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One Big Question For NoMa/Union Market: Will Neighborhood Activists And Developers Ever Reach A Resolution?


Washington, D.C., is rapidly changing, and Union Market is the latest on the list of transforming neighborhoods.

Once a wholesale operations center and marketplace, Union Market’s original merchants left the area and migrated to the suburbs, trading in rundown industrial buildings for modern distribution centers. After a period of decline, these former industrial buildings have come back into style as mixed-use destinations. 

Today, the market sees thousands of local and out-of-town visitors daily. More than 50 vendors serve gourmet food and drink to patrons, and a series of outdoor murals and street art offers some of the most Instagrammable locations in D.C. A few blocks away, Angelika Pop-up Cinema hosts films and events.

Office development has also picked up around Union Market. Maurice Electrical Working Space plans to open its doors as an incubator office space for D.C.’s growing tech scene. For many, the market’s changes symbolize new opportunity. But others are not so optimistic. 

While Union Market’s popularity among young professionals has encouraged developers to continue transforming the area, neighborhood activists have spoken out against the changes. Union Market Neighbors, a resident-activist group, has appealed the D.C. Zoning Commission's approval of several proposed projects in the area. The group worries that the projects will turn Union Market into a luxury environment with no affordable housing. Facing appeal are 3,500 housing units and 250K SF of retail. 

"These appeals have harmed the District’s ability to grow and have caused the delay or potential loss of at least 1,000 affordable units in the District,” Chief of Staff to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Andrew Trueblood said in a statement.

In an effort to preserve the neighborhood’s identity, Union Market Neighbors has frustrated developers and city officials.

The designated affordable housing units in the appealed developments would benefit the residents Union Market Neighbors is fighting on behalf of, according to former D.C. Director of Planning Ellen McCarthy.

"It is hard to understand what these NIMBYs think they have accomplished," she said. "They’ve reduced the total number of residential units being produced, making it harder for people to find places to live and keeping prices high, decreased the number of affordable units that are going to be produced and reduced the amount of attractive public spaces created."

One of several murals at Union Market

The D.C. government, which has been vocal in recent months about its ambitious plans to provide more affordable housing in the city, is supportive of development efforts in Union Market. 

“You’re very much seeing development move east in most directions,” Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Brian T. Kenner said to the New York Times. “[Union Market is] going to be a very exciting place over the next five to 10 years.”

Union Market Neighbors is not backing down. The group appealed seven developments around Union Market alone. Union Market Neighbors decided to back out of two of the appeals in February, allowing Kettler’s Market Terminal and Trammell Crow's Armature Works to continue with development.

Chris Otten, one of the activist group's leaders, declined to say why the group dropped these particular appeals. Still, the group has three outstanding appeals against projects, including JBG Smith and Gallaudet University's 1.2M SF Sixth Street mixed-use development, Foulger-Pratt's mixed-use Press House at Union District, and Edens and Great Gulf's 138-unit mixed-use project.

This battle between neighborhood groups like Union Market Neighbors and D.C. extends beyond the transitioning area. Another group of residents submitted an appeal in late January for a senior affordable housing project in the River Terrace neighborhood. Residents for Reasonable Development of St. Joseph’s, another neighborhood activist group, appealed a proposed 82-unit townhouse project in Michigan Park.

As more neighborhoods undergo similar revitalization efforts, these tensions continue to worsen. The D.C. Court of Appeals has vacated Zoning Commission approvals for projects in Brookland and the major redevelopment of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site about a mile northwest of Union Market, and it has yet to rule on the outstanding appeals. It has, however, dismissed Union Market Neighbors' appeal of Ditto Residential's family-oriented apartment project on Florida Avenue.