Looking Past the Capital City

A rendering of PN Hoffman's vision for the Southwest waterfront. The plan includes a mix of residential, office and commercial development.
A rendering of PN Hoffman's vision for the Southwest waterfront. The plan includes a mix of residential, office and commercial development. (Pn Hoffman)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

The recent opening of the Washington Nationals' baseball stadium culminated a decade of panoramic change in the District, one in which downtown and an array of long-forlorn neighborhoods blossomed.

So what is Washington's next horizon?

If the city has purged much of the blight that helped make it a symbol of urban dysfunction, what is it aspiring to now?

The answer, voiced by a wide range of District officials, planners and developers, is nothing less than transcending Washington's primary identity as the nation's capital and ever-proper home to the federal government.

The Washington that they envision is far more cosmopolitan, in the spirit of Paris or London, national capitals better known for a wide variety of attractions: vibrant neighborhoods, scenic riverfronts, pedestrian-jammed sidewalks, art museums, shopping and fine cuisine.

In the future Washington, they say, newly created waterfront neighborhoods, long established areas such as U Street and Georgetown, and a 24-hour downtown would be as defining as the White House and Capitol are today.

"The federal city and the real city will shift," said Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, a nonprofit organization that promotes revitalization. "Whereas before, the federal city has been in the foreground and D.C. has been the background, D.C. will emerge as the foreground."

Depending on who is divining the city's future, the path to achieving that goal includes pushing investment in Washington's poorest neighborhoods; refurbishing signature boulevards such as Georgia Avenue, K Street and New York Avenue; or lifting the century-old cap on building height to catalyze development in areas far from downtown.

Yet developers and planners agree that the overarching key to redefining Washington resides along the miles of undeveloped land that borders the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, terrain slated for at least four new neighborhoods that District officials and developers hope will be built during the next 20 years.

Those new neighborhoods -- one adjoining the Nationals' ballpark, another on the Southwest waterfront, a third at Poplar Point and a fourth on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill -- will create local destinations offering a counterweight to the Mall, a perennial attraction that symbolizes the city's capital persona.

"We're going to see a new paradigm over the next decade, wherein the city is recapturing the water and its own image," said Monty Hoffman, chief executive officer of PN Hoffman, which is developing the Southwest waterfront.

In a recent study by the Fenty administration, planners broadened their traditional view of Washington's central core to encompass areas beyond downtown, such as the waterfronts and roughly 10 blocks north of Union Station. In their rendering, planners envisioned a city enlivened by a collection of vibrant neighborhoods knitted together by mass transit.

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