Southwest Waterfront redevelopment set to break ground, but not without concerns

Work is set to begin this month on a decade-old plan to transform the District’s Southwest Waterfront into a boardwalk strip of apartments, offices and hotels after developers secured a critical $220 million injection from Canadian investors.

Beginning with a March 19 groundbreaking, two D.C.-based firms plan to level the row of buildings along Water Street and begin constructing four blocks of new buildings, 150 boat slips, three piers and 20 restaurants, bars and cafes on 27 acres of land and 50 acres of water in the Washington Channel.

Developer Monty Hoffman, who was awarded the city-backed project in 2006 and waited out the financial collapse, said it was a chance to deliver a $2 billion waterfront worthy of the nation’s capital.

Plans for the first phase of the Wharf project include apartments, condos, offices, three hotels, a movie theater, a jazz club, a piano bar, a country-western bar, an Irish pub and a 6,000-capacity concert hall by the owner of the 9:30 Club. Hoffman and his partner are seeking approval to adorn the Francis Case Memorial Bridge nearby with LED lighting by the firm that decorated London’s Tower Bridge during the 2012 Summer Olympics.

“This will be the first time when you can actually stroll from restaurant to restaurant, go into a jazz club or movie house and literally be right on the water,” Hoffman said. “It’s a romance that the city currently does not have.”


The project’s kickoff is the most recent sign that foreign interest in big-ticket Washington real estate is broadening outside downtown, as construction cranes rise in neighborhoods surrounding Nationals Park and the area known as NoMa, north of Massachusetts Avenue.

But the surge also has some D.C. residents questioning whether the city’s real estate boom is exacerbating an already widening economic gap.

Though roughly half the project, backed by $198 million in city funds, is open to the public, and it will provide 5,000 permanent jobs and 427 subsidized housing units, the Wharf will also include a members-only club and disrupt the easy access and views longtime residents have enjoyed for generations.

Andy Litsky, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the neighborhood for 16 years, said he supports the project but acknowledged that something will be lost when the shimmering glass towers arrive.

“There are those who, quite frankly, think it’s too big, it’s too tall,” Lisky said. “It will disrupt some views, there’s no doubt about it.”

City’s quiet corner

Despite the recent boom, the city’s smallest quadrant has mostly remained a quiet mix of low-rise apartments, government offices and a treasured public park on Hains Point across the Washington Channel.

First built in the 1890s, the waterfront since the 1970s has been home to themed restaurants and nightclubs, a floating fish market and the Capital Yacht Club, all of them offering views across the Washington Channel to East Potomac Park.

City leaders beginning with then-mayor Anthony A. Williams considered the waterfront a chance to revitalize the economy in Southwest.

Two subsequent mayors and the D.C. Council have supported the redevelopment plan born under Williams. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) issued a statement calling the Wharf “a truly transformative development that will help reconnect the waterfront to the rest of the District.”

But the initial idea of building 130-foot-high hotels and apartment towers created a divisive zoning battle in the community, prompting the developers to rework their plans to preserve some of the neighborhood’s views of the channel.

“I think for the most part people are very excited,” Litsky said. “We realize that there are going to be some initial challenges.”

For one, it will be a massive construction project. In the first phase of work, Hoffman-Madison plans to demolish most of the buildings along Water Street from Seventh Street down to the floating fish market near the Interstate 395 overpass. In their place the companies plan 649 apartments, 241 condominiums, 683 hotel rooms and a series of public boardwalks and plazas.

About 130 people live in 92 boats at the existing marina, according to Karen Anderson, president of the Gangplank ­Slipholders Association. She said the residents aren’t eager for 42 months of construction but are looking forward to the result.

“The kind of quiet here is really precious, but I think it speaks to a real disconnect between the residents and the waterfront, and I think the Wharf is going to go a long way toward addressing that,” she said.

The Wharf will add to a growing list of destinations for boaters that already includes Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria, National Harbor and the Yards in Southeast D.C., but of those it may have the best chance to draw tourists from the Mall a few blocks north.

“We have 28 million visitors that don’t have a place to go eat or have entertainment,” said Amer Hammour, chief executive of District-based Madison Marquette, Hoffman’s partner.

‘It was very lonely’

In his ninth year working on the project, Hoffman, chief executive of PN Hoffman, could write a book about surviving a real estate collapse, with several epilogues. He was a condo builder who had helped remake the Logan Circle area when he was chosen for the project.

In coming years, the agency that selected him (the Anacostia Waterfront Corp.) was shut down by the city and the partner he won the project with (Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse) collapsed.

He and his staff attended more than 500 public meetings on the project. More than two dozen government agencies had to approve the project, and Congress had to pass three laws to allow the Wharf to move forward.

Meanwhile, Hoffman burned through millions of dollars of his own money to keep the project alive, operating his company at a deficit for the past five years.

“It was very lonely,” Hoffman said. “We knew, or I knew, through all of it that having a mile of shoreline in the nation’s capital within walking distance to the national mall was just so special that we had to hang on to it, I had to hang on to it. If this would have been a lesser area, I would have let it go.”

Once Madison joined the project, Hoffman and Hammour traveled across North America, the Middle East and China searching for investors. Hammour said the project would include the best aspects of waterfronts in Singapore; Cape Town, South Africa; Barcelona; and San Francisco.

“I will be incredibly disappointed if we just created a bland project,” Hammour said. “My hope is that people will say, ‘Let’s just go to the waterfront without having a specific activity in mind, because there’s all this stuff we can do.’ ”

But the future of the Wharf was still in doubt until recent weeks when a pension fund manager, PSP Investments, which oversees 76.1 billion Canadian dollars, entered final negotiations to put up $220 million of the first $800 million in construction, according to sources familiar with the deal who were not authorized to discuss it publicly. (Hoffman declined to identify the investor.)

The investment follows $650 million that Qatar pumped into CityCenter DC and millions more from Chinese investors for the City Market at O.

With the money from north of the border on the way, the locals are preparing for the demolition crews to finally arrive, aware that their quiet corner of the city, home to former Supreme Court justice David H. Souter during his career in Washington, is about to change dramatically.

Owners of some of the businesses, including the fish market, the yacht club and Cantina Marina restaurant, have struck deals to remain or reopen in the new project. Others, including owners of Phillips Seafood and the Channel Inn hotel, are moving on. Some of the restaurants and businesses have already announced closing dates.

Stephen Evans’s family has been serving seafood off the river since the 1950s, when his father, Jesse Taylor, kept fish he picked up along the Potomac cool with a gargantuan block of ice in the bottom of his boat.

By 2017, their shop aboard a barge will be adjacent to a 505-unit apartment building featuring outdoor cabanas, grills and rooftop vegetable gardens.

“I can’t even really imagine how different it’s going to be,” Evans said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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