The $2.5 billion development known as the Wharf, opening this weekend, will transform the city's smallest quadrant by bringing luxury housing, retail, fine dining and entertainment to the Southwest Waterfront.
It also will bring lots of people and traffic.
The first few days of operations alone, starting Thursday, are expected to draw as many as 20,000 visitors daily.
After opening week, the real work begins. In addition to tourists and local visitors, project developers also anticipate a thriving residential community where as many as 2,000 people will live and thousands more will work. When completed, the development will feature more than 3 million square feet of new residential, office, hotel and public areas.
But city and project officials say they're prepared. The new neighborhood is within walking distance to two Metro stations: Waterfront and L'Enfant Plaza. A new shuttle service will ferry visitors from L'Enfant Plaza and the Mall. New water taxis will connect the neighborhood with Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria.
"We are not talking about opening one building or one venue. This is opening what's equivalent to a small city," said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). "That's going to present some transportation challenges."
Only the first phase of the project — the entirety of which encompasses 24 acres and one mile of waterfront — opens Thursday, with some 20 restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. It also has two office buildings, three hotels, and two condominium and two apartment buildings that will provide 868 residential units.
The project's waterfront access, which includes four public piers and a mile-long cobblestone promenade, is expected to be a magnet for tourists.
More venues and restaurants will open by spring as the first phase of the project is completed. A second phase will add more retail spaces, office buildings and residential uses by the end of 2021.
Monty Hoffman, who won development rights from the city 11 year ago, said he expects 100,000 people to visit the Wharf on a busy weekend and as many as 15 million visitors annually once it's fully built out.
The key to managing the traffic and crowds, Allen said, is having a variety of options to get people in and out of the development, including car, bus, bike, Metro and water. Bike infrastructure such as bike lanes and access to trails is part of the community grid. Four Capital Bikeshare stations will be on-site, including one at Maine Avenue and 9th Street SW.
The developer is offering a free shuttle from the Wharf to L'Enfant Plaza Metro and the Mall that will run every 10 minutes.
And officials anticipate that as many as 300,000 people a year will visit the Wharf via a water taxi service slated to begin this week, which will connect to Old Town and Georgetown in under 30 minutes. The service will add stops at National Harbor in the spring and the Yards seasonally.
"The fact that you can now get from Alexandria to the Wharf in 25 minutes says something," said Charlotte Hall, vice president of Potomac Riverboat Co., which runs the service. "There are many people who do not care to cross over the bridge because of the traffic. We know it is a refreshing experience to get across without having to deal with the hustle of traffic, traffic lights and road construction."
Still, the development is expected to add to traffic congestion in the area and couldexacerbate some choke points near the popular Fish Market on Maine Avenue.
When complete, the project could generate nearly 500 vehicles per hour during the morning commute and as many as 570 vehicles per hour during the evening rush, according to a recent transportation review. The bars, restaurants and entertainment venues could contribute to traffic on evenings and weekends.
But officials are betting on a larger number of people relying on transit, which, according to the report, has the capacity to handle the additional trips.
"We are equipped for traffic. But this is a community that we hope will rely on a lot of public transportation, and we are trying to provide more of it with this water taxi and the shuttle bus," said Amer Hammour, chairman of Madison Marquette, one of the project's developers.
The development could potentially boost ridership on Metro's Green Line, which serves the Waterfront station, a quarter mile away. The L'Enfant Plaza station, which serves five Metro lines, is a half mile to the north.
Future Circulator and Metrobus stops are planned adjacent to the site on Maine Avenue to supplement those already along Seventh and M streets.
Officials and the developers say they hope these options will help maintain good traffic flows.
The site is easily accessible from Interstates 395, 695 and 295. Neighborhood streets in Southwest will be affected by pedestrian and vehicular traffic as the development opens, but officials say they expect traffic patterns to stabilize after a few weeks.
For those who choose to drive, the development has 1,500 parking spaces and will eventually have 2,500.
The goal, officials say, is to minimize vehicular trips and reduce the overlap between new local traffic and regional traffic. Some signal improvements at Marina Way and Maine Avenue are expected to add capacity.
"Instead of investing in widening roadways to alleviate capacity concerns, the strategy has been to minimize volumes to avoid capacity problems. This is also because widening roadways for adding more vehicular capacity is not feasible nor desirable," the transportation report noted.
For opening week, traffic control officers and electronic message boards will be near the development to help move traffic. And traffic signal timing is being adjusted to reduce queuing conditions. But drivers in the area should anticipate congestion.
Ride services will be directed to designated pickup and drop-off locations along the south curb of Maine Avenue. And taxi stands will be on the north curb of Maine Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets.
"Without one piece of construction, traffic was tough on the Fish Market entrance," Allen said. "We are going to have to be monitoring very closely."