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Southwest neighborhood in D.C. takes a turn for the better

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

For 50 years, Southwest Washington was divided in half by a mall and an office complex that withered with age. Like the freeway that isolates the neighborhood from downtown, Waterside Mall left its community without a center.

Today, the mall is gone, two gleaming glass office towers with a splashy ground-floor Safeway supermarket have risen in its place and the road that was mothballed to build it is back, with wide sidewalks for pedestrians. Fourth Street might be a stretch of asphalt over two city blocks, but its reappearance in a neighborhood plagued by a generation of poor urban design is an important milestone in its revival.

The new pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use project at the Metro's door, Waterfront Station, is the first of three legs of an $800 million redevelopment of 1.2 million square feet for offices, the same amount of residential space and at least 110,000 square feet devoted to shops and restaurants. A CVS and a Bank of America are moving back soon from temporary quarters. A Subway and another restaurant -- one with tablecloths run by the owners of Tunnicliff's Tavern on Capitol Hill -- have signed leases. Three District government agencies moved into the office space this month.

At Sixth Street and Maine Avenue two blocks away, Arena Stage will reopen this fall after a $125 million makeover, expanding its footprint with a new playhouse and rehearsal, office and public space.

"The bottom line is that Southwest is back," said Andrew Litsky, chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the area and a resident since 1977. "For everyone who was complaining there was a paucity of everything, they're wrong."

Southwest, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, is a mix of federal workers, the elderly, professionals and public housing. It was targeted by the federal government for wholesale urban renewal in the 1950s, with blocks of brick rowhouses almost entirely torn down. Thousands of residents were displaced.

New modernist architecture replaced the old, with vast stretches of concrete, high-rises and minimal stores. It was the opposite of the style favored by today's city planners, who believe that Washington should be remade into walkable neighborhoods with dense development around Metro stations and first-floor retail.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who represents Southwest, calls the Metro and the waterfront "built-in amenities" that will give urgency to redevelopment as soon as financing begins flowing. A water taxi is scheduled to launch this summer, serving the waterfront in Southwest and the Nationals' ballpark in Southeast, he said.

Wells is pushing for a narrow road along the waterfront for pedestrians and bicyclists.

"We essentially have a six-lane highway that goes through the neighborhood," he said. "How do we make it more animated, safer, more livable and walkable to de-emphasize the car?"

The revival was a long time coming.

Fannie Mae, the mortgage giant, walked out of a deal to be the anchor tenant in 2005, dashing hopes that the aging mall, empty since the Environmental Protection Agency moved out in the early 2000s, would be razed. But Forest City Enterprises found construction financing two years ago, just as credit markets were freezing.

On Third Street, the Bernstein Cos. have completed renovation of a 126-apartment building and gutted another the same size, creating condominiums instead.

Tight credit markets have put a bigger renaissance on hold. Forest City, which is developing Waterfront with Vornado/Charles E. Smith, is still trying to line up financing for the second phase. And a plan to transform 47 acres along the Washington Channel into an inviting stretch of housing, restaurants, shops and cultural attractions has not been started, for the same reason.

For now, the community's most notable new feature is the Safeway, a 54,100-square-foot store with underground parking that opened last week. The supermarket it replaced, also a Safeway, boarded up on a neighboring lot, was a poorly stocked eyesore that languished for years, angering residents.

The new one features a food court, deli, cheese bar, bakery, sit-down sushi bar and full-service deli, along with a Starbucks. The store has hired 40 local residents. On opening day, April 16, workers in chef's hats handed out sourdough bread slices with a balsamic-vinegar spread and other samples as shoppers scoured the eye-catching aisles.

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