Close to Shore

Close to Shore

Bing Thom’s renovation of the Arena Stage in Southwest Washington, D.C., unveiled last month, is the talk of the design world. With its alluring glass-and-wood expansion roofed over two historic theaters, it has been called a game-changer for this part of the city, a place so isolated and foreboding that Thom had trouble hailing taxis to the site in the project’s early days. But barely mentioned in the flood of praise for the theater is a plan with much more transformative potential, one easily viewed from the terrace under the Arena’s swooping, cantilevered roof—the Southwest Waterfront.

Part of the decade-old Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI), an ambitious long-term plan to clean up the trash-strewn river and bring economic development to the mostly low-income neighborhoods surrounding it, the Southwest Waterfront project will sustainably remake 26 acres of land and nearly a mile of shoreline with new residential, retail, and hotel spaces, along with parks, bike trails, and pedestrian piers. “Our whole vision is to bring city to water’s edge, to make it dense, mixed use, and walkable,” said Stanton Eckstut, founding principal of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn (EE&K), the project’s master planner.

This holistic spirit is in keeping with shoreline reappraisals up and down the Eastern seaboard. In Philadelphia, planners are putting the finishing touches on a six-mile stretch of the Central Delaware. In New York City, a sweeping plan now nearing completion will shape the next decade of waterfront development. Along with new strategic visions for Boston, Providence, and other cities, these plans offer a portrait of the urban waterfront of the post-crash 21st century, one that is human-scaled, mixed-use, ecologically sensitive, and part of a comprehensive approach to economic development. And for better or worse, one whose ambitions are modest enough to be actually realized.

As the furthest along of the current plans, Washington’s Southwest Waterfront will also be the first major completed portion of the AWI. Many of the larger plan’s most significant elements require land transfers from the federal government, environmental impact studies, and other time-consuming and expensive work. By contrast, the Southwest Waterfront, which has cleared most regulatory and economic hurdles and is due to begin construction in 2012, offers an opportunity to build on the momentum that began during the boom years with projects like the Arena Stage and the Nationals baseball stadium in nearby Southeast. It is also set to become only the second mixed-use waterfront area in the city, after the early-1980s Washington Harbour, a small cluster of luxury condos, office buildings, and restaurants along the Potomac in Georgetown.

At the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, Southwest is cut off from the core of the city by the I-395 freeway. Its waterfront neighborhood has always been largely residential, but car-centric: roads are wide, blocks are long, and surface parking abounds. Meanwhile, the marinas, restaurants, and nightclubs along the Washington Channel generate little pedestrian or tourist activity. The Southwest plan, by developers PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette, aims to change that with new ten- to 12-story hotels and apartment buildings, all sited to preserve view corridors through the neighborhood to the water beyond. Served by a new streetcar system, the project will feature smaller blocks and more pedestrian connections, according to Shawn Seaman, project director for PN Hoffman.

The Southwest Waterfront also aims to be a key sustainable element of the AWI, said Steven Siegel, development director in the D.C. government’s Office of Planning. While the high water table in this part of the city makes it hard to implement stormwater management solutions such as porous paving and bioretention cells, simply adding green space will make the area more environmentally friendly. Seaman said the project team is looking at a full slate of low-impact development tools such as larger tree pits and stormwater cisterns. They will also be seeking LEED-ND Gold certification for the project.

With its community consultation, economic-development orientation, eco-consciousness, and savvy staging—the first phase includes City Pier, designed to be the most active public space—Southwest is characteristic of the new waterfront genre. So are the challenges, including highway infrastructure that, despite planners’ hopes, will remain in place for the foreseeable future, and an economy that continues to cast a shadow over even sober-minded plans of any scale.


Another city seeking early wins in service of a more comprehensive plan is Philadelphia. Tangible progress is important in waterfront planning, said Sarah Thorp, the masterplan project manager for the city’s effort to remake its Central Delaware River waterfront. She should know. For decades, Philadelphia’s leaders have confronted a daunting array of obstacles, including outdated zoning, a riverfront blocked by I-95, and the lack of any comprehensive plan to bring coherence to piecemeal efforts.

But the plan Thorp is overseeing, with Cooper, Robertson taking the design lead along with Kieran Timberlake, Olin, and HR&A, could spell the end of that era. Based in large part on a community-driven vision proposal released in 2008 by PennPraxis, an arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s design school, and Wallace, Roberts & Todd, it proposes a series of ten parks at roughly half-mile intervals. These green spaces would be interspersed with high-density, low- and midrise mixed-use developments, connected by trails along the Delaware. It’s not a sea change. As in Southwest Washington, the freeway that separates the waterfront from the city center will remain in place. There’s also some disappointment about the dwindling scale of the riverfront setback: PennPraxis recommended a 100-foot buffer between the river and new developments, but the current plan—reflecting concerns from the development community, the difficulty of maintaining large public spaces, and the reality of the irregularly-shaped site—envisions a varying setback that might be only 35 feet in some places.

A public comment phase is winding down and the plan is due to be finalized in early 2011. But Thorp and her team are not taking anything for granted. In late October, they unveiled an early action project, one of several in the works. Washington Avenue Green, an interim park space on a historic pier designed to show off ecological restoration and stormwater management best practices, is in keeping with the city’s tough new stormwater regulations. “We’ve been working very closely with the Water Department and their Office of Watersheds,” said Thorp, who added that the project seeks to satisfy multiple goals. “We don’t want to just create spaces where people can sit and look at the river. We want to pursue stormwater goals, ecological goals, educational opportunities, and recreation for underserved areas.”

If Washington is seeking to transform a little-used area into a destination and Philadelphia is managing a long transition to a post-postindustrial waterfront, New York City, with its miles of shoreline, much of it carrying the baggage of former uses, is trying to do it all. The city is due to release a final version of its comprehensive waterfront plan for the next decade, Vision 2020, by December, along with an action agenda of strategic projects for the next three years.

The draft recommendations include six broad programmatic principles—public access; economic development; protection and restoration of sensitive ecological areas; expansion of waterborne transit and water-oriented educational and cultural activities; adaptation to climate change; and more efficient construction and operations—as well as priorities for every stretch of waterfront in the city, broken down into 22 segments or “reaches.” The Department of City Planning is coordinating the inter-agency effort, which, like those in Washington and Philadelphia, is designed to advance broader goals such as green infrastructure and economic development in areas left behind by the real estate boom.


Here again, the program lacks some of the swagger that characterized the city’s development plans during the boom years: As The Wall Street Journal recently noted, real estate development is playing a much smaller role. With so much commercial and residential space having been built during the Bloomberg administration, though, it’s hard to see the shift as anything other than inevitable. Instead of condo towers, updating old parks and building new ones is a major focus of the plan. New projects along the city’s waterfronts, including Hudson River Park, the first sections of Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Concrete Plant Park along the Bronx River, have been popular with residents. The success of these projects, said Michael Marrella, the Department of City Planning’s project director for Vision 2020, has raised public expectations throughout all five boroughs.

A 2009 amendment to the city’s zoning regulations should ensure the quality of both parks and development in places such as Hunter’s Point South in Long Island City, targeted for mixed-use development including middle-income housing, as well as a new waterfront park designed by Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi. The amendment expanded allowable waterfront uses to enable, among other things, cafes and active recreation facilities such as boat landings, and called for features such as meandering walkways and shaded seating.

Like those for Washington and Philadelphia, New York’s plan is a small piece of a much larger whole that will only take shape over the long term. Plenty of obstacles remain in place in all of these cities, including the slow recovery, a political landscape that could make it harder to secure state and federal funding for big projects, and competing constituent demands. In New York, for example, some neighborhoods want more focus on cleaning up polluted industrial areas, while others want a more ambitious water transit program. Charting a blue-green future for urban waterfronts won’t be easy, but these forward-looking plans will help us rediscover the shore.