A Vision for the Southwest
To be sure, the plan does work for cars. Access to and from the freeway and the 14th Street bridges is a snap and, except at the fish market, parking is always easy to find. It's as if the planners actually wanted to keep nearby residents away from the waterside or, more likely, expected them to use their cars to get there.
All in all, the 1960s waterfront layout, a key part of the Southwest Urban Renewal Plan, amounted to a catalogue of errors that have long needed correcting.
Those long, low buildings placed in a row along the waterfront act more as barriers than allurements.
The architecture is banal, at best, from the early Pizza Hut profile of the Capital Yacht Club in the north to the dull motel modernism of the Channel Inn in the south. Paint jobs and quick fixes of the other buildings have done little to improve their warehouselike exteriors.
The public spaces are equally nondescript. Hard-surfaced, with mere dollops of shade and a few well-intentioned nautical implements (anchors, ship's bells and the like) for local color, the rectangular parks between the buildings are, not surprisingly, unpopulated most of the time.
Sadder still is the waterfront esplanade. Intended as a grand public promenade, it turned out to be a forbidding, narrow walkway.
On the waterside, fences with locked gates separate walkers from the water and the boating piers of the channel marinas. On the land side, a concrete wall closes off access to the restaurants. A row of waterside trees is but a sorry reminder of good intentions gone amiss.
The overarching error, of course, was the failure to put people back in residences at the center of the waterfront. Post-World War II planners believed strongly that cities would be greatly improved if people were to live, work and play in zones that are separate and distinct. The Southwest waterfront is a testament to that idea.
By contrast, the city's waterfront initiative pursues an opposite, older urban ideal of mixed-used, interconnected neighborhoods. How well it fulfills these noble intentions remains to be seen, but the ideas are fundamentally sound.
"Yesteryear's mistake is today's opportunity" would be a good motto for the plan. All that "wasted" space, as Altman rightly calls the redundant roads and surface parking, can be adapted for useful purposes -- namely to put up buildings people can live in and to shape new spaces for them to play in.
As a result, not only will the new Southwest waterfront provide lots of homes where there are none, it'll also dramatically increase space for public parks, almost tripling the area from five to 14 acres.
At the same time, it'll significantly reduce surfaces covered by paving from 42 percent of the total area to about 20 percent. Not incidentally, there will be a lot more parking than now exists, but most of it will be underneath new buildings.
Footprints for the proposed new buildings show the structures distributed in a way that preserves "view corridors" at Ninth, Seventh and M streets SW, an important way to link the surrounding neighborhood to the water.
Massing studies show buildings with varied profiles, averaging from six to nine stories high with towers up to 12 stories, a useful concept in a height-limited city with its mainly uniform profile. Retail, as it should be, is concentrated at ground-floor level.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company