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Last week, the Southwest Waterfront in Ward 6 was the place to be, as the city broke ground on The Wharf: a project that will inevitably transform the neighborhood. Again.
“If we go back in the history of Southwest, we look back to the late 1950s and we see that Southwest was razed, and we were blocked off,” says Shannon Vaughn, editor-in-chief of the Southwester newspaper. “They took away the old F Street, and they threw in a big highway.”
Vaughn wasn't in Southwest for the urban renewal that replaced row houses and shops with massive office blocks and high-rises, and sent thousands of low-income residents packing.
No, the Georgia native is just 30 years old, and has only been here since 2009.
“It finally felt like home,” he says. “It was a small neighborhood yet it was in the heart of the nation’s capital.”
Vaughn recently bought a spacious, four-bedroom condo on M Street, near the Waterfront metro. The building’s monolithic, concrete exterior is classic Brutalist: the imposing architectural style that’s come to epitomize the Southwest of urban renewal.
But the newly-broken ground near 7th Street epitomizes a whole new Southwest.
The Wharf is a $2 billion, mile-long shoreline development extending from the 14th Street Bridge (near the Maine Avenue Fish Market) to the Fire and Rescue Pier, near Fort McNair.
In between will be hotels and office buildings, apartments and condos, restaurants and bars — not to mention a movie theater, a jazz club and a concert hall with room for 6,000 people. And fear not, Hoffman says, even with all this development, you will still be able to see the water.
“This is the departure from the Brutalist architecture and the land planning of the '60s, which is all auto-centric, and that’s when the traffic engineers were left to run amok,” he explains. “We're not about that. These are mini-blocks with alleys and streets and view cones between all of them, so it’s very porous.”
Hoffman’s company was awarded the project in 2006. After three acts of Congress, approval from more than two-dozen government agencies, and — no joke — roughly 500 public meetings, Phase One is finally on its way. It starts at 7th Street and extends northwest to the Fish Market.
“The Fish Market itself we want to preserve,” Hoffman says. “We love the barges and the grit and the history. And so we want to embrace that and put on the land side a food market, along with a distillery and microbrewery.”
Other Southwest standbys that’ll stick around are Jenny’s Asian Fusion restaurant, Gang Plank Marina — the largest live-aboard community on the East Coast, and Cantina Marina.
“In fact, they're not only going to keep that, but they're going to add another restaurant. So they're expanding, so to speak,” says Hoffman.
Phillip’s Seafood will relocate to L'Enfant Plaza, and the historic Channel Inn, where Ward 6 Council Member Tommy Wells has, for years, held his “community office hours," will make way for one of four new hotels.
Longtime Southwest resident Eve Brooks has a soft spot for the Channel Inn, with its mahogany-and-red-leather-bedecked Pier 7 restaurant.
“This has been a place where a lot of D.C. pols have gathered almost every night in the bar here,” she says. “It had a nice restaurant. Reminds me of my first dates in the 50s and 60s.”
Brooks calls herself a “'60s activist” who continues advocating for low-income individuals, especially here in her neighborhood.
“To this day, we have the highest concentration of public housing in the city,” she explains. “So as we look at the plans to tear down much of what was built in the '60s along the Waterfront, and to redevelop it into a modern, bustling waterfront, those of us who came in in some way related to that '60s philosophy are concerned that not all the residents will equally benefit from this huge investment.”
The “modern, bustling” Wharf will, of course, include plenty of housing: roughly 360 condo units, and a little more than 1,000 apartments. But how many units will be considered “affordable”? Monty Hoffman says in Phase One alone, about 200.
“And actually I would say we're doing one better: we not only have affordable housing, but we have workforce housing as well,” he says. “So if you’re a schoolteacher or a firefighter and you’re in the sort of middle-income bracket there’s housing for that as well. And then there’s a category we call ‘unaffordable housing’; that’s market rate. But there is a nice mix.”
Back in that roomy condo on M Street, Southwester editor Shannon Vaughn says a good mix is important. And he’s eager to see what’ll happen when Phase One of The Wharf opens in summer or fall of 2017, though he has reservations about how it might alter the character of his tucked-away neighborhood in the heart of the nation’s capital.
“This is something that’s going to change our community unlike anything we've seen since the late 1950s," Vaughn says. "The great thing about Southwest is we know renaissance. We're not just about building new. It’s about true rebirth. And we adapt to it while maintaining our history.”
Music: "Tiny Mountains" by Buildings from Everything in Parallel