Southeast Riverfront's Neighborhood Renewal Stuck on First Base

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009; C01

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 Amazon.com 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.

Some popular Capitol Hill eateries have sniffed around, said Michael Stevens, the business district's executive director, seeing the potential in 35,000 daytime workers at the Navy Yard, the new federal Department of Transportation headquarters and other offices.

"But the restaurants are worried about what happens at night," Stevens said. "Everybody's just kind of reeled in until there are enough people living here."

Developers take the long view. Neighborhoods are not molded when the first concrete is poured, especially these $8 billion sprawling waterfront redevelopments planned to have 34 million square feet and 9,100 residents.

"Even if the economy hadn't fallen apart, the neighborhood wouldn't look that different than it does today," said Doug Olson, executive vice president for Monument Realty, whose mixed-use project anchoring the neighborhood is now a 35-foot-deep crater. "This is a 10- to 15-year neighborhood."

So for now, the residents hope for what could be as they dream of a river esplanade where they can walk and a water taxi with regular service beyond the baseball-game trips now offered. A Harris Teeter is on the way -- but not for at least three years, local officials say. Yes, there's a Starbucks, but on weekends it closes at 3 p.m.

Empty luxury towers in a bad market have silver linings, such as free parking and health clubs and three months' free rent offered by builders desperate to fill their condominium units with renters, which means that Young is paying $1,650 a month for a one-bedroom apartment originally marketed for $2,200.

Services are brought in and sent out: Cornercopia, a bodega-turned-gourmet deli, has sushi delivered by courier every day from Sticky Rice on H Street. The Onyx lays out bagels and cereal in the lobby on weekday mornings and offers to send out dry cleaning to Hyattsville.

There's a Metro stop, no shortage of street parking and highways to jobs in every direction. At least five congressmen have moved in, plus Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and hundreds of Hill staffers.

"I'm getting a brand-new clean unit with a gym, computer lab and a rooftop pool," said Rep. Aaron Schock, a GOP freshman representing central Illinois who is renting a co-op in the Capitol Yards, lured by the newness he wouldn't have found on Capitol Hill. "There are definitely brownfields out my window," Schock said. "But there's opportunity." He can't remember a meal he's eaten at home since he moved in last January besides his breakfasts of cereal, milk and orange juice, which he buys at CVS.

Businesses have gotten creative. In July, the Artomatic art festival took over Monument's empty nine-floor office building, and DOT turned a back lot behind its headquarters into an outdoor movie theater. The Circulator bus that whisks tourists from museum to monument every 10 minutes stops right at First Street, so Whitsitt and his wife jump on for free rides to Eighth Street, the Hill's new restaurant row.

There are a few baseball fanatics, but baseball isn't what drew most of the new residents. Still, if the Nats could open a white-tablecloth restaurant not just reserved for club-level ticket holders on game days . . .

That's not likely anytime soon, because dining service would interfere with games, said Gregory M. McCarthy, the team's vice president for government and municipal affairs. But he said the best way the Nats can generate a buzz among potential residents is by expanding the stadium's offerings in the off-season.

So the people in The Front create their own entertainment, on rooftop playgrounds where the grill with piped-in propane serves as the local restaurant and introductions are made around the pool. There are socials and pizza parties, happy hours, Sunday brunches.

It was kebabs and ribs after work on a Friday in August, as Stacey Steele and her new friends grilled and sipped Heinekens on the Onyx roof. The 37-year-old Navy analyst joined forces with an event planner, a Senate staffer, two transplants from Richmond and Tennessee who lost their jobs during downsizings, a few friends from the leasing office. Five other groups filled the tables around them. "The roof's an extension of our living room," said Sheronda Alexander, a new Air Force analyst who is still trying to sell her house in Memphis.

Planes circled on the horizon. "That's our free entertainment!" someone joked. It might not be much on the ground, but on the roof there are plenty of pleasures: fireworks on the Fourth of July, many of the city's tourist destinations in their sightlines -- and Billy Joel and Elton John together in concert on a recent Saturday night, the music as good in their living rooms as the two sang to a stadium crowd. For one night, the construction crane was forgotten.

Intranet editor Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.

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