Monty Hoffman steps out of a trailer at the corner of Seventh and Water streets in Southwest DC and into the bright sunlight. It’s one of those perfect Washington days when outdoor patios are filled with people having a good time and parks are packed with bicyclists and runners. But while Hoffman is just a block from the water, the streets where he walks are nearly deserted.
Looking slightly out of place in a crisp white dress shirt, black slacks, and loafers, Hoffman barely seems to notice the desolation. Where others see a rundown motel and a parking lot full of tour buses, he sees potential. He envisions a cobblestone promenade along the water, a beer garden, and a bustling farmers market. He sees parks, hotels, historic tall ships, and a development of townhouses built on a pier. Most of all, he sees streets filled with people—couples eating dinner, friends on their way to a concert, families having a picnic in the park.
In September 2006, Hoffman’s development company, PN Hoffman, was picked from a field of 17 competitors to redevelop this stretch along the Washington Channel into the kind of world-class waterfront neighborhood DC has never had. For the last five years, the project has been mired in political and bureaucratic battles and slowed by the recession. But it’s finally moving forward—Hoffman and his team have begun to secure financing, and if the zoning commission approves their plans, they intend to break ground at the end of next year.
The Wharf—as the development is called—will cost more than $2 billion and borrow ideas from areas such as Seattle’s Pike Place, New York City’s Battery Park, and Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The hope is that it will extend downtown DC to the water’s edge and spark development of the city’s other waterfront areas.
But while many are excited about the plans, some fear losing the quiet way of life they’re accustomed to in Southwest DC. Others, such as those who live aboard houseboats docked at the waterfront, worry about being displaced.
Underpinning these local concerns is a bigger question. Fifty years ago, the federal government razed hundreds of buildings in Southwest DC and brought in forward-thinking architects and developers to create a neighborhood that reflected the most modern thinking of the time—much like the team at work today.
But as the ’60s-era developer found, creating a neighborhood from scratch is very hard to do. Given Southwest’s history, some may be wondering whether Hoffman’s team can pull it off.
More than a decade ago, DC mayor Anthony Williams stood on the deck of a destroyer docked at the Washington Navy Yard. Overlooking a bleak Anacostia shoreline, Williams promised that Washington’s waterfronts would one day rival those of Boston and San Francisco.
To understand why Washington has made such poor use of its waterfronts, you have to look first to the federal government, which owns most of the land touching the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Along the rivers, the government built Fort McNair, the Navy Yard, and Bolling Air Force Base. Where the government didn’t erect military bases, it created parks—as you follow the Anacostia River toward the District/Maryland line, you pass Anacostia Park, the National Arboretum, and Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. Along the Potomac are the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and the golf course at Hains Point. These monuments and parks draw lots of tourists, but because there’s almost nowhere to eat or shop, the riverfronts die after the sun sets.
Things began to change in November 2000, when President Clinton signed a bill allowing private development in the Southeast Federal Center, a 55-acre plot of federally controlled land along the Anacostia in Southeast DC.
“It was a unique land deal at the time,” says Harriet Tregoning, director of the DC Office of Planning. “It allowed us to begin thinking about creating some great waterfront neighborhoods, and it brought a lot of land that was previously not on our tax rolls into the city’s budget.”
The deal paved the way for creating the Yards—the burgeoning neighborhood that today surrounds Nationals Park—and acted as a catalyst for planning other waterfront developments. In December 2003, Mayor Williams unveiled the Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan, a 20-year blueprint for turning blighted areas along the Anacostia into lively communities.
The Southwest waterfront was a cornerstone of Williams’s plan. Despite its prime location on the Washington Channel and proximity to the Mall, it had never come close to fulfilling its potential. Unlike Georgetown’s Washington Harbour, which filled with boaters and restaurant-goers on nice nights, the Southwest waterfront had become a grimy eyesore, isolated from the rest of the city by the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.
Next: Failure at the Waterfront