Ten years ago, Andy Altman, the director of the D.C. Office of Planning under Mayor Anthony Williams, became chief executive of the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, a development body he’d helped create. Ten months later, he left for the private sector and a career that landed him as Philadelphia’s top development official and as the chief executive of the organization overseeing the development of London’s 2012 Olympic Park.
Altman recently returned to the District from the United Kingdom, and he was amazed at what he saw in one particular area. Where a wasteland of federal property once stood on the western bank of the Anacostia River, a new neighborhood, alternately known as Navy Yard and Capitol Riverfront, was now thriving.
In other words, the longshot vision that Altman and Williams had projected for the riverfront had more or less become a reality.
There are now 4,700 residents and 32,000 daytime employees within the boundaries of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District. The number of restaurants continues to explode: There were 19 a year ago, eight more opened in 2014, and five are expected to open this year. Three parks attract visitors for the likes of ice skating, concerts, and boozy festivals. A Harris Teeter supermarket recently opened; a Whole Foods is set to join in 2017.
“It’s beyond a dream that could ever come true for someone who’s in city planning,” Altman said at a Capitol Riverfront BID luncheon today. He called the neighborhood change “one of the most remarkable urban transformations in the United States.”
Here, from Altman’s presentation, are a couple of versions of how the Williams administration envisioned the waterfront long before the Capitol Riverfront name had been conceived:
Of course, things haven’t turned out exactly this way. For one thing, there’s a ballpark in the neighborhood, widely credited with spurring the surrounding development. And the streets aren’t aligned quite like this. But there’s a spacious park on the river in the renderings, much like Yards Park today. And more fundamentally, there’s development everywhere, creating a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood. (The transformation didn’t occur without some bitter fights and lingering problems, though, particularly concerning the redevelopment of a public housing complex that still hasn’t allowed many former residents to return, despite the success of luxury housing nearby.)
In the early 2000s, D.C. was so beset with problems—-prevalent violent crime, a troubled economy just emerging from federal receivership—-that people advised Williams against undertaking a massive project along a river that was far off most policymakers’ map. “The political risk at the time was, everyone said, ‘Don’t think big. We have so many more important things to worry about,'” Altman says.
But Williams chose to draw up an expansive map for his Anacostia riverfront revitalization, stretching along both banks from the confluence with the Potomac to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Much of the work Williams envisioned has been accomplished. But major exceptions remain. Most notable among them is the Hill East neighborhood, where the Williams administration planned for mixed-use development by the Anacostia. Instead, plans for a transformation there have largely stalled, with obsolete facilities like the ostensibly temporary homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital still standing.
Still, the development of the Navy Yard area strikes Altman as a world-class success—-one on par with the changes he helped bring to London. Portions of the Thames riverfront were blighted and considered far from London’s core. Now, Altman says, the development surrounding the Olympics has brought them into the center of Londoners’ urban consciousness.
D.C., of course, will not be hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics. Altman, perhaps understating the relief on the part of D.C. Olympophobes, says that’s not a problem. “If it’s not the Olympics, that’s OK; it’ll be something else,” he says of the catalyst for riverfront development. “Even though we didn’t get the Olympics, the visions for the Olympics should be maintained.” That means developing the area around RFK stadium, which would have become an Olympic stadium, as well as capitalizing on the planned D.C. United soccer stadium at Buzzard Point and the 11th Street Bridge Park to spur nearby development.
Perhaps, 10 years from now, the officials who dreamed up those projects will be just as surprised to see how the surrounding neighborhoods have changed.
Top photo by Darrow Montgomery; photos of the presentation by Aaron Wiener