Mayor Vince Gray addresses the crowd as mayoral rivals Tommy Wells, Jack Evans, and Muriel Bowser look on.

Eight years after the city selected a developer for the megadevelopment along the Southwest Waterfront known as The Wharf, the project officially broke ground today, ushered in by the city’s leading—-and competing—-elected officials.

Mayor Vince Gray was accompanied on stage in a heated tent at the waterfront by his three top challengers for the Democratic mayoral primary on April 1: Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser. (Another candidate, At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, was also present but not invited on stage.) In 90 minutes of speeches to a packed crowd, the politicos and developers spared no superlatives in presenting the 24-acre project, which will feature three hotels, apartments and condos, a movie theater, several music venues, office space, and an expanded marina.

The Wharf, said Wells, will be “one of the most remarkable developments anywhere on the planet.” David Brainerd of Madison Marquette, one of the two lead developers along with PN Hoffman, called it “one of the most exciting development projects ever constructed in the city of Washington, D.C.”

“This is going to be beyond the Inner Harbor in Baltimore,” chimed in Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor Hoskins. “This is going to be beyond National Harbor.”

It’s been a long time coming. The city awarded the project to the developers two administrations ago, in 2006. Between the recession, financing challenges, and logistics in gaining the approval of the federal government, it took eight years to break ground. “I remember the first meeting we had on the Southwest Waterfront: George Washington, Pierre L’Enfant, and we said, ‘Maybe we can get this done,'” said Evans, poking fun at the long process.

Today’s groundbreaking kicks off the first phase of the development, which will include 200,000 square feet of retail, 435,000 square feet of offices, 648 apartments (including 135 affordable units for people making under 60 percent of area median income), 240 condos, 680 hotel rooms, and cultural spaces. This phase is expected to be completed in 2017. In that same year, the second phase will begin, nearly doubling the retail, office, and housing, and adding 450 marina slips. The second phase is slated for completion in 2020 or 2021.

Local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Andy Litsky trumpeted the project as one that will rescue the Southwest quadrant from the shadows of the other quadrants, which have experienced more development and publicity in recent years. “Southwest has always been the forgotten quadrant,” he said. But with a groundbreaking that Gray called the biggest he’d ever witnessed, people are clearly paying attention now.

Photo by Aaron Wiener