Waterfront Station, and before it the Waterside Mall, has served as the Town Center for the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood for decades. It contains the neighborhood’s only grocery store, as well as a pharmacy, restaurants and professional services, including a dentist’s office. Two office buildings fully occupied by District government agencies and three rental apartment buildings are in place, and a future phase with more rental apartments, retail, a daycare center and a black box theater is planned on the northeast parcel. Two other parcels, yet to be developed, flank Fourth Street and are located adjacent to the Waterfront Metro station entrance.
Switching from Office to Residential
The original stage-one planned unit development (PUD) approval for the two sites at Fourth and M streets was for offices, but developer Forest City has requested a change to residential, citing unfavorable conditions in the office market. The office market has changed significantly since the Waterfront Station development was conceived. Previously, the development was intended to be primarily office, with less retail and minimal residential. Prior to the Great Recession, Fannie Mae was going to move its headquarters to Waterfront Station but pulled out in the wake of its financial troubles. Over time, the plan for Waterfront Station has evolved in favor of more residential and retail and less office.
In its current proposal, Forest City plans to develop a 285-unit rental apartment building on the east parcel (375 M St.) with 18,830 square feet of ground-floor retail along M Street and the Metro plaza, with 32,400 square feet of commercial space intended for professional-services tenants on the second floor and a 6,000-square-foot community center on the first and second floors. This would be the third community center located in Southwest, joining the Randall Recreation Center and King-Greenleaf Recreation Center, but it would be the only one without adjacent recreation fields.
The community center was proffered by the developer to win approval from Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6D, which was originally lukewarm to the idea of changing uses at the two remaining parcels at Waterfront Station from office to residential. As a part of the PUD, the developer has offered the community center rent-free for a period of 30 years and will contribute up to $565,000 for interior design and fit-out, furniture, fixtures, equipment and initial startup costs.
On the west parcel (425 M St.), the plan is to develop a 310-unit rental apartment building with 21,203 square feet of ground-floor retail along Fourth and M streets. The main residential entrance will be located at the northeast corner of the building. In both buildings, 8 percent of the floor area will be reserved for residents earning up to 60 percent of area median income (AMI), and of that total, five units will be three-bedroom apartments.
Under this proposal, the east parcel will be developed first, allowing for the west parcel to remain open space until the completion of the 325 M St. building. Part of the west parcel will house a trailer that will be the interim Southwest branch library while a new library is built on the current site at 900 Wesley Place.
Some neighborhood residents lament the eventual loss of The Lot SW, as it is dubbed, which has been used in recent years for farmers’ markets, a Friday night market and other community events. They would like the PUD to include more public space so these events can be maintained.
According to testimony from Southwest resident Coy McKinney at the April 5 Zoning Commission meeting, “the current usage of the space is more in line with the guidelines set out in the SW Neighborhood Plan [SWNP] and DC Comprehensive Plan than the proposal put forth by the applicant.” McKinney also has concerns about the level of affordability planned in the residential buildings, which doesn’t “foster an environment that encourages and embraces cultural and economic diversity” as laid out in the SWNP.
Chris Otten from DC for Reasonable Development, an organization which has held up PUD applications in other areas of the city, also cites affordability issues with the proposed development. Otten states that an impact study is needed of the proposed development in terms of infrastructure, gentrification and public services; more affordable housing is needed on top of the percent proffered by the developer; the site should be used as a “build first” option for the redevelopment of Greenleaf; open space needs of the community are not being met by the development project; and a portion of the planned commercial space should be offered rent-free, or subsidized for local entrepreneurs.
Waterfront Tower condo residents also have concerns about the setbacks on the east side of the 375 M St. building, as well as the location of the loading dock, which blocks access to their building.
Meanwhile, community organizations such as the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and the Near SE/SW Community Benefits Coordinating Council (CBCC) have expressed support for the community center. In a letter to the Zoning Commission, CBCC Chair Ken LaCruise and Vice Chair Fredrica Kramer expressed “our strong support for the community center space that Forest City has proposed as part of its application to develop the two Waterfront Station parcels at Fourth and M streets SW principally for residential occupancy.” The letter also states: “CBCC will be working with the ANC to craft an agreement that would specify governance structures and funding support to establish and operate the proposed community center so that it fulfills the needs of the community.”
For its part, the ANC has offered conditional support for the PUD. Portions of the PUD that the ANC supports include the community center, as well as the redesign of the project which provides less density and more setbacks than the original office design, a retail strategy and a traffic plan.
However, one of the concerns brought by Commissioner Roger Moffatt, whose single-member district includes the 375 M St. site, is the ability for mom-and-pop retailers to occupy smaller spaces at the proposed development. It has proven to be difficult to get smaller retailers into the previous phases of the development since the buildings will not accept a tenant that needs less than 1,200 square feet of space. While the US Postal Service is not a “mom and pop” retailer, it was used as an example of a tenant that was unable to relocate to Waterfront Station because its need for a 900-square-foot space could not be accommodated.
Issues brought by ANC Vice Chair Andy Litsky included the selection of the community center operator and clarification on the “free rent” provision to include HVAC and electricity; improvements to public space at the Metro plaza; a traffic plan for the Fourth and M streets intersection; placement of the Metrobus and Circulator bus stop along M Street and other logistical concerns.
The Zoning Commission will continue the hearing on May 10, and a final decision on the proposed development is expected in the coming months.
William Rich is a blogger at Southwest … The Little Quadrant That Could (www.swtlqtc.com).