The proposal is very promising. Summaries and high-lights of the proposal can be found in the City Paper, The Little Quadrant that Could, and at DCRealEstate.com. More information about the project is at the development team's website.
However some critical components are cause for concern and many other important considerations need to be clarified. The Washington Post published an excellent piece to stimulate discussion, using the Arena Stage redevelopment as a model for the Waterfront. The following is a brief review of what Southwesters might further examine as the development scheme moves forward:
Viewsheds: The new plan achieves a much better job of addressing viewsheds to the water from Maine Avenue and M Street than previous iterations. However water viewsheds that extend deeper into Southwest will be terminated or notably impaired, such as those along G and 10th Streets. To some extent this is the unavoidable result of the mid-century realignment of the street grid west of Maine Ave. More on Banneker later.
Traffic Circulation: The transportation investments are remarkable; arguably without precedent in the DC region. Successful integration of pedestrian, bicycle, Metro, Streetcar, personal vehicle and bus traffic within and around one of the most complex land use districts around will be critical. Will the volume of pedestrian traffic from the Waterfront station effectively channel and dissipate along existing and proposed sidewalks without spilling into vehicular lanes or neighboring private property? What about pedestrian traffic from L'Enfant Plaza Metro, 10th Street/National Mall, the Tidal Basin? How will the Streetcar successfully navigate along a boardwalk no wider than that which exists today? 9th Street and its terminus appears designed specifically to facilitate vehicular movement from the Freeway. Maine Street already congested from the Freeway to Southeast DC: how will the dramatic increase in vehicular traffic be accommodated? Will vehicles instead take the more local 4th and P Streets? Where will buses park?
Physical Connections to Residential Southwest: The development team focused a lot about the arrangement of buildings activities that would go on within the development and the harbor to the west, but very little to no time was spent on the east side of the development. Will the development, as the Post worries, be insular? While the architect generally conveyed that retail/restaurants will surround the whole development, it's unclear if it will be active. Some tenants, specifically professional retailers like banks and are desirable because of their strong financial capacities. But they stimulate little street-level activity or are of limited local interest. Another indicator of connectivity, and geographic priorities is where the entrances for the high-rise tenants (residents, hotelers, office workers). Plans indicate they are focused on the cul-de-sacs and harbor-side.
Building Density & Heights: Lead architect Stan Eckstut delicately argues that by allowing 130 foot buildings throughout the development, the team could provide a remarkable 60% of the development as public open space. This common urban development argument for increased height implies a tradeoff: horizontal or vertical bulk. Certainly, the waterfront suffers from a dearth of activity and a series of slim towers is more consistent with Southwest's form and a desire to maintain a street-level connection to the water. But perhaps Southwest should question the level of added density that is being thrust into the plan by the District government and the developer is both feasible and appropriate? The Washington Post review particularly argues that the building heights adjacent to Arena Stage are troubling. Indeed, should this civic landmark be dwarfed by a high-rise hotel?
Building Skin and Other Design Trademarks: Exterior materials, textures, and colors should not be inconsistent with the existing Southwest design template. The Post worries that the proposed buildings appear "to be oversize boxes of brick or paste-on faux stone, with a bland mix of sleek contemporary and historical references and generic, cookie-cutter design." Although Eckstute suggested that the buildings would be setback on higher floors to open up viewsheds, it's unclear that the marginal setback would be significant enough to prevent corridors from resembling dark alleys. Importantly, while the presentation featured quaint models of narrow European streets, the buildings proposed in Southwest are much taller. Although DC's soon-to-be built City Center project will use this design feature precedent in America for this concept is limited at best.
Perhaps what merits the closest examination is the "whimsical" lighthouse (Eckstut's term). The lighthouse would directly compete with the Washington Monument. It's unclear that there's any precedent for lighthouses anywhere in the metropolitan DC region, much less Southwest. The only comparison perhaps is the lighthouse-inspired tower at Washington Harbour. And at the end of the day, the pastiche lighthouse is unnecessary, as the development will be visible from miles away, presuming the development retains the planned row of 130' (plus 10+ foot penthouses) tower.
Market Square/10th Street: While this precinct is the most removed from residential Southwest, in some respects it is the most important given it's the critical link between Virginia and recreational spaces on the east and the National Mall and office precinct on the north to residential Southwest.
As Eckstut noted, Market Square represents a notable departure from anything that exists in the city. As with many elements of the SW plan it could be a wonderful novelty, but pitfalls remain. Seattle's Pike Place, the model for the Square is a derivative of the eclectic Pacific Northwest culture. Today, it is a leading tourist destination. Can this concept be successfully transplanted to Washington. What characteristics would make it appealing to Southwesters?
While the activities within the Square are important, the connections to the east and particularly the north are critical to the success of the entire project. The utilitarian nature of the existing easterly connection vastly curtails non-vehicular circulation and activity: how will the development overcome these obstacles? On the northern approach, both buildings that frame the passage along 10th Street significantly impinge on this key corridor, compromising the goal of various public-private efforts like the National Capital Framework Plan to reconnect Southwest to the Mall and downtown DC.
The Southwest Waterfront plan is a enormously complex development. This preliminary review is an attempt to briefly touch on the issues that Southwesters may want to focus on in the coming months and years. Traffic, shadowing, and environmental studies are a few of the important analyses that should be forthcoming. Review, analyze, comment, and critique. But ultimately, Southwest would be well advised to embrace the project. While other developments continue to remain on the shelf, this an unparalleled opportunity for the betterment of all Southwesters. Monty Hoffman, CEO of lead parter PN Hoffman has assembled a very experienced project team; it clearly shows in the quality of the plan, particularly considering all the constraints and competing interests.
The next public opportunity for the community to review and comment on the plan will be at October's Southwest Neighborhood Assembly meeting on October 25 at St. Augustine's Church. Come prepared.