Murky waters for D.C.'s 'boat people' on 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."

The three-tiered boat, which has no working motor but has all the other familiar modern trappings of home, including high-speed Internet and a fully stocked refrigerator, gave Bratman a "sense of community" that her old Adams Morgan apartment lacked.

"It's really like you're on vacation when you're out here," said Bratman, who grows fruits and vegetables in a container garden inside her boat and uses a collection of worms for composting. "I couldn't imagine going back to dry land."

On the waterfront

Southwest has always been both blessed and cursed by the water.

Unlike any other section of the city, it is bounded by three waterfronts: the accessible portion along Water Street SW, an inaccessible government marina at Fort McNair and the Buzzard Point industrial waterfront.

As part of a Congress-led "urban renewal" project in Southwest, new clusters of concrete-laden federal office buildings cropped up in the 1950s and '60s.

Poor residents were relocated to Anacostia in the 1970s, and developers were given favorable loans to accommodate them. Little thought was given to using the waterfront as a recreational area. More than 40 percent of the waterfront area is paved, according to city planners, a testament to the old emphasis on parking and quick access to Interstate 395.

Construction will require the displacement or demolition of several waterfront businesses that held 99-year leases, including Gangplank's neighbor, the Capital Yacht Club; the 100-room Channel Inn; the Zanzibar nightclub; and Phillips Seafood Restaurant.

A deal for Zanzibar, a 26,000-square-foot club known for its hip-hop, Caribbean, African and salsa music, could be finished in the coming weeks, Hoffman said. It will eventually be torn down, and its owners might be offered a smaller space for a more low-key jazz club.

But Michel Daley, one of Zanzibar's co-owners, said nothing is final.

"This has been a very arduous negotiation and Hoffman has been offering a take-it-or-leave-it scenario, so we're not sure," he said Friday.

The Channel Inn and Phillips will be razed and its owners will likely build two hotels with additional retail space, Hoffman said. Phillips might come back in a smaller reincarnation, but its future is up in the air.

The club H2O has closed and will be demolished to make room for temporary performing arts space ahead of next spring's cherry blossom festival.

"We know this project will deliver the promise of becoming one of the marquee waterfront destinations for Washington, the region and the nation," said Valerie Joy Santos, deputy mayor for planning and economic development. Developer PN Hoffman's and Madison Marquette's public waterfront presentation is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.

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