Murky waters for D.C.'s 'boat people' on Southwest waterfront

Gangplank Marina is home to a tight-knit community of people who live aboard their boats. During the waterfront redevelopment construction the boats in Gangplank will have to be moved. What remains to be seen is where the community will go and when will they be able to return.
Gangplank Marina residents have not been given a transition plan for the upcoming redevelopment of the Southwest waterfront.
By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; 6:16 PM

Living on the water in the District of Columbia isn't easy. There's only one legal place to do it - along the Southwest waterfront stretching from Fort McNair to the Tidal Basin - and it requires patience, a working knowledge of equipment like bilge pumps and thru-hulls, and a seafarer's stomach.

Even so, the 150 or so "live-aboard" residents of the Gangplank Marina, a mass of floating fiberglass and wood and cramped quarters overlooking the Washington Channel, don't want to leave. But their future is murky: Will they be able to stay or will they have to move as the Southwest waterfront undergoes a once-in-a-lifetime transformation?

"The first part of construction is going to be around here, near our boats, and we have a life here," said Laura Cox, 47, a schoolteacher who lives with her husband, John, and their two daughters aboard a 52-foot houseboat named the Belle Maren. "We don't want to leave this lifestyle, and there's not many other options for those of us on the water."

The waterfront's developers plan to unveil a revised master plan Wednesday for a massive collection of hotels, apartment buildings and ground-level restaurants and stores. As the final plans for the $1.5 billion development take shape, following years of recession-related financing and legal woes, the fate of more than a dozen businesses and hundreds of residents along Water Street and Maine Avenue SW are being debated. Maine Avenue SW is poised to become a tree-lined urban boulevard. Water Street SW is to be demolished entirely, replaced by a 60-foot walkable promenade. Plans for the area include a cultural maritime center, three hotels, 800 residential units and tons of commercial office space.

Construction is slated to begin in late 2012 and could take eight years or more.

"We're really going back in time to where the waterfront and the pedestrian were king," said Monty Hoffman, chief executive of PN Hoffman, the D.C. developer who with Madison Marquette is building the new waterfront. "It will be a gateway attraction and a whole new community, sort of like spokes on a wheel all leading to the water."

At home on the water

Gangplank Marina remains one of the question marks. Hoffman said that it is unclear how the public marina will be incorporated into the development, but his team is looking at examples in other cities, such as Boston, New York and Seattle.

If anything, Gangplank is unique to the District. The 310-slip Gangplank was founded in 1977 and soon became a haven for suburbia-overdosed divorcees, distrustful of all things land-lubbing. Since then, it has grown into an eclectic mix of young families, Navy personnel and Capitol Hill workers enticed by the idea of drinking their morning coffee on their waterborne decks and, the illusion at least, of being able to cast off at anytime to parts unknown.

"We're the low men on the totem pole. Honestly, around here, we get a lot of rumors and gossip about what's happening," said Susan Carpenter, 68, a retiree who has lived aboard a cedar-sided house barge with her husband, Joe, since 1998. A view from their boat looks out on the Washington Monument, and the former presidential yacht, the Sequoia, is docked nearby.

Shawn Seaman, PN Hoffman's project director for the Southwest waterfront project, said that once the project is completed, both Gangplank and the Capital Yacht Club will have the same number of slips and that the "bulkhead, promenade and marina slips will be reconstructed and improved as part of the project."

But the lack of firm plans makes some marina dwellers nervous.

Eve Bratman, 31, an assistant professor at American University's School of International Service, purchased her boat, Last Resort, a year and a half ago as she dealt with her "PhD-life crisis."

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