It is often said that “everything old is new again” – and that is especially true when it comes to urban revitalization efforts in Washington, DC. Over the past two decades, many neighborhoods in DC’s urban landscape have received a makeover – from The Wharf and the Capitol Waterfront in Southeast DC to the 14th Street Corridor development in Northwest. That said, one of the hottest areas to undergo a recent facelift is Union Market in the city’s Northeast quadrant – and Top Level Engineering has been a vital part of several revitalization projects there over the past five years.

Union Market’s unique history

Located at the axis of 4th Street and Florida Avenue NE in Washington, DC, Union Market is a 45-acre historic urban development anchored by a large food hall that opened in 2012 and now draws nearly 3 million visitors annually. In 2009, the D.C. City Council created a small area plan allowing for 8 million square feet of mixed-use development in the Union Market area. No residents were living there at the time, and the space was being used primarily for industrial purposes.

Originally known as the “Union Terminal Market” when it opened in the winter of 1931, the space once functioned as an open-air market with room for 700 vendors and attracted shoppers from all corners of the city. After the DC City Council banned outdoor sales of meat and eggs in 1962, a new indoor market was built at the same location.

By the late 1980’s, however, the space was aging and many of the vendors had moved their operations out to the suburbs, where they could have better access to modern distribution centers and supermarkets. By the new millennium, many of Union Market’s buildings had fallen into disrepair. However, that did not deter a local real estate developer from realizing a bright future for the property when he toured it in 2007. In the spate of 12 years, a revitalized Union Market has grown and evolved, launching more than 50 businesses – including individual food sellers, restaurants, bars, retail establishments, and a rooftop tennis facility – and creating more than 700 new jobs and over 900 new residences. But, getting to this point required some creative engineering – and Top Level Engineering (TLE) possessed just the right skills to help.

Lots of detective work

In 2016, TLE was brought in by a Union Market developer to complete the first of many structural analyses on various spaces within the market. (The firm has also provided structural analyses for owners and architectural firms operating within the space.) These reports required extensive detective work to figure out the history of the buildings and their varying structural capacities.  Each structural analysis required extensive investigating, documenting, researching, analyzing and recommending, and took anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to complete.

It was determined that Union Market’s buildings were originally constructed of (mainly) concrete decks, with multi-Wythe red brick walls. By scouring historical records, TLE discovered the type of steel that was used and what the construction standards were at the time. The condition of each building varied, and was determined by age, deterioration, use or over-use. Each job was unique, and required careful analysis before the developer/owner could safely move forward in building out the space.

Recommendations to make the space safe

Recommendations were ultimately made to each client on the structural capacity of the space; what needed to be fixed; requirements for personalizing the space and bringing it up to code for a specific tenant – and more. Some clients desired a green roof or a roof-top terrace; others wanted to house new heating and cooling equipment upon the roof. Each space/client had different equipment needs, and TLE helped determine the unique specifications for each job.

Since 2016, TLE has gone on to provide structural analyses for a number of spaces within Union Market. Each job occurred in a different building in the complex, and came with its own challenges – requiring its own creative solutions. Ultimately, developers, owners and architects have gone on to follow these recommendations to build out beautiful event venues, classy restaurants, and trendy retail spaces that are being enjoyed by millions of visitors to Union Market each year.

Up for the challenge

Making a 90-year-old market safe for doing business in 2021 certainly comes with its unique set of challenges. While modifying a structure and keeping its exterior aesthetic was often puzzling, the engineers at TLE were up to the task and excited to “flex their engineering muscles,” by coming up with many creative solutions to the various issues they faced.

When working on a structure of this age, life safety is always the biggest concern. Through years of experience, the engineers at TLE have learned that when serious concerns arise, they must be addressed with a client immediately. This may involve telling a client that what they desire cannot be accomplished safely in the way they want it. Most times, however, a creative engineering solution exists. This is why involving a structural engineering firm like TLE – who has years of training and experience working on structures of all types and ages – is so important.

According to TLE’s president, Kirby Hartle, with good engineering, “almost any space can be made better.” This has definitely been the case at Union Market, and TLE hopes to be involved in many more projects as the area continues to develop and grow.