The sun is dripping down behind Key Bridge and the wind is wiping every face it finds along Washington Harbour, luring an elegant crowd in yuppie yellow ties or happy-hour high heels, plus panting joggers, sweating cyclists, pointing tourists and tired Tim Moore, who brought binoculars.

In the 10 months since it returned public access to a river front long preempted by industry, the splashy waterside complex -- only a few blocks from the neon congestion of Georgetown's M Street -- has become simultaneously a high-profile social hub in the city and a quiet retreat from the city.

"You really need this," says Moore, a Washington native in his forties. "See, I'm not interested in the fancy restaurant scene behind me. I'm interested in this." He spreads his arms and smiles. "Look at that view. With the binoculars, I can watch people fishing on the shore over there in Virginia, or the straining faces of the college kids on the rowing teams over there, and, well, even a few of the pretty ladies on the boats sometimes."

Spending a few hours on the Washington Harbour boardwalk offers Moore, who now lives in Arlington, solace from metropolitan angst. "This city, you know, is so congested, and folks tend to be uptight, too wired, looking like any second they're about to pop their corks," he says. "So this is a great place for me. I can lay back, grab a breath of fresh air and take it easy. Everyone needs that. It's not the great outdoors, but it's the next best thing for me."

Every night hundreds of visitors throng to Washington Harbour, some to sip champagne at restaurants like Potomac, with its five-level garden terrace, others to sit and think, read or yawn, or admire the fountains dotted with floating rose patches in the Harbour courtyard. There are married couples strolling arm in arm, businessmen dating briefcases, and wide-eyed kids on all fours leaning over the dock babbling about the cool, neat, fast, shiny boats.

"It's amazing how many different kinds of people are coming here," says Debbie Staats of Western Development Corp. of Georgetown, chief developer for the $200 million waterfront project designed by Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore. "The one big thing is: This is one of the only places around here where everyone gets to be on the edge of the river, where you can literally take your shoes off and dangle your feet in the water."

"I think this whole area has become an oh-you've-got-to-see-it kind of place," says Kate Merlino of Potomac restaurant. "A lot of people have made the Harbour their special spot. We face the sunset so nicely in the evenings, people often gasp -- I'm not exaggerating -- and say, 'Oh my gosh, look how beautiful this is.' "

The Harbour opened late last summer with the promise of offering a "special sense of place." It is an architectural collage -- some say collision -- of lavish condominiums, restaurants, specialty shops, bicycle and pedestrian pathways and a boardwalk and boat dock. The six-acre area, formerly a concrete plant and a strip of barren property, is bounded by K Street NW on the north, Rock Creek on the east, the Potomac River on the south and a parking lot on the west.

Staats says the Harbour steadily has gained more attention from Washingtonians and tourists, and contends that even Georgetown residents who once opposed any commercial development on the waterfront are now converts.

But not all of them.

"Well, sure, the fountains are pretty, and they've got a good view, and there's the boardwalk, but otherwise it's still a disaster, a collection of junk," says Donald Shannon, a board member of the Citizens Association of Georgetown.

Excepting the river-front view, Shannon says, the Harbour is a tacky den for yuppie consumerism, not the pleasant shoreline park it should be. "Another chocolate shop. Do we need that? They've taken a real asset and trashed it. I bet half of the people who go down there don't even know they're in a historical district. You know what most people do? They walk right past the shops and straight to the water."

Exactly, Terry Watts says. Walking along the waterfront is what they mean by that word: ambiance. "I came out here just to see how the air felt," says Watts, a 43-year-old Washingtonian who comes to the Harbour boardwalk regularly. Arms folded, he leans against a lamppost.

Small sailboats and lone rowers glide on the Potomac. Flags snap in the wind and the splash of the fountains adds a murmur to the evening. "I'm in awe of the atmosphere here," he says. "It's such a change of pace from the rest of the city. I'm just here to take it all in -- to sit and watch and ponder things for a while."

On his last visit to the Harbour, Watts says, he watched canoeists paddling the Potomac. It sparked a memory: As a Howard University student in the early 1960s, Watts rented a canoe with a friend near this spot, then an urban no-man's-land, and took to the water.

"We went a little ways down from here, right past the Key Bridge, and the canoe flipped over," he says, quietly laughing. "We were okay, but I haven't been canoeing since. I thought about that last time out here just a few days ago and said to myself, 'You know, you've got to go do that again.' And I'm going to. I've made the plans. There's no doubt about it. I came out here and I was inspired."