The Wharf: Best of the Best

Perkins Eastman wins international award for one of its biggest-ever projects.
The Wharf: Best of the Best
The Wharf stretches from DC’s historic Municipal Fish Market to the Fort McNair army post. Copyright Matthew Borkoski/Courtesy Hoffman-Madison Waterfront

The annual awards for ICSC Centerbuild are known as “designs that draw traffic,” so perhaps it’s no surprise that this year’s Best of the Best winner, awarded in Phoenix last month, was The Wharf in Washington, DC, which draws thousands each day to its mile-long strip of restaurants, shops, office buildings, hotels, condos and apartments, and the hugely popular music venue, The Anthem. The project also won the organization’s Gold Award for New Developments.

Perkins Eastman produced The Wharf’s master plan and designed the below-grade infrastructure and the public realm surrounding the waterfront buildings—in addition to designing the building that houses The Anthem and Channel apartments as well as the mixed-use 800 Maine Avenue building.

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Perkins Eastman designed The Anthem, which anchors The Channel apartments at The Wharf. Photograph Sarah Mechling/Copyright Perkins Eastman

But the scope was sprawling and took a cast of thousands—literally—to transform the formerly sleepy strip of parking lots, a motel, and a few aging restaurants into the thriving destination it is today. Just think: This 2023 award was bestowed on a project that Perkins Eastman and developer Hoffman & Associates began in 2006. The final phase opened to the public in 2022, 16 years later.

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Before and After: The once-unremarkable waterfront in Southwest Washington, DC, has been completely transformed. Before photo: Courtesy Perkins Eastman. After photo: Photograph Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman


To say these top international awards were hard won might be an understatement. Here is an excerpt from our account of that odyssey, first published in The Narrative:

It all started, of course, with developer Monty Hoffman. “Back in 2006, no one—[not] even the District of Columbia— knew what lay ahead. I knew I was getting into something big, but it was an abstraction,” Hoffman says. The first three years were spent acquiring the land and water rights from the city and the federal government. The ensuing years would see 14 rezoning applications, 1,200 community meetings, 1,700 permits pulled, 4,000 inspections, and the largest construction loan in DC history. Not to mention the four Acts of Congress that were required to make it all happen. “I knew the journey would be difficult, but I did not think it would take 16 years.”

Under Perkins Eastman Principal Stan Eckstut’s vision, which Principal and Executive Director Hilary Kinder Bertsch aided and managed through to completion, their team wrote the regulations and requirements for the public realm that surrounds the new buildings along The Wharf, in addition to designing several of the key buildings in Phase 1. “Stan has a way of thinking about how a layperson can relate to things,” says Associate Principal Stephen Penhoet, The Wharf’s project manager throughout the initial planning and entitlement phases. “He wanted to create this messy environment down at The Wharf,” where cars, delivery trucks, pedestrians, and cyclists occupy the same network of spaces. “One of the challenges was trying to convince people that messiness was a virtue.”

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The people-first approach of The Wharf’s master plan means that cars on Wharf Street, which runs along the water, must share the curbless environment with pedestrians. Photographs Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman


Perkins Eastman Associate Principal Douglas Campbell, the project manager who led the construction phases, calls it “the gauntlet project.” He directed a team of 30 Perkins Eastman staff who occupied four trailers on the construction site for five years, and he oversaw a consultant team that included more than 100 people. “This was eight times bigger than anything I’d ever done before,” he says. “You have to be the opposite of being a designer who focuses on one big idea. Your job is to execute across a bunch of different projects,” he adds. “Part of doing a large project is learning what the people on your team can do and letting them go do that. There’s always some other crisis. There’s always some other phone call. You have to broaden your vision.”

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The public-realm design includes parks like The Green, left, which centers the axis between the Arena Stage theater and the waterfront, and the wide pedestrian and bicycle paths that now line Maine Avenue.
Photographs Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman


Jason Abbey had his own trial by fire. When the Perkins Eastman principal joined the firm in 2015, he moved directly into the trailers to help Campbell manage the contractors. On his first day, he was greeted with a stack of 146 RFIs, or requests for information, from contractors seeking clarification on one matter or another. Addressing them became his daily existence. “They literally had a line of contractors every day for us to answer questions,” he says. It was a ritual performed to the soundtrack of pile drivers ramming piers and bulkheads into the water to underpin the new development. And, as they say, that’s not all: As the architect responsible for the 1.5 million square feet of below-grade structures that now span the development and protect it from the Washington Channel, Abbey and the Perkins Eastman team had to coordinate with all the architects (including their own) and builders who were designing and constructing the site’s 13 buildings. They accommodated how each one, with its own design and program, would connect to the foundation below. “We had to support and adapt to all the structures upstairs,” Abbey says. “We engaged with all the other entities. We were on the phone with every single person for every single parcel to make sure they were getting what they needed for their buildings to work.”

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The public-realm design was so important to the Perkins Eastman team that even the entrances to The Wharf’s parking garages are ceremonial. Left: Photograph Sarah Mechling. Right: Photograph Andrew Rugge/
both Copyright Perkins Eastman


Hoffman, meanwhile, was going through a gauntlet just to keep the development financed. “The Great Recession drove some of my partners into bankruptcy. So I self-funded for a few years,” he says. “In that environment, there are many predators. And honestly, with all the hurdles to be jumped, I probably wasn’t a good ‘bet’ in the beginning.” Yet by the time Phase 1 opened in 2017, the developer had established a capital partner in PSP Investments, one of Canada’s largest pension investment managers, which gave The Wharf the “certainty for both development and long-term ownership” that it needed to reach completion, Hoffman says.

. . . The project was pivotal to Perkins Eastman as a firm. There were about 40 people in the DC studio when it merged with EE&K (where Eckstut and Bertsch had started the project) and began work on The Wharf in 2011. With Perkins Eastman’s overall size and expertise in big buildings, the merger allowed Eckstut and Bertsch to go past the planning and strategic phases and into the architecture and construction space. In turn, Perkins Eastman secured one of its biggest commissions to date. “Nobody [here] had ever done anything nearly as large before, either personally or as a firm,” says Gary Steiner, co-managing principal of Perkins Eastman’s DC studio. “The Wharf was the seminal project that put us on the map.” With more than 120 people at the DC studio—and still hiring—says Barbara Mullenex, DC’s other co-managing principal and a Perkins Eastman executive director, “the size we are now is the size where you can do anything as a firm—and The Wharf was the ticket.”

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Photograph Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman

For more on how this now-world-renowned project came to be—and the personal stories of success and heartbreak that went along with it, check out the full story in the Fall 2022 issue of The Narrative.