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Can D.C. Lead the Way to a 21st Century Waterfront?

Can D.C. Lead the Way to a 21st Century Waterfront?
Courtesy: EE&K a Perkins Eastman Company

The Southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., has always been something of a social experiment in progress. In the years after the Civil War, the neighborhood was a highly segregated dumping ground for the city’s poorest residents, divided fairly evenly between a mix of Scottish, Irish, German, and Eastern European immigrants and freed black slaves. Though conditions had improved by the early 1900s, especially along the Southwest waterfront, they slid for the next four decades, until federal authorities eager to expand the physical boundaries of federal Washington evicted tens of thousands of residents in order to raze a mostly 19th-century neighborhood and erect a gleaming new utopia in its place. They had the future in mind.

So when developers Hoffman-Madison Marquette break ground on a roughly 52-acre development early next year, they’ll be working in a proud neighborhood tradition. EE&K, a Perkins Eastman Company, the firm behind the master plan for The Wharf, says it is designing a waterfront for the 21st century. And in the case of waterfronts, that means looking backward as well as forward.


An aerial rendering of plans for the new Southwest Waterfront (EE&K, a Perkins Eastman Company).

"Most of all, there’s a growing awareness that the great waterfronts are the ones where there’s a lot of activity in the water itself," says Stan Eckstut, EE&K's senior principal. He points to Baltimore and Sydney, where revitalization schemes didn’t end at land but extended into the water and its uses, making for busier ports with more services and more amenities.

Waterfronts attached to urban cities have evolved too far from their historic character, Eckstut says. As a result of new ideas about zoning as well as trends specific to the maritime industry, such as containerization, some urban waterfronts have fallen into disuse. But not all waterfronts need to be harbors to be successful. And certainly not all waterfronts need to be parks.

Take D.C.’s Southwest waterfront. A vibrant commercial strip at the turn of the century, Maine Avenue SW, which runs along a channel off the Potomac River, fell into disrepair as D.C.’s Northwest quadrant blossomed. The Northwest waterfront in Georgetown still features a vibrant commercial strip—though even there, much of the land is reserved as parkland along the Capital Crescent Trail, cut off from the city by the Whitehurst Freeway.


D.C.'s Southwest Waterfront today. Photos courtesy of Mr. T in DC/Flickr

"Most of the waterfronts I’m working on—Cleveland, Buffalo, Toronto—the trend is definitely moving away from parks and open spaces and returning the city to the water’s edge," Eckstut says. "Returning them to the way they were when they were first founded, as mercantile wharfs, with merchants unloading or loading up goods. Real cities grew up at the water’s edge."


Courtesy of Google Maps

As removed from the city as some of the Northwest waterfront may be, it’s nothing like the isolation of its Southwest counterpart. When that neighborhood was re-planned and demolished in mid-century—with 18th-century rowhouses razed in favor of superblock developments by the likes of architects I.M. Pei and Chloethiel Smith—no thought was given to the commercial future of Southwest’s waterfront. Only the Maine Avenue fish market was spared. And when developers and federal planners built block-long federal buildings in L’Enfant Plaza and elsewhere in Southwest below the National Mall, not to mention I-395, the neighborhood was virtually quarantined from the rest of D.C. What little commercial or residential presence there is today along the Waterfront (which is mostly neglected parkland) has sprung up despite so much adjacent concrete wasteland.


Commercial space would return to the water's edge. (EE&K, a Perkins Eastman Company)


Recreation and commercial piers will be key to extending the neighborhood out into the water. (EE&K, a Perkins Eastman Company)

Perhaps because of the size of the opportunity here, the Wharf development in Washington, D.C., is moving at a faster pace than the other waterfront developments where EE&K is working. That‘s thanks in no small part to Washington’s strong overall market conditions. The Wharf reintroduces those conditions to Maine Avenue, with a development plan that extends into the water. The Southwest waterfront will feature a dock for the city of Washington as well as transit piers, a recreation pier, and commercial piers for things like dinner boats. The marinas that currently characterize Southwest’s waterfront won’t disappear; they’ll be expanded, and they’ll also include marinas for visiting ships and even tourists on day visits. In fact, Eckstut envisions boats hosted by embassies in Washington and nations from around the world as a big attraction for Washingtonians.

Tourism is inevitably an aspect of any waterfront’s character. But the bigger part of the future of the waterfront is a mix of uses that encourages retail, residential, and especially transit development.

"It has to become a normal part of the city life. You can’t shut it down," Eckstut says. "It has to be open for business like any other street."

The waterfront he envisions for Washington and elsewhere in the U.S. is one whose restaurants don’t close when it snows. One challenge specific to Washington’s Wharf (and not necessarily for Toronto) will be reconnecting it, and the rest of Southwest, to the rest of D.C. That’s a task that federal stakeholders are already addressing with the Southwest Ecodistrict plan. The National Capital Planning Commission, U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, and other task forces hope to fully transform a 110-acre area of mostly concrete, largely federal Washington into a sustainable, walkable neighborhood by 2030—about 10 years after the last elements of the Wharf fall into place.

Washington is far from the only waterfront that is getting a new lease on life. Probably the biggest development is the HafenCity planned for Hamburg, Germany, an effort to revitalize and revise an old port district along the Elbe in in the Hamburg-Mitte neighborhood. At the heart of the effort is the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, a massive concert hall designed by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron. It’s a jaw-dropping design: a massive triangular brick warehouse base topped by a soaring tower structure wrapped in a sleek glass façade. Parked in the water as it is, the building evokes the presence of a pirate ship materializing in the port.


Renderings of the planned waterfront walkway. (EE&K, a Perkins Eastman Company)

The idea draws on the Bilbao Effect: Invest in a massive piece of starchitecture, and the rest will follow. That strategy has lost favor in recent years. (While Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum for Bilbao, Spain, transformed the once-sleepy Spanish city, the city has suffered from massive income disparities between longtime residents and more-recent arrivistes.) But the Elbe Philharmonic Hall also features a 250-room hotel, parking garage, and other amenities—making it a mixed-use facility very much unlike Gehry’s Guggenheim.

With water levels rising around the world, there are some aspects of waterfront design that by nature remain unpredictable—but that’s less the case when the development is a neglected part of an urban core, as many waterfront areas are. There are fewer environmentally sensitive land types in a downtown, and the possibility for introducing landscape features, public areas, and even vegetation in the water. Looming water-level questions notwithstanding, the question for the 21st-century waterfront is economic: How do planners restore the once-industrial character of the waterfront? Washington’s Southwest waterfront poses one answer: take the zone out of the question altogether, and make it another neighborhood like you’d find anywhere.

"You can’t just do this kind of dense mixed-use urban waterfront everywhere," Eckstut says. "It has to be at the center of the city, at the downtown—at the core."

Kriston Capps is an editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post. All posts »

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