Neighborhood Spotlight: Southwest Waterfront

Ok, so full disclosure here: Prior to my fabulous tenure here at Woolly, I was a Fellow in the Media Relations department at Arena Stage. I started last August, just about a week or two after the Arena staff moved into the new Mead Center for American Theater. The building was gorgeous, we were gearing up for exciting homecoming and opening gala festivities, and I got lost…A LOT. I actually remember my first week of work there was a Washingtonian photographer doing a photo shoot, and I was supposed to show him up to the costume shop and then down to the costume storage area. I had absolutely no idea where I was going, and hence was pretty embarrassed (I saw the same photographer again later in the season and he remembered the incident…sigh).

But anyway, my first day of work at Arena was also my first day ever going to Southwest DC. (And I was no newcomer to the city, having spent four years at GWU). I quickly realized that the Waterfront neighborhood of Southwest was this sort of wasteland—it took me forever to get there on the metro, and lunch options in the area? Forget it. For the entire time I worked there it was the Safeway at the metro stop, the Subway across the street…and that’s it. (Let alone it took 30 minutes to get a sandwich at either location, but that’s neither here nor there). While I’m a fan of Cantina Marina, that was virtually the only place around to grab a bite or a drink after work with coworkers, and it was only open in the warmer months of the year.

As my fellowship continued, we learned from staff members (and a huge feature in The Washington Post) about the plans for development in the neighborhood and some of the challenges faced, such as preserving Arena’s amazing views of the city, and making sure that any development in the area wouldn’t tamper with that. And progress has definitely been made: a new restaurant Station 4 has opened, The Washington Kastles tennis team opened a new stadium there, and community events are starting to be planned, such as this SW ArtsFest planned for fall 2011. But there definitely is still a long way to go. The redevelopment plan is called “The Wharf,” a $1.5 billion project to redevelop the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood over the next 10-15 years. This SW blog has a great overview of these plans, which include residential units, hotels, office space, retail stores, museums, farmers markets, and more.

Since I no longer work at Arena and am not personally witnessing many of these changes anymore, I decided to ask former Woolly Intern (and current Concessionaire) Paul Kappel what he thinks about living in the Waterfront neighborhood of Southwest:

Redevelopment can take many forms, but for my neighborhood, the little quadrant of Southwest DC, it has had both profoundly positive and negative consequences. Southwest has been my home for just over a year now, and over these months I have seen a number of important changes stemming from a recent redevelopment project along 4th Street SW, the Wharf development on the waterfront, and Arena Stage’s new center. For the most part, the changes along 4th Street have been the most profound, with the recent opening of the delicious Station 4 restaurant and bar, and what is arguably the nicest Safeway in the city. This single block on 4th Street, which was until recently non-existent, is quickly becoming a new center of activity for our neighborhood.

But where was the old center of the neighborhood?

That question is from what I can tell, a difficult one to answer for any resident of Southwest, as the entirety of what can been seen now: the neighborhood’s soaring concrete apartment towers and the Soviet-Russia-esque L’Enfant plaza complex are the product of a failed redevelopment from the 1950s. Somewhere around that time, Congress decided that a then-thriving Waterfront community was blighted and in stark contrast to the gleaming marble just a few blocks north on the National Mall. In an effort to “cure” the city of this supposed cancer, new plans were drawn up by modernist architect I.M. Pei, and nearly every building and street was erased from the map forever and replaced with a utopian vision for the future.

From the mid-1800s through the turn of the century, this community offered work and shelter for freed slaves as well as for European immigrants. For decades, African Americans, Italian immigrants, Eastern European Jews, and others worked side by side in this working class neighborhood, rich in cultural traditions. Pictured here: Shulman’s Market located at N & Union Streets, a grocery store operated by a Jewish Lithuanian family. (For more info click here).

In a sense, this is exactly what the residents of Clybourne Park fear, when the prospect of new development moves into the neighborhood.

Today, the result of that redevelopment left Southwest split in half by I-395 with a federal center to the north, and our small neighborhood to the south, largely severed from the rest of the city. What is exciting, however is that recent redevelopment of the misaligned former redevelopment has been done more carefully and with a care for maintaining the neighborhood’s many charms, like the Maine Avenue Fish Market (a holdover from before the 50s). This current smart redevelopment plan and the projects that have already been completed are encouraging and certainly leading a sort of Southwest renaissance. This time, we’re not erasing history, but embracing it for the better.

Some of the project renderings for “The Wharf,” courtesy of:

~ Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager and Paul Kappel, Southwest Resident & Woolly Concessionaire



Filed under Clybourne Park, Communications and Connectivity, Marketing

2 responses to “Neighborhood Spotlight: Southwest Waterfront

  1. Diane DC

    I feel you both should have done more research before you made your grand pronouncements about SW. You both have been here a year or less and have only managed to find 3 places to eat. I can think of 20 within easy walking distance of Arena Stage without even getting out the Southwester, our local newspaper. This is a thriving and vibrant community with over 16,000 residents. The old center of the community was the same as what it is now. Only it was a mall that had been torn down to build the new iteration after it was decided that 4th street needed to be reopened.

    There are many wonderful aspects to the new planned wharf, but the developer has NOT considered the community currently living here as part of the plans. Nor has he considered the fact that this is one of the largest cohesive blocks of fine campus like mid-century architecture in the country. When it was planned, every conceivable thing was taken into consideration. They planned green space, sight lines to the monuments and water, traffic in and out of the neighborhood, the number of churches and schools needed, and maintaining important historic buildings. The current developer has done none of these things. In fact the main architect told some of the current residents, when they expressed concern about losing their view of the Washington Monument,”I’ll buy you a poster.”

    Sure it will be nice to have a few more restaurants, but at what price? With what nod to history and to people who have already gone through one upheaval in their lifetimes? Your piece just seemed a bit callow and band the developer drum for me to have really tied into your play. If that is what you were trying to do by writing this endorsement for PN Hoffman.

  2. We appreciate your comments, but in regards to your last paragraph, isn’t that exactly in line with the play and the issues it raises? And if our piece got you to realize that (hence in a circuitous fashion) then so be it…I’m in no means endorsing PN Hoffman, I’m just interested in their plans and the changes that are happening in the neighborhood.

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