Waterfront Development Still Waiting to Take Off

Posted November 17, 2004 at 2:08pm

Wrapped up in the massive District development plan that goes by the name of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative is a vision for vibrant new neighborhoods sprouting in the now-underutilized lands along the lower Anacostia River.

Design schemes paint a picture of new waterfront residential areas that are interconnected by systems of riverside parks and riverwalk trails. These areas, city planners predict, will become the new real estate hot spots in Washington, D.C.

But, to put it in Congressional terms, it’s going to take a few more cycles.

Try to walk down to the Anacostia River today and you’ll find the way blocked by concrete barriers, industrial plants, chainlink fences, inaccessible parklands and a massive highway system. And if you actually make it to the river, the floating pollution and occasional smell of rank sewage might make you sorry you made the effort.

But talk to local real estate agents, developers and District brokers, and all parties seem to agree that the area along the Anacostia waterfront is the future of development in Washington. And once the infrastructure has been put in place, it won’t take much longer for the waterfront real estate market to take off.

“In terms of living down there, that is a couple years out,” said Chris Bender, a spokesman in the District’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “But in terms of buying, I get calls about that now from individual real estate agents, from people from out of state. … Now people see it as more of an investment, of getting in on the ground floor.”

Early projects and excitement about new development are already having some effect on neighboring real estate markets.

“Right now Capitol Hill is achieving a critical mass of desirability. This is adding to that critical mass,” said Hugh Kelly, a Capitol Hill-based real estate agent who has been working in the city for 29 years.

The high level of confidence in the waterfront’s future, Bender explained, comes from the fact that the city took a new approach in forming the initiative. Whereas in the past, city planners have designed individual neighborhoods a piece at a time, the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative is essentially a 3,000-acre planned community.

“All the land has been thought out. Everyone not only knows what’s going there, but everyone has been involved in the planning,” Bender said. “We’re a couple years ahead of the ball, now it’s a question of assembling the parcels and going through the zoning procedures.”

The waterfront plan calls for residential real estate projects to eventually be built in every major zone from the Southwest Waterfront to the east side of the Anacostia river. Examples include 800 new housing units planned for the Hill East area, 1,750 units of mixed-income housing along the Near Southeast Waterfront, 1,000 new residential units around Poplar Point, 770 new residential units set on the Southwest waterfront, and some 19 new points of access from local neighborhoods through the Anacostia National Park to the river. The Capitol Hill Towers at 140 L St. SE and the restoration of the Carrollsburg neighborhood are two projects which have already broke ground and represent the beginning of some of those changes.

While acknowledging that there’s not a lot of residential housing available for sale right now, Don Denton, manager of the Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Pardoe office on Capitol Hill, pointed out that “it’s going to happen and it is moving along.”

Building a medium-size high rise takes 18 months from the day you turn over the first shovel, he said. The residential market “is in the pipeline, but it’s not pipe dreaming.”

But as Harry Schnipper, a principal at the International Reality Group, pointed out, developing these projects in an area that has little pre-existing infrastructure is going to take at least five or six more years. The dominant use of the land around the Southeast and Southwest waterfront right now is for industrially related trades that provide either raw or finished building material for other construction projects going on in the city, Schnipper said.

“Everyone is willing to concede that the waterfront is underutilized … [but] they need to develop it and give people an incentive to come to the waterfront,” he said. “They haven’t overcome the proximity question and its relation to goods and services.”

To solve those problems, the 20 federal and District agencies that originally conceived the plan made the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative as much of a transportation overhaul and environmental clean-up effort as it is a real estate development project.

Along with major refurbishments to main corridors such as South Capitol Street and every bridge that spans the river, transit planners are already beginning work on light-rail lines to complement the existing Metrorail system. The city is also funding new circulator bus routes that will provide service across the Southeast and Southwest area. These projects will be brought on line and expanded over the course of the next two decades, which is about the amount of time it will take to clean up the Anacostia River and institute a plan to stop up-river pollution from Maryland, Bender said.

In the meantime, large commercial projects like the construction of the new baseball stadium along South Capitol Street, ongoing Navy Yard improvements and the new Fannie Mae headquarters site scheduled to be built along the Southwest waterfront in 2008 are being viewed by the city and developers as commercial anchors that community projects can be built around.

Steve Tanner, a development manager for Square 643 Associates LLC, which owns a site at 700 Delaware Ave. SW, that is being renovated for residential and nonprofit use, said these large commercial projects serve to increase the density of people who visit the Southeast and Southwest area on a daily basis. That will in turn improve the variety of stores, restaurants and clubs in the area and make the waterfront a destination location.

“Think Georgetown, Adams Morgan,” Tanner said in an e-mail. “They have better nightlife/services because there is more people to support the retail. I think people should look at [the Southeast and Southwest waterfront] as the next big real estate location since it is just beginning.”