Tour of the Redeveloped Georgetown Waterfront

In late July, near the end of my summer as a research intern with the Urban Land Institute, I was able to participate in a tour of the Georgetown waterfront, which has not only seen impressive redevelopment in the last 15 years but was also ULI headquarters’ neighborhood.

Our tour was introduced by Uwe Brandes, Senior Vice President at ULI; he previously served as Director of Planning for the Downtown DC BID and also was working at the District Office of Planning when much of the redevelopment activity mentioned here was underway. He gave us important context for the development of the new Waterfront Park, on land that was previously used as surface parking for visitors to Georgetown and a garbage transfer station. With its current amenities and the neighborhood’s very high property values, it’s hard to imagine but this was occurring in a time when urban waterfronts were hugely undervalued. Another issue with the park was whether it should include retail and other amenities like boathouses (which are located elsewhere on the Potomac’s shores); in the end, the favored design made this more of a “passive” park. This was something of a missed opportunity because year-round use of the park could have been spurred by retail and other attractions, as well as simply giving the park an identity as a destination instead of consisting mostly of open space and nice views. Personally I think this is a great place for views across the river, but that can coexist with additional uses. When I have the chance to see the Park now that it is open for business, I’ll take a closer look at this issue and also snap some photos.

Georgetown Waterfront in 1946, with industrial uses present but before construction of the Whitehurst Freeway

The tour was then led by Joseph Sternlieb from EastBanc, whose firm was primarily responsible for large, early redevelopment projects in the area. He pointed out the Whitehurst Freeway as an important component of working in the neighborhood. With a recent fervor toward removing urban freeways in the United States, there is a chance that it will removed in the next two decades in favor of adding lanes to K Street below. However, for the time being, the elevated highway is a major component of the neighborhood and the developers had to work around it. Another piece of infrastructure that developers are working around is the C&O Canal and its adjacent trail. While this is an amenity because it allows a consistent path for running, walking and cycling through Georgetown with few at-grade street crossings, it does present some challenges.

The Georgetown Ritz-Carlton, located between K Street, South Street, Wisconsin Avenue and 31st Street, was EastBanc’s signature project in the neighborhood. Transforming this formerly industrial building into a hotel and condo building required significant efforts in historic preservation. Important to this was not disturbing the property’s large chimney during construction, which has been declared historic and thus had to be preserved. The challenge of not toppling it during blasting to create underground parking was significant, but successful. Those that have visited the site since it opened know there is also an AMC movie theater-plex on the ground level, with an entrance on the south side at K Street; this addition was an unusual but workable use for a high-end hotel site that needed other attractions.

A view of the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton property, with the Whitehurst Freeway in the foreground

3303 Water St. was another Eastbanc development, a 70-unit high-end condo building just up the street from the Ritz that was completed in 2004. Like that project, this building is directly adjacent to the Whitehurst Freeway and most floors have great views of the Potomac River. However, unlike the Ritz, this remodel includes residences only and is not a mixed-use site. This building is also directly adjacent to the C&O Canal on the north side, and an entrance from the building on to a pedestrian bridge over the canal connects the residents to the busy shopping district on M Street to the north.

While many people visit Georgetown for its namesake university or for the shopping and restaurants lining its streets, there is much more in the neighborhood, and for now it coexists well.

Aerial photo of the Georgetown Waterfront courtesy Flickr account of DDOTDC, photo of Ritz-Carlton property courtesy Flickr users Monika & Tim, both reproduced here under a Creative Commons license.

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