Five things you need to know about The Wharf, Washington

The unusual waterfront community is now one of Washington’s coolest areas

Vas Panagiotopoulos is a former Washington correspondent and writes for titles including The Economist, Wallpaper* and CityMetric.


Once a lacklustre, post-industrial area, Washington D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront has rediscovered its sparkle as the site of one of the city’s biggest regeneration projects in decades: The Wharf.

Phase 1 of District Wharf, as the development is also known, opened its doors on 12 October 2017. The $2.5-billion overhaul of the area along the Potomac River on Maine Avenue brings with it a new wave of independent restaurants and nightlife venues. In a significant boost to the local economy, there are also new residential, retail, sports and office spaces. Mandarin Oriental, Washington opened here in 2004 and is regarded by many publications, including Forbes Magazine, as having kick-started the change in the area’s fortunes. Here’s what you need to know about Washington D.C.’s hottest new neighbourhood.

It was a hot spot once before

This isn’t the first time in history the Southwest waterfront has been the place to be: this was the main commercial waterside hub in D.C. in the 1820s and 1830s. However, The Wharf will be the first noteworthy development in Southwest D.C. in more than half a century. The regeneration maintains the Maine Avenue Fish Market, the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the USA. The market was established in 1805 – 17 years earlier than New York’s famed Fulton Fish Market. Today, only a few buildings remain that evoke the market’s 1920-30s heyday, and these include the Lunch Room, the Oyster Shucking and Fish Cleaning Shed.

Big brands need not apply

Selecting companies to go into the Wharf was an exacting process, with the developers keen to keep out global chain restaurants and massive corporate operations. John Asadoorian, the real estate dealer entrusted with scouting for businesses to join the project, aspired to bring in people with ‘vision’. As he says, he, “turned away the ones that wanted to come here just because they had a big name”. While you will, in fact, find some highly recognisable businesses here (e.g. Ben & Jerry’s), the majority of The Wharf’s food, drink and retail offerings are in the hands of local business. These include upmarket Mediterranean eatery Requin; Kaliwa, a Southeast Asian spot from Restaurant Eve’s Cathal Armstrong; and – coming in spring 2018 – Potomac Distilling Company, an in-house rum distillery and two-story tavern that will feature three contemporary bars. The renowned D.C. bookstore Politics & Prose also has a branch here.

For Washingtonians, it means new homes and new jobs

The Wharf is a 14-building, three millionsq ft development that stretches over 1.5km. With its broad walkways, dining, shopping and entertainment facilities, and improved access to the river, it was conceived to be both a visitor destination and a local community hub. With almost 900 residences, it is estimated that more than 2,000 people will move into The Wharf during its first development phase. According to the developer, Hoffman-Madison, the project is also expected to create a total of about 5,800 permanent jobs, while nearly half the expenditures to date have gone to local businesses.

You might bump into Bob Dylan

The Wharf’s evening music venues are set to be a major draw for Washington locals. Most notable is the Anthem: the 6,000-capacity concert hall, from the same owners as legendary D.C. venue 9:30 Club, with gigs by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Foo Fighters and LCD Soundsystem. What makes the venue particularly ambitious is $3 million-worth of soundproofing to prevent disturbing the 501 surrounding units – especially the residents right above.

Other live music venues in The Wharf include The Pearl Street Warehouse, on what’s soon to be the area’s nightlife strip, and which includes a 300-capacity room dedicated to Americana and bluegrass gigs; the 450-capacity Union Stage; and Kirwan’s Irish Pub.

You can take a water taxi ride

A regional water taxi system now connects waterfronts in D.C., Virginia, and National Harbor, Maryland. Each boat carries up to 100 people and takes just 20 minutes to travel from Alexandria to The Wharf.

Life is full of temptation

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