Residents of Southeast Washington’s Navy Yard neighborhood are aware of the perception many outsiders have of their home: that it’s a no-man’s land full of vacant lots and half-empty buildings between Capitol Hill and Nationals Park.

But Nats fans visiting the neighborhood for the first time since last season may be surprised to see what residents already know — that Navy Yard has come a long way from the empty streets and “coming soon” signs that dominated the neighborhood as recently as last year.

With many of the long-planned restaurants and shops opening for business in recent weeks, and more than a dozen more slated to be built in the next few months, residents of Navy Yard say their neighborhood is finally coming into its own and developing an identity independent of its more-illustrious neighbors.

“The past year has been a big one for us,” said Rina Shah, 28, a political strategist who moved to Navy Yard from Capitol Hill in 2009. “I bought here based on the potential of growth happening, and I’m delighted to say that the promises that brought me here have been coming true.”

The Washington Navy Yard, the naval barracks from which the neighborhood takes its name, was built in the early 19th century and has functioned as a shipbuilding center, ordnance plant and administrative center for the Navy through the years, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command, which is now housed at the Navy Yard.

These days, some buildings associated with the Navy Yard are being repurposed for modern uses, such as the Foundry Lofts, a former industrial building that will house 170 apartments and restaurants, including a Potbelly Sandwich Shop.

Shah said she gravitated toward Navy Yard when she grew tired of living in “an old, falling-apart townhouse at C Street SE” while she was serving as a staffer on the Hill a few years ago. She spotted an ad for luxury apartments in the Navy Yard neighborhood and was so impressed by the units at the Jefferson at Capitol Yards building that she ended up leasing there in 2009 and buying a condo in the neighborhood when her lease was up.

“The beauty and allure of the Capitol Hill neighborhood is so close, and that proximity was really important to me,” Shah said. “The units were all ultramodern and had the luxury I wanted, and the bang for your buck is great.”

Navy Yard’s relative affordability and outdoor amenities such as Yards Park also make the neighborhood attractive to young families, said Jesse R. Hagopian, 31, a real estate agent with Tom Faison RealEstateInDC Team.

“I have a daughter who’s 3, and last summer, we loved going down to the little wading pool at Yards Park,” said Hagopian, who bought a Civil War-era detached rowhouse in Navy Yard six years ago. “It’s a nice escape from the bustle of the city.”

Hagopian said he’s seen a wide variety of people buy homes in the neighborhood, with the main draws being proximity to the Anacostia River, the Navy Yard Metro station, Capitol Hill and major commuter roads such as Interstate 395.

“We’re seeing a little bit of everything as far as home buyers go,” Hagopian said. “We’ve seen a lot of empty-nesters who are drawn to the new-construction condos. We also see a lot of young families and Hill staffers who find themselves in Navy Yard because it’s more affordable than Capitol Hill.”

Then there’s the draw of Nationals Park, which is part of what attracted Andrew Gibbons, 29, a consultant, to the neighborhood almost two years ago.

“I didn’t know much about Navy Yard when I moved in, other than that it was near Capitol Hill and the ballpark,” said Gibbons, who rents an apartment in the Onyx and who attended roughly 15 baseball games last season. “I’m a big baseball fan, and the idea of living by a major ballpark was interesting and intriguing to me.”

Gibbons is one of many residents who say that the ballpark is a double-edged sword, both helping to define the neighborhood and creating hassles for residents on game days.

“Parking is going to be an issue on game day,” Gibbons said. “That’s just part of the package.”

Gibbons also said the excitement associated with living in an up-and-coming neighborhood means dealing with some vacant lots and construction zones while waiting for new projects to come online. Though the neighborhood now has a coffee shop in Lot 38 Espresso, a locally owned bar and restaurant in Justin’s, and a gourmet market in Cornercopia — many of the parks, restaurants and grocery stores slated to be built are still in construction or planning phases.

“This is a great place to be, especially if you’re a young professional working on the Hill wanting to live in a modern apartment,” Gibbons said. “And there are new buildings going up all over the place. But if you need a huge variety of restaurants and bars to choose from to stay entertained, this is not the best place for you to be at the moment.”

Shah agreed, noting that “you might be the only person walking for a good five or six blocks” in less-developed parts of the neighborhood.

“Navy Yard is still a work in progress — I’d be lying if I didn’t say that,” Shah said. “I oftentimes don’t feel so incredibly safe walking around alone at night, and I don’t do it if I don’t have to.”

But Shah and other residents said safety, like everything else in Navy Yard, is trending upward.

“It’s still growing and evolving, and that’s the best part of it,” Shah said.

Amy Reinink is a freelance writer.