Mattie R. Sharpless sat in a folding chair Wednesday night in the auditorium of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church at 222 M St. SW as developers, architects and real estate brokers laid out their plans to turn the 13 acres of the outdated Waterside Mall into a pedestrian-friendly open area with restaurants, shops and huge offices for the mortgage giant Fannie Mae.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Fannie Mae have some pretty good real estate up on Wisconsin Avenue?" Sharpless asked the speakers. "Why do they want to come down here?"
The crowd erupted in applause. For a while, it seemed like the developers would get shellacked, as they did two years ago at another meeting of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Ward 6D, which represents the neighborhood. But then the crowd started to come around.
And that was an important milestone for the project's three developers. Two years ago, few residents wanted to see more traffic in the neighborhood and others were worried about losing the retailers at the mall. This time around, with a well-known tenant -- Fannie Mae -- taking the bulk of the space and with more-specific ideas about what the 2.5 million-square-foot project will look like, the developers got a warmer reception from most of the residents.
"We received a very hostile reaction from the community the first time around," said Shalom Baranes, whose firm Shalom Baranes Associates is the architect. Now that the old Environmental Protection Agency building has been empty for two years and is getting a little shabby, "people are finally anxious to see development occur there."
Fannie Mae has a large, grassy campus on Wisconsin Avenue near Quebec Street NW, and it leases several other offices in the D.C. region for its 4,000 employees. But the company's workforce has been rapidly growing, and it needs more space.
"We think this is a really terrific neighborhood," said Alvin Nichols, Fannie Mae's director of corporate real estate, responding to Sharpless. "And there are very, very few places you can build the amount of space we're talking about building [in the District.] We could have chosen to move any place. Reston, even. If we were going to spend this amount of money, we wanted to spend it in a place to make a difference."
Getting applause was important for the developers because the project -- one of several the District expects to help revitalize the rundown Southwest and Southeast waterfronts just past the Maine Avenue fish market -- still must go through several public hearings early next year.
The D.C.'s zoning commission must approve the designs, and the D.C. council must also approve re-opening Fourth Street SW through the site and the offer of $17 million cash from the developers to buy the land from the quasi-public National Capital Revitalization Corp., said one of the developers, Gretchen Dudney, vice president of development at Kaempfer Co.
The drab, concrete office buildings on the site, between K and M streets SW, have been mostly empty since the EPA left two years ago, and there are only a few stores, including a Safeway grocery and CVS drugstore.
D.C. planners say the project will bring 4,000 jobs to an area that hasn't had much of a spark in decades. D.C. council member Sharon Ambrose (D) , who represents the area, said she supports the Fannie Mae project.
"It will bring some vitality to that space that has been lacking vitality for a very long time," Ambrose said. "Once EPA left the building they had occupied, it became a wasteland. The Safeway and CVS are used, but they're a small part of a very large space. The developers have been seeking a tenant without much success until now. Fannie Mae will come with their employees, and they will come with a pledge to build housing around the site. It's going to be wonderful for the neighborhood."
While most residents said they supported the project, some were skeptical of the details. Their questions included: Where would Fannie Mae's employees park and how much more traffic would they add to the area? How early in the morning would construction workers start, and would large dump trucks make potholes in roads and create backups? Would there be attractive retail that would be open at night after Fannie Mae's workers went home or would the sidewalks roll up? And where would they shop for groceries and get prescriptions filled once the Safeway and CVS stores in Waterside Mall are closed and construction starts?
Safeway officials and the developers said they weren't sure if the store would remain open -- a worry many residents expressed, saying some elderly people depend on the store because it is within walking distance.
The developers' plans call for tearing down the mall and offices on the site to build a 2.1-million-square-foot office complex for Fannie Mae. The project will also have an estimated 400 residential units -- 20 percent of which will be subsidized for 30 years -- plus 100,000 square feet of retail with a major grocery store and underground parking garages.
One of the major features of the project will be opening Fourth Street, which runs through the center of the mall but is now closed. It will have street-level retail on both sides. No retailers have signed leases, but the developers said they hope to put in smaller stores like a card shop, bookstore and a few restaurants.
Construction is expected to start next summer, and half of the project will be done in 2008. The rest -- the 400 apartments and some office space -- would be built over a five-year span, starting in 2008.
"Getting Fannie Mae down there allows us to jump-start our project," said David Smith, a project manager at Cleveland-based developer Forest City Enterprises Inc., one of the developers on the project. The third developer is Rockville-based Bresler & Reiner Inc.
At the meeting, the architects laid out the changes they had made to the plans since landing Fannie Mae as a major tenant. The office buildings will now sit back from two, existing apartment buildings that border the site on the east and west sides. They also have added more retail space to the site and plan to put the grocery store underneath the residential units on the northeast side of the lot. And there will be substantial underground parking.
Residents still questioned whether the $17 million sales price was high enough, given the new popularity of the area. A few blocks away, D.C. officials negotiated a deal with Major League Baseball to build a stadium for the Montreal Expos.
But by the end of the two-hour meeting, Sharpless -- in spite of her worries about where she and her neighbor, Queen Johnson, would shop once the CVS and Safeway close -- supported the project.
"Once they do this and the rest of the waterfront development the city has planned, this area will be another Georgetown," said Sharpless, who has lived just a few blocks from the proposed project since 1973. "Right now it's like a diamond in the rough."
Dana Hedgpeth writes about commercial real estate and economic development. She can be reached at email@example.com.