Third in a five-part series

The Southwest waterfront is one of the few places in Washington where the city busily engages the water's edge.

A place where people live. An active, interesting place that people walk to from nearby streets, mingling with fish sellers, fishermen, folks hanging out at waterside restaurants and bars, families out for an evening stroll.

Oops. Time warp. That reality was eons ago. Back before much of the neighborhood was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for something new.

And, believe it or not, that lively image was how it was supposed to be once again -- only cleaner and brighter when the bulldozing was done. Despite the fine intentions, however, the urban renewers got it wrong, and the waterfront became the place we know and, for so many, find impossible to love today.

A failed place where the fish sellers hang on at the edge and where people parade from cars and buses directly to and from eateries and tourist boats. Where, most days, nobody really hangs out just for the pleasure of it.

Now, the day has arrived, again, to brace for dramatic change, because the Southwest waterfront is a prime focus of the city's Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.

"The Southwest waterfront," says Andrew Altman, director of the city's Office of Planning, "is absolutely at the pivotal location between the water, the Mall, the downtown and the Southwest neighborhood. It should be the premier destination waterfront in Washington. It should be a great urban waterfront."

Chances for change are good. Despite its faults, the setting, extending nearly a mile along the Washington Channel, is all-around great. It's got water and boats, and it's a five-minute walk from the Jefferson Memorial. Ten minutes from the Mall. It is perfectly placed to supply the demand for in-city residences. And the city already controls much of the land.

And chances are strong that when it comes, the change will look pretty much like this: An orderly row of mid-rise buildings for residences, hotel rooms, small offices, stores and cultural facilities will replace the low buildings now facing the channel. The new buildings will accommodate up to 800 upscale housing units (with 20 percent "affordable") and a hotel with up to 450 rooms. It'll be a high-density urban neighborhood.

The waterside esplanade will be redesigned to be active and alluring. The 10th Street Overlook, now the site of a modest memorial to Benjamin Banneker, will be rebuilt to connect directly to the waterfront. Stores and restaurants will be greatly increased in number.

Existing parks will be significantly improved, and two new ones will be added -- a Market Square at the northwestern end of the promenade, next to the existing fish market, and a civic park at the southeastern end. The civic park, with space for an as yet undesignated cultural facility, would greatly enhance the setting for Arena Stage, which has its own plans for an exciting makeover.

For today's residents of nearby apartment buildings and townhouses, the changes should be, on balance, a big plus -- though anyone fond of the sleepy atmosphere may well resent the new busyness that change will bring.

Ironically, this bold restructuring was made possible by one of the biggest of the mistakes made by the urban renewers decades ago. They thought the main idea was to make sure there was plenty of room for cars. Thus, they laid out two parallel streets -- wide Maine Avenue and wide Water Street, with parking lots in between.

To be sure, the plan does work for cars. Access to and from the freeway and the 14th Street bridges is a snap and, except at the fish market, parking is always easy to find. It's as if the planners actually wanted to keep nearby residents away from the waterside or, more likely, expected them to use their cars to get there.

All in all, the 1960s waterfront layout, a key part of the Southwest Urban Renewal Plan, amounted to a catalogue of errors that have long needed correcting.

Those long, low buildings placed in a row along the waterfront act more as barriers than allurements.

The architecture is banal, at best, from the early Pizza Hut profile of the Capital Yacht Club in the north to the dull motel modernism of the Channel Inn in the south. Paint jobs and quick fixes of the other buildings have done little to improve their warehouselike exteriors.

The public spaces are equally nondescript. Hard-surfaced, with mere dollops of shade and a few well-intentioned nautical implements (anchors, ship's bells and the like) for local color, the rectangular parks between the buildings are, not surprisingly, unpopulated most of the time.

Sadder still is the waterfront esplanade. Intended as a grand public promenade, it turned out to be a forbidding, narrow walkway.

On the waterside, fences with locked gates separate walkers from the water and the boating piers of the channel marinas. On the land side, a concrete wall closes off access to the restaurants. A row of waterside trees is but a sorry reminder of good intentions gone amiss.

The overarching error, of course, was the failure to put people back in residences at the center of the waterfront. Post-World War II planners believed strongly that cities would be greatly improved if people were to live, work and play in zones that are separate and distinct. The Southwest waterfront is a testament to that idea.

By contrast, the city's waterfront initiative pursues an opposite, older urban ideal of mixed-used, interconnected neighborhoods. How well it fulfills these noble intentions remains to be seen, but the ideas are fundamentally sound.

"Yesteryear's mistake is today's opportunity" would be a good motto for the plan. All that "wasted" space, as Altman rightly calls the redundant roads and surface parking, can be adapted for useful purposes -- namely to put up buildings people can live in and to shape new spaces for them to play in.

As a result, not only will the new Southwest waterfront provide lots of homes where there are none, it'll also dramatically increase space for public parks, almost tripling the area from five to 14 acres.

At the same time, it'll significantly reduce surfaces covered by paving from 42 percent of the total area to about 20 percent. Not incidentally, there will be a lot more parking than now exists, but most of it will be underneath new buildings.

Footprints for the proposed new buildings show the structures distributed in a way that preserves "view corridors" at Ninth, Seventh and M streets SW, an important way to link the surrounding neighborhood to the water.

Massing studies show buildings with varied profiles, averaging from six to nine stories high with towers up to 12 stories, a useful concept in a height-limited city with its mainly uniform profile. Retail, as it should be, is concentrated at ground-floor level.

All of these preliminary studies will be heartening to the architects who end up designing the buildings, for the studies encourage the notion that something truly excellent can and should happen here. Altman has made this ambition explicit: "We'd like to see interesting, innovative modern architecture that'll be an attraction in and of itself," he says.

Likewise, design studies of the esplanade show a sophisticated grasp of what went wrong and how to correct it.

Today, the waterside walkway is divided into two 20-foot-wide paved paths separated by a five-foot-high concrete wall and intermittent stairwells. The plan proposes to widen the overall width to 60 feet to accommodate walkers, joggers, bicyclists and outdoor restaurant seating. It also provides two options to improve connections between the two segments, both employing gentle, stepped transitions.

As for direct public access to the water, practically nonexistent today, the plan proposes to construct new public piers at Seventh, Ninth and M streets, where folks can fish, launch small boats or simply relax. Cafes or other small eating facilities might be placed on one or all of the piers.

The M Street Pier, labeled as "grand" in the plan, would be an extension of the splendid new Civic Park, and would be one more reason for neighbors and people from all over the region to make the Southwest waterfront a destination.

At this point, of course, a lot remains uncertain. By far the biggest challenge to the plan is the possible location of a major league ballpark on the 10th Street Overlook site and atop the Southeast Freeway -- a sci-fi idea in the wrong location.

If Washington does get its long-deserved team, it definitely ought to find a home elsewhere in the city. The overlook location comes with all sorts of problems.

Aesthetically, it would rival the Capitol on the Washington skyline and would tower over the new waterfront, reducing it to being a mere foreground for a large, unpleasant wall. Functionally, the baseball crowds (and their cars) would upset the plan's delicate balance between urban neighborhood and tourist attraction.

The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative's proposed treatment of the 10th Street Overlook is far superior to the behemoth baseball park idea. For one thing, it keeps the overlook open, as an overlook, and thus in visual and psychological touch with the Mall and downtown.

And the proposed "grand civic staircase," cascading down the hill like the Spanish Steps in Rome, is a simple, potentially elegant solution to a long-standing problem.

On the other hand, the idea of a Visitor and Transportation Center -- a parking lot for cars and tourist buses buried under the overlook -- deserves more study. Actually, questions abound up and down this one-mile waterfront line.

Will the fish market improve enough to become the regional jewel that it ought to be?

Is sufficient attention being paid to the important pedestrian connection between the waterfront and the Jefferson Memorial, now a dangerous little sidewalk under a narrow bridge?

Is moving the cruise ship platforms north to the new Market Square really a smart idea?

Will the new Maine Avenue make a vital contribution, with the same old suburbanesque potpourri of office buildings on its eastern edge?

The truth is, anyone who looks carefully at the details of the new Southwest Waterfront Plan can come up with his own list of questions. But the plan is big enough to absorb any necessary changes. In large measure it is doable, and ought to be done.

NEXT: The Near Southeast

Fences block access to the water and to docks near the wharf at the Washington Marina on the Southwest waterfront. The wharf on the Southwest waterfront is a big attraction for fish shoppers. The renewal plan aims to make the fish market the jewel that it ought to be.