Southwest Waterfront Will Finally Get Over the '60s

With redevelopment pending, the future of many businesses along the Southwest waterfront, including the nightlcub Zanzibar, is in doubt.
With redevelopment pending, the future of many businesses along the Southwest waterfront, including the nightlcub Zanzibar, is in doubt. (By Michael Robinson-Chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006

More than 40 years ago, the District redid parts of Southwest Washington, reflecting the latest and best urban renewal thinking of the day: Tear down as much as possible, replace it with efficient concrete buildings and build a freeway nearby.

Southwest, roughly between Interstate 395 and the Anacostia River, was filled with big apartment buildings accompanied by townhouses built on stilts to allow for parking underneath. Towering buildings went up -- they were efficient, leaving more space for tree-lined roads -- with glass lobbies intended to make the area feel more open.

The waterfront was meant for light industry, so the freeway was a sort of barrier, separating the water from housing. Parking lots dotted the landscape. The car was king.

Today, planners, developers and residents are looking at the area very differently. Today, cities want foot traffic, not cars. Waterfronts attract leisure use. The ideal cityscape is built to human scale. And so, Washington intends to reverse what was done in the last spasm of urban renewal and remake it to the modern taste.

Some Southwest residents are enthusiastic about plans for a new look, saying it's time for an upgrade and more amenities on the waterfront, like bookstores, coffee shops and white-tablecloth restaurants. But others take pride in the architecture of their buildings and like the open space of the parks and plazas. Owners of businesses worry that their operations could suffer. A few residents fear displacement. And some wonder if today's planners won't make mistakes of their own.

The quasi-public Anacostia Waterfront Corp., which is charged with revitalizing the Southeast and Southwest waterfronts, recently chose a team of developers led by District housing builder PN Hoffman to redo 47 acres in Southwest.

The team, which prevailed in a field of 17, wants to connect the waterfront to the community, making it more of a destination. Some dead-end street would become through streets. Parking lots would be replaced by parks, condominiums and offices. The walled-off waterfront would be more accessible to the public with piers, a maritime museum, shops, restaurants and perhaps an aquarium. The crumbling concrete sea wall would be replaced by a promenade along the waterfront.

"We want to integrate the waterfront with the community," said Monty Hoffman, founder and chief executive of PN Hoffman. His company is partnering with Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, which has experience on revitalization projects along Baltimore's waterfront and throughout that city.

The 2 million-square-foot development planned by the Hoffman-Struever team will include about 900 condominiums and apartments, 360 hotel rooms, 230,000 square feet of retail, 150,000 square feet of cultural spaces, along with office space. Some of the residential units will be for moderate- and low-income families. Construction will start in 2009 and take eight years.

The Southwest waterfront has one of the few marinas where people can live aboard their boats. Some boat owners worry that they may be pushed out with the new development, as planners envision cleaning up the waterfront and possibly getting rid of the tall, metal gates that keep the public from being able to walk out on the private piers. Hoffman says he has no plans to displace those who live on their boats.

"The one thing I'll fight tooth and nail is if the live-aboard population can't stay," said Susan Carpenter, 64. Eight years ago she and her husband, a scientist at the nearby Department of Energy, moved from their home in Germantown to the Gangplank Marina on the Washington Channel, where they live on a 42-foot long, two-bedroom floating home.

The Carpenters' boat, named the Timothy B after their son, has no engine, but has a dishwasher, a washer and dryer, and a porch. About 80 other families live on boats in the marina.

The landlubbers in front of the Carpenter house on the water aren't sure what's going to happen to them. There's a Phillips Seafood Restaurant, which serves a hearty buffet of pickled herring, blackened grouper and jambalaya, and has been along the waterfront since 1985; the tropical-themed Zanzibar on the Waterfront nightclub; the hip-hop club H2O; and the long-established Channel Inn hotel with red leather booths in its restaurant.

"We've known they wanted to do something down here for years," said John H. Christian, founder and owner of Zanzibar. "It was just a question of when. It's very difficult to plan ahead when you don't know quite what's going to happen. Now the AWC is the first one to really take the bull by the horns and it seems like something's going to happen."

Christian, a former auditor for the Department of Defense, has had Zanzibar on the Southwest waterfront since 1998. The 26,000-square-foot club brings in at least 1,500 people a week for its hip-hop, Caribbean, African and salsa music. The club and restaurant, which has annual revenue of $5 million to $6 million, will probably have to close to make way for construction but hopes to come back to a spot on the waterfront.

"It's great Washington wants to attract more people to its waterfront, but the question is how do we fit in?" said Christian's business partner Ola Olasehinde. "Can we be a part of that culture? Whatever they put here these guys are going to make more money than what's here now."

Nearby, a manager at H2O said the club was waiting to see what would happen with the plans, but would like to stay in its spot.

Most of the businesses have long-term leases with the National Capital Revitalization Corp., which owns the land, and they could be bought out of their leases and move. Or they could be incorporated into the new development.

The Southwest waterfront area was rebuilt in the 1960s and 1970s, when federal officials sought to clean up what they considered slums in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Many poor residents were pushed out to Anacostia and developers were given loans with favorable terms to redevelop the properties. Little thought was given to using the waterfront as a recreational area, city planners said.

Apartments at Waterside Mall were built by the architect I.M. Pei and surrounded by a town center. But the shopping never really took off because developers had a tough time persuading department stores to leave downtown. There are now plans by a division of Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty to redo the mall with housing, shops and offices.

"It was very much of its time in the 1960s," said J. Brendan Meyer, a planner in the city's Historic Preservation Office. "The idea was the tower in the park."

One issue that neighborhood activists, developers and city planners may have to deal with is whether some of the buildings and areas in Southwest could be considered historic. A landmark building typically is at least 50 years old. While most in Southwest would not fit into that category, some might.

If they do, they would have to be preserved.

"It's not Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle or Cleveland Park," Meyer said. "It's an entirely different animal."

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