Near Nationals Park, a neighborhood of many names is emerging

Many nicknames are used for the emerging neighborhood south of Capitol Hill, between Interstate 395 and the Anacostia River.

There is “Navy Yard,” an apt name because it adorns the Metro station and the Washington Navy Yard operates on the neighborhood’s riverfront.

There is “Ballpark District,” used since Nationals Park opened in 2008 at South Capitol and N streets SE.

There is “Capitol Riverfront,” the brand that developers have been pushing to try to attract more restaurants and entertainment outlets.

And there is “Near Southeast,” a term employed by a local blog, JDLand, that chronicles the neighborhood’s every change.

Whatever the moniker, a neighborhood is taking shape in the blocks surrounding the ballpark as more people move there in search of easy access to Capitol Hill jobs, riverfront views and the opportunity to walk to Washington Nationals games.

The neighborhood barely existed before officials of the D.C. government and Major League Baseball agreed to build the ballpark on South Capitol Street in 2004. At the time, the area was a mix of industrial facilities, after-hours clubs and vacant lots. South Capitol Street was notable mainly for drug crime and gang violence. Fewer than 1,000 people lived in the area.

Today, you would never know it. Walk along M Street SE from the Green Line Metro station on a sunny afternoon and there are towering new apartment buildings, a Harris Teeter grocery store under construction and, a few blocks to the south, a 5.5-acre waterfront park with views that rival anything Georgetown has to offer.

“It’s a wonderful place to hang out by the river,” said Andrew Weber. Weber, 35, was an early pioneer of the neighborhood in 2006 when he moved into the Capitol Hill Tower co-op (then new), from an apartment in the Van Ness neighborhood in Northwest. He and his wife now have two kids and a dog, and Yards Park is a frequent destination.

“The fountain is great for kids, there’s an area where you can bring your dog and let them run around. . . . It’s a nice area just to play pitch-and-catch. And they have lots of activities, so a lot of Fridays you can go down and have dinner and listen to music in the summertime,” he said. Another park, Canal Park, is scheduled to open this fall, with plans to offer ice skating in the winter.

Before the baseball stadium was even built, speculators purchased land and began planning thousands of condominiums and a raft of restaurants to take advantage of the riverfront, the Metro station and the ballpark. The recession vaporized many of those plans, putting some companies out of business and forcing others to stop construction. As late as last year, a proposal for a Whole Foods grocery store fell apart, and as any Nats fan can attest, the Half Street Southeast corridor to the ballpark is still lined with empty lots and construction sites, leaving few options for locals to eat, drink or even buy groceries.

Baseball’s arrival did help introduce people to the neighborhood, said Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, which manages Yards Park and cleanup efforts. Stevens said that nearly 3,600 people live in the neighborhood today. But that’s still a long way from the full vision for a neighborhood where forecasters expect 8,100 housing units to be built in the next 20 years.

“I think the ballpark, while it hasn’t quite stimulated the private development that was envisioned — the recession had a hand in that — it really did mentally map our neighborhood. . . . When you sit in that stadium and you sit in the top tiers, you look out and you can see all that building development,” Stevens said.

Now the restaurants and attractions are coming, and quickly. Construction is underway at the waterfront development of old Navy Yard facilities known as the Yards, and nearly a dozen restaurants are on the way: Austin Grill Express, Buzz Bakery, Brb (Be Right Burger), Huey’s 24/7 Diner, Kruba Thai & Sushi, Potbelly Sandwich Works, Willie’s Brew & ’Que and a brew pub called Bluejacket by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, operators of Vermilion, Churchkey and Rustico. All of them should be open by this fall.

Next year, Harris Teeter will open a grocery store at Fourth and M streets, with 220 apartments on top. The developer, Forest City Washington, is one of a number of companies planning or building high-end apartments in the area, such as its 170-unit Foundry Lofts. Two-thirds of the neighborhood’s residents are renters, according to the Business Improvement District, and more than half of residents are ages 22 to 35.

“I think what we’ve seen at Foundry Lofts is it’s generally an upper 20s and mid-30s type of renter,” said Ramsey Meiser, Forest City Washington senior vice president of development.

Parents may be disappointed to learn that the neighborhood still lacks basics such as a neighborhood school and a public library, though there has been discussion about reopening the former Van Ness elementary school on M Street.

And, for now, at least, there aren’t many options for home buyers. The last of 325 Capitol Quarter townhouses are being built between Third and Fifth streets south of M Street. Developer EYA says all but one of the townhouses have been sold. One of the few condominium buildings in the area, Velocity Capitol Riverfront, has a few dozen units left. In the 20003 Zip code, which includes all of Capitol Hill, median monthly home prices ranged from $465,000 to $640,000 in 2011, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. In January, 22 homes were sold at a median price of $509,500.

Weber said he is looking forward to the new developments in the neighborhood, even if he hasn’t settled on a name. “If I’m talking to someone that’s not from D.C., I would probably just say I live near Capitol Hill,” he said.

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