Contrite Over Failed Urban Renewal, Washington D.C. Refreshes a Waterfront

November 19, 2014
The Potomac waterfront in the southwest quadrant of the nation's capital was once a symbol of urban renewal's high hopes and then of its crushing failure. It is undergoing a significant redevelopment that promises to remake the little-used mile-long stretch along the river's Washington Channel into a vibrant, mixed-use community.

Ground was broken in March, and, with six construction cranes towering above and excavation equipment operating below, work is well underway to remake the historic wharf, where Union troops landed in 1864 to save the city from the Confederates and generations of fishmongers hawked seafood fresh off the schooners and smaller workboats unloading there.

The Wharf, as it is being called, is the developer PN Hoffman's "magnificent opportunity to undo the urban renewal legacy of the past and recreate the Southwest Waterfront as a great world-class destination," according to the project's website. This would, it has been widely acknowledged, be a notable accomplishment.

"We cleared 23,000 households, and the rest is history," Ellen M. McCarthy, the District of Columbia's acting planning director, said of the urban renewal project. "This is where we rectify all our mistakes."

Southwest was the nation's first urban renewal project, approved in 1946 to replace what were then considered slums with a modern community that would include federal buildings, town homes and a variety of amenities. What it did, primarily, was displace thousands of residents, mostly African-Americans. That gave rise to the pejorative term "Negro removal" applied to urban renewal and derived from this failed experiment, and destroyed a viable commercial waterfront.

At that time, the neighborhood behind the bustling waterfront was a mixture of African-Americans and immigrant Jews, whose dwellings and stores were considered expendable.

The $2 billion mixed-use project is Washington's most ambitious plan to date to correct what is now regarded as an egregious error imposed on the city by people then thought to be visionary planners. When completed, the project will encompass 3.2 million square feet on 25 acres of land. It will also use 50 acres of water, with three new public piers. There will be a 6,000-seat concert hall, several hotels and office buildings, rental apartments, condos, restaurants and shops, public plazas and parks.

"It's a critical mass, the Big Bang theory," said Monty Hoffman, chief executive of PN Hoffman, whose firm has also redeveloped portions of the city's lower 14th Street NW, which was devastated by the 1968 riots after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

PN Hoffman, now teamed with Madison Marquette, was chosen from five developers that made formal proposals, narrowed from a field of 17 that responded to the city's initial request for bids. Gaining the needed approvals from more than two dozen agencies took seven years, Mr. Hoffman said, and required an act of Congress to decommission the federally owned channel so that it could revert to city ownership. The 99-year lease that PN Hoffman then obtained from the city allowed Mr. Hoffman to secure outside financing to supplement his team's $90 million investment.

"We went all over the world looking," he said, including to China, the Middle East and New York, before landing PSP Investments, a Canadian pension equity firm, as the project's major financier, investing $220 million. "They were looking more for yield" than to build and sell off the project, he said. In addition, the project is to receive $198 million from city-backed bonds.

The project's simple name stems from a conversation that Mr. Hoffman had with the city's nonvoting congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat. Mr. Hoffman said he had spent "tens of thousands of dollars with marketing people to come up with all these fancy names" for the development.

He recalled his talk with Ms. Norton: "She said, 'You know, we used to call it the wharf.' I said, 'That's brilliant, that's what we're going to name it.' " He also plans to name a public plaza for the delegate, whose great-grandfather escaped from slavery in Virginia to "the wharf" in the 1850s. Ms. Norton shepherded the crucial decommissioning bill through Congress.

The waterfront is "incredibly valuable because of its proximity to the Mall," she said in an interview, referring to the National Mall, the green space between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. "There you have upwards of 20 million visitors a year, and there was not much happening should they stroll down here. This was perhaps the most undeveloped asset in D.C. Well, it is going to become a destination."

Inside the construction office, a converted three-story hotel, the walls are lined with black-and-white photographs of the waterfront from the 1860s to the 1960s. The last vestige is the 200-year-old Maine Avenue Fish Market, at the waterfront's western end, where fish is sold from floating barges. Mr. Hoffman plans to retain this colorful artifact but add picnic tables, transient docks for day trippers, and vendors hawking fruits and vegetables.

"In some sense, we're recreating everything, but we're trying to stay true to the authentic roots," he said.

The $1 billion first phase is scheduled for completion in 2017. It is to encompass two office buildings with 435,000 square feet, three hotels, 655 rental apartments in three buildings, 230 condos, 1,600 underground parking spaces, the concert hall and 20 restaurants. There will also be other commercial shops, banks and a rum distillery. Mr. Hoffman said he has letters of intent from two-thirds of the retail tenants.

A five-story, 108-unit condo building now under construction is expected to be completed first, in 2016. To spare a beloved copper beech tree at the construction site, PN Hoffman moved the 150-ton specimen to a nearby location, at a cost of $100,000.

The first phase is to include 207 subsidized and below-market rental apartments, "so it won't become just a rich person's pier in the District of Columbia," Ms. Norton said.

The second, market-driven phase, with a scheduled 2020-21 completion, is to include 130,000 square feet of retail space, 480,000 square feet of offices, 360 rental apartments, 124 condo units, a marina with 450 slips and 965 parking spaces.

Mr. Hoffman is committed to preserving the Gangplank Marina, where 90 slip holders live on their boats, even relocating them temporarily while he builds new docks and a clubhouse.

Similarly, Mr. Hoffman is building a two-story clubhouse over the water for the venerable Capital Yacht Club, founded in 1892. It also has been temporarily relocated on the waterfront during construction.

To gain the trust of residents, Mr. Hoffman and his team attended more than 400 community meetings. It paid off in grass-roots support, according to Andy Litsky, a 30-year Southwest Washington resident who represents the waterfront district on the advisory neighborhood commission.

"Monty's a different type of guy," Mr. Litsky said. "He and his team have gone out of their way to bring the community into the process and come up with something beneficial to the neighborhood. They are the new neighbors, and we welcome them to the neighborhood."

The New York Times
Eugene L. Meyer