21st Century Waterfront Redevelopment in Washington, D.C.

by Renard Teipelke

Ideal public transit connection, walkability, mixed-use, brownfield redevelopment, green infrastructure, efficient resource systems, inclusion of the historic urban fabric…what sounds like a planner’s wish list for urban redevelopment is actually the description used for two major projects at Washington D.C.’s southwestern and southeastern waterfronts: The Wharf and The Yards. In case both projects are realized as planned, Washington might be able to present the world what is currently advertized as a 21st century waterfront.

I am always critical when reading about ‘grand redevelopment projects’ that are praised as ‘greener than green’. But since both projects are in the Neighborhood Development pilot program of the internationally recognized LEED of the U.S. Green Building Council, with The Yards project already awarded the gold classification, I am starting to be fascinated to see if this city will really succeed in realizing these very promising plans. The opened Yards Park is already a good start.

With regard to Washington’s general topography, the city is blessed with two rivers and long waterfronts. On the other side, the heavy military complex in and around America’s capital has heavily influenced urban development for more than a century. This has been a heavy burden for D.C., since former (military-) industrial areas had and have to be redeveloped. Furthermore, transport planning, especially with regard to the highway system, has not had very positive impacts on the connectivity and walkability of some neighborhoods in Washington (the southwestern and southeastern areas included).

While many elements of the two redevelopment projects are similar to other waterfront developments discussed on this blog and elsewhere, one aspect has to be distinguished: both waterfront projects seek to move the mixed-used buildings again close to the water’s edge and even extending the revitalization into the water. This is explained by the historic use of waterfronts and illustrates also the lessons-learnt from other waterfront developments in the past: open spaces, parks in particular, at the water’s edge do not result in a vibrant urban life if they take up too much space, leading to a distance between waterfront and mixed-use areas that compromises connectivity.

The Wharf and The Yards could become examples for waterfront redevelopment that take into account and perfectly match residential, business, and ecologic concerns while also paying attention to the historic roots of the neighborhood. It comes with no surprise that projects like these do heavily depend on the efficient and effective collaboration of public and private sector (and partly third-sector organizations) as well as the commitment of and the matching resource distribution between the local/state and federal level.

Since we are talking about an area that is close to downtown D.C., part of the urban core, and situated in a prime location of one of the world’s most important capital cities, it might be understandable that decision makers do not (or cannot?) aim for an all-perfect social inclusive neighborhood. Though, for The Wharf, there is a 30 per cent requirement for affordable housing, 35 per cent of all retail goods have to come from small, local businesses, and 25 per cent of the retail establishments must be owned by local businesses. In The Yards project, developers are planning to provide 2,800 units of residential and affordable housing.

In short, The Wharf and The Yards are two projects added to the increasing list of sustainable redevelopment projects we can find globally. The Washington case also underscores again that the negative image of sprawling, unsustainable US cities has to be adjusted to latest developments, since D.C. is only one of many examples in America, where cities are trying their best to make the urban fabric better and repair the damages that have been done during America’s heavy industry and oil boom years.


More on The Wharf (see also an article on The Atlantic Cities)

More on The Yards (see also an article on The Atlantic Cities)

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