Mattie R. Sharpless sat in a folding chair Wednesday night in the auditorium of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church at 222 M St. SW as developers, architects and real estate brokers laid out their plans to turn the 13 acres of the outdated Waterside Mall into a pedestrian-friendly open area with restaurants, shops and huge offices for the mortgage giant Fannie Mae.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Fannie Mae have some pretty good real estate up on Wisconsin Avenue?" Sharpless asked the speakers. "Why do they want to come down here?"
Beverly Wilbourn explains Fannie Mae's plans for the waterfront at a community meeting Wednesday.
(Hans Ericsson For The Washington Post)
The crowd erupted in applause. For a while, it seemed like the developers would get shellacked, as they did two years ago at another meeting of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Ward 6D, which represents the neighborhood. But then the crowd started to come around.
And that was an important milestone for the project's three developers. Two years ago, few residents wanted to see more traffic in the neighborhood and others were worried about losing the retailers at the mall. This time around, with a well-known tenant -- Fannie Mae -- taking the bulk of the space and with more-specific ideas about what the 2.5 million-square-foot project will look like, the developers got a warmer reception from most of the residents.
"We received a very hostile reaction from the community the first time around," said Shalom Baranes, whose firm Shalom Baranes Associates is the architect. Now that the old Environmental Protection Agency building has been empty for two years and is getting a little shabby, "people are finally anxious to see development occur there."
Fannie Mae has a large, grassy campus on Wisconsin Avenue near Quebec Street NW, and it leases several other offices in the D.C. region for its 4,000 employees. But the company's workforce has been rapidly growing, and it needs more space.
"We think this is a really terrific neighborhood," said Alvin Nichols, Fannie Mae's director of corporate real estate, responding to Sharpless. "And there are very, very few places you can build the amount of space we're talking about building [in the District.] We could have chosen to move any place. Reston, even. If we were going to spend this amount of money, we wanted to spend it in a place to make a difference."
Getting applause was important for the developers because the project -- one of several the District expects to help revitalize the rundown Southwest and Southeast waterfronts just past the Maine Avenue fish market -- still must go through several public hearings early next year.
The D.C.'s zoning commission must approve the designs, and the D.C. council must also approve re-opening Fourth Street SW through the site and the offer of $17 million cash from the developers to buy the land from the quasi-public National Capital Revitalization Corp., said one of the developers, Gretchen Dudney, vice president of development at Kaempfer Co.
The drab, concrete office buildings on the site, between K and M streets SW, have been mostly empty since the EPA left two years ago, and there are only a few stores, including a Safeway grocery and CVS drugstore.