A Therme facility is also proposed in Toronto, Canada.
"Wait, D.C. is going to get what?"
That may well have been your reaction earlier this month when Mayor Muriel Bowser made a grandiose announcement of a possible new attraction to come: a massive resort-like spa and waterpark, contained in what's promised to be an architecturally striking building somewhere in the city.
Bowser and Therme, the Austria-based operator of well-being resorts in Romania and Germany (with new locations in the works in Canada and the United Kingdom), announced they would work together over the next year to find a suitable spot for what would be the company's first such development in the U.S.
In a letter signed by Therme and the city and obtained by DCist/WAMU, the company pledged that its final product (provided it's ever built), would be a "world-class, multi-acre, large-scale community wellbeing facility with indoor water recreation, botanical gardens, mineral baths, spas, restaurants, and world-class public, open spaces." And Therme isn't modest about its ambitions. The company says in the letter that when completed, the facility could post visitor numbers rivaling the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Kennedy Center, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The letter, though, doesn't give any hints on where such a facility would go; it only specifies that for the next year, the company won't look for a location anyplace else in the broader D.C. region. (Sorry Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.) But we've been able to glean a few hints. Speaking last week on WAMU 88.5's "The Politics Hour," Bowser said that the city has a number of underutilized parcels that could suffice, "some of them local, some of them federal." And in the letter signed with the city, Therme indicated that one of the principles underlying what they build includes "an increased desire for contact with nature."
There's also the simple reality of size: Therme expects such a facility to be anywhere from 450,000 to 600,000 square-feet in size. That's anywhere from 10 to 14 acres, roughly the size of between seven and 11 football fields worth of space, or some three times the amount of land on which the U.S. Capitol sits. Needless to say, this isn't going just anywhere in town.
But where might it go? Here are some of our most educated guesses, and some unlikely outliers.
Right now it's mostly a soon-to-be-demolished historic stadium surrounded by acres of parking, but for many D.C. officials, the RFK stadium campus is a blank canvas upon which to conjure up their most vivid development dreams. And those dreams are, well, expansive.
The 190-acre campus has been floated as the possible site for new housing and parks, entertainment options, athletic facilities (D.C. already has plans for a new indoor athletic center there), and a new stadium for the Washington Commanders. But given its sheer size, D.C. officials have long argued that the city can have a bit of all of the above — and why not throw in a 10-or-so-acre waterpark for good measure? (If this ever comes to pass, former D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange will look like a visionary: it was a decade ago that he floated the idea of building a domed stadium and a waterpark at RFK.)
Beyond the size, the RFK campus also offers another key perk: it sits right along the Anacostia River and across from Kingman Island, both of which the city has spent years trying to revitalize. If Therme's planned facility in Toronto is any example (it's being built on the waterfront of Lake Ontario), direct access to the river seems like an attractive option for the spa-going set.
Now, there's an obvious challenge to putting pretty much anything at RFK: it's owned by the federal government, and the existing lease with D.C. specifies that it has to be used for sports and entertainment. Bowser has been pushing for Congress to transfer the land over to D.C., but that's not yet a certainty.
The 110-acre parcel is located just south of RFK and on the other side of the Anacostia River; if you're at Yards Park in Navy Yard and staring at the grassy expanse across the water, you're looking at Poplar Point. And not unlike RFK, the federally owned site has long been eyed by the city as one of the last large opportunities for riverfront development. In fact, it was just this month that D.C. started the search for a firm to help lead the city through the many steps needed to complete the transfer from federal to local control.
Poplar Point has the same natural advantage as RFK (it's on the river), and also benefits from a possible development pipeline that would make it an attractive option for Therme — including the long-planned 11th Street Bridge Park, which is just upstream from Poplar Point. Additionally, on the eastern end of the site is the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, a picturesque new span crossing the river.
Of course, over the years there have been plenty of ideas floated for Poplar Point (including even putting a new FBI headquarters there), and regardless of what D.C. settles on, there's plenty of environmental remediation that will have to happen on the site. Still, much like RFK, it's an attractive option.
What the historic 180-acre St. Elizabeths campus in Ward 8 may lack in access to the river it can make up for in location, boasting sweeping views of Washington that are hard to come by just about anywhere else.
The city-owned site has long been a focus for mixed-use development; the eastern portion of the campus already has the Entertainment and Sports Arena, a new and much-needed hospital is on the way, and just this year final plans for a centerpiece residential and commercial development were unveiled. (The western portion of the campus is home to the new Department of Homeland Security headquarters; what other federal employees could better benefit from access to a nearby spa to manage work-related stress?)
But with that all that development in the works, St. Elizabeths is quickly running out of space, and it's unclear that there's enough remaining acreage to build a large-scale spa and waterpark. Additionally, there are a lot of historic buildings on the campus that need to be preserved, and neighbors could well argue that a spa and waterpark isn't exactly what the master plan for the site ever contemplated.
Some less likely options
- McMillan: The 25-acre historic water filtration plant just south of the Washington Hospital Center is probably best known for the years of debates and legal entanglements that held up its planned redevelopment into a mixed-used site. The city finally closed on the sale of the site late last year, and work has already started on prepping the ground for what will eventually be office buildings, a supermarket, a park, and housing. We're pretty sure no one in their right mind would now propose blowing up the plan and instead putting a sprawling spa and waterpark there, but hey, we will.
- New City: You may never heard of "New City," and that's largely because it exists mostly on paper at this point. A triangular-shaped parcel bounded by New York Avenue, Montana Avenue, and Bladensburg Road NE, the site has been offered up as an extension of sorts of the development in Ivy City. It's a little on the small side for a Therme and not easily accessible by transit, but it's a quick drive from the Maryland suburbs and just a hop and a skip from the National Arboretum.
- Armed Forces Retirement Home: The bucolic campus located along North Capitol Street just above the Washington Hospital Center has lots of space, and administrators have said they'd like to use an 80-acre chunk of it for mixed-use development to help sustain the retirement home's operations. Still, plans for residential and commercial space on that site are already moving along.
- Intelsat: The space-age-looking building in Van Ness that once housed Intelsat is now sitting largely unused; it's last tenant, a start-up private school, went belly up after a single year of operations. At 12 acres it's roughly the right size for Therme, but the building is historically protected, so unless there's a way to shoehorn a spa into the once-futuristic building, getting anything done here would be a mighty struggle — and that's before you even get to possible neighborhood opposition in well-resourced Ward 3.
- Pepco's Benning Road Plant: One man's Superfund site is another's spa-in-the-making, right? The 70-acre site is home to a controversial decommissioned Pepco power plant located on 19 acres, and is on the eastern shore of the Anacostia River. There have long been plans for redeveloping the site, but there are obvious environmental remediation issues that would have to be addressed.
All of this, of course, is educated conjecture. That's because for all the talk about Therme coming to D.C., its current agreement with the city only binds the company to looking within city limits for the next year. After that, it's free to wander out into Virginia and Maryland. And even if the company finds a suitable site in D.C., the devil will of course be in the details of the financials, and whether lawmakers determine that a spa and waterpark would be the best use of any public land or public funding that might be offered up.