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Southwest Waterfront gets its long-overdue makeover

By Shaping the City,

Many substantial new developments and redevelopments are taking shape in metropolitan Washington. But among the shapeliest and most visible will be the “Wharf,” a long-overdue makeover of the Southwest Waterfront being undertaken by Hoffman-Madison Waterfront, the master developer.

A 1960s anachronism, the Southwest Waterfront is finally destined to become one of Washington’s most desirable places to live, work, shop and have fun.

The Wharf master plan by Perkins-Eastman will dramatically transform what today is an underdeveloped, poorly designed but valuable strip of city-owned land stretching along Maine Avenue to the Washington Channel. Overlooking East Potomac Park and the Potomac River, the Wharf will encompass a broad range of residential, commercial, cultural and recreational uses. It is sure to rival other lively downtown destinations such as the Penn Quarter and 7th Street NW corridor, Union Station and Georgetown.

Yet this long-awaited project does more than just redevelop 27 acres of excessively paved real estate and 24 acres of water. In a city where almost no buildings abut the city’s extensive riverscape, the Wharf at last will bring relatively dense, activated urban architecture, indeed a significant piece of downtown Washington, directly to the water’s edge.

The Wharf’s prime location and context will help ensure its success. Near the L’Enfant Plaza and Waterfront Metro stations, the site is also within easy walking distance of the Mall and dozens of federal buildings. Vehicular access is likewise easy. Eventually more frequent, less costly water taxis will serve the Wharf as it and other waterfront developments grow. And no doubt a water shuttle will provide seasonal access to East Potomac Park.

The makeover planning effort required considerable resources and time, having begun in earnest in 2007, when the city selected the master developer. Over the past five years, hundreds of meetings with official agencies and citizens took place. Exhaustive master plan reviews and revisions were necessary to obtain legislation, land entitlements, zoning and design approvals and redevelopment authorization from a long list of city and federal government entities.

As soon as final building permits are issued for phase one of this two-phase, $1.45 billion development, demolition and construction will begin, probably within the next year or so. Total project build-out is 3.2 million square feet, of which nearly 2 million square feet are in the first phase.

When both phases are completed, 10 mixed-use, 130-foot-high buildings plus several small-scale pavilions will stand alongside the channel, framing views and giving shape to a well-conceived public realm.

Comprising this realm will be remodeled Maine Avenue, a tree-lined boulevard for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. Between the bulkhead lining the channel and the line of buildings, a wide pedestrian promenade parallel to Maine Avenue likewise will accommodate bicycles, occasional vehicles and outdoor dining.

Intimate pedestrian passages as well as landscaped plazas will exist between buildings. The master plan also calls for constructing two new marinas with 450 boat slips, plus four new commercial-recreational piers extending into the channel. At the Wharf development’s eastern edge adjacent to 6th Street SW, Hoffman-Madison Waterfront will build a new public park to serve current and future Southwest neighborhood residents.

The menu of planned uses for the two phases is ambitious: 358,000 square feet of street-level retail space; 960,000 square feet of office space; three hotels containing 683 rooms; 2,300 parking spaces in a pair of below-grade garages; 10 acres of open space; and 1,300 apartments, some of which will be a combination of below-market affordable units and workforce units, in compliance with D.C. workforce housing legislation and Planned Unit Development requirements.

There will be plenty of eateries, shops and recreational attractions, plus a 6,000-seat music hall and conference facility. The historic fresh-fish market, aligned with 12th Street SW at the Wharf site’s western end, will be preserved and enhanced.

Occupying the western half of the Wharf property, phase one’s four buildings will contain shops and restaurants, office space, two hotels, the music hall and approximately 900 residential units — 134 condominium and 657 rental apartments, mostly studios, one- and two-bedroom units. All of this will sit atop a two-level garage with about 1,300 parking spaces.

The Wharf’s shared design authorship was a purposeful choice made by the master developer, who didn’t want the project to appear to be the work of a single designer. Architect Stan Eckstut of Perkins Eastman is choreographing the work of several landscape architects and architects — including his own firm — as they craft the Wharf’s diverse buildings and associated public open spaces. This is a sensible strategy, given the project’s size and context.

Contemporary in character and composition, phase one is being designed sustainably. Green roofs will be ubiquitous. Large windows and glass curtain walls will capture daylight and views. Instead of being dumped immediately into the river, stormwater runoff will be collected on site and stored in cisterns below the waterfront promenade, and some stormwater will be recycled as gray water. A gas-fired cogeneration plan will provide all the Wharf’s electricity.

The Wharf plan is still being refined, and specific designs inevitably will change somewhat, making aesthetic judgments about architecture premature. But in light of what’s been accomplished so far — overall site planning, building massing and articulation, public realm delineation — the project deserves high marks. If aspirations are realized and design quality continues evolving in positive ways, I could imagine living at the Wharf.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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