The impact of COVID-19’s impact on downtown D.C. has been devastating. Headlines shouted the news last year and the year before that the more than 200,000 workers who flowed daily into the city prior to the pandemic had left, leaving thousands of empty office spaces and hundreds of shuttered businesses. In November 2020, NPR reported that “The Pandemic Has Made a Hot Mess of Downtown D.C. Economy,” and in August 2020, DCist reported that D.C.’s downtown economy was “crushed” by the pandemic.

The bad news is that D.C. is still reeling from the absence of people, a significant loss of businesses and a decline in revenue that the city so sorely depends on to support vital city services.   

During Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s impressive inaugural speech on Monday, she outlined her vision for the city and District residents. A near-capacity crowd listened intently as she delivered a clear, uplifting and, at times, sobering message addressing D.C. voter’s mandates directed at her, the administration, the Council and the newly elected D.C. Attorney General. She also warned of the “tough fights ahead.”

Her “winning” theme spoke to the difficult times the city has faced and on every occasion, Bowser said, the government, businesses and neighborhoods successfully overcame them and won. 

“We must and we will win back our downtown,” she said, “because it is the economic engine that allows us to invest in our schools, our safety net and our public works. It is the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg.” 

Revenues collected from a vibrant downtown, Bowser continued, supported the modernization of schools, helped build the largest housing production trust fund in the U.S., created new and better social programs, “and all of that is at risk if we can’t change the space, build the space and bring the people back to our downtown.”

For those who have lived in D.C. for a long time, it is true that a once vibrant downtown quickly turned into an economic desert following the violence that erupted when Dr. Martin Luther King, III was assassinated. Businesses ran to the surrounding suburbs, and the people followed them to shop and to live, never to return until decades later. 

Just as former Mayor Anthony Williams committed to attracting 100,000 new District residents, Bowser, too, has a plan to attract 15,000 new residents who will “call downtown home” over the next five years. And she plans to attract another 85,000 more “when it’s said and done.”  

Will the Biden administration heed her demand to “make decisive efforts” at warp speed to get federal workers back into their offices? Or will the federal government partner with the District to give up its office spaces representing one-third of all of the downtown office space, so that it can be used to provide housing for the new and existing residents who will need it?

Bowser is confident that her “experienced” leadership will result in another win for D.C. However, she’s warned us that without a vibrant downtown, in time the rest of the city will suffer. 

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