Urban Integration in the 21st Century

Perkins Eastman is bringing The Wharf to life, revisiting a failed attempt at revitalizing the Southwest Waterfront in Washington, D.C., 60 years ago.

01/27/2017 By Stanton Eckstut, FAIA

Around the halfway point of the last century, the Southwest quadrant in Washington, D.C., became the subject of the first implementation of federally funded urban renewal in the United States. With an action plan put into place in 1946, the original effort targeted dwellings and businesses, chiefly occupied and run by African Americans and Jewish immigrants, and aimed to remove them in place of a new mixed-use community on the waterfront.

But this first attempt was a colossal failure. To say nothing of the fact that the plan was predicated on displacing large portions of lower-income people within an already underserved community, this effort also failed the District on two key measures: First, it lacked depth of vision, foregoing the density and planning that allows urban neighborhoods to thrive and grow; and second, consequently, it did not attempt to integrate Southwest D.C. (the smallest quadrant in Pierre L’Enfant’s original city plan) with its surrounding blocks, thus remaining a sequestered and underserved parcel of otherwise attractive waterfront property, sitting forgotten and in the shadows of the Washington Mall.

Once known colloquially as “the wharf,” on one side is 24 acres of contiguous waterfront land along the Washington Channel, a body of water that temporarily deviates from the Potomac; and inland, the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument sitting on the not-so-distant horizon. Up until a few years ago, a mere nine businesses and a total of 193,000 square feet of built space occupied this acreage, acting as a literal dead end that offered residents and tourists alike little incentive to approach the water’s edge. The fact that a public asset such as the wharf could remain largely undeveloped and underserved for so long stands in stark contrast to the rate and level of growth that cities like D.C. have staked their reputations on in recent decades. Thankfully, the city and its stakeholders are reversing course and embarking on something that is truly exceptional.

Today, “the wharf” is being transformed into The Wharf. Divided into two phases, with the first scheduled to open to the public this October, the redeveloped Southwest Waterfront is a large neighborhood envisioned on an intimate urban scale, wherein every square foot of space, from the storefronts and piers to the mews and alleyways, will be fully utilized and with no dead ends in sight. Where the original renewal effort of the 1950s failed, The Wharf will rectify and enhance.  

Back in 2008, when our work with the developer Hoffman-Madison Waterfront started, density was the common denominator. The team laid forth a vision for an active waterfront community that welcomed all modes of traffic, with pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars all sharing the same surface streets—a slightly modified version of woonerfs, or “living streets”—with all 2,500 parking spaces relegated to below ground to alleviate congestion. But creating this type of permeable street network that can accommodate a dense mix of residential, commercial, and entertainment amenities, not to mention the ebb and flow of daily traffic, requires a bit more than deft street planning.

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