News center
Proven and reputable supplier of outstanding services

ODA Architecture's Eran Chen has a plan to revitalize downtown D.C.

Jun 26, 2023

Listen to this article 5 min

Eran Chen can picture the vibrant, walkable downtown D.C. that many political leaders dream about, and how it can be accomplished with creativity — and without the same old fights about height and governance.

Speaking at the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership's annual meeting Thursday, the founder of ODA Architecture sought to counteract the drumbeat of bad news for downtown D.C. by stoking the imagination of what's possible. Chen, an internationally renowned architect, is today working multiple D.C. projects, including at The Wharf and new phases of the Bridge District near Anacostia.

Downtown D.C. has one of the heaviest concentrations of office space in the nation, and its concentrated use should be re-thought after Covid-19, ODA Architecture founder Eran Chen said.

D.C.'s large concentration of office buildings doesn't have to mean doom if the city thinks creatively about their future use, Chen said. He's known for complex projects and urban planning that bring a lot of rooftop uses, multilevel terraces and balconies and communal spaces that draw people outside.

"We’d like to bring back the beating heart of D.C. by creating an active public realm that doesn't rely solely on commuters but is attractive to people from all around," Chen said. "This is not just a D.C. problem. It is a global plague on our cities."

He noted many of downtown's large blocks of developed space have central cores that are mainly unused save for loading space. He suggested development projects that knock down portions of buildings mid-block — especially deep buildings unsuitable to modern office use. This would allow more mid-block residential conversions, while creating more access to the block interior, which could be developed as green space.

Those redevelopments could then shift some massing upward, as newer D.C. zoning rules allow habitable penthouses with setbacks — something many older buildings don't have — thus steering clear, to a degree, of a fight over the federal Height Act and its 130-foot limit. ODA termed this a "greenways" concept, one that would make better use of a building's upper floors while bringing improved light, air and views to the residential units constructed within.

"The hidden courtyards and alleyways will become the backbone of this community, making the area a more attractive place to live and work," Chen said.

He also suggested renting unused retail space to local "activators" — groups that could use it as classrooms, performance centers, artist studios, sports and other gatherings.

Louis Dubin, managing partner of Bridge District developer Redbrick LMD, said developing urban centers after Covid-19 will require more dedicated master planning and a commitment to sustainable buildings. His company hired Chen's New York-based firm to design a multiterrace development where people can interact over, under, around and through buildings.

Chen's talk came as D.C. leaders used the WDCEP event to hammer home their message of reviving downtown with new residents, as outlined in D.C.'s new five-year plan. Adding 15,000 new residents to downtown would require about 9,400 new housing units, Mayor Muriel Bowser said, and much of the construction could be driven by the more generous tax abatements outlined in her proposed 2024 budget.

"We know diversifying the mix of use in our downtown will make it more vibrant, having office workers, having residents, having kids, having festival-goers and party-goers all makes for a more vibrant downtown," Bowser said, noting 87% of downtown real estate is commercial office. "I can't emphasize enough how having a stable policy environment will help us meet our goals in building more housing and attracting more businesses to downtown."