The Wharf of Washington DC: the shopping destination of the hour (but not the day).

Ever since it opened in late 2017, Washington DC’s mixed-use waterfront development known as The District Wharf (“The Wharf”) has become a premier attraction for locals and visitors who are in the know. Unlike so many riverfront investments in recent years, it doesn’t look like a single developer conceived it, even though it owes most of its existence to a partnership between two developers (as well as a nine-figure public subsidy). Occupying a quarter-mile stretch of the Potomac River that was long underutilized prior to this complete reinvention, The Wharf has infused a surge of residential density in Southwest DC, the smallest of the district’s four quadrants. With a prime location—the closest, privately owned expanse of riverfront property from the National Mall—it features some of the most expensive multifamily real estate in the city. Not only is the Washington Monument within walking distance, The Wharf’s got the Tidal Basin, the Southwest Waterfront Metro Stop, the numerous offices of l’Enfant Plaza, and two sports parks: Audi Field (soccer) and the Nationals Stadium (baseball).

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Here’s a view from one of the piers protruding onto the Washington Channel, the man-made tributary of the Potomac leading to the famous Tidal Basin, which has long served as the primary harbor for DC’s house-boat community.

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Even though the first phase of The Wharf (a second phase is forthcoming) consists of several hulking mixed-use buildings and a few small ancillary structures that all opened simultaneously, the façades show enough variety and the configuration enough reverence to the traditional street grid that the whole undertaking feels much more organic. It doesn’t look at all like a conventional town center development undergirded by a festival marketplace, even though that is largely what it is. And while the centerpiece of the linear undertaking is indeed the boardwalk along the Potomac River, the developers oriented plenty of activity elsewhere throughout these carefully situated juggernauts, with restaurants and retail on both the short, interstitial stub streets leading to the boardwalk…

Pearl Street at The Wharf DC

…as well as the interior frontage along Maine Avenue.

 

The Wharf’s predictable popularity, however, arrives concomitant with the less predicted retail apocalypse—a colossal, nationwide shift away from bricks-and-mortar establishments, particularly those that sell durable goods such as apparel. The developers themselves couldn’t have predicted it would get this bad while hatching plans for The Wharf, but, although a revitalized city has enjoyed a surge of population growth, particularly among well-heeled professionals, the shopping culture hasn’t experienced a similar renaissance. Elsewhere in the District, other high-end restaurant-and-recreation corridors have felt the pinch: Georgetown in particular (the city’s most established waterfront commercial district) has lost some of its clout and many of its credit tenants, as up-and-coming districts lure high-caliber merchants. These districts include CityCenterDC, Dupont Circle, 14th Street and Logan Circle, and now The District Wharf. As has been the case in the U.S. for decades, there’s simply too much retail space and not enough tenants—a situation that has finally reached a tipping point as more national brands focus their efforts online.

Even with its visibility and proximity to the tourist bustle of the Smithsonian museums and the National Mall, the commercial space at The Wharf is hardly shooing away tenants. Several of the leasable spaces—particularly those along Maine Avenue, away from the riverfront—have yet to snag a retailer. By no means does it feel like it’s struggling—on a good day the area is packed to the gills—but Americans may simply turn a blind eye to all the vacancies because we’re used to that kind of thing. Someone coming from another country will see all the “FOR LEASE” signs and think something’s wrong. But that has more to do with our ridiculous oversupply of retail/commercial real estate—the most inflated per capita ratio of any country in the world—and a paucity of suitable tenants.

And thus, despite The Wharf’s obvious successes, we get scenes like this:

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From a quick online scan, it’s safe to conclude that Harper Macaw is a local chocolatier, with a single bricks-and-mortar outlet, here at The Wharf.  By the overall standards of this waterfront campus, the location is obscure.

Harper Macaw at The Wharf

It is neither on the pedestrianized promenade (Wharf Street SW) or the auto-oriented arterial (Maine Avenue SW), nor is it on one of the block-long streets that connect the two. It’s on little more than a service drive branching off of one of those block-long stubs, and it’s the only storefront with ingress on the little-used Water Street SW. The space seems to be carved out specifically to cater to a less capital-heavy, mom-and-pop tenant. It’s neighboring retailer, New York-based Milkbar, boasts a corner and much greater prominence.IMG-0402Here’s that same location if I pivot about 180 degrees.IMG_0400Obviously it’s not far from the heart of The Wharf’s activity; if I walk up to that intersection and pivot to the right, I’m at another node within seconds.IMG-0401

But most of the other retailers on this Sunday evening were open, while Harper Macaw was closed. Could it be that the off-the-beaten-path location, however slight, is a disadvantage? A quick peek at the storefront essentially confirms this.IMG-0404It closes early, opens late, and only operates four days a week. A business that only operates 24 hours in a week has limited hours by any metric. But that’s not all.

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Notice the decals at the bottom of the doorway. The more permanent, intended hours are much greater: 63 per week. The business has overridden its own plans to adapt to fewer visitors than anticipated.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about how businesses clearly modify their hours when a revitalized shopping district fails to meet expectations in terms of the volume of customers. It’s both a logical response to exogenous factors outside the proprietor’s control, and it’s a survival tactic. It’s possible that Harper Macaw is merely a pop-up shop; some online evidence suggests this. It’s also possible that Harper Macaw will ramp up its hours as the weather warms. But these photos come from the same day as the Cherry Blossom Run and Festival, a very busy time for DC in general and the waterfront in particular. Yet it still couldn’t stay open, in an edgy, well-designed new tourist district with high residential density (and very high incomes). No doubt the space Harper Macaw chose to lease was smaller and much cheaper than a prime corner along the riverfront, but the significantly reduced hours also further substantiate the conditions facing urban districts throughout the country, as they revitalized themselves toward a leisure-oriented lifestyle…only to find that one of American’s great recreational pastimes, shopping, no longer takes place while walking along pleasant commercial streets with our stylish paper bags. We do it, seated, staring at a glowing rectangle. And Amazon Prime brings it to our door within 36 hours.

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10 thoughts on “The Wharf of Washington DC: the shopping destination of the hour (but not the day).

  1. Dena Eben Kernish

    I saw well-placed street signs directing visitors to the Wharf, and I’d never heard of it (1st trip to DC in several years). Thanks for letting us know about it.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Yeah the name isn’t entirely memorable (though the lack of branding may be part of the point—treating it more like infrastructure that’s always been there rather than a contrived event). I don’t think it’s part of the tourist “circuit” the same way Arlington Cemetery is. Hope you enjoyed it!

      Reply
  2. Alex Pline

    Eric, thanks for writing about The Wharf. I have worked just down the street for 20 years and it has been interesting to watch this development. I think this clearly shows the perversity of the incentives – especially a $200 million subsidy – of the large development projects and financing schemes use for such projects. They are capitalizing on the DC “hotness” and the fact the city is willing to fall all over themselves to make it happen. You are right of course about the misjudging of the retail world as you write about often, and I think the only “retail” that will continue to thrive here is The Anthem as a destination, at least until people get tired of trying to park. I see this development failing in the next five years if we have any kind of recession. And that’s probably a good thing (except for the sucker DC residents that will lose their subsidy money) because it will get the prices back to reality when it emerges from a bankruptcy sale, an perhaps can be occupied by regular people, not the uber wealthy (I remember fall off my chair when I looked at the apartment prices). But as far as retail there goes, as long as the residential remains upscale with lots of residential parking built in, it will never work; those kinds of people do not shop locally, or I should say their people do not shop locally. In general I think this project is an extreme example of everything else that is happening in SW. All good now, but when it falls, it will fall hard. I’m not against the revitalization at all, just how it is being done. Someone eventually is going to be left without a chair when the music stops. This will be a Strong Towns case study about the dangers of big, risky, silver bullet projects in the future for sure.

    Reply
    1. Alex Pline

      this project is an extreme example of everything else that is happening in SW DC. All good now, but when it falls, it will fall hard. Someone eventually is going to be left without a chair when the music stops. This will be a Strong Towns case study about the dangers of big, risky, silver bullet projects in the future for sure.

      Reply
    2. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for the observations, Alex, and I’d say we’re seeing eye-to-eye. Per usual, I try to focus on the subtle, telltale indicators. As another commenter (Dana) here noted, it’s not really as high-profile or well promoted as it might seem, which means it’s missing out on a chance to capture tourist visitors who are there in throngs just a 15-minute walk away at the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial. I can’t help but wonder if that might be some of DC’s elitism: I’ve never lived anywhere else where there’s such a gulf between most of the tourist visitors and the local white-collar workers in and around the Federal Triangle.

      I don’t want The Wharf to crash; after all, many of the best aspects of the urban design are a response to other failures. Thanks to the fact that has such a variegated appearance, it definitely appears less like a festival market place, even though that’s largely what it is (but with a housing component that was absent the festival marketplaces of the 80s and early 90s, most of which are dead now). I think The Wharf will need to reinvent itself though iterative new development every 15 years or so to help keep the concept from getting stale, but that’s not something that’s likely to happen. Developers don’t build their pro formas on that sort of time frame–that’s more of a master-planning scale. They can’t build pro formas that way: the market cycles are just too unpredictable.

      Reply
  3. Chris B

    Good to see that they left the old-time wharf seafood places alone. A couple of decades ago, when that’s all that was there, my uncle took us to one of the places for dinner. I recall that it was good, but I remember it being a pretty desolate place then, right in the shadow of the bridge.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Yes, it doesn’t feel so desolate anymore. The fish market feels particularly vibrant, and the fact that it’s old gives the rest of the commercialism an air of legitamacy. Not 100% of The Wharf was conceived at one time; only 93%.

      My one concern: the very monied households who live in the building closest to the fish markets will realize that the fishy smells that waft their way every day are putting a damper on their real estate, and they will use their power/money/influence to try to get the fish market (the one true blue-collar area to The Wharf) shut down. Hopefully they are a tolerant bunch, but peaceful co-existence doesn’t seem to be a very broadly held value across the map these days.

      Reply

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