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How The Wharf Represents The Future Of D.C.'s Architecture

The fabric of D.C.'s built environment is going through monumental changes, from the push toward mixed-use development to embracing the city's rivers. No project is more representative of those shifts than The Wharf

PN Hoffman CEO Monty Hoffman and Gensler co-CEO Diane Hoskins

"I believe we are in a renaissance, and maybe even in the early stages of that renaissance," said PN Hoffman CEO Monty Hoffman, the lead developer behind The Wharf. "It's exciting to be a part of and watch how residential, retail and office spaces are becoming more compact around each other and the lines are blurring." 

Hoffman, speaking at Bisnow's Inaugural D.C. Architecture and Design Summit, said the mixed-use development happening in D.C. today is wildly different from what he saw when he began developing in the city in the 1980s, when office was limited to the Central Business District, and residential and retail areas were siloed. 

To get inspiration for The Wharf's design, Hoffman — who co-developed the Wharf with Madison Marquette — said he and his team traveled throughout the world to places like Copenhagen, Barcelona and Sorrento and incorporated elements that they saw people embracing. They also looked at some of the most popular places in the U.S., such as the Meatpacking District in New York, Pike Place in Seattle and the Ferry Building in San Francisco. 

"We went all over to extract from what we felt was best-in-class, not necessarily from an award-winning standpoint but from a people standpoint; what makes people happy and why do they stay," Hoffman said. "What we're designing is inanimate dead objects, but what matters is the people and how it inspires the people and how it welcomes them in and gives them joy." 

Gensler co-CEO Diane Hoskins

Gensler co-CEO Diane Hoskins, who leads the world's largest architecture firm and has lived in D.C. for over two decades, said she thinks The Wharf is one of the best mixed-used developments in the U.S.

"I love The Wharf," Hoskins said. "It certainly came at the right time for this region. It's an example of so many aspects of what Washington can be, both from our incredible waterfront ... and these places that are more than just a collection of buildings."

Hoskins said The Wharf is one of many exciting new places in the D.C. area, including Union Market and National Harbor, but she said the rest of the world doesn't know enough about what D.C. has to offer.

"We need to talk about some of our projects more, because I think D.C. is a little bit of an unknown secret across the world in terms of things that are going on here," Hoskins said. "That's something we need to have more voice on." 

MGAC's Mark Anderson, LandDesign's Gabriela Cañamar, Hord Coplan Macht's Chris Schein, WDG Architecture's George Dove and Perkins Eastman's Hilary Bertsch

Perkins Eastman principal Hilary Bertsch, whose firm is the master architect for The Wharf, said the development has been successful because of the attention to detail paid to the buildings' street levels and the area's public spaces. 

"We choreographed the ground floor very specifically so it's a combination of both the public spaces and the retail environment," Bertsch said. "D.C. has the height limit, so the buildings all end up being relatively the same height, but that experience at the ground plane and the interaction of the water and land is a differentiator."

Old master plans for D.C. waterfront areas included above-ground parking because of the high cost of building underground parking garages next to water, but Bertsch said its ability to put cars underground allowed The Wharf to become a more vibrant, attractive development. 

"That move to realize the value of the project and build the parking below grade enabled us to do much smaller blocks," Bertsch said. "So while there is a wall of parcels along the way, they're much shorter and you get the experience of the view corridors and the waterfront all the way along the edge."

The Wharf's first phase, which opened in October 2017, was the result of a dozen architecture firms working on its three hotels, two office buildings, two apartment buildings, two condo buildings, a concert venue, restaurants, retail and public spaces. WDG Architecture principal emeritus George Dove, whose firm designed one of Phase 1's residential parcels and is also working on Phase 2, said the wide range of creative minds working together on the project is what made it special.

"The thing setting it apart from many other projects is the multiple architecture firms that participated in the design," Dove said. "All of us that have appreciated the fact that it's a true mix of different ideas and different design sensitivities that all come together to make something unique." 

Chesapeake Contracting Group's Ronnie Brouillard, Hickok Cole's Yolanda Cole, Fox Architects' Bob Fox, Determined By Design's Kia Weatherspoon, Baskervill's Burt Pinnock and BKV Group's Jack Boarman

Beyond the new styles of developments that are coming, the future of architecture will also feature new methods for constructing projects that can make them less labor-intensive without sacrificing quality, Hickok Cole Senior Principal Yolanda Cole said. 

"I think it's going to come out of necessity because construction labor costs are through the roof, there's no new labor coming in," Cole said. "And the way we do construction is kind of crazy. We build one little thing at a time and then we come to the site and put it all together each time in a unique way. I think modularization, whether it's modular units or components or pieces and parts, is just going to be inevitable." 

UPDATE, NOV. 2, 11:35 A.M. ET: Madison Marquette is the co-developer of The Wharf development. This story has been updated.