Construction Forces DC Houseboat Residents Into Smaller Docks

Editor's Note: This story from DC is by a guest writer, Amel Guettatfi, a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently pursuing her Master's degree in the Journalism program at Georgetown University.

Developers are spending $2 billion to improve the waterfront in Southwest D.C. for new businesses and residents. But the construction has made the area less livable for houseboat owners who have long called the marina home.

With roughly half the slips in the district’s only floating-community temporarily closed due to the redevelopment, a number of owners have moved their houseboats closer together to make room for ongoing construction. A few have even returned to land to avoid the commotion.

Jason Kopp cooks in his kitchen in the open space on his houseboat. Photo credit: Amel Guettatfi

Jason Kopp cooks in his kitchen in the open space on his houseboat. Photo credit: Amel Guettatfi

“We’re just dealing with it,” Jason Kopp, 35, said on his 44-foot 1978 Bluewater houseboat, Argo, a nod to the Greek myth.

Standing on Kopp’s boat, what was once a clear panorama of the National Mall is now a skyline defined by cranes, bulldozers and other heavy machinery. “It’s not much of a view anymore,” he said.

When Kopp set out to buy his own home, he never expected to become a “liveaboard.” One evening while condo-hunting in 2007, a realtor suggested Kopp watch the sun set over the river from the top of a houseboat. He fell in love.

“I just had to,” Kopp said. He did everything to get a loan and soon after, Kopp was biking to his government job from the Argo, docked next to the waterfront’s 90-plus houseboats.

View of the early evening sky from one of the boats bobbing on Gangplank Marina. Photo credit: Amel Guettatfi

View of the early evening sky from one of the boats bobbing on Gangplank Marina. Photo credit: Amel Guettatfi

Hidden away in Southwest D.C. at 600 Water Street, the Gangplank Marina and Capital Yacht Club stand in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Washington. Kopp rocks on a hammock suspended from his boat, just inches off the water while other liveaboards gather on the main barge for their weekly happy hour.

Once night falls, residents return to their detached homes, ranging from renovated tugboats and vintage boats to large yachts fit for a single family.

When the D.C.-based developer PN Hoffman approached the isolated houseboat community, residents feared they would be forced to leave their unique homes. Kopp knew that “any change would be a permanent change.”

So the Gangplank community and organizers from the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission met with the buyers over the course of a few years to decide what to do with the people that would be in the epicenter of the construction.

Andy Litsky, 66, a member of the ANC, recalls the general hesitation they had over the development. “So who are these guys?” he said when he first saw the investors’ plans. Litsky who has lived across the street for nearly 40 years, says “folks that are riding it out will be well served in the end.”

Julie Chase, a spokeswoman for the development company says this is an opportunity to take nearly an entire mile of water and “turn it into something special.”

Organizers hope Southwest Waterfront, much like Baltimore’s harbor, will become a lucrative spot in Washington with spaces for music events, multiple hotels, restaurants and clubs. Darryl Madden, 52, who lives with his girlfriend on their 50-foot houseboat the Black Pearl, says they can’t have the marina to themselves anymore.

“We’re going to be the new panda in D.C.,” he said. “Everyone is going to come down and take a look at us.”

For Amie Woeber, a 40-year old lobbyist, the noise, drilling and traffic congestion are merely “growing pains.” In fact, she moved to the waterside last year, during construction that is set to get even more intense.

This isn't the case for all liveaboards though.

Sarah Janaro, her husband Jeff, both in their thirties, and their 5-month old baby, Juliette, occupy a 55-foot yacht named Zayith, which is Hebrew for Olive, a tribute to the couple’s resemblance to the characters Popeye and Olive Oyl. Janaro and her husband, who both work for the Coast Guard, recently sold their vessel and will be relocating to land before the winter.

In the meantime, the rest of the community will be tolerating the construction until 2017, when the first phase will be complete.