Map of Washington, D.C., with Southwest Waterfront highlighted in maroon.
|• Councilmember||Charles Allen|
The Southwest Waterfront is a mostly residential neighborhood in Southwest Washington, D.C. The Southwest quadrant is the smallest of Washington's four quadrants, and the Southwest Waterfront is one of only two residential neighborhoods in the quadrant; the other is Bellevue, which, being east of the Anacostia River, is frequently, if mistakenly, regarded as being in Southeast. For that reason many residents of Southwest Waterfront will simply refer to themselves as living in "Southwest."
Southwest Waterfront is bounded by Interstate 395 to the north, Washington Channel to the west, the Anacostia River to the south, and South Capitol Street to the east. Politically, Southwest Waterfront lies in Ward 6.
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Southwest Waterfront is part of Pierre L'Enfant's original city plans and includes some of the oldest buildings in the city, including the Wheat Row block of townhouses, built in 1793, the Thomas Law House, built in 1796, and Fort McNair, which was established in 1791 as "the U.S. Arsenal at Greenleaf Point."
Prior to the federal government's survey and appropriation of the District of Columbia, most of what is now Southwest Waterfront was part of a large slave plantation owned by Notley Young. After the city was established, much of the former Young plantation was purchased by a Bostonian venture capitalist named James Greenleaf, who received a discount on sixty thousand real estate lots in exchange for a promise to build ten new houses on them per year. Greenleaf, however, had not secured the financial backing he had claimed and was unable to finance the promised construction. (He declared bankruptcy in 1797.) As a result, with the exception of a few scattered buildings such as Thomas Law's (a land speculator who was able to put down pounds sterling) and workers' shanties, settlement of the Southwest Waterfront was extremely slow. Despite his crippling of the region's growth, Greenleaf's name was eventually given to the section of land along the bank of the river on which the Arsenal stood.
Law himself was the other major figure in defining the early character of the Southwest Waterfront. He built its first industrial outpost, a sugar refinery, in 1797. He also initiated the construction in 1802 of the Washington City Canal, which connected Tiber Creek, at the western foot of the National Mall, with the Anacostia River—then called the "Eastern Branch"—just east of the Arsenal. The canal opened in 1815 but was too shallow and subject to unstable tides to be useful as the industrial pipeline Law had hoped for, instead filling quickly with trash and stagnant water and serving only to isolate Southwest from the rest of the city of Washington.
As a result of Law's canal, the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood was known as The Island. It was further cut off from the city when railroad tracks were built along Maryland Avenue SW. It was known primarily for its brothels, its crime, and its filthy, decrepit alley slums, and was regarded as among the worst neighborhoods in Washington.
After the Civil War, with the Canal covered, over the Southwest Waterfront became more organized, though it remained a neighborhood for the poorer classes of Washingtonians. The neighborhood was divided in half by Fourth Street SW—then known as 41⁄2 Street— with Scottish, Irish, German, and eastern European immigrants to the west and Blacks to the east. Each half was centered on religious establishments: St. Dominic's Catholic Church and Temple Beth Israel on the west and Friendship Baptist Church on the east. Each half of the neighborhood was the childhood residence of a future American musical star; Al Jolson lived on 41⁄2 Street and Marvin Gaye was born in a tenement on First Street.)
The Waterfront developed a thriving commercial district with grocery stores, shops, a movie theater, as well as a few large and elaborate houses—mostly owned by wealthy blacks— but most of the neighborhood was a very poor shantytown of tenements, shacks, and even tents. The latter were frequent subjects of photographs that were published with captions like, "The Washington that tourists never see."
It was also a major traffic hub from Virginia. The Long Bridge connected horse, stagecoach and foot traffic from Alexandria, VA to Maryland Avenue SW before becoming a railway bridge during the American Civil War. It was also the access point to the Capital for steamboat lines. The following lines operated from there in 1903: the Washington & Potomac Steamboat Company, the Maryland, Delaware & Virginia B.Y. Company and the Norfolk & Washington Steamboat Company.
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In the 1950s, city planners working with the Congress decided that the entire Southwest quadrant should undergo significant urban renewal — in this case, meaning that the city would acquire nearly all land south of the National Mall (except Bolling Air Force Base and Fort McNair), either through voluntary purchases or through the use of eminent domain; evict virtually all of its residents and businesses; destroy many of its streets, and all of its buildings and landscapes; and start again from scratch.
There was some opposition to the plan, notably from the Southwest Civic Association, because of its emphasis on building luxury housing rather than supplying low and moderate income dwellings to replace the homes slated for demolition. John Ihlder, the director of the Alley Dwelling Authority, also spoke out about the plan's failure to provide enough affordable and public housing. However, the redevelopment plans, which had been crafted by architects Louis Justement and Chloethiel Woodward Smith and which included modernist buildings, ample green spaces, and plenty of parking, were popular among many city residents and officials, and their appeal eventually won out. Only a few buildings were left intact, notably the Maine Avenue Fish Market, the Wheat Row townhouses, the Thomas Law House, and the St. Dominic's and Friendship churches. The Southeast/Southwest Freeway section of Interstate 395 was constructed where F Street, SW, had once been, separating the quadrant's business district from the residential Waterfront neighborhood.
The heart of the urban renewal of the Southwest Waterfront was Waterside Mall, a small shopping center/office complex mostly occupied by a Safeway grocery store and satellite offices for the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The Arena Stage was built a block west of the Mall, and a number of hotels and restaurants were built on the riverfront to attract tourists. The now closed Southeastern University, a very small college that had been chartered in 1937, also established itself as an important institution in the area. and a majority were female, but there was also a significant international enrollment.
The residential aspect of the project began with a large apartment complex and park called Potomac Place, located on 4th Street between G and I Streets. When Nikita Khrushchev visited Washington in 1959, he pointed out to President Dwight D. Eisenhower the extremely poor dwellings that stood on the way from Bolling Air Force Base (where Khruschev had arrived in the city) to the downtown area; Eisenhower, in response, ordered their driver to pass by Potomac Place in order to show the Soviet Premier that the nation's capital was working to assist its poorer citizens.
Due to its history of urban redevelopment, most of the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood is composed of large cooperatives or condominiums, often containing both townhouses and apartment buildings. Most of the building projects are examples of Modern Architecture.
Constructed in 1962, River Park contains townhouses and a glass and aluminum high-rise building that architect Charles Goodman designed. Constructed in 1965 in a pinwheel shape with a large courtyard and with town houses in its quadrants, Tiber Island, which architects Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon designed, received the American Institute of Architects award for Multi-Family Residential design in 1966. Carrollsburg was completed in 1967 and developed as a companion piece to Tiber Island by the same architects.
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Starting around 2003, the Southwest Waterfront began gentrifying. A number of the neighborhood's apartment buildings began extensive renovations and condominium conversions. Residential and commercial developers began to take a more serious interest in Southwest with the announcement in 2004 that the city would build the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium just across South Capitol Street from Southwest.
The Southwest Waterfront has been targeted as a site for the next wave of DC redevelopment. Large development projects include a mixed retail-commercial-residential development at Fourth & M Streets SW (Waterfront Station); the expansion and redesign of Arena Stage; and the redesign and overhaul of the waterfront itself, to include residences, office space, hotels, and retail establishments.
On March 19, 2014, developers PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette broke ground on a massive redevelopment of D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront into a mixed-use complex named "The Wharf". Stretching across 24 acres of land and more than 50 acres of water from the Municipal Fish Market to Fort McNair, The Wharf, when complete, will feature more than three million square feet of residential, office, hotel, retail, cultural, and public uses including waterfront parks, promenades, piers and docks. The first phase of the redevelopment project opened with a four-day series of public events during October 2017.
In April 2017, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) approved plans for a staircase and bicycle paths through Benjamin Banneker Park to connect the Mall and L'Enfant Plaza to the Southwest Waterfront. In addition, the project would add lighting and trees to the area. The NCPC and the National Park Service intended the project to be an interim improvement that could be in place for ten years while the area awaited further redevelopment. Hoffman-Madison Waterfront and the District of Columbia government agreed to invest $4 million in the project in an effort to improve neighborhood connectivity in the area. Construction began on the project in September 2017 and was completed during the spring of 2018.
Current and former residents of Southwest D.C. include the late House Representative John Conyers and former Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. Hubert Humphrey lived there while serving as U.S. Vice President, and Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell, and David Souter all had homes in Southwest during their tenures on the United States Supreme Court.
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