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A Built-From-Scratch Neighborhood in Washington That Doesn’t Feel Prefab

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At dusk on a brisk Saturday afternoon in Washington, when the government shutdown has muted the Mall and scared away tourists, the capital’s recently unwrapped stretch of waterfront is a rare spot of liveliness. A curving pier unfurls, tonguelike, into the middle of the Potomac, its planked surface rising towards the tip and falling away to one side, an invitation to scramble up the slope or lie back against it. Couples, families, and a knot of buddies cluster around a bonfire-like sculpture of steel branches and real flames burning at the end of the jetty.

Two kids run off to share one of the oversized wooden swings, arcing against the new waterfront skyline as the sky darkens and the lights come on. None of this existed a couple of years ago, and already it has a patina of urban romance.

When a development team slathers $2 billion and sics a dozen architects onto a half-mile of dilapidated shoreline, you might expect the results to be a “place,” a canned complex of ersatz charm and shrink-wrapped chic. The Wharf in Southwest Washington makes the scare quotes unnecessary. The developers PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette have performed the unlikely trick of conjuring a living neighborhood from scratch.

Many instant downtowns yield knockoffs of an imagined past, replete with fake-antique gas lamps, decorative clocks, coordinated awnings, brick pavements, and storefronts. Here, the designers, led by Perkins Eastman, have mined history for approaches rather than symbols. Blocks are short, streets narrow, and styles varied, and the buildings come in an assortment of sizes, from truck-sized pavilion to double-winged hotel. Cars have to bump cautiously over cobblestoned drives, which have no curbs but edge into granite pavers at the sides........

© Daily Intelligencer