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Developers of D.C.'s Southwest Waterfront offering pre-construction goodies to spike interest in project

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By Jonathan O'Connell
Capital Business Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 6:12 PM

Hundreds of new housing units and thousands of square feet of retail are expected in the District's Southwest Waterfront, but with the economy as it is, the neighborhood in the meantime is getting lounge chairs, outdoor yoga classes and unimpeded waterfront views.

Oh, and maybe duck sausage.

The main developers, PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette, are still at work planning the $1.5 billion project but are far from being ready to level the 26-acre site and begin rebuilding. So they are taking a page from other developers with property that isn't ready to go and bringing temporary attractions they hope will build buzz for the waterfront views they will ultimately pitch to condo buyers, hotel operators and investors.

The developers are remaking a largely concrete city-owned space at the corner of Water and Seventh streets SW into an outdoor playground of sorts four days a week for at least a month - depending on the weather - starting Thursday.

The nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church will provide live music on Thursday evenings. Every Friday night, the park will host a "food-truck roundup" featuring cupcakes, tacos, salads and Indian food. On Saturdays, yoga classes will be presented by Lululemon Athletica, a Vancouver, B.C.-based apparel firm. Each day will bring lawn games, including p├ętanque (a French version of bocce) and Ping-Pong, as well as food from District Doghouse, a food cart by the owners of the Cantina Marina restaurant, which is experimenting with wild boar, venison and duck meat in search of a new sausage offering.

It's all part of an effort to forge a relationship with the community and brand the area as a destination for a distinctive experience, according to Tyson Pitzer, director of investments for Madison Marquette.

"What we have found is that retail in particular is moving into an experienced-based world or focus," Pitzer said. "People . . . are much more interested in a sense of experience. I think they're interested in something that has a sense of place to it rather than just a place to buy a T-shirt."

In Asbury Park, N.J., Madison Marquette has a development site where retailers pitch their wares from former shipping containers. Pitzer says shoppers are beginning to prefer local, unique and even odd options to the popular but ubiquitous "rat pack" of Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Gap and other chains. "Every developer in the country wanted that rat pack because they were creditworthy, and banks understood them, and you could underwrite 30- or 40-dollar rents. But I think . . . there's been a big backlash," he said.

The park is also a way of testing, with very little investment or risk, retailers like District Doghouse that might be a good fit for the development. Richard Hemmer, managing partner of Cantina Marina, said he wants his cart to stand out in the suddenly popular world of food trucks and is experimenting with new wares after a short stint at Nationals Park. "On the Southwest Waterfront, we really didn't want to do a Little League hot-dog stand. We wanted to do something better," he said.

It's hardly the first temporary use of a development site in the District, but it could be the most comprehensive. The Washington Kastles tennis team, a trapeze school, art galleries and Target kiosks have all found temporary space during the downturn, part of an effort by city officials to continue to enliven the city. Akridge, the D.C. developer that plans two office buildings and a residential tower next-door to the Nationals' ballpark, opened a beer tent there called The Bullpen that began drawing so many fans to some games last year that fire department officials began limiting the crowds. "The three-day Red Sox series made the season," said Adam Gooch, Akridge's development manger. "It was packed. The fire marshal almost shut it down the second night."

The site provides lease revenue that, although less than parking would bring, helps brand the site as a "highly animated, active retail corridor" Gooch said.

In an effort to become truly buzzworthy, the developers of the Southwest Waterfront nearly decided to haul in sand and create an urban beach, similar to the Paris-Plages on the banks of the Seine in the French capital. But they decided instead to replace the park floor's hard surface with a softer material and buy lawn furniture to encourage waterfront lounging.

But the developers say they will go a step further next year. Monty Hoffman, chief executive of PN Hoffman, said that by spring the development team will have completed demolition of Hogate's restaurant, creating a four-acre site where it can hold festivities for the kickoff of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. "That Hogate building is huge. The building is over 300 feet long, so it blocks the views even to the water," Hoffman said. "This will open them up."


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