CITYSCAPE: THE OTHER RIVER : The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative
A Vision for the Southwest
New Homes, Parks, Cultural Facilities Among Changes Planned
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2004; Page C01
Third in a five-part series
The Southwest waterfront is one of the few places in Washington where the city busily engages the water's edge.
A place where people live. An active, interesting place that people walk to from nearby streets, mingling with fish sellers, fishermen, folks hanging out at waterside restaurants and bars, families out for an evening stroll.
Oops. Time warp. That reality was eons ago. Back before much of the neighborhood was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for something new.
And, believe it or not, that lively image was how it was supposed to be once again -- only cleaner and brighter when the bulldozing was done. Despite the fine intentions, however, the urban renewers got it wrong, and the waterfront became the place we know and, for so many, find impossible to love today.
A failed place where the fish sellers hang on at the edge and where people parade from cars and buses directly to and from eateries and tourist boats. Where, most days, nobody really hangs out just for the pleasure of it.
Now, the day has arrived, again, to brace for dramatic change, because the Southwest waterfront is a prime focus of the city's Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.
"The Southwest waterfront," says Andrew Altman, director of the city's Office of Planning, "is absolutely at the pivotal location between the water, the Mall, the downtown and the Southwest neighborhood. It should be the premier destination waterfront in Washington. It should be a great urban waterfront."
Chances for change are good. Despite its faults, the setting, extending nearly a mile along the Washington Channel, is all-around great. It's got water and boats, and it's a five-minute walk from the Jefferson Memorial. Ten minutes from the Mall. It is perfectly placed to supply the demand for in-city residences. And the city already controls much of the land.
And chances are strong that when it comes, the change will look pretty much like this: An orderly row of mid-rise buildings for residences, hotel rooms, small offices, stores and cultural facilities will replace the low buildings now facing the channel. The new buildings will accommodate up to 800 upscale housing units (with 20 percent "affordable") and a hotel with up to 450 rooms. It'll be a high-density urban neighborhood.
The waterside esplanade will be redesigned to be active and alluring. The 10th Street Overlook, now the site of a modest memorial to Benjamin Banneker, will be rebuilt to connect directly to the waterfront. Stores and restaurants will be greatly increased in number.
Existing parks will be significantly improved, and two new ones will be added -- a Market Square at the northwestern end of the promenade, next to the existing fish market, and a civic park at the southeastern end. The civic park, with space for an as yet undesignated cultural facility, would greatly enhance the setting for Arena Stage, which has its own plans for an exciting makeover.
For today's residents of nearby apartment buildings and townhouses, the changes should be, on balance, a big plus -- though anyone fond of the sleepy atmosphere may well resent the new busyness that change will bring.
Ironically, this bold restructuring was made possible by one of the biggest of the mistakes made by the urban renewers decades ago. They thought the main idea was to make sure there was plenty of room for cars. Thus, they laid out two parallel streets -- wide Maine Avenue and wide Water Street, with parking lots in between.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company