Hoffman — one of Washington’s most successful developers — had been working on the Wharf for nearly a dozen years. He had been forced to take the lead when his original partner, the developer of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, went under during the Great Recession. To keep the project alive, he pitched it to investors as far away as China. His children grew up in the time that it took him to secure the community support, the votes in the D.C. Council for $198 million in public funding and another $95 million of free leased land from the city, $220 million from Canadian investors, plus millions more from other investors.
Now all the renderings and engineering drawings were finally materializing in the form of concrete, metal, glass and stone. I followed him outside, where he showed off the space that Hank’s Oyster Bar would occupy and the spot where 12-person jitney motorboats would carry visitors, and their bicycles if they chose, across the Washington Channel to East Potomac Park. Nearby would be a fire pit called the Torch with flames capable of reaching 12 feet in the air. “Everyone fought me on it. They said, well, we shouldn’t be doing this,” Hoffman said. “But there isn’t anything like this anywhere else.”
The fire pit is one flourish that he hopes will help make the Wharf a singular destination. The now-open first phase of the project consists of 2 million square feet; the second phase is expected to be even more high-end, with celebrity architects involved. All told, when the second phase is completed in 2022, there will be a mile of waterfront on 24 acres of land, 50 acres of riparian rights in the channel, 1,375 residences, 945,000 square feet of office space, 800 rooms in four hotels, 2,500 parking spaces, and 10 acres of parks and open spaces.
At a cost of $2.5 billion, the Wharf is one of the most aggressive efforts in recent memory by the District, maybe by any city, to reinvent a waterfront. It also happens to be located near the site of a previous, infamous attempt at urban transformation: In the 1950s, the federal and local governments leveled thousands of buildings in Southwest and, according to the D.C. Preservation League, forced a total of 23,000 residents and 1,500 businesses to move. They then built a mass of brutalist-style housing complexes around a retail center, Waterside Mall. Little remained beyond the Maine Avenue fish market and a handful of churches. Southwest, the boyhood stomping ground of Marvin Gaye, eventually became a case study of everything urban renewal got wrong about cities and people.
As Hoffman and I looked out across the channel at a dock being built to accommodate giant luxury yachts, I wondered whether the Wharf would turn out to be another case of hubris by planners, politicians and developers — a plastic corporate playland for wealthy white-collar workers. Or had the city and Hoffman, through all the trials and tribulations, gotten something right this time?
The most recent era of the waterfront dates to the 1980s. Mayor Marion Barry had wanted to mimic the success of the Inner Harbor — but in far less time than the two decades it took Baltimore. He started in 1984 with Potomac Riverfest, an annual city-funded weekend festival to celebrate the end of a $1 billion cleanup of the Potomac. The event featured appearances by tall ships, concerts, a parade, food and fireworks. "Ten years ago, the Potomac River was a disgrace. It was probably one of the most polluted rivers in America. It smelled bad. It looked bad. Fish wouldn't even swim in it, it was that bad," Barry, dressed in a white suit, said at the kickoff. "But now the Potomac is clean."
His efforts supported businesses such as the Channel Inn hotel, Hogate’s restaurant, Zanzibar on the Waterfront nightclub and Phillips Seafood — which enjoyed 99-year leases on city-owned land along Maine Avenue SW. With the fish market and the yacht club, which were already there, these businesses shaped the Southwest waterfront for a generation of Washingtonians. Couples sat on the hoods of their cars after work and enjoyed fried fish and shrimp outside the fish market. Locals threw a line in the water at twilight for catfish or bass, throwing them back if they heeded health warnings. District politicos held countless receptions and fundraisers at the Channel Inn.
Zanzibar, Phillips and Hogate’s outlasted Riverfest, which Barry ended in 1990 — citing, as The Washington Post wrote at the time, “money problems and citizen dissatisfaction.” By the late 1990s, the viability of Waterside Mall was in doubt after a major tenant, the Environmental Protection Agency, decided to move out, taking 3,800 employees with it. When Anthony Williams became mayor in 1999, planning experts were already proposing undoing parts of urban renewal along the waterfront by restoring streets that had been erased to create “superblocks,” and constructing a walkable “town center.” Williams made redeveloping the waterfront from the Washington Channel up and along the Anacostia River a priority. He brought in Andrew Altman from Oakland, Calif., to be his planning director and formed the Anacostia Waterfront Corp.
Altman was skeptical that he and his small staff of 10 would be able to reconnect the city’s residents with its waterways, including the 47 acres along the Southwest waterfront. The agreements Barry had signed with restaurants and other businesses made redeveloping the area difficult. Every company would have to agree to the proposal or negotiate a buyout.
“People thought back then that it was just too tough of a challenge to crack,” Altman recalls. “There were all these long-term leases with these property owners. How are you ever going to get all that bought out and taken care of? And then, how are you ever going to get neighborhood support for the density you need? It just seemed like a mountain too high.”
Still, Williams and Altman took note of the long-term growth Baltimore had set in motion with the Inner Harbor. Washington attracted millions of visitors every year to the U.S. Capitol, the Mall and Georgetown, but only a small segment of those visitors ventured elsewhere in the city. In his 2003 plan for the Anacostia River and its related waterways, Altman envisioned a redeveloped Southwest waterfront that would serve “as a premier destination for local, regional, and national visitors alike.” It called for 13 acres of open space, 800 housing units and 180,000 square feet of cultural space running from Fort McNair to 12th Street SW. The next year, the D.C. Council approved his plans.
Many longtime neighborhood residents initially railed against the initiative. Some worried that they would lose the waterfront views they enjoyed. Others worried they would be priced out of the neighborhood once the fancy condos arrived. The specter of a second “urban renewal” was raised again and again. Altman and his team tried to convince them that hundreds of new housing units were needed to support restaurants and shops that could serve the whole neighborhood.
Altman left the District in 2005, but, in 2006, the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. selected, from 17 competitors, a team led by Bill Struever’s company, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. Struever — who had renovated part of the Inner Harbor — paired up with Hoffman, who had a portfolio of residential projects. Almost right away, the entire plan went to pot: Contractors and other creditors came calling to Struever’s company for millions of dollars in allegedly unpaid work — leaving Hoffman to finish the project. “When we got in trouble, he stepped up and soldiered on,” Struever recalls.
The loss of Struever, however, was huge. He had pioneered the redevelopment of brownfield sites, warehouses and factories. By contrast, Hoffman had made his name in the District’s pre-bubble condo boom, developing lofts and flats. The Southwest waterfront was bigger, more expensive and far more complex than anything he had attempted before.
Hoffman subscribes to the tenets of new urbanism, which holds that neighborhoods in great American cities are great because of their diversity of form — that the beauty originates in the different shapes and structures that different builders and designers erected right next to one another, at different times. With the exception of the fish market, which was left largely untouched, the Southwest waterfront could never be that, but he went to great lengths to mimic the effect in a wildly condensed time frame, by hiring nine architects to design the first nine buildings so they would not overly conform with one another.
As we walked along the Wharf in September, he talked about traveling the country and to cities across Europe to collect other ideas that would lend the Wharf a touch of authenticity, such as cobblestones. Hoffman told his team to lay cobblestones at the Wharf in a half dozen patterns along the length of the project. He made canopies at different heights and shapes, and the dimensions of alleyways and walkways are small enough to feel intimate, even crowded. He wanted some roads and alleys to be narrower than the city allowed, requiring him to persuade the D.C. Council to approve them. When there are people on the Wharf they are going to be right up beside you. “It doesn’t feel like you’re in this soulless cavern of shiny new buildings,” he said.
He explained that they also tried to live up to a principle that Struever and others have championed since the opening of the Inner Harbor: that the waterfront remain fully open to the public. Water taxis connect the Wharf to the area’s other waterfront stops, in Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown and National Harbor. At Hoffman’s behest, all the parking was put underground — an expensive accommodation for pedestrians. “The idea is to really make it a place that is actually alive,” says Amer Hammour, chairman of Madison Marquette, one of the other builders. “Otherwise you’re not really taking advantage of this great position. The least we can do is make it a place for everybody.”
To draw crowds, the developers have also filled the space with a marathon of merriment. In the winter there was a 40-foot Christmas tree, a holiday boat parade, ice skating, ice sculpting, plus Curling & Cocktails and Broomball & Brews. There is a festival for nearly every holiday: a parade of floats on Mardi Gras, bagpipes for St. Patrick’s Day, Petalpalooza for the cherry blossoms and a Chihuahua race for Cinco de Mayo. All year there are chef talks at the more than 20 restaurants, author talks at the Politics and Prose bookstore, and shows at three concert venues.
John King, the San Francisco Chronicle's longtime urban design critic who studied in Washington for much of this year, has a term for the mega real estate projects that big-money developers assemble under the banner of placemaking: "instant urbanism." It's often applied to town-center-style developments in the suburbs — as a pejorative for their soulless, cookie-cutter design. He counts the Wharf as an example of this phenomenon, noting that it "doesn't feel like nine buildings that just happen to be next to one another." Ultimately, his feelings about the place are mixed. He is "conflicted about what it says about today's urban growth patterns." But he acknowledges that "for what it is, it's very good."
The larger questions are whether the Wharf can ever match the Inner Harbor’s long-term success — and whether directing hundreds of millions in public subsidies to develop amenities such as the Wharf produces fairly distributed prosperity. Hoffman and his partners sought to involve the community throughout the development process and tried to fulfill city requirements to hire locals during construction; yet not everyone is happy with the results. The liberal DC Fiscal Policy Institute has criticized the project for creating mostly low-wage service jobs, and in November, labor unions complained that workers on Phase Two of the development would not earn a living wage.
Some of the concerns longtime Southwest residents voiced 15 years ago about being priced out have proved to be well founded. Condos in Vio, one of the first residential buildings, sometimes sell for more than $1,000 per square foot — a premium that few Washington buildings have ever achieved. Between early 2015 and early 2016, the average home price in the surrounding neighborhood went up more than $50,000, from $321,167 to $378,625.
Hoffman’s development company says the first phase of the Wharf has 200 out of a total of 649 rental units offered at below-market rates. (That figure does not include condos being sold at market rates.) The units are awarded by lottery. The idea is to help low- and middle-income residents, as required by the city. But in reality, these units remain unattainable for a large swath of residents. For instance, a household of three earning between $60,000 and $99,000 would pay $2,481.75 a month for a two-bedroom.
Kathryn Howell, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied publicly subsidized development in the District, calls the Wharf an epic missed opportunity to use city-owned land to require more affordable housing. “They gave the store away,” she says — and now that the opportunity is gone, it is even more imperative for the city to ensure residents in nearby Section 8 and public housing projects such as Greenleaf Gardens and James Creek will be able to remain. On the surface, the Wharf meets many of the criteria of urbanists who fought to preserve neighborhoods and protect low-income residents from the overreach of planners and developers. But there are still some echoes of urban renewal — only this time, rising rents and property values could do the work of displacing people.
Derek Hyra, who directs the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University’s School of Public Affairs and has written extensively on gentrification in the District, says that despite the free jitney rides and the fire pit, the Wharf is not really accessible to everyone. “It’s a dynamic space,” he says, but the prices at some of the new restaurants make it “a space of affluence ... a playground for lobbyists and lawyers — highly paid professionals.” He says that, during a recent visit to the Wharf, he inquired about renting a 100-seat conference space for a lecture and was quoted $8,500 as the starting rate. “That’s really for corporations, not the average D.C. citizen,” he says.
There’s already evidence of some of the pitfalls of other developments that focus on luxury offerings, such as CityCenterDC. “There’s not a lot of just — let’s go grab a pizza,” said Patricia Davis. A mother of four who moved to the Tiber Island complex nearby when construction on the Wharf started, Davis was enjoying the sunshine at Waterfront Park with her two youngest daughters one day in April. She said she was happy to see security guards stop people from handing out pamphlets or panhandling but was irked when a bartender at a restaurant asked her husband to take off his hat.
Longtime customers still flock to the fish market, a local institution that adjoins the Wharf and lends the project some authenticity. But for now, the loyal bargain hunters looking to spend less than $10 on a pound of shrimp remain largely separate from the visitors to the Wharf who don’t mind dropping $10 on a single beer.
Hyra’s concern is that long-term, widening income inequality threatens to sap Washington of what makes it unique and appealing to the childless young professionals and empty nesters that the city has come to depend on for $100 million-plus annual budget surpluses. “We have authentic neighborhoods with real history,” he says. “If D.C. can pair its history with a stable economy, it will continue to attract people with its vibrancy.”
I asked Andy Altman to walk along the promenade at the Wharf — a place he designed on paper more than a decade earlier — late on a bright morning in March. It had snowed the day before, and construction workers in gloves and layers of sweatshirts were finalizing lighting, landscaping and signs in preparation for spring. After he left the District in 2005, he took planning jobs in Philadelphia and London. He returned to Washington in 2014.
We stopped on one of the piers and he pulled from a manila folder some watercolor renderings of the proposed Southwest waterfront redevelopment from 2003. He said criticism of the Wharf as a capstone of gentrification and income inequality is overblown and that it is as welcoming to people whether they own a $3 million condo there or just want to enjoy the sunset on the promenade. “One of the ideas in the planning was that people would think of Washington and enjoy Washington and respect Washington, not just because it’s a capital city but because it’s a great urban place,” he said. “You don’t just think, ‘Oh, London’s the capital city.’ You think, ‘I love London — it’s an incredible city, I love going there, I love walking the streets.’ Now Washington is on that list.”
The early reviews from some longtime residents are similarly favorable. D.C. native and real estate executive Ernie Jarvis — who grew up enjoying Hogate’s rum buns and later spent evenings out at Zanzibar — likes the Wharf so much that he is planning to move there with his wife from Potomac when his sons graduate high school. “I think it’s the greatest project I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It feels like a neighborhood. It feels safe to my wife, to walk around in the evening and then go to Arena Stage. It feels like there is a community there because there is a community there.”
Jarvis still counts himself among black Washingtonians who feel nostalgic for the waterfront of yesteryear. When he goes to the Wharf, such as when he attended a Foo Fighters show at the grand opening of the Anthem (the Wharf’s main concert venue), he has noticed that he does not see many people of color the way he used to. But that’s where the District is heading, he says, whether or not the city had built the Wharf: “That’s not the developer’s fault. It says that the city is changing complexion.”
Carl C. Cole grew up on the 300 block of I Street SW in the 1940s and ’50s, in a neighborhood of close-knit black families he can recall easily by name. Most of the city’s swimming pools barred black people, so he learned to swim and sail off Buzzard Point in the Anacostia River. He says his house was torn down in 1957 or 1958 as part of urban renewal; his family moved to Southeast. “Everyone was displaced, by and large,” he recalls.
But Cole, who just turned 75, moved back to Southwest in 2017. “I love everything about it. It has far exceeded my expectations,” he says of the Wharf. He waves away suggestions that it was built too exclusively to serve white or wealthy residents. “The waterfront is one of the city’s greatest attractions, and we had to do better by it,” he says. “If you can find me a sign anywhere that says, ‘No Blacks,’ let me know. It is there for people who want to explore and to expand their minds.”
Hoffman and I last spoke about the project in May, by which time the Wharf was drawing thousands of people every weekend and plenty of crowds even on weekdays, despite the summer season having yet to begin. He said the idea that the Wharf caters predominantly to the affluent was a misperception, pointing to the food stands with cheap eats, free shuttle buses to Smithsonian museums and the free jitney rides to East Potomac Park, where a round of mini golf costs $7. “We have 23 restaurants and food offerings just in Phase One,” Hoffman said. “You can get food for less than $12.”
He explained to me one more time why he stuck with this project, through his partner's bankruptcy, a global search for capital and a seemingly endless wait for government approvals: to have a hand in reconnecting Washington to its waterfront. "This will always be the nation's capital," he said. "But it is a waterfront city, and time will tell whether it will be viewed that way."
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that in the 1950s urban renewal forced 4,500 residents to move out of Southwest. According to the D.C. Preservation League, urban renewal displaced a total of 23,000 residents and 1,500 businesses. This version has been updated.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Mayor Marion Barry's efforts to draw people to the southwest waterfront in the 1980s attracted businesses such as the Channel Inn hotel and Hogate's restaurant. The Channel Inn and Hogate's opened in the 1970s. This version has been updated.
Jonathan O’Connell is a staff writer for The Washington Post.