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Shaping the City

In Redeveloping Its Waterfronts, Washington Should Again Turn to Paris

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, October 2, 2004; Page F03

Giving new life and new form to Washington's Potomac and Anacostia River waterfronts is in all respects a fabulous prospect, not to mention a monumental effort that is long overdue.

Even if only some of what is proposed comes to pass, the city will be positively and dramatically transformed.

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The most recent proposals envision a $400 million major league baseball stadium and a professional soccer stadium. Bracketing the Anacostia River near the South Capital Street Bridge, these two sports facilities would enrich the diverse ideas and uses -- commercial, cultural, residential, recreational -- included in the city's justifiably ambitious Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.

The initiative encompasses the Southeast Federal Center, adjacent to the Washington Navy Yard, where new development is well underway; the underused parkland of Poplar Point across the river; and other Anacostia and Potomac River frontages, including the Southwest Waterfront, where a makeover is envisioned.

Farther up the Potomac, District and National Park Service plans call for redesign of the waterfronts at the Kennedy Center and Georgetown, adjacent to the Whitehurst Freeway. That road eventually should be taken down and replaced with a well-designed waterfront boulevard.

For years, we have talked about how Washington's rivers could serve local transportation needs, with water taxis plying the Potomac and Anacostia.

Thus we can foresee in the not-so-distant future a city finally connected -- intimately, actively and at an appropriate scale -- to its cleaned-up, increasingly animated rivers. Indeed, Washington's rivers and their embankments should be as vital to the form, life and culture of the city as the National Mall.

If he could see Washington today, Pierre L'Enfant, who planned the new American capital more than 200 years ago, assuredly would agree.

That brings me to France. L'Enfant was familiar with and clearly influenced by 18th century baroque city-planning principles and motifs characterizing French landscape design, most evident at Versailles. L'Enfant, Thomas Jefferson and their 19th century successors who continued planning Washington also saw Paris as a model. They admired its consistent, low-rise building fabric, its ceremonial avenues and public squares, its grand civic edifices, its parks and its integral relationship with the Seine River.

Paris and its river still have lessons to teach Washington. While there this summer, I had the pleasure of visiting "Paris-Plage" -- the city's Seine River beach.

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