Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Charleston and Annapolis are recognized and remembered worldwide for their unique relationships to rivers, lakes or seas. London, Copenhagen, Paris, Nice and Florence are likewise defined by their waterfront imagery.
Should Washington be on this list of memorable waterfront cities?
Many city waterfronts share similar aesthetic and functional attributes: public visibility and accessibility for pedestrians as well as vehicles and boats; new as well as historic architecture continuously lining waterfronts; and diverse, relatively dense waterfront uses and destinations attracting local citizens and tourists alike.
Other parts of cities lack waterfront ambiance imparted by intense, water-oriented human activities and unique environmental and sensory attributes — vistas, cool breezes, boats, sounds, fragrances — associated with natural, navigable bodies of water.
Achieving urban waterfront ambiance in Washington remains a work in progress. But its history differs notably from the history of other American cities linked to water.
Until the early 20th century, most American urban waterfronts were utilitarian, serving either as ports for maritime trade or as sites for military installations. Rivers, lakes and oceans were primarily local, regional or international transportation corridors.
No one envisioned bustling, economically important but insalubrious waterfronts as aesthetically appealing real estate where citizens of means might want to live, work, shop, enjoy fine dining and take in waterfront views. No one could foresee urban waterfronts as tourist and cultural destinations.
Yet Washington was never an industrial city. The federal government, not the city or private commercial entities, owned Washington’s river-fronting land. Thus, vegetated public parklands along the Potomac and Anacostia shorelines, managed by the National Park Service, define Washington’s connection to water. Preservation of that parkland has been a priority, notwithstanding that roadways were allowed to crisscross parts it.
Consequently, Washington has comparatively little residential, commercial or cultural structures occupying its shorelines. A few developments, such as the Watergate complex and Kennedy Center, have river views and proximity but without river connectivity.
Along the Potomac River only Georgetown’s dense, mixed-use Washington Harbor complex directly engages the river, having enjoyed monopoly status since the 1980s as the only destination in Northwest Washington with direct water adjacency.
But Washington Harbor now faces competition from Southeast’s Capitol Riverfront and Washington Navy Yard area adjacent to the Anacostia River. Historic industrial buildings associated with the Navy Yard are being preserved and repurposed as market-oriented real estate. A new waterfront park, riverside promenade, apartments, offices, retail shopping and restaurants are in place.
Upriver next to the Navy Yard, the 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia with new, landscaped pedestrian decks linking socioeconomically disparate Wards 6 and 8. Potentially animating both shores of the river, it will provide places to stroll, bike, relax, meet, perform, dine, display arts and crafts, and interact directly with the river below.
But the Wharf in Southwest will transform Washington’s waterfront character most dramatically. It is now rising on former industrial land, a mile-long strip between Maine Avenue and the Washington Channel created when the Potomac River was dredged to facilitate ship access and create the East Potomac Park peninsula.
By the 1960s, except for the fish market, commercial uses and structures along the Southwest Waterfront had disappeared. Yet, despite being within walking distance of downtown Washington, this waterfront property in that era still was not considered premium real estate. That’s partly because of the site’s proximity to the impoverished, run-down Southwest neighborhood slated for urban renewal.
Consequently, this strip of land was used for erecting several free-standing, low-rise, architecturally undistinguished buildings, essentially motels and restaurants for tourists. Acres of paved surface parking surrounded the buildings. The ensemble looked like a low-density, suburban strip development placed by mistake on Washington’s waterfront.
Citizens as well as planners, architects and city officials realized for decades that the existing development on this unique property represented a misuse of potentially valuable waterfront real estate. Happily, public and private sector collaboration and investment, after many years of work, at long last remedied this situation.
The Wharf’s scope and scale are huge. Stretching in a gentle arc along the channel is a line of modern, multi-story buildings facing the river and the city. They encompass rental and condominium apartments; office space; retail stores and restaurants; hotel and conference facilities; a civic performance venue; and several levels of underground parking. A new yacht club sits on the water’s edge, and the marina and historic Maine Avenue fish market have been preserved and improved.
Tying everything together is a 60-foot-wide public promenade, in effect a broad boardwalk along the entire channel frontage between the new buildings and bulkhead holding back the channel’s water. It accommodates pedestrians, bikers and automobiles and is likely to become a very popular, much-photographed D.C. destination.
The Wharf represents a big step forward. It will bring new life to Southwest while greatly enhancing Washington’s identity and image as a waterfront city and world capital.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a regular guest commentator on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU (88.5 FM).