The Prom­ise of Po­plar Point

As D.C. Mayor, De­vel­oper Fore­see Pros­per­ity, Ana­cos­tia Res­i­dents Fear Ex­clu­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - By David Naka­mura and Robert E. Pierre

Signs of ne­glect are ev­ery­where: tan­gled un­der­brush, bro­ken fences, an aban­doned bus. For decades, no one paid much at­ten­tion to the 110-acre strip of fed­eral park­land on the east bank of the Ana­cos­tia River across from the Navy Yard.

In this for­lorn, forgotten place, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty sees a fu­ture jewel.

It is one of the last large parcels of un­de­vel­oped wa­ter­front in the Dis­trict, pre­sent­ing a rare op­por­tu­nity to make a ma­jor im­pact on how the city looks and feels. Here, the mayor en­vi­sions sit-down restau­rants, up­scale shops, gleam­ing of­fices and con­do­mini­ums.

If the vi­sion pans out, a scruffy and des­o­late tract known as Po­plar Point where few vis­i­tors ven­ture will be trans­formed into a des­ti­na­tion hub, much as down­town was re­vamped by Ver­i­zon Cen­ter.

“This is big, sweep­ing, once-in-a life­time,” Fenty (D) said of the po-

ten­tial of the site, to be trans­ferred from fed­eral au­thor­i­ties to the Dis­trict this spring un­der a plan launched by Fenty’s pre­de­ces­sor, An­thony A. Wil­liams (D). “We’ll never get this kind of chance again.”

But to make the dream he has adopted a re­al­ity, the mayor faces a dif­fi­cult, de­ci­sive test for his young ad­min­is­tra­tion. Fenty seeks to cre­ate an ur­ban cen­ter that draws new­com­ers with­out pass­ing over long­time res­i­dents, as he promised dur­ing his cam­paign.

Po­plar Point rep­re­sents the best prospect to spread pros­per­ity to the city’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods and nar­row a grow­ing eco­nomic di­vide.

As Fenty de­lib­er­ates on achiev­ing both goals, an out-of-town real es­tate mag­nate has come call­ing, of­fer­ing the re­sources, de­vel­op­ment ex­per­tise and po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions the mayor needs to build the new com­mu­nity, as long as it in­cludes a ma­jor money-mak­ing at­trac­tion — a soc­cer sta­dium, ho­tel and con­fer­ence cen­ter. Plus about $200 mil­lion in tax­payer sub­si­dies.

Nearby res­i­dents yearn for the new stores, restau­rants and hous­ing so ev­i­dent across town. But, ac­cus­tomed to be­ing ig­nored and over­looked, they fear the mayor and de­vel­oper will cre­ate some­thing that does not in­clude them — a place with chic con­dos they can’t af­ford, stores they don’t want and a soc­cer sta­dium they won’t en­ter.

“There are too many unan­swered ques­tions, and there are too many out­siders,” said Paul Kear­ney, an ad­vi­sory neigh­bor­hood com­mis­sioner from Ana­cos­tia, re­flect­ing the wide­spread sus­pi­cions. “When you have a lot of ifs, the peo­ple get hood­winked.”

This dy­namic is play­ing out across the city — along Ge­or­gia Av­enue in North­west, around H Street in North­east, near the new base­ball sta­dium site across the river from Po­plar Point — as the gov­ern­ment turns its at­ten­tion to de­vel­op­ing neigh­bor­hood cor­ri­dors left be­hind dur­ing the eco­nomic re­nais­sance that trans­formed the down­town core un­der Wil­liams.

Po­plar Point could be the big­gest project of all. The ques­tion for the new mayor is: How to re­make it so ev­ery­body wins?

Land­scape of Con­tin­u­ous Change

Be­fore Po­plar Point be­came a fed­eral park, it served a variety of roles: a set­tle­ment for freed slaves, a nurs­ery sup­ply­ing flow­ers to the U.S. Capi­tol and, for a short time, a makeshift camp for World War I vet­er­ans.

Res­i­dents in such nearby neigh­bor­hoods as Congress Heights and Ana­cos­tia’s Barry Farm re­call walk­ing to the river to pic­nic in the 1940s and 1950s. “It was lover’s lane for some,” said Ar­ring­ton Dixon, a for­mer D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber from Ana­cos­tia.

In the early 1960s, the wa­ter­front was cut off from the com­mu­nity by the cre­ation of In­ter­state 295. Th­ese days, Po­plar Point, which runs be­tween the Fred­er­ick Dou­glass Me­mo­rial and 11th Street bridges, is home to the Na­tional Park Ser­vice head­quar­ters.

The area is mostly cov­ered with over­grown wet­lands, col­lapsed green­houses and empty ware­houses. Cars and trucks whiz by nois­ily on the free­way.

The de­te­ri­o­ra­tion co­in­cided with a long de­cline of eco­nomic in­vest­ment in the pre­dom­i­nately African Amer­i­can Ward 8. Along such thor­ough­fares as Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Av­enue, ice-cream shops, gro­cery stores and movie the­aters were re­placed by liquor stores and carry-outs.

To­day, signs of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion are un­der­way. Nev­er­the­less, no other area in the Dis­trict has so much land ripe for de­vel­op­ment.

Three years ago, Wil­liams an­nounced a 20-year plan to re­de­velop both sides of the Ana­cos­tia River, with a base­ball sta­dium on the west bank. Al­though city of­fi­cials later men­tioned the pos­si­bil­ity of a soc­cer sta­dium across the river at Po­plar Point, the idea was by no means a given, es­pe­cially af­ter the $611 mil­lion base­ball com­plex be­came a sym­bol in many poorer neigh­bor­hoods for the gov­ern­ment’s mis­placed pri­or­i­ties.

Plan­ners named an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee com­posed in part of a wide range of civic lead­ers to col­lab­o­rate on Po­plar Point. They de­vel­oped de­signs for a mix of af­ford­able hous­ing, shops, of­fices and sit-down restau­rants, along with 70 acres of park­land. Some ver­sions in­cluded a soc­cer sta­dium, but oth­ers did not.

Dur­ing his cam­paign, Fenty had heard de­mands for more gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment east of the Ana­cos­tia River and pledged to re­di­rect pub­lic re­sources. Once in of­fice, he saw Po­plar Point as a chance to de­liver.

“We will use all of the gov­ern­ment’s tools to fo­cus on how we de­velop neigh­bor­hood cor­ri­dors and make them re­ally de­sir­able places to live,” vowed Neil O. Al­bert, Fenty’s deputy mayor for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

On Jan. 20, three weeks af­ter Fenty’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, city plan­ners held a pub­lic work­shop at a high school in Ward 8. The goal was to re­fine op­tions for Po­plar Point.

Plan­ners un­veiled de­signs fea­tur­ing a soc­cer sta­dium and ho­tel. They spoke as if the plan were fi­nal.

Ap­palled res­i­dents, con­fronted with an ap­par­ent fait ac­com­pli, lined up at a mi­cro­phone and mocked the sta­dium, de­mand­ing to know how they would ben­e­fit.

“All the bil­lions from the sta­dium and ho­tel — is any of it go­ing back to the low-in­come peo­ple?” asked D’An­gelo Scott, a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer. None of the city of­fi­cials of­fered an an­swer suf­fi­cient to ap­pease the crowd.

Fenty and his aides ac­knowl­edge the dif­fer­ence in per­cep­tion. For now, they oc­cupy the mid­dle ground, weigh­ing all op­tions.

“We’re com­mit­ted to get­ting it done,” Al­bert said. “But we will work with Dis­trict res­i­dents in Ward 8 to make sure what­ever gets de­vel­oped is in ac­cor­dance with what they want.”

The Lure of Pos­si­bil­ity

Res­i­dents won­der­ing how the sta­dium had won the fa­vor of city of­fi­cials needed only to look back two weeks ear­lier, to a ball­room at the RitzCarl­ton in Ge­orge­town.

There, Ward 8 lead­ers min­gled with dig­ni­taries such as Del. Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton (D-D.C.), coun­cil mem­ber Mar­ion Barry (D-Ward 8) and school board Pres­i­dent Robert C. Bobb. The guest of honor was Vic­tor B. MacFar­lane, a wealthy de­vel­oper from San Fran­cisco who had just pur­chased the D.C. United soc­cer fran­chise for $33 mil­lion.

MacFar­lane, at 6 feet 6, in pin­stripes and cuff links, cuts an im­pres­sive fig­ure and has a ré­sumé to match. Founder of a real es­tate in­vest­ment com­pany, MacFar­lane man­ages an in­sti­tu­tional port­fo­lio of $11.7 bil­lion in as­sets.

He helped fi­nance the Time Warner build­ing in New York and owns a $30 mil­lion pen­t­house in San Fran­cisco. Now, he was ex­pand­ing his em­pire to Wash­ing­ton.

MacFar­lane had sunk mil­lions into projects west of the river, buy­ing shares in de­vel­op­ments near the base­ball sta­dium. Ac­quir­ing D.C. United gave him en­tree to Po­plar Point, since team of­fi­cials had lob­bied for a fa­cil­ity there.

MacFar­lane quickly of­fered the city a more de­tailed pro­posal: He would pay for a sta­dium, ho­tel and con­fer­ence cen­ter as an an­chor for hous­ing, of­fices and shops.

“You wouldn’t want a sta­dium in an area that wasn’t vi­brant,” he said in an in­ter­view.

The plan isn’t free for the Dis­trict; it would have to con­trib­ute more than $200 mil­lion in sub­si­dies, mostly tax in­cen­tives and in­fra­struc­ture. MacFar­lane laid the po­lit­i­cal ground­work, agree­ing to build a youth field and pay­ing for hun­dreds of turkeys that Barry dis­trib­uted at Thanks­giv­ing.

“He’s an out­stand­ing de­vel­oper who is com­mit­ted to the city,” said Barry, who once op­posed the soc­cer sta­dium but now sup­ports it as a way to jump-start de­vel­op­ment.

As MacFar­lane was in­tro­duced to city of­fi­cials and res­i­dents, it fre­quently was men­tioned that he is the first African Amer­i­can owner of a Ma­jor League Soc­cer fran­chise.

A na­tive of Mid­dle­ton, Ohio, MacFar­lane was one of four chil­dren of a sin­gle work­ing mother. He con­sid­ers him­self sen­si­tive to con­cerns in the ma­jor­ity-black ward.

“I haven’t forgotten where I came from,” he said, point­ing out that he made his for­tune in­vest­ing in blighted ur­ban ar­eas.

MacFar­lane’s sig­na­ture project came af­ter the 1992 Los An­ge­les ri­ots, when he won a $50 mil­lion con­tract from the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees’ Re­tire­ment Sys­tem to re­de­velop the Ladera shop­ping cen­ter in In­gle­wood. He and his then­part­ner, for­mer NBA star Earvin “Magic” John­son, cleaned up the area, ex­panded the gro­cery

‘It Will Be a Night­mare’

store and pro­vided new re­sources to the com­mu­nity — while turn­ing a profit.

MacFar­lane en­vi­sions sim­i­lar suc­cess at Po­plar Point.

“In ev­ery com­mu­nity we’ve gone into, there has been dis­trust ini­tially be­cause th­ese com­mu­ni­ties are used to be­ing taken or ig­nored,” he said. “It’s a com­mon re­frain. Why? Be­cause there’s a ba­sis to it.”

On a cold, sunny morn­ing, the Rev. An­thony Mot­ley and his­to­rian Dianne Dale parked a mini­van at Po­plar Point and looked across the river at the brick smoke­stacks of the Navy Yard, the half­con­structed base­ball sta­dium and the Capi­tol Dome be­yond.

The view held at once the prom­ise and po­ten­tial pit­falls of the com­ing de­vel­op­ment at Po­plar Point.

“Oh, Lord, what will that do to the traf­fic pat­terns?” asked Dale, who op­poses the soc­cer sta­dium and is push­ing for a gar­den in honor of abo­li­tion­ist Fred­er­ick Dou­glass. “It will be a night­mare. You can’t just rush and throw up a sta­dium and say it’s good for the com­mu­nity.”

Mot­ley, who lives in nearby Congress Heights, has of­fered his own plan for Po­plar Point — cen­ter­ing on af­ford­able hous­ing — and he says he fears that once the sta­dium is built, the city will con­tinue to stray from com­mit­ments to res­i­dents.

“They say they want your in­put; they talk about ideas, and then it’s like, ‘It’s been nice, see ya,’ ” Mot­ley said. “They present the plans, and none of the ideas are in the plans.”

Not ev­ery­one in Ward 8 op­poses the sta­dium. “We cry that we want goods and ser­vices and we want our houses to in­crease in value,” said Al­bert “Butch” Hop­kins, pres­i­dent of the Ana­cos­tia Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Corp. “We’re get­ting what we asked for.”

The Rev. Chris­tine Y. Wi­ley of Covenant Bap­tist Church says the com­mu­nity is dis­trust­ful af­ter years of un­ful­filled prom­ises from city lead­ers. The ward’s first su­per­mar­ket will open soon. An of­fice build­ing is ris­ing at the cor­ner of Good Hope Road and MLK Jr. Ave. But most of the thor­ough­fares re­main un­der­de­vel­oped.

“We want to be at the ta­ble,” said Wi­ley, who is push­ing for af­ford­able hous­ing. “It’s not for you to tell us what will hap­pen but for us to shape what hap­pens.”

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said they are fo­cused on meet­ing fed­eral re­quire­ments to com­plete the land trans­fer. They re­cently asked MacFar­lane to re­vise his pro­posal and are en­ter­tain­ing of­fers from other de­vel­op­ers.

Still, the mayor is ea­ger to get started. In his re­cent state of the Dis­trict ad­dress at a Congress Heights se­nior cen­ter, Fenty said progress is on the way for “a world-class city, with no neigh­bor­hood left be­hind.”

For now, though, his best chance for suc­cess waits in limbo, at once iso­lated from the city and tied crit­i­cally to its core.


“We will use all of the gov­ern­ment’s tools to fo­cus on how we de­velop neigh­bor­hood cor­ri­dors and make them re­ally de­sir­able places to live,” says D.C. Deputy Mayor Neil O. Al­bert.

Aban­doned busi­nesses line Martin Luther King Jr. Av­enue, once home to ice-cream shops, gro­cery stores and movie the­aters.



The Rev. An­thony Mot­ley, walk­ing in the area of Martin Luther King Jr. Av­enue, has of­fered a plan for Po­plar Point that cen­ters on af­ford­able hous­ing and says he fears that if a soc­cer sta­dium is built, the city might then stray from its com­mit­ments to res­i­dents of the area. “They present the plans, and none of the ideas are in the plans,” he said.

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