CNU/DC – The Wharf Tour

I’m in Washington for the CNU Transit Workshop this week. Every CNU event includes a local tour, to showcase some local site. This time we toured “The Wharf” development just south of L’Enfant Plaza; a few blocks east of Jefferson Mem, south of the Smithsonian, on the banks of the Potomac. sa24wh6It was guided by the developer, the architect and the construction manager (if I understand correctly) so beyond muckity-mucks. They’ve obviously given the tour many times, very smooth, and could answer any question about anything from anyone.

In colonial times, this was brownstones like all of DC, so few left standing. These were leveled, and in the 1960 low income housing “the projects” were constructed. Like everywhere, the fell into ruin, especially embarrassing that “six blocks from the capital were people without running water”. Eventually everything was leveled and its been empty for decades, essentially a parking lot.

The mayor put out for a long-range comprehensive bid, with several takers. Their plan involves a dozen buildings along “the wharf” in two main phases; saving a couple historical ones. There are two levels of buried parking, and first floor retail from end to end; three hotels (High, Higher & Highest scale). The office buildings were “taking a chance”, as nobody knew if people would relocate to this odd location, an abandoned backwater. Of course, now they look like geniuses.

sa24wh9The Apartment Tower is fascinating. Again, “taking a chance”. It wraps around a concert venue; larger than DC’s biggest bars, but smaller than the arena. It fits a niche for “tribute bands”, “national banquets”, things that had to run several nights in smaller places, but inappropriate for Kennedy Center or too small for T-Mobile arena. It is constantly booked, often sold out, and the patrons spend their money in the restaurants and stores (“Synergy”).

From sheer volume, there is a new Potomac water taxi, one down from Georgetown, another up from Alexandria / Navy Pier. The Wharf has drawn folks without cars, but also spilled folks into those locations as well. This area was never accessible from the metro, cut off by the freeway,  but there is now a free loop shuttle bus. A circle from “the wharf” up to L’Enfant Metro all day long; funded by them, plus some businesses up to the north. It has tremendous usage, all computer tracked. The metro is not a long walk, but the ugly 1960’s freeway makes the trip an uncomfortable eyesore on foot (OK on bike). That road is partly why the land has been empty so long.

The yacht basin is huge, including some full time residents. A “cruise boat” of some kind (I presume small) docked recently, the first in half a century. The place is an economic engine as sailors pull in a park from around the world; who wouldn’t want to enjoy a few days of dynamic shops & restaurants just blocks from the museums & buzz of Washington.

sa24wh5Half the buildings were completed a few years ago, and the buzz is incredible. The final 3 or 4 are designed, and ready to go. When this developer won the overall project bid (2010?), the city was extremely demanding. Living units, had to include specific amounts for working poor (“cops, nurses, librarians”) at 30%, 60%, 120% of poverty. “If you get below that, its section 8”. The crowd murmured, “if you get below that, where will they buy groceries?” There was great city control that units be mixed throughout, no segregated floors, sections, floor plans. Whether you pay a premium or a discount, you are just like any other resident. The “lottery” for units was 8 applications for each below market unit. By the way, turns out at launch the city didn’t have clear title to all the land (to chuckling all around). As well as the headache of some outbuildings “designated historical”.

All the building shells are submitted, but flexible to be office, hotel, living. With the office demand so high, they are expecting the final phase to be mostly that. “We had law firms relocate from the city, high tech coming in”, and seemed genuinely surprised.

But the one residential building literally wraps around the music venue. Can you imagine having music acts 150, 200, 250 nights per year, playing literally outside your front door? They claim no resident complaints, even for the “Heavy Rocker nights”. They used “earthquake construction” of ball & elbow joints that give & sway. This absorbs vibrations, then added a double hull to the shell.  Finally, only interior hallways abut the actual amphitheater, with living quarters all facing outside & windows. That hallway is the final sound barrier, we were told, and everybody is fine literally living around a concert arena.


The residence building is 12 stories tall, with a sixth-floor central roof deck capping the central music venue. From the ground you see two 12 stories towers; once on the roof you see two humble towers looking down on a green area. Up on the roof is a very private pool, bocce court, a dog run, picnic grills, a WIFI lounge, a small area of lawn, some raised beds for resident gardens, seating & sunning area with stunning, private views overlooking the harbor yacht basin.

Up on the top the higher roof is water collection and all kinds of LEED gizmos; which I couldn’t keep up with. It seems all the rainwater is collected, funneled down below the basement, then used in the HVAC system for all the buildings … somehow. All of Washington has a height limit, based on the Washington monument. Consequently, building floors are packed together with HVAC, water, utility access pushed in walls, even exterior. “Crammed like pancakes” was obvious (once it was pointed out), to provide an extra floor still beneath the height restriction; a foreign design elsewhere but standard throughout Washington.

For New Urbanism, the public spaces were of interest, and “Placemaking” was paramount. Restaurants, cafes, public meeting places, food kiosks, water views, promenades, on and on. It had an artist’s eye drawn with an engineer’s pen. No stone unturned and no penny pinched.

Across the property are electronic eavesdropping sensors. “Its anonymous, total user volume only”, tracking the aggregate number of cell phones, tablets, apple watches, etc. We don’t track sa24wh1the cell number, IP address or the like, just the total number of signals by detail location (as we all murmured “YOU don’t, but …”). He showed us a real-time “electronic heat map” of the property, that was dynamically changing. “We use this t, say, watch the effectiveness of a street performer, if the shuttle bus is delayed, if a promotion has worked”.

They monitor total number of guests against weather & temperature, days of the week, sunset time, on and on. The had volume of passengers on the water taxi & shuttle buses by hour and by day; year over year for three years of existence; showing seasonality and the upward trend. They now had 5 events every day (one huge, 2 med, 3 small) from a bike repair demonstration to a glee club or wandering juggler. And they could monitor the attendance and interest each event, every time it was run.

The entire operation was amazing, but my own (and other’s) dark cynicism got kicked around later, at dinner. All those yuppie play toys (BBQ grills & dog runs) but no swing sets? … anywhere? What happens when you have a baby? Show up with a three-year-old? No park at all, to throw a frisbee or fly a kite. Yes, a bike / running track runs across the building, and the capital mall is three blocks away (baseball diamonds down by the Lincoln Mem), but CNU is about “walkable” communities, local to your home.

There is a grocery either in or “coming”, but of course a whole food or the like. We all described other CNU areas with an array of shopping options (for competition and price range) thinking of those subsidized tenants. Hundreds of parking spots betray the fact that despite being within the district, shuttle vans, water taxis, rental bikes, walking paths, Uber zones, eScooters … people strategically intend to drive personal cars. Hotel guests, partner lawyers, ad executives & concert goers are still sedan clad Americans first and foremost.

The last question always comes back to “is it real”. So often CNU mega projects seem to me (and my couple cynical cohorts) like “Disneyland”. sa24wh2This entire project, again, is on private property, so there will be no protest marches, picket lines, bullhorns, or panhandlers (holding “God Bless” signs or bumming a light). A sanitized Stepford. I personally have become obsessed with European capitals: Paris, London, Vienna, Copenhagen; with block after block of medium height residential over mixed retail & commercial, inner courtyards and public parks, walkable sidewalks, ground level and below ground transit, going on miles in all directions. These cities have stood literally for centuries, have charm and livability filled with people with some of the highest levels of personal happiness on earth. Some were bombed to smithereens then rebuilt on the same spot to the same successful specification. I have walked those streets, had a beer in their cafés, a pastry on a street corner. I ask myself what is different in the these American CNU-style projects.

It comes back to “Developers develop”, motivated by profit; and people live, motivated by life. Wall street is always seeking the “next new thing” to find, refine, hawk, duplicate, then replicate from Maine to California (then around the world). Years ago it was a cloverleaf, Levittown, a strip mall later enclosed. It sometimes feels to me that today’s money machine is to take in ignored or desolate land and churn out another copy of some make believe Disneyland. But that’s just me.

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