D.C. riverfront finally taking shape, with opening of Yards Park

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; C01

After years of recession-related missteps and false starts, the first public spaces along the Capitol Riverfront near Nationals Park are slowly taking shape, as developers and the District move cautiously to fill the Southeast waterfront's long-vacant lots.

The city-owned Yards Park, a six-acre boardwalk stretching to the Anacostia River, is celebrating its grand opening this weekend. Designed to accommodate as many as 6,000 people for festivals and public events, the park features a curving bridge over the Anacostia, a 60-foot light tower, a waterfall, a dog run and a quarter-mile-long walkway leading up to the Navy Yard.

"It's a beautiful place, one we hope can become a gathering spot for work picnics, music festivals, weddings," said Michael Stevens, executive director of the nonprofit Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, as he walked near a set of contoured benches overlooking the water. "It will tie people around here together."

Canal Park, a flashy three-block public space with a waterfall and ice skating rink at Second and M streets SE, broke ground late last month and is expected to be completed next year.

And two years after suspending work on a $60 million, 170-unit apartment complex a few blocks east of the ballpark, the developer, Forest City Washington, is restarting construction this month on the Foundry Lofts.

Credit markets are slowly unfreezing, allowing dormant plans for Southeast Washington to move forward. Foundry Lofts was able to restart after the D.C. Housing Finance Agency provided $47.7 million in bond financing, backed by the Treasury Department.

Much of Southeast's prime waterfront sites are under varying degrees of planning and construction. Sit-down restaurants, high-end apartment buildings and fully stocked Class A office space is still years, if not decades, away. The proposed redevelopment of the historic Boilermaker Shop, behind the U.S. Department of Transportation's headquarters and set to house a handful of restaurants and a jazz club, is just a shell. But its developers say the opening of Yards Park, a stone's throw from Nationals stadium, is a small but notable milestone.

"It's a great first step, one we feel can anchor the whole development," said Ramsey Meiser, Forest City Washington's senior vice president.

At its core, Forest City is attempting to convert several century-old brick industrial buildings near the stadium and on the site of the former Southeast Federal City -- including work sheds and water pump houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- into 42 acres of office buildings, retail outlets and apartments.

The trick now, Stevens said, is to attract young urban professionals and empty-nesters, with promises of future shopping and grocery stores, including a Harris Teeter, and the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a "great new opportunity that will look like a steal a few years from now."

In December, Ed and Deanna Chabay moved to Capitol Quarter, a new townhouse community with homes starting at $600,000, from Manassas. With the couple's two children leaving home for college, the Chabays down-sized, trading in a 3,100-square-foot house on 2 1/2 acres for a two-bedroom townhouse near Ed's engineering job at the Navy Yard.

"We've been season ticket holders with the Nationals when they first came to town, and this neighborhood is so different and so close to everything," said Chabay, 43, who regularly walks to church and local eateries. "We've been watching the transformation from our rooftop terrace and it's just exciting. You can feel the energy of this place picking up."

In 2007, about 1,000 people lived in the apartment buildings that surrounded many of Southeast's offices. That figure jumped to 3,200 people last year before leveling off in 2009 as rental and condo buildings filled up, according to Capitol Riverfront planners. About 35,000 people work in the "Near Southeast" neighborhood. Second-quarter statistics of Southeast's residential properties show that most buildings have occupancy rates of 90 percent or higher.

But next year is not expected to be particularly kind to development plans on the water.

Development had also stalled along Southwest Washington's waterfront, a concrete-heavy product of 1960s urban renewal long defined by high-rise apartment blocks, federal office buildings and modern-looking townhouses and churches.

At a cost of $1.5 billion, Southwest builders are planning to turn 26 acres along Maine Avenue SW into three hotels, 800 apartments and condominiums, new offices, a marina, underground parking and a mile's worth of parks and promenades looking out onto the Washington Channel. In three parts, the intersection of Fourth and M streets SW will be the "neighborhood center" of Southwest. Seven free-standing buildings will include more than 2.1 million square feet of office, residential, retail and parking space.

But those carefully hatched plans are "eight to 10 years out, at least," said Shawn Seaman, PN Hoffman's project director for the Southwest Waterfront.

For more information, Jacqueline Dupree, the intranet editor at The Washington Post, runs the popular JDLand blog about redevelopment in "Near Southeast."

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