Washington D.C.’s Riverfront Holds Vast Untapped Development Potential

The city’s southwestern waterfront was wiped bare nearly five decades ago under the banner of urban renewal, but now that’s changing.

Washington DC waterfront SmithGroupJJR
The Wharf, a $2 billion mixed-use development on Washington D.C. waterfront, features this 300,000-square-foot, 10-story hotel by SmithGroupJJR. The building houses a Canopy by Hilton and a Hyatt House. Courtesy SmithGroupJJR

“We sometimes forget that D.C. is a waterfront city,” Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, who is an associate director at the Washington, D.C. Office of Planning, says. “But we have 47 miles of shorefront!”

Washington, D.C., sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Potomac and the Anacostia, yet its waterfronts remain ripe for redevelopment, as the recent completion of the first phase of a massive $2 billion development called The Wharf illustrates. And two major projects by the city’s water authority, DC Water –one a new pipeline designed to prevent runoff from entering the Anacostia, the other a new headquarters facility–are just a pair of highlights in the “Year of the Anacostia,” which celebrates the centennial of the river’s main feature: Anacostia Park. Balancing the forces of growth and development with desires for a sustainable and resilient waterfront is no easy task, especially with projects of this scale.

On December 6, in Washington, D.C., Susan Szenasy, Metropolis’s director of design innovation, led a conversation at the offices of SmithGroupJJR on the development and conservation of the city’s two riverfronts. Architects, planners, and sustainability experts used the opportunity to discuss strategies for both urban and environmental futures.

“The Anacostia was pretty much a dumping ground since the early 1800s,” says Maureen Holman, who is sustainability chief for DC Water. “It’s where a lot of the industry was focused, and where sewage and other things were focused. We’re looking at how to deal with some legacy pollutants—those effects are still there—to eventually get us to a point where the river is fishable and swimmable.”

Washington DC waterfront SmithGroupJJR
The hotels anchor the entrance to a new three-acre park. Seen here is just the first stage of The Wharf; the project will eventually see three million square feet of new development built along one mile of waterfront. ©SmithGroupJJR

In many ways, the Anacostia is still a dumping ground: During heavy rain events, the District’s combined sewer often overflows, bringing untreated waste into the river. But the Anacostia River tunnel, which will open in March, will reduce direct sewage dumping into the river by 81 percent. The tunnel opening will go a long way toward making the Anacostia River fishable and swimmable, but the cleanup effort will rely on a number of agencies to fulfill this river restoration goal. The Anacostia River flows through many jurisdictions, and receives runoff from all of them. As the city’s chief resilience officer, Kevin Bush, puts it, “watersheds don’t care about administrative boundaries.”

“With private development having been very successful, the next step is cleaning up a lot of the contaminated sites,” says Erin Garnass-Holmes, who is project director for the Anacostia Waterfront Trust. “That effort points to an important part of resilience: Building resilient networks of people and engaging stakeholders.”

Gabriel agrees: “You can’t really get anything done without a coalition,” she says. “The 2001 Anacostia Waterfront Initiative was a memorandum of understanding between some 30 entities that committed to a singular vision, toward the revitalization of the waterfront.”

The bulk of the private development to which Garnass-Holmes refers is The Wharf, which was led by PN Hoffman. The Wharf sits upon the Southwest waterfront, due south of L’Enfant Plaza in a part of the city that was wiped bare nearly five decades ago under the banner of urban renewal. “The way that projects are developed today is different than it was 50 years ago,” Shawn Seaman, executive vice president and principal of PN Hoffman, says. “The Wharf and Southwest were basically wiped off the map in order to make it more auto-centric; Now, it’ll be more sustainable. The Wharf, I hope, is the foundation and the basis for the great thriving city of the future.”

With a rebuilt seawall that anticipates future sea level rise, The Wharf looks to protect the enormous investment poured into it. “Educating our children, and ourselves, in terms of our environment, begins not at the building level but at the site level,” says Merrill St. Leger, who is leader of the urban design and planning studio at SmithGroupJJR. “There’s always the competing desires to be on the waterfront but also to protect it. We’re seeing more and more pilot projects that showcase resiliency and sustainability aspects.”

The “how” of it all circles back around to Garnass-Holmes’s idea of resilient networks of people, and part of that is hiring locals as well as giving them training toward careers in infrastructure. “There’s an effort in the District to create an infrastructure academy to train people on how to get infrastructure jobs,” Bush, the city’s resilience officer, says. “We’re trying to make sure we’re creating jobs for residents of the District across all education and income levels.”

In the end, the more people continue to live in the places they work, and work in the places they live, the more resilient both the people and the places will be.

The Think Tank discussions in Washington, D.C., were held December 6 and 7. The conversations were presented in partnership with Corian Design, Sunbrella, DXV/GROHE, Staples Business Advantage, and Shaw Contract.

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