Spotlight on Watermark, DC’s Distinct Waterfront Development

What's it like to build in pandemic times? PTM Partners COO Nicholas Pantuliano shares details about creating Watermark at Buzzard Point, a new LEED Gold-certified community in southwest Washington, D.C.

Between The Wharf and Navy Yard, a 453-unit community opened its doors in the midst of a pandemic. Delivering Watermark at Buzzard Point came with challenges—from construction to marketing the project—as the coronavirus caused rents to fall and vacancies to rise across the metro, especially in an area dominated by office and industrial buildings. Still, with more people getting comfortable working from home, the office-to-residential conversion might yet be in its early stages.

The apartments at Watermark range from studios to three-bedroom units—most with water views. Because of the health crisis, residents have limited access to the abundant and diverse community amenities, which include a fitness center, a roof deck, an infinity pool and a theater room. Thanks to its prime location on the Anacostia River, a new amenity is expected to be in use by fall—a floating dock with a kayak launch.

The project, located in one of Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Zones at 1900 Half St., is LEED Gold certified. To learn more about its sustainable features and find out how it was like to build under COVID-19’s threat, we talked to Nicholas Pantuliano, COO at PTM Partners, the firm which served as co-developer of the property.

Tell us more about the site’s history and the decision to turn a 1970s office property into a multifamily asset.

Nicholas Pantuliano, COO, PTM Partners. Image courtesy of PTM Partners

Pantuliano: With our co-developer, Douglas Development, we were able to repurpose Watermark from a more than 600,000-square-foot U.S. Coast Guard office building into a 400,000-square-foot residential project. The former office building had been unoccupied for several years and would have remained vacant without an adaptive reuse. Repurposing a massive structure versus hauling away and repouring thousands of tons of concrete in and of itself has a huge positive environmental impact.

Designed by Antunovich Associates, Watermark is now a 453-unit rental and mixed-use building, where more than 1,000 residents will live and contribute to the local economy. This transformation contributes to the Buzzard Point neighborhood, which is quickly becoming a live-work-play destination.

What is it like to build during the pandemic’s many threats and challenges? How did you organize the teams and what new strategies did you have to come up with?

Pantuliano: Developing, constructing and launching a new development during the COVID-19 pandemic presented unprecedented challenges. For Watermark, Davis Construction created six individual work zones at the project site, with separate entrances to reduce contact between staff. Moreover, those working on the site wore different colored markers to keep track of each group. This strategy made contact tracing and sanitization easier and provided a safer, more comfortable environment for the teams, which is paramount during a time like this.

We also increased communication by having dedicated COVID-19 progress calls twice a week to ensure we were keeping track of the latest issues on the site and protocols in the D.C. area. Communication is key for tackling any type of challenge.

READ ALSO: Building in the Time of COVID-19

How many people worked on the site and how many of them contracted the virus? How did the number of cases affect the construction’s progress?

Pantuliano: Out of roughly 400 workers, there were only about 15 infection incidents or approximately 4 percent of the team. Fortunately, none of the team members had severe cases, for which we are very grateful.

Upon our first case, we closed the site for two weeks to fully sanitize the entire area and develop what became our final site protocol. Looking back, those two weeks were, of course, a pivotal moment for the project.

Have you faced disruptions in the supply chain during Watermark’s development? What items are the hardest to come by these days and how did you overcome this challenge?

Pantuliano: The pandemic has led to an overall shortage of building materials, a rise in cost for certain items, significant challenges for building departments to safely maintain the administrative processes and an understandable labor shortage for various reasons.

Fortunately, we did not experience any wholesale delays to the critical path at Watermark. We had a few smaller delays for relatively minor items, and through diligent effort from the construction teams, we were able to launch leasing and open ahead of schedule for Watermark. 

READ ALSO: Developers Face Construction Delays, Materials Scarcity

You have a background in holistic wellness. How has this influenced Watermark’s amenity package? 

Pantuliano: With a background in holistic wellness, I strive to implement my knowledge in this area while working with project teams in the planning phase, largely by recommending features and amenities that prioritize health.

Watermark has numerous outdoor spaces, including two courtyards, private patios, a rooftop infinity pool with lounge seating and an onsite dog park. In addition, the building overlooks the river and is steps from the 20-mile Anacostia Riverwalk Trail where residents can bike, run and walk.

As with most projects, the LEED certification was a goal from the beginning of Watermark’s inception, as it requires thorough site evaluation, material selection and more to achieve this status.

READ ALSO: A Developer’s Forward-Thinking View on Wellness in Multifamily

Tell us more about the features that brought Watermark the LEED Gold certification.

Pantuliano: We worked closely with our co-developer and the rest of the project team to ensure green building methodologies were in place.

Drew Turner, development & project manager at Douglas Development, was instrumental in Watermark achieving the LEED award. As a team, we selected green building materials, minimized water and energy usage, and prioritized indoor air quality, among other practices.

Aspects of the project that scored exceptionally high for LEED includ water-efficient landscaping, low-emitting and reusable building materials, quality control for stormwater design, and alternative transportation such as bicycle storage.

Washington, D.C., is the first locale in the world to receive the LEED Platinum City award. What does this mean for its residents and what impact does it have on the local development industry?

Pantuliano: As the highest ranking used by the USGBC, D.C.’s LEED Platinum status sets the bar for the local, national and global development industry. The District’s LEED initiatives directly enable healthier living conditions for its residents, achieved through its stakeholders’ commitment to leveraging technology and data that meet sustainability and resiliency goals.

How does the pandemic affect apartment floor plans? What community amenities take center stage in current times?

Pantuliano: Increased outdoor space was a priority long before the pandemic, though it has certainly gained more attention now. Overall, we have seen apartment floor plans decrease by about 15 percent, with the intent to allocate unused space to outdoor areas and amenities. We’ve seen great success with implementing wellness and meditative areas, such as yoga studios and fitness centers, and outdoor spaces like courtyards and private patios.

What solutions are there to improve air quality in residential developments?

Pantuliano: We are seeing an increase in UV air purifiers that bring in filtered outside air. At Watermark, each residential unit has pleated, premium air filters. The building itself has a dedicated outdoor air system that filters outside air into the building year-round, combating pollutants, moisture and other matter that decrease air quality.

What do you envision for D.C.’s development industry in 2021?

Pantuliano: We anticipate D.C. will continue to welcome LEED-certified projects in 2021, as an increasing number of project teams strive to uphold the District’s status as a LEED Platinum City. The Buzzard Point neighborhood, where Watermark is situated, is seeing a boom in residential and hotel development, which will help establish it as a walkable community and premiere live-work-play destination.

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