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Correction to This Article
A timeline that was part of the "Down by the River" graphic incorrectly said that the District's first sewage-treatment plant was built in 1810. The District's first sewer system was built then, but its first wastewater-treatment plant was completed in 1938.

Envisioning City Life Along the Rivers

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007

In the hottest days of summer, Paris becomes the Riviera, when it transforms two miles of the Seine into a beach with cabana boys by day and concerts at night. Every July, Venetians crowd the canals on boats and gondolas to celebrate the marriage of the city to the sea. For a month every fall, the Baltic archipelago city of Stockholm sets a waterfront stage for an international jazz festival.

And in Washington, perhaps the world capital of festivals and celebrations, one of the more heralded annual events that focuses a spotlight directly on its waterfronts is . . . a cleanup project. Earlier this year, the Capital River Relief project plucked 50 tons of garbage from the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.

While hardly glamorous, the decades-long effort to restore Washington's waterways has cleared the way for bigger changes. With few large undeveloped tracts in the Washington region's urban core, the banks of the Potomac and Anacostia have suddenly become hot property.

More than $2 billion in revitalization projects are under construction in D.C. neighborhoods along the rivers, and another $10 billion worth of developments are in the pipeline. Downstream, a $2 billion mini-city is rising along the shores of the Potomac in Prince George's County. And all of this activity is prompting the city of Alexandria, across the river, to begin plotting its own waterfront renaissance.

Nearly 2 1/2 square miles of land are under redevelopment along the Southeast and Southwest shorelines of the District, an area the size of Takoma Park. On the Southwest waterfront, parking lots and concrete walls are slated to make way for condos, restaurants and shops, and 13 acres will be dedicated to a tree-lined esplanade, public piers and parks. On the Southeast side, where a grand staircase is being built from the new Nationals stadium to the edge of the Anacostia River, developers hope to take a page from such successful waterfront revitalizations as Baltimore's Fells Point, San Antonio's River Walk and Paris's Plage in transforming nearly 6 acres into homes, stores and offices. A 42-acre site formerly known as the Southeast Federal Center will be transformed into nearly 3,000 residential units, stores and restaurants, office space, and a riverfront park.

In addition, 22 miles of new walkways are planned to link the areas along the shoreline. And if planners have their way, more park space will be opened up for such uses as kayaking and boating.

The bulk of the work is still in drafting stages, and the projects' success in drawing people to the reimagined sites remains to be seen. Whether neighborhoods and communities will spring forth from office spaces and new housing developments will largely depend on whether architects are able to set a tableau that not only transforms places that have been abandoned, unsettled or neglected for more than a century, but makes them easy to reach.

"There are cities on the water and there are cities on the water, but you don't have any sense of that, and that's Washington," said Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization that gives an annual award to cities for waterfront redevelopment. For years, he said, he has viewed Washington's neglect of its waterfront as a lost opportunity, economically and culturally.

"It's a shame, because it has so much waterfront property and so little to do on the waterfront."

Preparing for Change

The Washington region lags behind other metropolitan areas in waterfront development for a host of reasons, many of them historical. Harbors that thrived in colonial times were made irrelevant by railroads and a deep-water port in Baltimore. By the 1960s, highways were built along the riverfront to minimize their impact on neighborhoods, but they also effectively cut off water access for most of Washington. The placement of heavy industry and military installations has also limited how most Washingtonians could use the rivers.

Complicating matters are the various jurisdictions and alphabet soup of agencies -- federal, state and local -- that must approve any changes to the riverscape. Each has its own vision of how the waterways should be used, and developers bring their own designs to various projects.

Frank Baxter's father bought a small frontage plot on the Potomac in the 1940s and set up a canoe and rowboat concession upstream from Washington's old flour and paper mills. Baxter still rents kayaks, a few canoes and an antique rowboat from an overgrown spot under the Key Bridge that he leases from the National Park Service.

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