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Audi Field Is Poised To Spark A Transformation Of Buzzard Point, But How Long Will It Take?

D.C. United will play its first soccer game at Audi Field Saturday, bringing thousands of sports fans into a part of the city many have likely never explored before: Southwest D.C.'s Buzzard Point.

The neighborhood just southwest of the booming Nationals Park area is largely composed of vacant land and aging buildings, but the developers who own the sites see it as a natural progression of the waterfront's development and hope the soccer stadium will be a catalyst for that growth. 

Workers installing new branding for Buzzard Point outside of Audi Field on the day of its 2018 ribbon-cutting.

Some of those developers are moving forward on projects that will bring hundreds of new units and retail offerings to Buzzard Point over the next three years, while others worry that the neighborhood could take years to mature enough to compete with other emerging areas for residents. And the possibility of a looming economic downturn could set the neighborhood back years, just as the Great Recession did to the ballpark area. 

The Buzzard Point neighborhood is within the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District boundary, and the BID has recently launched a new branding effort for the neighborhood around the stadium's opening. Its slogan: "Explore where the rivers meet." 

"I think people coming to the games will start to say, 'Wow this is starting to pop, too,'" Capitol Riverfront BID President Michael Stevens said. "Buzzard Point fills the gap between the Southwest waterfront and Capitol Riverfront on the east side. It really starts to become our western neighborhood and makes it seamless between the 14th Street Bridge and the 11th Street Bridge." 

The area between the two bridges also includes The Wharf, the massive Southwest Waterfront development that has been buzzing with activity since its October opening, and The Yards, the southeast development anchored by a 5-acre waterfront park that has brought hundreds of new residents and several popular restaurant concepts to the area east of Nationals Park. The riverfront area has begun to gain national recognition, just named to Forbes' list of the 12 coolest neighborhoods in the world

The view of Audi Field from the corner of Second and R streets SW on the day of its grand opening

"We've created a new part of the city, and it's going to be extended through Buzzard Point and ultimately down to The Wharf," said Forest City Washington President Deborah Ratner Salzberg, the developer who spearheaded The Yards. "I anticipate this will be the hottest D.C. neighborhood. There aren't many other opportunities where you can live, exercise and hang out on continuous waterfront."

Southwest BID Executive Director Steve Moore said he sees the waterfront area, which is separated from the National Mall and the central business district by a freeway, becoming D.C.'s "new downtown." 

"I think it will change tourism patterns into the District from places like New York, Philadelphia and maybe further west," Moore said. "People will look at this area of the city and say, 'What a great place for a weekend, you can walk everywhere.'" 

The bookends of the contiguous neighborhood developers and officials envision have been built out and are proving successful, but the connective tissue that is Buzzard Point remains the only question mark. All of the developers who have invested in buying land on Buzzard Point are optimistic about its future, but some think that future will come sooner than others, and experts note that the economic cycle could present risks. 

A rendering of Douglas Development's 1900 Half St. SW project on Buzzard Point.

The first developer to get underway with a residential project on Buzzard Point was Capital City Real Estate, which broke ground in November on Peninsula 88, a 110-unit condo building on the waterfront at First and V streets SW. A hotel development is also underway on the northern edge of the neighborhood closest to Nats Park, where Michigan-based Kousa Cos. plans to bring a 154-room Cambria Hotel & Suites.

The next two projects will be the conversion of two 1970s-era former Coast Guard buildings into apartments with retail.

Douglas Development in 2005 bought the nine-story office building at 1900 Half St. SW, once occupied by the Coast Guard, but now vacant. The developer last week received building permits for its conversion of the property to 452 residential units with 24K SF of retail. The project will reduce the building's square footage by 185K SF, carving out two sections in the middle of the large-block office building to make it more suitable for apartments.

Douglas principal Norman Jemal said demolition is planned in the next few weeks. He said the project was not timed around Audi Field's opening, but he does think it will be an important catalyst for the neighborhood. 

"The soccer stadium takes several acres of land that didn't have absolute certainty and gives it absolute certainty with a sizable investment and a great attraction," Jemal said. "I have yet to see a waterfront development in Washington that hasn't been successful." 

A rendering of Akridge and Western Development's planned River Point project at Buzzard Point.

Two blocks south along the waterfront, a development team recently began gutting the Coast Guard's former headquarters at 2100 Second St. SW. The River Point development, from a partnership between Akridge, Western Development, Orr Partners, Redbrick LMD and Jefferson Apartment Group, will feature roughly 470 apartments and 60K SF of retail. 

Akridge Chairman Chip Akridge said the team has begun interior demolition and expects to soon close its financing deal and launch construction later this year. He said the project, expected to deliver in mid-2020, will have restaurants with outdoor patios on the water and a potential food hall

Directly north of the River Point project, Akridge owns a 7-acre site with 2.4M SF of development potential that is likely to be the next frontier of the neighborhood's growth, following the three waterfront projects. 

Akridge's 100 V St. SW development site near Audi Field on Buzzard Point

The first phase of the project is slated to include two apartment buildings, a condo building and a hotel, Akridge said. The project is currently in the preliminary design phase and he expects to begin construction in late 2019. In the meantime, the northern piece of the land closest to Audi Field will host temporary uses such as a beer garden and recreational activities like volleyball. Akridge has owned the site for 12 years and said the stadium's opening represents an important moment to bring activity to Buzzard Point and get development moving. 

"It was obvious to us that with the soccer stadium, the proximity to Nats Park and the waterfront itself, this is the next logical neighborhood to develop," Akridge said. "It's what we've seen coming for a number of years, and it's the reason we've committed as much capital in the area and committed to build as many projects as we have." 

MRP Realty has also invested in a piece of land on Buzzard Point, buying a series of properties at Half Street SW and S Street in 2016. But that developer does not have the same urgency as others to launch a project now that Audi Field is opening. MRP principal John Begert said the project is ultimately slated to include up to 700 units, built in two phases. The developer, which is currently building Phase 2 of its nearby Dock 79 project next to Nats Park, does not plan to begin building on the Buzzard Point site for at least three years, he said. 

"We're fired up, but we've got to be patient," Begert said. "There is a lot of supply at the riverfront, so delivering anything right now at Buzzard Point would be especially challenging because you've got stuff that's more mature." 

A rendering of the proposed Amazon HQ2 site on the Anacostia Riverfront, including parcels in Capitol Riverfront, Buzzard Point and Poplar Point

Buzzard Point could be jolted to life overnight if Amazon selects D.C.'s Anacostia Riverfront proposal for its second headquarters. The submission included most of the land on Buzzard Point, plus sites east of Nats Park and across the river on Poplar Point

But if it does not win the Amazon competition, Buzzard Point's growth has the potential to be slowed by a looming economic downturn. The economy has been growing for nine years and D.C. has benefited from years of rapid development, but economists think a recession could come as early as 2020. The Great Recession began right after the 2008 opening of Nats Park and delayed much of the development in that neighborhood, which is why Half Street directly north of the ballpark remains largely under construction.

Urban Land Institute Senior Resident Fellow Ed McMahon said Buzzard Point could face that same fate. He said if the economy turns south, investors and lenders become more risk-averse and will be hesitant to put money into a neighborhood that remains largely unproven. 

"Nationals Park has taken a decade to get to where it is today, and some people think we're coming to the end of the real estate cycle, so timing is everything," McMahon said."If the economy stays good, I think you'll see a lot of change [on Buzzard Point], but if the economy were to turn south, things could be put on hold until we have the next cycle." 

Stevens agreed that there is likely an economic downturn coming, but he does not think it will be as severe as the last recession. He said it could delay some projects, but should not stop the emergence of the riverfront area as an attractive place to live. 

"The development pace may slow slightly, but the lease-up remains strong and the for-sale product is going to sell quickly," Stevens said."As long as people keep coming to Washington, we'll remain one of the top neighborhoods."