Out on the peaceful Washington Channel, a tiny waterway tucked between Southwest Washington and East Potomac Park, some of the most unusual homes in Washington bob.
At the Gangplank Marina, the only houseboat community in the District, the hum of the city disappears. Car horns, revving engines and asphalt are replaced by silence and the lapping of waves, making the homes sway constantly. Evening strolls take place in kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and dinghies, which the “live-aboards” use for pop-by visits and to grab take-out from Cantina Marina.
A floating bike rack sits alongside the houseboats, which range from immobile barges with siding and large windows to speedy-looking yachts. Residents trickle home from work, and many take a seat on their decks to enjoy the pink and orange sunset.
However, the sunset view now has a jagged edge: A dozen cranes rise up alongside the Marina, slowly putting together the pieces of a $1.5 billion development called The Wharf. The Hoffman-Madison project, which broke ground in 2012, will eventually bring 800 residences, a multitude of retail options and a bustling boardwalk to the now-quiet Southwest waterfront.
The Wharf has made for a tumultuous few years at the Gangplank Marina. Originally, residents in the community were uncertain if they would even have a place on the new waterfront. Once nine docks wide with 310 slips, the compacted, temporary marina has a total of four docks with 94 slips for “live-aboards,” who live year-round on their houseboats.
In a few years, the developers will start work on a new marina for the houseboat community. Until then, uncertainty is a constant for those who live on the water.
On Saturday, 20 houseboats, ranging from 1970s vintage models to brand-new yachts, will be open for view in their annual houseboat tour.
In anticipation of the event, The Post chatted with Travis Johnson and Jessica Dankert, a “live-aboard” couple who moved to Gangplank from Dupont Circle in 2006, about life on the water, the changes brought on by the Wharf, and their uncertainties about the future of the Marina.
Why did you decide to move out here? What’s the appeal?
Johnson: Well, I was searching Craigslist for something completely unrelated, and this houseboat popped up for sale. I thought, “wait a minute, that’s actually an option?”
I didn’t buy one then, but that sparked the idea. Most of these boats are sold through Craigslist, though some people chose to go through a traditional Realtor.
I’m originally from Montana, and the hustle-bustle and anonymity of the city was a culture shock. The smaller community here was part of what of what attracted us.
Dankert: I lived in an apartment in Dupont Circle, and never met any of my neighbors. But here, everybody knows each other and looks out for each other. We have a weekly happy hour on Thursdays, and we have a Captains’ Coffee on Sunday mornings. In the winter, different people volunteer to host every week. They usually do it to heat the place up!
Did you successfully escape the hustle-bustle?
J: Definitely — you come home from work, and it’s almost like you’re at your vacation home. There are always neighbors out on the deck who will invite you over for a drink and are glad to see you around.
D: Life is calmer here. We have some of the best sunsets in the city, and being on the water is innately calming.
Are there any other differences from being on the land?
J: You can hear the rain, and you can feel the wind — you’re more aware of what’s going on.
D: You’re also more at the mercy of the elements. In the winter, if you’re not keeping up with the snow, boats can sink! In 2011, the Snowmageddon year, two boats sank. As a result, people really look out for each other, helping to shovel snow and sharing knowledge about maintenance.
The heating systems sometimes don’t work when the water gets down to a certain temperature, so space heaters and heated mattress pads are also critical.
J: Some people are definitely wearing stocking caps all winter.
What about cost?
J: Our first boat, which was 34 feet long, was $20,000 — really affordable! We’ve since moved to a 48-footer, and some boats here cost several hundred thousand dollars. There is also a slip fee that varies based on the length of the boat [For a 40-foot boat, the slip fee is approximately $500 per month] and a $150 per month live-aboard fee.
D: There are also a limited number of boats and slips with live-aboard status now, so the boats have an additional value on the market.
Right, negotiations with Hoffman-Madison, the developers of the Wharf, resulted in protecting 94 slips that will retain permanent live-aboard status. Tell me about the discussions during that time.
D: There was a time when we thought the marina would be gone for the duration of construction. But our slipholders association did a lot of work with the local government and the developers, with support from the larger Southwest community.
Our ANC representative, Andy Litsky, was a great representative to us, and lots of people stepped up from the larger community, making it a bigger issue than just some boaters.
J: We were given a voice at the zoning hearing, and really felt heard.
D: To their credit, the developers engaged with the slipholders. They recognized our unique character, and don’t want it to be lost. Sometimes the developers will invite all the marina folks out to take a look at the model of the future marina and to talk about it — they are making an effort to keep us involved.
Is there still any uncertainty about the future?
J: There’s still a little bit of uneasiness about what our lifestyle is going to be when the redevelopment is over. … The cost is also uncertain. We’re going to get a new marina with new amenities, which is really nice, but is it going to price people out?
Are there any other unanswered questions?
D: The marina used to be owned by the city, and was run by a company contracted by the city, but now it’s owned by the developers, so there is a lot of figuring out — like how to transfer slips, and what do you do if someone wants to move with their boat out of the marina.
The first phase of the Wharf finishes in 2017, and we’re not a part of that, so change seems pretty far down the road.
The uncertainty is a constant, at least for the foreseeable future, which is an interesting conversation when people are looking at buying a boat. I think it would be daunting.
J: It’s the Cinderella story of the gangplank marina.
D: But you can’t wear glass slippers on the dock.
(CORRECTION: ANC representative Andy Litsky’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.)
Shilpi Malinowski is a freelance writer.