The work of urban planners is such that sometimes your best work becomes reality — if it ever does — when you are no longer around to see it.

Andy Altman has been more fortunate.

As director of planning under Mayor Anthony Williams, Altman was the architect of a plan for 900 acres of waterfront property along the Anacostia River, stretching from Hains Point up to the National Arboretum. At the time, the area was a mix of underutilized parkland, industrial property and walled-off federal facilities.

Afterward, Altman went on to work in Philadelphia, New York and London, where he planned the Olympic Village for the 2012 Summer Games.

Andy Altman, former director of the D.C. Office of Planning, speaks at Nationals Park on Jan. 22. (Photo by J. Lawler Duggan/For Capital Business)

While he was gone, D.C. built one of the neighborhoods he had drawn up. So when Altman returned to the District on Thursday to make a speech at Nationals Park, he enjoyed something of a home run trot.

The area, running below the Southeast Freeway from South Capitol Street to the southern end of Capitol Hill, now boasts 4,700 residents, 32,000 employees, 10 acres of parks and 27 restaurants. When the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District holds events in the summer at the nearly six-acre Yards Park, they are often mobbed.

All the momentum has developers jumping in with two feet. By the end of next year, Michael Stevens, executive director of the BID, projects that the neighborhood will add six more apartment buildings totaling 1,916 new units. Construction is likely to begin on five other new apartment buildings (another 1,449 units) and two condominium buildings. Harris Teeter opened a store as part of the Yards development in the fall and Whole Foods signed a lease nearby. A movie theater is on the way and Target has been eyeing locations. D.C. United will build its own stadium across South Capitol Street.

The D.C. government continues to invest as well.

“This is the only place in the city where we are actually opening an elementary school,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen, (D-Ward 6).

Altman returned to Washington in August and remained largely out of the spotlight until Thursday, when he was the keynote speaker at the BID’s annual meeting, speaking shortly after Nationals Manager Matt Williams.

“Andy set the vision,” Stevens said. Allen said Altman “really laid the foundation upon which we’ve all been building.”

A view of the river during the Williams years. Anacostia and Poplar Point are in the foreground. What is now the ballpark area, dubbed Capitol Riverfront, is on the far side of the river. (Office of Planning)

Altman recalled Williams hauling him up the hill in Anacostia to the campus of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital so they could look down on the area known then as Southeast Federal Center. It’s a name many of the tens of thousands of millennials who arrived in the years Altman was away have probably never heard.

“How great is it for me to come back and say, you know, I was at the Southeast Federal Center yesterday, and people have no idea what I am talking about. Southeast Federal Center, what’s that? Oh you mean the Yards, the ballpark district? Oh, I get it. Capitol Riverfront, I get it,” he said.

“Planners always unveil great watercolors,” Altman said, pointing to some of the old images the city commissioned in the early years to show off their vision. “They do two things. They have great watercolors and big statistics and numbers about transformation. We’re going to have 30,000 new housing units. [Millions] of square feet of new office. …These were renderings we had done by a crazy guy who sat in our office, smoking cigarettes all day.”

“It’s amazing to look back to show how this city, the vision of so many people here who inhabit this city, who mobilized to see it happen, and to see it here today is absolutely incredible,” he said.

A watercolor vision for the waterfront, when Williams and Altman were planning it. (Office of Planning)

It is not as though all of Altman’s ideas have been realized. Far from it. Large federal plots like Hill East — eyed for the Olympic Village — and Poplar Point remain largely unchanged since the Williams years. Recreational areas like Langston Golf Course and the National Arboretum have not realized their full potential. Companies have sometimes been hesitant to move to Capitol Riverfront and some analysts believe too many apartments are being built all at once.

Moreover, income and quality of life measures for neighborhoods east of the river remain starkly behind the rest of the city. The Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan, the 2003 document detailing Altman’s plans, called for the river to be swimmable by 2025. The goal remains, though fish there are often riddled with tumors.

Altman said it was “upsetting” Washington was not named as America’s choice to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. Had Washington been selected, Altman in all likelihood would have been leaned upon to guide the effort. Indeed, Washington’s organizing committee modeled their vision for the games after what Altman did in London.

Plans for the area, circa 2003. (Office of Planning)

Instead, after returning in August, he joined a boyhood friend to work at a Rockville development company, Streetscape Partners. The firm has development deals at the Grosvenor Metro station, on 11th street near Logan Circle, and on 16th Street across from Meridian Hill Park, where it has partnered with the Meridian International Center.  

The goal of his work for the District, Altman said, “was to use the Anacostia as a project to unify the city.”

He says is here to stay, so he may get to see how much more of that goal is fulfilled.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz