The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront, the past lives with a glitzy new present

In recent years, the residential character of Southwest Waterfront has been enhanced by the Wharf development, which began in 2017. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

At first glance, the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood seems to be characterized by everything new — the glitzy apartment buildings, the high-end restaurants, the trendy retail shops. But those intimately familiar with the area know that the waterfront is defined as much by what remains from decades past as by its ongoing changes.

“There are a lot of things that haven’t changed and that are still there, thriving” says Steve Moore, executive director of the Southwest Business Improvement District.

“The fish market [Municipal Fish Market] has been there since 1804. The Capital Yacht Club has been there for 130 years. The neighborhood association was established in 1964, and Arena Stage has been in business since the 1960s. Even Westminster Church has been doing jazz nights for over 20 years. Everybody in the neighborhood knows all these things.”

In the 1950s, new urban planning concepts intended to create space for new downtown development and remove what was viewed as blighted, unsafe housing led to the large-scale demolition of most of Southwest ­Washington. That created a community with innovative apartment and co-op buildings and a distinct architectural character in mid-century modern-style buildings such as River Park, even as thousands of Black families were displaced. In the redeveloped Southwest Waterfront, White and Black residents lived together at a time when segregation was more entrenched. River Park became known as one of the first developments in the city to be racially integrated.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Fredrica Kramer has lived at River Park for decades. Southwest’s racial and economic diversity is something her fellow ANC 6D commissioners keep front of mind as the neighborhood undergoes its redevelopment. Kramer has dedicated much of her life’s work to ensuring the waterfront remains a place where many types of people can live.

“Our ANC is really proactive and well organized when it comes to advocating. We worked with the planning office on a small area plan in which we laid out what we want in this community, and maintaining our diversity is top of the list,” Kramer says.

In recent years, the residential character of Southwest Waterfront has been enhanced by the Wharf development, which began in 2017. It was in October of that year that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser cut the ribbon on the first phase of the mile-long waterfront, which included new residential, hotel, office, retail and entertainment space on the Potomac River. There were three new hotels and restaurants including Fabio Trabocchi’s Del Mar, Hank’s Oyster Bar, Mi Vida and La Vie, among others. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Anthem, a 6,000-person capacity concert hall and event meeting venue, attracted thousands of visitors every month.

Moore says that what’s changed the most over the course of redevelopment is that the waterfront has become a destination for those looking to make the most of this neighborhood perk.

“You can sit and hang out by the water. You can have dinner by the water, live by the water. There used to be an eight-foot chain link fence to keep people off the pier until this redevelopment,” Moore says.

The serenity of water views has been a main attraction, particularly for newcomers moving into the Wharf’s high-rise apartment buildings.

Beth Cormack is a 28-year-old brand marketing manager who moved to the Southwest Waterfront six months ago. As a Boston-area native, she says being on the water has been a blessing, especially amid the pandemic.

“I just love being on the water, it really brings me so much peace. When I wake up in the morning to walk my dog and I look out at the sunrise on the water, there’s really nothing like it.”

Developments on the waterfront are in Phase 2 of construction. Scheduled to open in 2022, Phase 2 will deliver an additional 1.15 million square feet of mixed-use spaces as well as parks and public spaces. As new buildings pop up, many of the neighborhood mainstays are undergoing renovations as well. The Randall School, which served African American students in the early 1900s, will be redeveloped to create a cultural center that will have a contemporary art museum with commercial and education ­facilities and a new 12-story apartment building. Lansburgh Park will see improvements such as repaving, a new water fountain and upgraded seating. A new Southwest Library will be unveiled early this year after undergoing an $18 million renovation in line with the mid-century modern architecture for which the neighborhood is known.

Living there: Southwest Waterfront is bounded by Independence Avenue to the north, the Washington Channel on the west, the Anacostia River on the south and South Capitol Street to the east. According to Long & Foster real estate agent Jonathan Blansfield, there are 72 active listings in Southwest Waterfront including several studio and one-bedroom co-op units available for less than $200,000 and a five-bedroom, three-bathroom, 2,400-square-foot condo listed for just under $1.3 million.

The median sales price for the last six months of 2020 in Southwest Waterfront was $417,000. During the same six-month period in 2019, the median sales price was $346,247. Blansfield says the average lower sales price compared with the rest of the city is largely influenced by the large number of co-ops that generally sell for below market value because of their high fees.

“While the sheer number of units trading in the low $300,000s and in the $200,000s may make the Southwest Waterfront seem like a haven for affordable housing, the cooperative ownership structure of many of these buildings may in fact put these units out of reach to the buyer looking for true affordable housing,” he said. “For example, a one-bedroom, one-bathroom co-op at 1311 Delaware Ave. SW that sold for $220,000 had a monthly fee of $1,107.89.”

In the past six months, there have been 116 home sales, including a four-bedroom, four-bathroom townhouse at Tiber Island that sold for almost $1 million.

Schools: Amidon-Bowen Elementary, Jefferson Middle and Eastern High.

Transportation: Southwest Waterfront’s location provides easy access to major thoroughfares such as Interstates 395 and 695. South Capitol Street connects the waterfront to Anacostia on the other side of the Potomac. The neighborhood is served by the Federal Center SW Station on Metro’s Orange, Blue and Silver lines; the L’Enfant Plaza Station on the Blue, Green, Orange, Silver and Yellow lines; and the Waterfront Station on the Green Line. Water transportation is unique to the neighborhood. There is a ferry to East Potomac Park and Hains Point. A water taxi service to other regional waterfront areas such as Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria in Virginia and National Harbor in Maryland is resuming operations that were suspended last year because of the pandemic.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of an apartment complex. It is River Park, not River Place. The article also misstated the last name of a Southwest Waterfront resident. She is Beth Cormack, not McCormack. And it incorrectly labeled the neighborhood’s southern boundary as the Potomac River. The Anacostia River forms the southern boundary. The article has been amended.

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