Why you should care
Maybe the nation’s capital could be a model for other gentrifying cities.
Its apartments are appointed in stainless steel and mahogany; the building features a gym, a green roof terrace and a solar-powered water system. There’s a 24-hour Safeway across the street, a Metro subway station a block away and a walk-in medical clinic on the first floor. 3Tree Flats, a relatively recent addition to Washington, D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood, definitely has the hallmarks of renter utopia.
Real estate in the nation’s capital is booming, and the units at 3Tree could easily command a premium — but almost none do. In fact, 119 of the 130 units actually qualify as affordable housing by federal standards, which made it possible for longtime Petworth residents like Pamela Paynell to move in four years ago. “There’s no way I would have been able to stay in this neighborhood any other way,” says Paynell, who’s on disability. And she has 3Tree developer Jair Lynch to thank. No, really.
When cities catch fire, lower-income residents typically get burned. At best, they’re pushed out to the urban fringes without reliable access to fresh food, transportation or health care; at worst, they pull up stakes altogether. Meanwhile, the developers who helped light the blaze may put up some nice buildings, but those often don’t hold onto urban-pioneering hipsters once they couple up and have kids. Lynch, a two-time Olympic gymnast, thinks he’s mastered a new balancing act by developing not just buildings, but also their surrounding neighborhoods. The goal: diverse areas with accessible transportation, good schools and other conveniences that are “sticky” enough to keep both new and old residents in place. D.C. “has to solve the churn, not just be a playground for the young,” Lynch says.
It’s a challenge — and we’re trying not to overstate this — that requires the dexterity and sheer strength you’d expect from a silver medalist on the parallel bars (Atlanta, 1996). After a few subsequent years in Silicon Valley real estate, the Stanford graduate came home to launch his eponymous development firm in 1998. Lynch still has the physique of a gymnast — compact yet lean — but not quite the intensity. The 43-year-old’s laid-back demeanor comes through in his soft, slow drawl and his workday uniform of jeans and sneakers. Freckles and a gap-toothed smile make him look barely above 30, but a patch of gray gives away his true age.
It’s been a while since Washington struck most anyone as a dynamic place to live. Suburbanization and white flight cost the city nearly a third of its population between 1950 and 2000, and it’s only just started bouncing back, thanks in part to 20-somethings that flocked to the capital looking for federal jobs. Lynch wants to encourage those people to stick around without also pushing out poorer and working-class residents. His goal: D.C. should look more like Portland, Oregon, which has managed to preserve racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods despite its growth, and less like Seattle, where whites are getting richer and blacks poorer.
For years, Lynch labored in D.C.’s development backwaters, working on projects such as multipurpose community centers and low-income housing. Today, though, he stands behind 1.65 million square feet of community, business and residential space in Washington, and is involved with some of the city’s most prominent projects. Earlier this year, his firm announced plans to build in a massive crater just north of Nationals Park, left when another developer abandoned work during the recession. Lynch also plans to help reawaken the historic H Street corridor in northeast Washington, once the city’s busiest commercial district before riots gutted it in 1968.
Of course, real estate developers are rarely altruists; many include affordable housing in their projects to qualify for federal tax credits that subsidize construction. And not all of Lynch’s developments are as affordable as 3Tree Flats. His H Street and Nationals Park projects, for instance, will strictly target middle-class renters, and that comes at a price. “I’ve already seen people leaving and a lot of people are afraid they’ll have to leave too,” says Robert Heely, 43, who’s lived in the H Street neighborhood since ’91.
Long before he’s drafting designs, Lynch is asking questions. Is the local emergency room overcrowded? If so, a primary-care office for the area is a priority, as at 3Tree Flats. Are neighborhood dropout rates above average? Then Lynch will lobby for a closer school — which comes naturally; he’s helped build or locate 12 charter schools throughout the city. At the H Street development, Lynch persuaded city bureaucrats in one building to swap their streetfront offices for second-floor digs as part of renovations. (Being the landlord didn’t hurt Lynch’s case.) That made room for a CVS and other small-retail businesses.
Lynch’s type of conscientious development has many names, from venture philanthropy to responsible capitalism, but the one that seems to be catching on is “impact investing.” It’s a perfect term for the developer mindset, because it emphasizes that real estate is still about making money. But considering the bigger picture — which just so happens to include sustainability, diversity and so forth — could help developers make even more. Self-serving? Perhaps. “You always have to be careful that companies don’t just use the socially responsible claim to greenwash themselves,” says Gary Pivo, a University of Arizona urban planning professor. But it might also align social good with the capitalistic impulse, pointing the way toward more livable and vibrant cities.