Southeast Riverfront's Neighborhood Renewal Stuck on First Base

Developers in the neighborhoods surrounding Nationals Stadium in Southeast and Southwest Washington promised a vibrant and lively community. New residents have found normal life difficult in an area lacking grocery stores, bars and restaurants.
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jack Whitsitt might just have the best view in Washington. From his building's rooftop pool at dusk, he sees the shimmering dome of the U.S. Capitol, planes landing at Reagan National Airport, the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery --and nearby, the center-field lights of the new Nationals Park.

In May, Whitsitt and his wife moved into Onyx on First, a new condominium tower in Southeast, wowed by the full-circle panorama of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers from the top of the city's newest neighborhood. But something is tarnishing that glorious view: a giant crane suspended in the sky above L and First streets, left by a developer whose half-built office project went bust this summer. Fourteen stories below, new street lamps light empty sidewalks on a Friday night.

Baseball was supposed to transform the riverfront, a mile south of the Capitol, from a seedy backwater of warehouses, public housing and strip joints into a busy cityscape of restaurants, clubs, shops and 24-7 entertainment. But some developers who promised block after block of urban opulence for Washington professionals have delivered only craters in the ground and temporary parking on weedy lots.

That's left the 2,100 newcomers in freshly painted townhouses and high-concept buildings, with such names as Velocity and Axiom at Capitol Yards, to fend for themselves in what looks like an abandoned construction zone.

Most of the everyday comforts they were promised have failed to materialize as builders fell victim to the tight credit market that resulted from last year's financial collapse. "Everything's brand-stinking new, and it's on pause," said Whitsitt, 31, an artist and cybersecurity worker at the Pentagon whose two-bedroom unit is all granite counters and exposed ceiling ducts. "We're in a wait state for a while." His wife, Paivi, orders groceries from rather than walk to the Harris Teeter a mile away or the Safeway across South Capitol Street watched over by security guards.

To outsiders, it seems crazy to pick up and move to a place where the only sit-down restaurants are Five Guys and Subway, the nearest grocery aisle is the refrigerated case at the CVS and happy-hour crowds shoehorn into the lobby bar of a Courtyard by Marriott.

"All my friends are like, 'What are you doing living down there?' " Amanda Young, 28, a strategy and operations consultant for the Air Force, said as she picked up dry cleaning on New Jersey Avenue a few days after she moved into the Onyx from a shared house in Glover Park.

Yet for everything the Capitol Riverfront is not, it is this: jagged and textured, where so much of Washington is buttoned-down. A relative bargain in a city of pricey real estate. A convivial community happily captured inside its utopia, while more established neighborhoods can be anonymous, stuffy even.

"In Glover Park, people act super-cool," Young said. "They don't talk to you." The week she moved into the Onyx, she recognized a woman in the elevator. "She was like, 'Wasn't I out with you with a group a people this winter?' "

Before a neighborhood arrives, there are always some people willing to gamble on a vision of what will be. Here, no one knows when that will happen.

Developers marketing the neighborhood have dubbed it "The Front," to evoke a vibe of edgy and fresh. "Something at my front door," said Liz Wainger, who does public relations for the developer-funded Business Improvement District.

But right now, there's not much at anyone's front door except "For Lease" signs where a restaurant or coffee shop would go if conditions were right. A grimy "Market Deli carry-out" sign looks promising, but no carryout has been prepared there for some time, and the store has been shuttered since thousands of families were moved out of the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public housing complex. Domino's opened on M Street last month, featuring low-carb, thin-crust pizza for a white-collar crowd -- plus chef salads. "The closest you can get to a salad at Five Guys is a pickle," manager Joe Burr joked.

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