The Promise of Poplar Point
As D.C. Mayor, Developer Foresee Prosperity, Anacostia Residents Fear Exclusion
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.