New Urban Precincts V – Penn Quarter, Washington D.C.

About a month ago, I hopped over to D.C. with a friend to witness a once a year event  – cherry blossom season. Incidentally, 2012 also marked the centennial of the Japanese Government’s gift of 3000 cherry trees to the US Nation in 1912, and so there was a week-long National Cherry Blossom Festival.

I hadn’t set out to explore urban rejuvenation in D.C. What I had wanted to do was see the cherry blossoms and walk along the National Mall, to see how one of the greatest public spaces in the world had changed in the 12 years since I had last been to D.C. As it was, the Mall was undergoing major refurbishment while I was there. There appeared to be construction work happening on the Mall itself, while the reflecting pool before the Lincoln Memorial had been drained of water. That didn’t seem to distract visitors from still taking to the Mall in droves.  I did some research later on and found out that in fact, since last September, architects and designers had been submitting concept plans for the overhaul of some of the more neglected areas of the Mall – specifically the areas around the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens.

Later that day, on our walk back to the train station, my friend and I literally “stumbled” upon Penn Quarter, which is a rejuvenated city centre precinct about 3 blocks off the National Mall. The change in the urban landscape as we entered the precinct was very obvious. Everything was shiny and new. The requisite ingredients – luxury condominium and refurbished loft developments; theatre and gallery spaces; cafes and restaurants; yuppie people – were there.  I took a couple of pictures and went home to find out more about this interesting area.

This photo-journal, the 5th installment in the NUP series, is an account of a random stumbling upon urban change and renewal in the capital of the free world.

Cherry Blossom Season – A classic view of the Washington Memorial, surrounded by blossoming cherry trees.

Cherry Blossom Season – An alternate view of cherry blossoms, channeling Japan in D.C. and serving as a reminder that globalisation was well on its way in the 1910s.

Cherry Blossom Season – A popular one with the tourists and residents alike, transforming every inch of the National Mall area with the cherry trees into one big picnic.  It was beautiful and people were surprisingly very very civil.

Construction on the National Mall – You can just about see the construction beyond the line of parked cars. I had been disappointed at not being able to take a shot of the Mall in its pristine glory. But news about the overhaul more than made up for that.  Apparently there are plans for “Lakeside gardens, dining rooms hovering over water, grassy new amphitheaters and underground pavilions at the foot of the Washington Monument.” Proposed designs will went on display 10 days ago at the Smithsonian Castle and National Museum of American History.  (Source:

National Public Space – Construction on the Mall didn’t seem to deter the crowds. Here was a carousel just across from the Smithsonian Castle.

National Public Space – And another view of the Mall, towards the Museum of American History. Unfortunately, large tracts of the Mall was indeed in need of re-turfing. But I suppose that’s a happy problem since it shows just how much it is used by the public and visitors.

Lincoln Memorial – The reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial had being drained for  scheduled maintenance (so it appeared). Which was a pity since I had really wanted to take a shot of the Washington Memorial, reflected.

Lincoln Memorial – Again, that didn’t stop the crowds from thronging the steps of the Memorial to take in the view.

Penn Quarter – From the National Mall, we transitioned into Penn Quarter, a neighborhood north of Pennsylvania Avenue (which is where it gets its name from) extending “East of the White House and West of the Capitol” and along and around E and F streets.  The Map above locates Penn Quarter in relation to the three iconic attractions of D.C.  Note that Penn Quarter itself is a recent name and the area was previously known as the East End of Downtown D.C.

Revitalisation of a Historic District–  Since the ’80s the precinct has been subject to revitalization efforts by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, and now boasts a high concentration of entertainment and lifestyle establishments including museums, theaters, restaurants, bars, and contemporary art galleries. This is a shot of a luxury condominum complex.

Luxury Mixed Use Commercial and Residential Developments – Another shot of spanking new luxury condominiums. There was row after row of these and it was hard not to notice that one was in the midst of a rejuvenated city center.

Thriving Lifestyle and Entertainment Quarter – Yet another shot of luxury condos atop refurbished historic buildings.  Besides the fact that the Quarter was actually just off the National Mall (a less than 10 minute walk), there were also a huge number of museums and galleries within the quarter itself – these included the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, the National Building Museum, the National Academy of Sciences, and more quirky museums like the International Spy Museum and the Newseum – an interactive museum of news and journalism. The immense Verizon Centre also played host to major sports and entertainment events in the precinct.

Unfortunately, as we were on the way to catch a train back to New York, I didn’t have time to properly explore the precinct. So here are a few scattered views of the arts and entertainment amenities in the precinct.

Ford Theatre – A historic theatre, in operation since 1860 (barring a brief interlude as a warehouse and office building. It was the site where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Shakespeare Theatre Company – This is one of the company’s two venues, located at the purpose-built Lansburgh Theatre, in the restored former Lansburgh Department Store flagship store, built in the 1880s.

Science Museum – View of the interactive Koshland Science Museum, which sits in another rejuvenated historic building that has now become a mixed commercial and residential development.

List of Attractions – Also a sign that marked the end of Penn Quarter. At the edge, you can see a young professional couple walking their dogs – a ubiquitous sight in these new urban precincts.

Conclusion – It seems to me, at least at first glance, that Penn Quarter is a successful attempt at urban revitalization.  There was a palpable buzz in the area, and unlike many of the major American cities, the whole precinct was eminently walkable, no doubt due to the unique nature of Washington D.C. as the Federal Capital, with the highest concentration of public spaces and institutions of all of America’s cities.

I thoroughly enjoyed walking through this precinct, and I would really like to have been able to spend more time soaking in the atmosphere and popping into some of the museums and galleries there.  As it is, I’ll just have to wait for another opportunity sometime in the future to revisit this very new urban precinct in one of American’s oldest cities.

Interestingly, there is a regular news and info website operational since Feb 2006 – Penn Quarter Living ( – focused on events, lifestyle and urban developments (eg. construction of new buildings) in the District, a sign again, at least to me, that this has been a reasonably successful place-making effort.

I sign off with a shot of the Willard Intercontinental Washington, a historic Beaux-Arts hotel at the very edge of Penn Quarter, where I happened to have a very pleasant afternoon of drinks and fresh mussels with a good friend. The revitalization of Penn Quarter started here, with the renovation of this hotel in the mid-’80s.

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, Cities & Regions, Landmarks & History, Sociology & Urban Studies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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