood has 3,363 residential units under construction as of August, according to the NoMa BID. Those units will add to the more than 7,000 residential units already in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood also has 14.3M SF of office space, according to the BID, and Brophy said its vacancy rate is less than 7%. The number of workers coming into the office hasn't returned to pre-Covid levels yet, but Brophy said the BID conducted a survey in August that found a majority of NoMa's employers planned to bring workers back by Q1 2022. She thinks the SEC headquarters lease is a positive signal for the office market's future.
"This move is an indication of the fact that office-based work will continue to be something that we need and that we see continue," Brophy said.
Robinson and Brophy will discuss the future of the NoMa neighborhood Wednesday on Bisnow's Northeast D.C. Update Digital Summit.