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Developers Seek To Craft Community In D.C.'s Newest Neighborhood

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The iconic pedestrian bridge lies in the middle of Yards Park along the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C.
Mr. T in D.C.: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7471115@N08/5016563740
The iconic pedestrian bridge lies in the middle of Yards Park along the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C.

On a weekday afternoon, Yards Park in Southeast D.C. was filled with young parents pushing baby strollers and retirees walking little dogs. Then there was Yoshi Tanenbaum. The 19 year-old skateboarder from Silver Spring had come to this five-and-a-half-acre park in Capitol Riverfront to shred.

"It's just a cool scenic spot for people to come. It's not a skate park where it's crowded," Tanenbaum said. "It's a cool spot."

It's taken a while for Capitol Riverfront to become a "cool spot."  For years it was notable mostly for dust and jackhammering and construction traffic. But now, Capitol Riverfront is materializing from the rubble and grit as a place that kind of looks like a real neighborhood.

"We've often been described as an emerging neighborhood. We think we've arrived and we're firmly established," said Michael Stevens, president of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District.

Stevens is clearly the new neighborhood's biggest cheerleader.

"We're this new growth community and I think people are starting to realize that we're really accessible and proximate. We have water frontage. We're also five blocks south of the U.S. Capitol. We have great transportation accessibility," he said. "Additionally, I think what is now defining us is we're an urban residential community. That has been one of our biggest successes."

A site with a lot of history

Around the time of Washington's founding in the late 1700s, three main enclaves cropped up in the new city. One of those areas was the Anacostia River waterfront, where the Navy Yard now sits.

The Navy Yard, a shipbuilding facility and defense installation for the Capitol, was one of the first areas settled in Washington, D.C., explains Jane Freundel Levey, a historian with Cultural Tourism D.C.

"The Navy Yard developed one of the first actual neighborhoods in Washington because like in any city, if you have a center of employment, people will come and they'll want to live near it. Especially in the 19th century when everyone walked everywhere," Levey said.

The Navy Yard churned out ships and munitions at a steady clip through World War II. Then, as the need for weapons petered out, the Navy Yard's importance diminished. People who could afford to do so moved out of the neighborhood and into the suburbs, taking their money with them. It was a double blow to the neighborhood.

A new era for an old neighborhood

Over the years, the area around the Navy Yard became populated with bus depots and mechanics shops — noisy, dirty enterprises. Then in the 1960s, some new businesses arrived. 

"The Navy Yard area became known as a gay-friendly area with lots of nightclubs and places where frankly people wanted to go to have a good time and not be seen going in the door. So that's where they went," Levey said.

Then in 1995, the federal government announced the decision to consolidate the NAVSEA naval operations to the Navy Yard. Developers eyeballed the area and began building offices to accommodate the expected growth. By the mid-2000s, "the Front," as marketers and developers call it, was born.

But the area scored its biggest coup when the Washington Nationals decided to build their new stadium in Capitol Riverfront. Stevens says everything changed then.

"The ballpark has really branded us and mentally mapped us in a region of 6.5 million people," he said. "And that was a great marketing campaign for us that 2.8 million people came last year, emerged from the Metro and said holy cow, they've built a lot of stuff here."

Much has been built in the mixed-use community. The U.S. Department of Transportation located its shiny new headquarters here and big defense contractors like Northrup Grumman and General Dynamics also set up shop in the Front.

Then there's a new hotel and tons of residential units housing a growing population of 4,000-plus people. Plus, there's a riverwalk, inviting parks and lots of new restaurants.

One of those new dining options is The Arsenal at Bluejacket Brewery. The much-hyped spot from the folks behind Birch & Barley and Churchkey occupies part of what used to be the Navy Yard's boilermaker facility. The industrial building turned brewery is a soaring, airy space built in 1918.

"The height was really what blew us away because it goes up nearly 55 feet in the center," said Greg Engert, Bluejacket's beer director. "The other cool thing was the industrial nature of this area. We were excited by the possibility of adding a new chapter to the industry coming out of Navy Yard."

It's no surprise that the cachet of the riverfront's military history drew the craft brewery to the area. It speaks of authenticity, industry and nostalgia — things that developers and marketers seek, and many residents, especially younger ones, crave.

Of course, a sense of place can be tough to maintain in a neighborhood -- a meticulously planned, mixed-use neighborhood -- that's changing as dramatically as this one.  By 2017, Capitol Riverfront will be only half built out. 

"I think we have a nostalgia for what we consider the organic development of our neighborhoods. But it's something that's almost impossible for a developer to recreate," Levey said. "It takes a conversation between the developer and the remnants of an existing community if a place is being redeveloped to come to a better future for everybody."

[Music: "Just Like Starting Over" by Tokyo Future Machine from Hello John]

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