The Battle for Poplar Point

Earth Conservation Corps Chairman Bob Nixon at Anacostia National Park at Poplar Point. Currently undeveloped, the D.C. city government is considering turning the 70-acre wetland habitat into a significant new waterfront park with gardens, memorials, museums, outdoor performance areas, trails, ball fields to serve the local community and visitors. (Photo by Daryl Wallace)

Earth Conservation Corps Chairman at Anacostia National Park at Poplar Point. Currently undeveloped, the D.C. city government is considering turning the 70-acre wetland habitat into a significant new waterfront park with gardens, memorials, museums, outdoor performance areas, trails, ball fields to serve the local community and visitors. (Photo by Daryl Wallace)

District residents would never let Rock Creek Park be turned into a soccer stadium with a seven million square-foot mixed business and residential development … So, why is it about to happen on the Anacostia?

By Bob Nixon

In Anacostia National Park on the Eastern Bank of the Anacostia River, spring is in bloom. Frogs croak mating calls across tidal wetlands while rare birds including the Willow Flycatcher line their nests and visitors walk and fish along the riverbank. Downtown, in a parallel universe, highly skilled architects draft plans to convert all but 70 acres of historic Poplar Point into seven million square feet of commercial cash cow.

How can this be? Anacostia National Park was designed 106 years ago by the McMillan Commission and . as a five-mile-long “Emerald Necklace” along the river. The commission noted this new park was “to correspond with Rock Creek Park in the west” and further commented, “Whatever of natural beauty is to be preserved and whatever park spaces are still to be acquired must be provided for during the next few years or it will be forever lost”

The citizens who fought for the creation of the park are long dead and forgotten and those who use it today apparently don’t count. In 2006, Congress passed a lobbyist-written law to undo Olmstead’s visionary work of 1902 and allow for massive development on the Riverbank. One champion is Councilmember Marion Barry, who wants a soccer stadium, stores and condos to replace the park. Recently the Fenty Administration’s Office of Economic Development picked Clark Realty as the winners of a park development competition.

How, on this warming Earth, in a national capital talking about becoming the greenest city in America, can we even speak of cutting the natural heart out of Anacostia National Park? Shouldn’t we be celebrating and investing in our park with its 1,200 acres and its five miles of riverfront? Why are we not making it the true Central Park and emerald necklace its creators envisioned? As always, the answer is money.

Nothing is as profitable as turning nature into cash – if you can get a permit. We have heard the justification countless times. Anacostia National Park is underutilized, neglected and contaminated. Development will provide jobs and amenities for local residents. This equals tax revenue-money.

Only in the poorest ward of our city, crying for basic resources, would such a plan ever see the light of day. For decades Anacostia National Park has suffered from federal abandonment and neglect that would have brought winning lawsuits if the same had happened in Rock Creek Park. The tale of two cities lives on, as Georgetowners will soon celebrate their huge victory in the reopening of Potomac Riverfront Park.

On January 20, 2007, over 500 Ward Eight residents attended a public meeting at Ballou Senior High School on the future of Poplar Point. Though the community has had little enthusiasm for a soccer stadium and other alternatives had been discussed, the soccer stadium proposal was suddenly the only one being considered. Many were shocked and betrayed by this behind-closed-doors decision to take a publicly owned resource away from them.

“I walk [Poplar Point] every morning,” said resident , “Why is it that every time a developer sees a green space in Southeast, they think it has to be developed? It’s probably one of the only green spaces left for us to appreciate the waterfront.”

“For most of the residents, we certainly won’t be able to live there, and I can just imagine that access to the park area will be severely restricted,” added , another concerned SE resident.

Sadly, this is not the first time that the communities along the Anacostia River have faced such a proposal for their parkland. In the 1940s, a large chunk of Anacostia Park was liquidated to construct the coal-burning power plant on Benning Road that has brought asthma and emphysema to the community. In the 1960s, developers carved off more park to build RFK Stadium. In the 1990s, Kingman and Heritage Islands were decommissioned by Congress for a Mayor Barry-supported amusement park that took years to beat back. Next, Congress authorized a plan to give the Corrections Corporation of America the right to build a prison on the National Park at Oxen Cove.

The winning Clark Realty brochure is stunning in both its development scale and Orwellian level of spin. The company uses ’s An Inconvenient Truth movie poster and the cover of Time Magazine’s “Global Warming Survival Guide” to bless the proposed conversion of the public common into private real estate. The brochure explains that the development will be named the “International Environmental Center” and will be “a One Planet Community” that “will transform Poplar Point into a global research and employment center for environment and alternative energy.”

Let’s not pretend that green roofs and green names will negate the tremendous environmental impacts of this proposed development. The legislation that allowed transfer of the land from the Federal government to the District requires that at least 70 acres of land be kept for “park purposes,” but commercial development is certainly not a requirement of the Secretary of the Interior. A better idea would be for the Mayor to propose, and City Council to vote for, simply cleaning up Poplar Point as a first step in generating commercial development on the vacant land outside the Park boundary.

To visualize this option, the Earth Conservation Corps engaged renowned landscape architects Associates to draw a restored park in line with the historic Olmsted plan to show that three million square feet of commercial development can be built on the vacant commercial land that now borders the parkland. Yes, we can have it both ways and at a vastly reduced cost to the environment, our spirits and our wallets.

Like the previous amusement park and prison schemes, carving up Poplar Point will require City Council approval. It will also cost District taxpayers $200 million to fund “infrastructure costs.” Polishing the tarnished emerald that is Poplar Point National Park could start with the $2.1 million the Department of Interior has set aside for the purpose. It will also take courage and leadership. One can only hope a hero will stand up and fight for our jewel necklace – Mayor Fenty … Chairman Gray … Secretary Kempthorne … Council members … Citizens? … Anyone?

Bob Nixon is the chairman of the Earth Conservation Corps, a nonprofit that provides hands-on education, environmental training, professional experience, and leadership skills for disadvantaged young people.

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