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If the big countdown clock in the lobby of the former Channel Inn is any indication, the developers behind The Wharf aren’t nearly as squeamish about deadlines as the District officials behind the streetcar.
Then-Mayor Vince Gray tried to put a deadline on the opening of the long-anticipated H Street-Benning Road streetcar line in November 2013, when he said it would be operational “not later than early February” 2014. We’re now more than a year past that mark, and the streetcar’s still not carrying passengers. Since then, city officials have shied away from putting a date on the milestone, with new D.C. Department of Transportation chief Leif Dormsjo saying recently that the streetcar could come in “two weeks, or two months, or two years.”
The developers rebuilding the Southwest Waterfront are much more confident about their ability to stick to a schedule. Visitors to their offices, in the converted former hotel on the Washington Channel, are immediately greeted by a digital display sandwiched between old images of the waterfront. “Countdown” is printed on top, “10.12.17” on bottom. In the middle, the days, hours, minutes, and seconds separating that date from the present tick down. “Phase 1 Complete: -974, 8:59, 43,” it read when I entered last week. 42… 41… 40…
Less certain is the effect the development will have on the public perception of the waterfront that for decades has been neglected, or worse. It was once an active waterfront in a bustling, diverse quadrant of the city. Then came urban renewal, with its bulldozers and grand plazas and concrete monoliths that were all about monumentality and seemed to forget entirely about humanity. In recent years, there hasn’t been much reason to visit the waterfront, unless you’re a seafood shopper at the storied Maine Avenue Fish Market or a D.C. Councilmember seeking a bribe.
The promised attractions at the $2 billion, 27-acre Wharf project, from developers PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette, are certainly enough to draw a crowd. There are the 20 planned restaurants and bars along the waterfront. There’s the concert hall that’ll be operated by the people behind the 9:30 Club, only five times the size of the V Street NW venue. There are apartments and condos, office buildings and three hotels, a jazz club and a movie theater, parkland and piers. In short, there’s an entirely new neighborhood. The question is whether it can attract the mass of visitors it’s seeking.
This won’t be the first new neighborhood to emerge in D.C. in recent years. There’s NoMa, full of luxe offices and, increasingly, high-end apartments. There’s Navy Yard, born from the ashes of a demolished public housing complex and now a bustling mix of residences, restaurants, and baseball fans. And there’s CityCenterDC, bastion of the one percent, among them top politicos like Eric Holder and Sen. Claire McCaskill.
But there’s a key difference here. NoMa’s growth spread from the new infill Metro station that opened there in 2004, and the federal investment in the new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives at New York and Florida avenues NE. The Navy Yard had the same benefits: a Metro station and the U.S. Department of Transportation. CityCenterDC is surrounded by Metro stations and by an already thriving downtown.
The waterfront is different. The L’Enfant Plaza Metro station is within easy walking distance—-about half a mile—-but it’s not a particularly pleasant or obvious walk: You have to cross over the Southwest Freeway and trek past the imposing government buildings of the renewal era. The Waterfront Metro station is about the same distance and not much more pedestrian friendly. And given the waterfront’s desolateness to date, the developers will have to create a sense of place essentially from scratch.
But Brant Snyder, development director at Madison Marquette, thinks the place speaks for itself. Gesturing out the window of The Wharf’s development offices at the Washington Channel, he says, “This explains it.”
“Part of it is rebranding Southwest,” he continues. “Will Rich writes the Little Quadrant That Could blog. It’s the forgotten quadrant.”
Southwest’s fate is tied to the water, and for a long time, the water has been an afterthought. Slowly, that’s changing. The Navy Yard development, and particularly Yards Park along the Anacostia River, has brought a once-dead waterfront to life—-but Snyder says that’s more of a neighborhood hangout than a regional destination. Old Town Alexandria and National Harbor are far from the city. Georgetown’s waterfront has had activity for a while, but that’s just one small stretch of the long waterfront. “People are going to start to realize that the water’s what they’ve been missing,” Snyder predicts.
So how do you get people there? The 14th Street Bridge and the freeway make for easy vehicular access, but no one much wants the waterfront to become a cluster of cars. “It’s not a Metro location,” says Madison Marquette Senior Vice President Dan McCahan, “but it’s walkable to Metro.” There will likely be shuttle buses running to and from the National Mall and the Metro. McCahan says the developers are “trying to be heavily bike centric,” with around 1,000 bike parking spaces, but the streets around The Wharf can be tough for cyclists to navigate. And the developers are hoping that the city will lend a hand by bringing the Circulator back to Southwest and, perhaps someday, adding a north-south streetcar line that will serve the area.
Realistically, people won’t come by out of convenience. They’ll come if it’s a draw. With the big amenities, as well as other potential ones like a distillery and an oyster purveyor in the dilapidated old oyster shack that’s still standing on the site, the developers are hoping the retail will be an attraction in the vein of Union Market. “Our goal,” says McCahan, “is to make it so unique that you have to go there.”
For now, the project is little more than a hole in the ground. But the developers hope to begin condo pre-sales this spring. Apartment move-ins will likely come next, with office and retail tenants following in mid-2017. The developers have their work cut out for them. And the clock is ticking.
Rendering courtesy of Madison Marquette; photos by Aaron Wiener