Capitol Riverfront, the area around Nats ballpark, ranks high on any list of Washington’s most rapidly transforming neighborhoods.  But it took more than baseball to make that transformation happen.

Image from the 2003 Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan.

By the last decade of the 20th Century, Washington’s Anacostia River waterfront was a crime-plagued and dirty testament to urban neglect. It wasn’t a nice place to be.

But beginning in the 1990s, a string of ambitious plans, government projects, and private-sector infusions have turned the neighborhood into a thriving and desirable place to spend time.

Here’s the story of how that happened.

Metrorail brings federal workers

When the Metrorail Green Line opened its Navy Yard station in 1991, that opened the door to an infusion of people and money into the neighborhood. That infusion began in earnest in the mid 1990s when two federal groups decided to move thousands of office workers into the area: The Naval Sea Command (NAVSEA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Following post-Cold War military base consolidation, the US Navy opted to move over 5,000 NAVSEA workers from offices in Crystal City to the Navy Yard. Meanwhile,  DOT announced it would build a new headquarters four blocks from the Navy Yard complex that would house over 6,000 workers.

Those two massive construction projects, the ensuing permanent influx of employees, and the subsequent ripple effect of service retail and of contractors looking for nearby offices, combined to provide a huge economic stimulus.

The District does its part

Michael Stevens, director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID), points to the 1999 election of Mayor Anthony Williams as the next turning point.

Under Mayor Williams’ direction, DC began a concerted effort to re-plan and better manage the Anacostia riverfront. That effort culminated with the 2003 Anacostia Waterfront Initiative master plan, which provided a consensus vision for what the Anacostia shore could become, including its layout of streets, buildings, and public spaces.

Following the District’s adoption of the master plan, the riverfront BID started up in 2007. At first the BID simply worked to make riverfront streets cleaner and safer, but as successes mounted their mission evolved to building parks, running public events, and managing economic development.

In 2004 the Montreal Expos moved to DC, becoming the Washington Nationals. City leaders opted to build a permanent stadium along the riverfront, and Nats Park opened in 2008.

The baseball stadium did unquestionably bring new people to the riverfront, and certainly helped spread the center of gravity south from M Street. Together with other parks, such as the 20-mile Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, the riverfront has become unique among emerging DC neighborhoods with great public recreational spaces being built right alongside housing, retail and offices

Housing pressure mounts

The riverfront’s renaissance hasn’t been without controversy, particularly where older residential buildings, and the people in them, are concerned.

A $35 million federal grant to redevelop the Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg public housing project surrounding 4th Street SE has been especially challenging.

The 23-acre housing project was built in the 1950s with 707 homes. But with DC’s population increasing and demand for housing skyrocketing, 700-some homes on 23 acres just isn’t enough, not four blocks from a Metro station.

Although the plan was to replace low-income apartments on a one-for-one basis, residents were displaced during construction. Gentrification was a definite fear.

But with the redevelopment area now approaching its planned 1,700 units, and full replacement of income-restricted homes guaranteed, the upheaval seems to have been worth it. Hundreds of low-income families have new homes, and added 1,000 households are enjoying the revitalized neighborhood.

With offices, entertainment, and parks in place, and an increasing number of residents in the redeveloped Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg project and elsewhere, the riverfront is truly booming.

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John Enagonio is a candidate for Masters in Real Estate Development from University of Maryland. He lives in Silver Spring and works for a company that preserves affordable housing and strengthens urban communities by renovating historic properties and developing new mixed-income housing.  He has worked in Montgomery County, Washington and Baltimore.