Square Feet: A Decaying Waterfront in Washington Returns to Life
Washington has a long maritime history, said Stanton Eckstut, a principal at the architecture firm EE&K, which is now a part of Perkins Eastman Architects and the Wharf’s master planner. The city’s original design was based on “maritime arrival,” he said, but that way of life has been lost, and he described the Wharf as a 21st-century model to bring people back to the river’s edge.
The project — comprising 24 acres on land and 50 on the water — draws its inspiration, Mr. Eckstut said, from waterfront developments in Baltimore, San Francisco and Seattle, as well as from cities abroad like Sydney, Australia, and Qingdao, China. Amer Hammour, chairman of Madison Marquette, said European waterfronts like the ones he had visited in Stockholm and Copenhagen also impressed the planners because they took people right to the water’s edge.
The project in Washington, which is being completed on time and on budget, features a mile-long cobblestone promenade, four new public piers, two office buildings and three hotels. Two condominium and two apartment buildings will provide a total of 861 residential units, with some set aside for low- and moderate-income tenants. The upper floors offer views of the river and the Pentagon, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Despite a 130-foot height limit for new development in Washington, Mr. Eckstut said, “we were able to carve out a real city fabric and one purposely not like the federal city fabric, but really to go back to a more walkable compact city without much order, great variety, no symmetry, nothing predictable, if we could avoid it.”
The first phase of the project, which cost $1.4 billion, will formally open to the public on Oct. 12. Visitors will be able to choose from some 30 restaurants, shops and music venues, the largest of which, the Anthem, can hold up to 6,000 and has booked as its first act the Foo Fighters, the popular rock band.
For those arriving by car, underground parking will accommodate 1,500 vehicles at first and eventually 2,500. The Wharf will also run shuttle buses to and from two nearby Metro rail stations. Water taxis will connect the development with Georgetown and the Yards neighborhoods in Washington as well as the Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria, Va., and National Harbor, a large, mixed-use site several miles down the Potomac.
Jitneys will connect the Wharf with East Potomac Park, a peninsula across the Washington Channel that was created when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Potomac in the 1880s. New slips and a new clubhouse for the venerable Capital Yacht Club were built, as well as piers extending into the channel, where kayaks can be launched and yachts can be moored.
The Wharf has elicited few naysayers or critics, which is unusual for such a large project. Andy Litsky, chairman of the official advisory neighborhood commission, praised the developers for involving the community and responding to its concerns. He said he expected the Wharf “to soon be taking its place as the centerpiece of one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in the country.”
Notably, the developers have chosen almost all local commercial establishments, eschewing national chains in favor of what Monty Hoffman, chief executive and founder of PN Hoffman, described as “authenticity throughout.”
Among the prominent local brands is Politics and Prose, a well-known independent bookstore, which will open a 2,300-square-foot shop in the Wharf.
“I was impressed” with the developer’s vision, said Bradley Graham, a co-owner of the bookstore. “We’re very excited about the Wharf and what it will do to that part of D.C.”
Mr. Hoffman has also been intent on preserving the nation’s oldest continuously operating fish market at the project’s west end, where fishmongers hawk seafood from barges. On the land, the developers are erecting a three-story building for the celebrity chef Nicholas Stefanelli, whose Michelin-rated Masseria restaurant in the city’s Union Market district has hosted the Obamas and Robert De Niro.
There are other local touches, including the name of one of the new interior cross streets. Pearl Street is named for the schooner commandeered in 1848 by slaves in an unsuccessful effort to escape to freedom by sailing down the Potomac.
“This is hometown D.C., and that’s what the waterfront reflects,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the district’s nonvoting delegate to the House.
The project required an act of Congress to transfer the title of the waterfront and channel to the district government, which has a 99-year lease with the developers. Ms. Holmes Norton pushed the legislation through three subcommittees, an effort that the developers recognized by dedicating the Wharf’s 3.5-acre waterfront park to her.
The developers credit Ms. Holmes Norton with the project’s name. Her great-grandfather had escaped from slavery in Virginia in the 1850s to “the wharf,” she said, and the name stuck.
Troubled by rising seas from global warming, Ms. Holmes Norton expressed concern that the Wharf might not be able to survive the kind of extreme flooding brought by hurricanes like Katrina, Harvey and, most recently, Irma.
Ms. Holmes Norton added that the district was excluded from the 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act, which helps fund protection for such areas.
But Mr. Hoffman said the project was 1.5 feet above the 100-year flood plain. The Wharf also has a cistern system to collect and recycle rainwater.
Such concerns are overshadowed, for now, by the project’s imminent public debut.
Phillip Lopate, the New York poet and author of “Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan,” seldom comes to Washington, but he said he was intrigued by the Wharf.
“Great waterfronts of the past — Paris, London — always had shops and bars at water’s edge,” he said. “I’m so glad they have a bookstore. That’s terrific.”
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