Michael Stevens Executive Director of Capitol Riverfront BID
Michael Stevens Executive Director of Capitol Riverfront BID

Michael Stevens, Executive Director for the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District

Developing a Name for the Southeast Waterfront Is Easier Than Actually Developing It

The sidewalks of Half Street SE are loaded with people who are walking by whizzing cars, chatting on street corners, and strolling past bright storefront signs. In short, they’re out and about enjoying their gloriously developed, mixed-use, walkable, center city, riverfront community-as well they should.

But these are not your average living, breathing gentrifiers: They’re artistic renderings on signs posted along Monument Realty’s Half Street construction site. The real sidewalks are desolate. At the end of the block, Nationals Park sits empty, although there’s a security guard out front.

When asked about the best directions to the riverfront, he points up toward M Street and then gestures west. He’s not talking about the Southeast D.C. shoreline of the Anacostia River, which is only about two blocks south, but points instead to the Southwest Waterfront, in an entirely different quadrant of the city.

Clearly, he does not know he is smack within the “Capitol Riverfront.”

Not familiar with this District locale? The Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID) is hoping that will change. Beginning in late 2006, property owners, developers, and the BID board members began batting around new names to identify the 500-acre area known by a variety of names: “that neighborhood around the stadium,” “ballpark district,” “Near Southeast Waterfront,” “Southeast Federal Center,” “Washington Navy Yard,” and “Navy Yard,” the name of the nearby Metro station. (City Paper attempted to make “Nats Flats” stick, but it never quite caught on.)

In the next 20 years, the Capitol Riverfront BID expects the area to hold 15 million square feet of office space, more than 9,100 residential units, 1 million square feet of retail, restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters and other entertainment spaces, 1,200 hotel rooms, and four parks.

With all that development on the horizon, neighborhood stakeholders decided it was time to redefine the neighborhood according to its latest vision. According to Michael Stevens, the BID’s executive director, this will be a place where “you can park your car and walk to two grocery stores, walk to where you work, walk to the Metro, and catch it to downtown, walk to the riverfront and get on the Riverwalk Trail for a jog or a bike ride, go play Frisbee by the river, listen to a concert, go to a baseball game, go up to Barracks Row on Capitol Hill and eat dinner or eat dinner in one of the restaurants [down by the Anacostia].”

The BID hired local marketing firm the Ad Agency, which researched the area and interviewed property owners before generating several possible neighborhood names.

“We knew we wanted a name that was somewhat of a geographic locator for this area-hence the name ‘Capitol Riverfront.’ We’re halfway between the river and the Capitol,” says Stevens.
Soon, the Ad Agency developed a neighborhood logo: two squiggly lines meant to represent waves.

These days, the name shows up on signs that hang from lampposts on M Street SE. Local developers seem willing to get on board. “Velocity Capitol Riverfront” is the name of a 200-unit condominium building at the corner of 1st and L Streets SE that’s set to be completed in 2009. Another nearby apartment building, the Onyx on First, also mentions the new neighborhood moniker on the front page of its Web site: “At Onyx on First, you’re just two blocks from the new ball park and right in the heart of the excitement of the Capitol Riverfront.”

Yet there’s not much to see at the riverfront now. Right behind the stadium is a beige cement mixing plant with trucks crawling around like beetles between piles of gravel. Over on South Capitol Street, cars buzz by a Public Storage and shabby storefronts on their way to the Frederick Douglass Bridge. Anyone who stops long enough to look for a restaurant is pretty much limited to the Five Guys on New Jersey Avenue.

Next year is supposed to see the opening of Diamond Teague Park, a “public plaza” with water taxi stands. In mid 2010, the Park at the Yards, a five-and-a-half-acre space, will open in front of a mixed-use project called the Yards Park Pavilion. For the time being, though, locals might want to head up to the Capitol for green space.

Given its current state, it’s no wonder “Capitol Riverfront” hasn’t quite caught on with local real estate agents. Don Denton is the branch vice president of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage of Capitol Hill. He says he heard the new name a year and a half ago, but still considers the area Capitol Hill.
“When you’re talking about the identity of a neighborhood from a marketing standpoint, [you] want to be identified with the neighborhood that’s perceived to be successful and, quite frankly, reasonably expensive,” he says. The name “Capitol Riverfront,” he says, still doesn’t have the cachet.

Jim Simpson, also an agent with Coldwell Banker Capitol Hill, has lived in the southeast Capitol Hill area for 20 years. He’s worked with a few clients who’ve bought co-op units in the Capitol Hill Tower on New Jersey Avenue. He still thinks of the area as “down by the ballpark.” Occasionally, he walks his dog around there just for a change of scenery. “But there’s not really much to see yet,” he says-something that Stevens recognizes too.

“You have to take a longer view of this situation,” he says. “This is a 20-year build-out, which will be pretty remarkable in the life cycle of the city.” Stevens points out that “NoMa”-North of Massachusetts Avenue, which also has its own BID group-didn’t catch on for some time. “Capitol Riverfront” has been in circulation for les than two years. Stevens has no regrets about the choice, even if the glorious shoreline vision won’t be fully realized right away.

“Am I disappointed we don’t have more retail and restaurants? Yes,” he says. “The immediate gratification part of me wishes I had that yesterday. But, I realize I’m in this for the long haul.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery. 

This article will appear in the December 11 issue of the Washington City Paper.