Little by little, day by day, the old Southwest Waterfront is slipping away.
It should have been obvious that a $2 billion development project doesn’t fall from the sky without hitting a few treasures along the way. Still, we managed to be surprised – by the bulldozed trees on Seventh Street Landing, by the construction fence blocking the seawall promenade, by the traffic, by open water where there once was a thriving boating community, and by new docks where there was once open water.
There are other, less obvious changes. Many of the regular fisherman are gone, as is the Friday night music outside Phillips Seafood with a DJ as animated as Fred Astaire or Pharrell. The half-sunk fish barge is gone too, and Brother Bronson no longer keeps watch over Zanzibar, Gangplank, dog walkers, or evening strollers. The balconies of the Channel Inn are empty, breakfast is gone, and the happy red sign is reduced to a shadow.
The theorists will tell you that the bulky low-rise buildings and parking lots of the last major waterfront redevelopment were outdated and inappropriate, the product of car-centric urban planning no longer in vogue. A denser, taller, shinier development is on its way to replace it. That is the highest and best use of a waterfront, they say. We can only hope that they are right this time.
The new developer speaks with genuine feeling about his vision for the Wharf. With all due respect, community and authenticity isn’t something the Wharf is bringing to the Southwest Waterfront, it was already here. Maybe it was grittier than most of the new Washington, DC, but it was real and it was ours. The real waterfront was busy with tour boats and dragon boats, liveaboards and novice sailors. Families watched fishermen fish. Everyone came down to watch the fireworks. It was accessible. It was affordable. It was “activated,” as they say in planner’s parlance, without anyone “programming” it. There was a lot that was working about our waterfront. It was filled with people who treasured and used the Southwest Waterfront just as it was, warts and concrete and asphalt and all.
Will that community and authenticity survive 10 years of construction? Probably not without some help and a lot of love. Preserving long-established patterns of transportation, pedestrian circulation, recreation, and commerce will take commitment and ingenuity from the construction team and the community. Comprehensive way-finding; safe, direct, and handicap accessible walking routes to the places that matter most; and affordable parking options would be a great start. Southwest has a long and sad history of cultural displacement in the name of progress. The Wharf has a chance to do it right – starting now, not in 10 years. However, they can’t do it alone; they need to hear the voice of a community dedicated to preserving the truth of Southwest. Let them know. Speak up. What happens next is up to all of us.