Fourth in a five-part series

Optimists have said it for decades: The time is coming soon for the Near Southeast. But then, year after year, nothing happened.

Today, however, there is reason to believe. Although it's still pretty much a desolate checkerboard of working warehouses and vacant lots, this important, up-for-grabs segment of the city is changing fast.

For that reason, this large chunk of territory between the Southeast Freeway and the banks of the Anacostia River is a prime focus of the city's ambitious Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.

In a sense, the plan for this district is not about its mostly forgotten waterfront. It is, rather, about urban regeneration, about reviving a river's edge to attract, coordinate and control public and private investment.

Taking in 378 acres, the plan is the biggest urban renewal effort in Washington in more than 30 years, comparable to the gigantic federal plan that reconfigured Southwest Washington from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Actually, if you add nearby Buzzard Point and the western edge of South Capitol Street to the total -- territories technically excluded from the plan but crucial to it -- the Near Southeast effort is the largest in the city's history.

A brief rundown of what planners foresee in the next two decades:

* The area's residential population will increase from 1,850 today to more than 11,000.

* Employment in the district will rise from about 19,000 today, concentrated in or close by the Washington Navy Yard, to more than 96,000.

* Space occupied by retailers and restaurants will go up dramatically, from less than 50,000 square feet to approximately 750,000 square feet, much of it spread throughout the area in mandated ground-floor retail stores.

Fueling these optimistic predictions has been the recent transformation of the 205-year-old Navy Yard from post-World War II backwater to bustling command center. With dozens of new or retrofitted buildings, the yard now hosts a daily workforce of more than 11,000.

Businesses with close ties to the Navy have followed. In the last three years, five large -- if architecturally undistinguished -- office buildings have appeared on once-desolate M Street SE.

Furthermore, after four disappointing decades, the long-planned Southeast Federal Center on former Navy Yard land finally seems ready to come out of the ground. Excavation has begun for a new headquarters of the federal Department of Transportation, a 1.35 million-square-foot, Michael Graves-designed behemoth facing M Street between Second and Fourth streets SE.

And plans are being readied for the "center's" remaining 42 acres. Fortunately, these new plans will be nothing like the old ones in procedure or product.

In principle, a federal employment center on government-owned land in the Near Southeast always made plenty of sense. The area, after all, is close to Capitol Hill, adjacent to major highways and on top of a Green Line Metro station.

But in practice, there was always plenty of resistance from federal employees because the area was an urban wasteland. Nobody wanted to work there. And the idea for a single-use office compound wasn't compelling.

Then, thanks in no small measure to D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and the Southeast Federal Center Public-Private Development Act that she sponsored in 2000, the rules changed to encourage a coordinated approach to redevelopment. The General Services Administration, the government landlord, is negotiating with a private developer on a final plan.

And, thanks also to the city's waterfront plan and the 1997 federal Legacy plan for the nation's capital, the new vision for the Southeast Federal Center calls for a mix of uses. There will be room for about 6,000 federal employees and 6,000 residents on the site.

Another major project in advanced stages of planning is the transformation of the Arthur Capper public housing complex. This is a Hope VI program sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in which "severely distressed" public housing units are repaired or rebuilt as part of a mixed-income neighborhood.

The total number of units here will more than double, from 707 to about 1,700. Existing public housing units will be replaced in kind and a portion of the added residences will be subsidized.

Nearby, a consortium of private owners will erect mid-rise residential towers around Canal Blocks Park. As a result of a city deal with developers, this major public amenity, taking up three long, narrow blocks, will be financed largely with private money. (The D.C. government's Office of Planning recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to conduct a design competition for the park.)

Clearly, then, plans for the new Near Southeast are every bit as ambitious as the old Southwest urban renewal program. But there are huge differences. Because the terrain is so sparsely populated, the Near Southeast plan, unlike the Southwest effort, will not require massive residential demolition and population displacement. In other words, it isn't another "urban removal" scheme.

And in ironic contrast to the old, brave-new-world modernist plan, the city's new, revisionist idea enthusiastically looks backward. Its aim, that is, is to fill all those empty Southeast lots with something resembling a densely populated, traditional urban neighborhood.

To accomplish all this largely with private money, the public sector must spend its own precious dollars in exactly the right places. This explains the Anacostia initiative's strong emphasis on improving transportation infrastructure.

A new South Capitol Street bridge, for instance, is a must -- and not only because the existing Frederick Douglass Bridge is in need of significant repair. The Douglass Bridge, designed exclusively to whisk commuters in cars from one point to another, treats the river (not to mention pedestrians and bicyclists) with extraordinary rudeness.

Plus, it's nothing much to look at. A new span, presumably, would both look and perform a lot better.

A new South Capitol Street is also a must. As it stands, the so-called street is really just an extension of the highway for the cars coming over the bridge. It is ugly, it is an insult to the edifice for which it is named, it is a formidable elevated barrier between neighborhoods and a major impediment to healthy development.

Not surprisingly, both the city and the federal plans call for the street to be rebuilt as a handsome, ground-level urban boulevard. The city's plan advocates digging a tunnel under the new bridge to alleviate commuter traffic. Even more radically, the federal plan foresees the tunnelization of the entire Southeast Freeway, thus eliminating a massive barrier between Capitol Hill neighborhoods and the Near Southeast.

In addition to these huge, long-term infrastructure improvements, the Anacostia initiative, as it must, focuses much attention on projects that can be built in increments -- extending a street here, providing new sidewalks there, or building the river walk segment by segment.

Connections between neighborhoods and access to the river's edge are key elements of the city's plan. In the Near Southeast, this means reestablishing an urban street system that has been erased over the years.

The construction of South Capitol Street and its bridge, for instance, cut off most of the direct east-west connections between the two sides of the street. The plan proposes to rebuild these crosstown streets and to transform beleaguered M Street into a "pedestrian friendly urban boulevard."

North-south connections play an even larger role. Today the Near Southeast suffers from a double whammy -- while it is almost impossible to get to the waterfront, once you reach it there isn't much to admire. The Anacostia plan proposes to alter both conditions, the first by pushing through streets and avenues that have long been shut off, and the second by making the riverfront a place one would like to be.

Both of these moves, like practically everything in the plan, require careful coordination among the many players with a stake in the outcome.

For its new headquarters the federal Department of Transportation, for example, initially wanted a single building extending more than 700 feet along M Street SE -- the equivalent of an enormous wall. Washington's urban planners, on the other hand, badly wanted Third Street to pass through the site, and for good reason: The street is an important opening to the river.

Time was when the outcome would hardly have been in doubt: The feds arrogantly would have done what they wanted on federal property. But this time around, city officials came armed with a compelling plan that had to be taken seriously, and a compromise was reached. An extension of Third Street will be built through the site, but it will be closed to cars for security reasons indefinitely.

In olden days, lots of things would have been different. For instance, the Navy most likely would have said a simple no to a public river walk coursing through the military reservation.

Today, however, even with heightened security concerns, Navy Yard officials welcome outsiders to its museums and riverside walk. They've even expressed a willingness to rebuild the yard's waterside esplanade to better accommodate the city's river walk needs.

That's quite a turnaround, one of hundreds that will have to occur if the city's bold plans for a new Near Southeast are to bear fruit.

NEXT: The Other Side

Benjamin Forgey will be online to discuss this series Friday at noon at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

Construction has begun on a new headquarters for the Department of Transportation, which will bring the Near Southeast much-needed jobs.The Washington Navy Yard is the linchpin of the Near Southeast renaissance, drawing new development to the area.The Anacostia Initiative proposes to transform riverfront properties such as this industrial site near the South Capitol Street bridge.