Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

The question that anyone tries to answer when reviewing a new building or public space is: How well does it work? Often, the answer is complicated (which is why design criticism exists). But for the first phase of The Wharf, the $2 billion mega-development by Hoffman-Madison on the Southwest waterfront, the better question to ask is: How well does it not work? This isn’t snark: Stan Eckstut, the architect responsible for its master plan, says that was his goal.

“I really did not want symmetry and order,” Eckstut told me, sitting across a table in the still-unscuffed lobby of the Canopy by Hilton on 7th Street SW. “Where people love being are places like where I live, the West Village in New York. They don’t work, and they’re really congested, and nobody can figure out how to get from here to there.” Happy dysfunction, in his view, defines a real city.

Eckstut, a principal with the firm Perkins Eastman, and his colleagues set the parameters for the design of 2 million square feet of new construction plus some 10 acres of public space. The area includes streets, squares, piers, and a park. For the most part, they kept the parameters light. Architects who were designing individual buildings—the brain trust included Handel Architects, SmithGroupJJR, WDG Architecture, Cunningham Quill Architects, and Perkins Eastman itself—were asked to focus on the ground level and get creative with the corners, since that’s what people see. Each building needed to have its own identity and simultaneously play nice with neighboring buildings, Eckstut says. “Don’t try to be like your next-door neighbor, but don’t try to outdo and outgun and dominate your neighbor,” is how he puts it.

The negative spaces between and around the buildings interested Eckstut more, and he violated a few pieties of D.C. planning in his quest for controlled chaos. Instead of putting a park next to the water, he opted for a street—with cars. That raised eyebrows at D.C.’s federal design-review boards. He was trying to avoid creating a dead zone, he explains. “If you make spaces too big, [people] won’t walk; they’re going to think everything’s far away.”

He applied the same reasoning to sight lines into and through the district. Unobstructed “view corridors” are sacrosanct in the city of Pierre L’Enfant, but Eckstut’s instinct is to fill them up. “I don’t believe in view corridors too much,” he told me. (I half-expected lightning to strike, but nothing happened.) The Wharf’s large central square, on 9th Street SW, is anchored and partly filled by a two-story building clad in rough stone.

This love of congestion carries over to other parts of The Wharf. Mews, or secondary streets, cut vertically and horizontally through the site. An alley slices at an angle from Maine Avenue SW down to the water’s edge. While hardly as cramped as the streets of a medieval city, these narrower passages contrast with the sense of openness out on the new piers, all four of them, which reach like long fingers into the channel.  

Wharf Street SW, the 60-foot-wide spine of the development along the river, is D.C.’s first shared street, or what the Dutch call a woonerf. Rather than lanes, it has zones, indicated by subtly different patterns of gray paving: a promenade, with trees closest to the water; the street proper, mixing people and cars in the middle; and then an outdoor-seating zone for restaurants. Although bands of contrasting paving and a metal drainage grate delineate the zones, they mostly blend into each other, and pedestrians rule the whole street. The trick to taming cars in the city, Eckstut says, is not to exclude them outright, but to favor pedestrians so much in the street design that drivers proceed with caution.

So how well does The Wharf not-work, then? Pretty well, it turns out. I visited the day after it opened in mid-October and again in early November. Both times, the woonerf was behaving as hoped, with throngs of confident strollers and only the occasional car nosing its way through. The piers were busy with Washingtonians of every demographic (including canine), and people continuously flowed west down Wharf Street SW to the Maine Avenue Fish Market. If the development brings new customers to that century-old institution, all the better.

Across from the fish market, in a perfect metaphor for old vs. new D.C., stands a new office building by the firm Kohn Pedersen Fox. It’s a slick-glass number edged in terra cotta called 1000 Maine, and it’s the best of a forgettable bunch. The architecture here is competent but generic, indistinguishable from NoMA or Navy Yard except for the prevalent black metal accents. An exception is The Anthem, the new 6,000 person-capacity concert venue. Designed by the Rockwell Group, a New York firm that specializes in arts spaces, it playfully evokes the style of old opera houses with pixelated LED panels in the form of velvet stage curtains and balcony swags. At the front of The Anthem is a vast, daylit lobby topped by—wait for it—the infinity pool of the adjacent apartment complex, The Channel. 

But the highlights of The Wharf are the little surprises out of doors, which Eckstut and his team have managed to pull off. On Wharf Street SW, a prow-like corner of 1000 Maine aims directly at the sawtoothed bays of The Channel, a sharp detail that compelled me to venture into the alley separating them. Later, in one of the mews, I found myself in the near-dark with a stage door on one side, a brick wall on the other. For an ersatz version of a downtown alley, it felt close to the real thing.

In urban districts cut from whole cloth, architects and developers talk up the design, but you get the sense they don’t trust design alone. There are countless extras thrown in to “animate” the public realm, such as fire pits (extremely popular on both my visits), swings (ditto), water features, and rocking horses and a big Connect Four board for kids. In aggregate, they make the place feel a bit cluttered. As for the classic rock piped from black metal “masts” on the promenade: Developers need to knock it off with this gimmick already.

These diversions can’t solve The Wharf’s problem, which is a lack of engrossing activities that don’t require spending a lot of money. There’s no museum or big attraction. Eckstut is adamant that he designed for locals, not tourists. Fair enough—but once you’ve strolled, swung, and stopped for coffee, there’s not a lot else to do, especially on a cold or wet day. Most of the shops and restaurants so far are upscale, and killing time here is expensive. (It should be less of a problem in warm weather.)

It’s early days, but The Wharf is shaping up to be a high-end nightlife district, an Adams Morgan for thirty-somethings with better seafood. Whether that’s what the District needs right now, as the city reaches Peak Restaurant and millennials start to leave for cheaper locales, is an open question. But whatever it evolves into, the urban design of Phase One is a promising foundation.