For years, a digital calendar has counted down the days until the unveiling of the massive Wharf project on the Southwest Waterfront.
With the clock nearing zero for its opening Thursday, city officials and the developer will get their first look at how throngs on land and water will test public safety preparations.
Seasoned by the city’s building boom and reinvigorated communities, police and fire officials and city planners said they are drawing on experience as they prepare to protect the new entertainment and residential strip along Maine Avenue SW.
In concert with the city, developers enhanced safety features through improved sight lines and lighting between buildings; made a heavy investment in a surveillance camera network; and placed security bollards and eliminated curbs to create pedestrian-only plazas and provide controlled access for bicycle patrol officers and emergency vehicles.
The water-facing side also had anticipated upgrades, with fire department officials saying that more than $20 million has been approved for improvements to the public safety pier to house police and fire marine units. Replacing the city’s aging fire boat also is underway.
"More people does not always equate directly into more calls for service," Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor for public safety, said in an interview. "Adjusting to even a development a s large as this does not require us to fundamentally change how we approach responses and how we staff this part of the city."
For some longtime Southwest residents, including those who live on houseboats, the official assurances aren’t enough to quiet a nagging sense that adding many more people to the area will stress services.
The stretch opening between Seventh and 12th streets in the first phase will start the draw of visitors that could reach as many as 15 million annually when the full project is complete, developer Monty Hoffman said.
When both phases are done in about five years, an entire Southwest neighborhood is expected to emerge in a complex stretching over more than 24 acres, and twice that expanse across the Washington Channel.
Waves of visitors will flow to and from entertainment sites, including a 6,000-seat concert venue, about 2,400 restaurant seats, and a host of smaller taverns and live-music spots. The site also will draw hotel guests, office workers, and residents of luxury condominiums and apartments.
Andy Litsky, an 18-year elected official who chairs the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, questions how so many vehicles and people will be able to move safely through residential streets not built for heavy traffic. The city's public transit system stops running at midnight.
“My real concern is that we always have room in and room out for EMS vehicles,” Litsky said.
A squeeze on emergency services for incidents on the water gnaws at Southwest marina resident Darryl Madden, who two years ago, while away from his floating home, “got a call that my boat was cooking in the river.” He lost the houseboat, but firefighters responded quickly enough to tow his vessel and prevent the fire from spreading.
The Wharf will have multiple piers for kayak rentals, water taxi and ferry rides, and slips for large pleasure boats from Virginia and Maryland.
D.C. police said their harbor unit has 22 officers assigned to 17 vessels and can handle patrolling, although officials declined to provide specific numbers for calls for service.
Fire officials said a new vessel is scheduled to go into service later this fall to respond to medical emergencies and smaller incidents, such as drunken people falling in the water.
But the harbor patrol crews “are the only resources for the entire waterfront, including Georgetown, Washington Channel and the river. This is a lot of water,” even before any spike in boating activities, Madden said.
Donahue and the command staffs for the police and fire departments have resisted expanding resources or changing their approach to responding to incidents in Southwest.
But they are prepared, they say.
Donahue said the advance work includes having 911 center staff join police and fire personnel to ensure that new addresses and new streets are in the computer-assisted dispatch system, and holding orientations for officers and firefighters, to walk, drive and boat into the site to learn the buildings and surroundings.
“The familiarization is a big deal for us,” D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Gregory Dean said.
New construction is an asset, he said, because it is built using the latest codes and standards for sprinkler systems, has inner core stairwells for escape routes, and has stand pipes throughout the complex to provide easier access to water.
Dean estimates that the department will absorb any potential rise in service calls just as it did in areas such as NoMa or near the Navy Yard, and just as it handlesthe surge of 1.5 million workers into the city each day.
“We are in a gray area to a certain degree . . . but we are trying to make sure we don’t knee-jerk something. We have to look at it at a steady pace,” Dean said.
The preparation and foresight also may be aided by the hiring of a retired longtime assistant police chief to run the Wharf’s private security operations.
Hoffman lured Diane Groomes in a move that some city leaders said they expect will make it easier to resolve problems that may arise between public and private interests.
Groomes, who spent more than 10 years as head of patrol services for the D.C. police, will lead a force of more than 30 security officers and hire off-duty D.C. police during high-volume periods, to patrol and direct traffic. The private security and off-duty police also will monitor 177 cameras fixed on lobbies, crowds, traffic and even available parking spaces.
Private security should relieve the burden on D.C. officers assigned to the surrounding neighborhood so they will not be siphoned off at the expense of existing patrols, First Police District Cmdr. Morgan C. Kane said.
Hoffman and Groomes also said that they anticipate large crowds, and that people on the streets could help tamp down street crime. People may be walking to the Southwest attractions from the Yards or Nationals Park between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m., the developer’s expected high-volume times, but, as Hoffman said: “Crowds are safety. With more people, I am a big believer there is more safety.”
With the help of $198 million in city funding, the Wharf’s developers included public parks, piers and play spaces to draw visitors to the site.
A robust waterfront adds an “exciting” element and pushes the District to be more of “a city on the water,” said D.C. Council Member Charles Allen (D), who chairs the council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee and who represents Ward 6, which includes the Wharf.
He has long advocated for a new fireboat — so often that his fervor has become a running joke among his colleagues, he says — and is pushing that initiative even more strongly now.
The Wharf project is the first phase of the Southwest development boom that by 2022 is expected to include a soccer stadium and 6,000 residential units at Buzzard Point, plus a second large-scale development just east of the Wharf.
Allen said the city soon will need a new fireboat, and maybe even a new firehouse, and asked the fire department for a study in an attempt to begin a public safety debate.