Missed Potential Along the Potomac

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 10, 2008

The nation's capital is proud of its miles of wonderful waterfront parks. For locals and tourists, waterfront cafes can be just as wonderful.

But along Washington's rivers, parkland and cafes are out of balance. We have more than enough waterfront parkland and not enough waterfront cafes.

This explains why, in last Sunday's perfect spring weather, such an immense throng gathered at Washington Harbour in Georgetown.

Where else could people have enjoyed the sunshine, cool breezes, fabulous views, and decent food and beverage service? Washington Harbour is one of the few places in the District on the Potomac River where boats can tie up, pedestrians and bicyclists can promenade, and people can chatter and watch one another.

Just upriver, the National Park Service is putting finishing touches on Georgetown's new waterfront park. Filling the space between the river and the Whitehurst Freeway looming over K Street, the park stretches along the Potomac from the end of Wisconsin Avenue toward the Key Bridge. Adding that to the existing park next to Washington Harbour will give Georgetown a continuous waterfront park more than 2,000 feet long.

Yet this park would be so much better if it included a couple of well-designed pavilions housing cafes, with terraces or decks overlooking the river, both to compete with Washington Harbour and to enhance the park's magnetism and vitality. Such destinations can happily coexist with the park and still leave plenty of green landscape.

Providing additional park space along the river in Georgetown is justifiable. But Washington has abundant waterfront parkland. What's missing is a range of accessible, architecturally appealing places along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, places with chairs, tables and umbrellas, with waiters and waitresses happy to serve you, in addition to grass, trees, flowers, shrubs and benches.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, rivers were considered commercial and military transportation corridors, defensive barriers, causes of flooding and insect infestations, and places into which rainwater and less salubrious effluent could be freely discharged.

Not until the 20th century were Washington's rivers viewed as aesthetic and recreational assets, works of nature worth looking at and even living next to.

Successor to the L'Enfant plan, the 1902 MacMillan Commission plan re-conceived the form of the city's core and envisioned a reconfigured riverfront. However, instead of waterfront edges akin to those in cities such as Paris, Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco, the commission foresaw an extensive park system flanking the Potomac. It proposed an idyllic landscape punctuated only by strategically positioned monuments.

The plan was influenced in part by the City Beautiful movement, an antidote to the ills of 19th-century industrialization. Networks of parks and greenbelts, designers reasoned, would alleviate the undesirable physical conditions of gritty European and American cities.

Congress had no problem a century ago embracing the idea of Washington as America's quintessential "city beautiful," even though the capital had almost no heavy industry. Most of the city's waterfront remained federal property, with much of it becoming federal parkland, which in turn prevented the city's fabric from reaching shorelines.

Fortunately federal and D.C. planners, as well as many citizens and public officials, have realized in recent years that creating architecturally activated waterfront destinations and preserving and enhancing waterfront parkland are not mutually exclusive.

This is beginning to yield results. Well underway on the north shore of the Anacostia River is the Southeast Federal Center, next to the historic Washington Navy Yard. The complex will include not only waterfront promenades, gardens and terraces, but also eateries and shops, all backed by a mix of high-density governmental, commercial and residential buildings.

Immediately west and southwest of the Southeast Federal Center is the rapidly changing neighborhood around the new Nationals Park. Plans call for waterfront destinations between the ballpark and the river, just upstream from the recently realigned Frederick Douglass Bridge.

Across the Anacostia River, ambitious plans for the redevelopment of Poplar Point envision mixed-use destinations at the waterfront, not just park expansion.

The Southwest Waterfront facing the Washington Channel is slated for a makeover. Replacing existing structures and parking lots will be several mixed-use, multistory buildings between Maine Avenue and a new waterfront promenade. Shops and restaurants along the promenade will overlook the channel and marinas filled with boats, as well as East Potomac Park and the Potomac River.

Thanks to their great location, Washington Harbour and the Georgetown waterfront are unlikely to lose their popularity. But their status as one of the District's only vibrant nodes of waterfront activity will diminish as other sites come alive over the next several years. It's about time.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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