En­cour­ag­ing con­ser­va­tion amid a de­vel­op­ment boom


Bob Nixon was driv­ing over the Fred­er­ick Dou­glass Bridge in 1992 when he spied a cu­ri­ous struc­ture un­der a mound of de­bris along the Ana­cos­tia River. “I know there’s a frickin’ build­ing in there,” he said to him­self.

Nixon cleared away some refuse, and on a pier with tim­ber pil­ings sat the Old Na­tional Capi­tol Pump­house. The rec­tan­gu­lar brick build­ing had once pro­vided wa­ter for steam heat in the U.S. Capi­tol. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment de­com­mis­sioned it in the 1950s and sur­plussed it to the Dis­trict.

“The city didn’t even know it was there,” Nixon said, on a re­cent tour of the Ana­cos­tia wa­ter­shed. “I thought, if we could re­store the pump house, it could serve as a gate­way to the river.” With sup­port from Ethel Kennedy, he ne­go­ti­ated a lease with then-Mayor Mar­ion Barry (D). The U.S. Navy, Pepco and D.C.’s wa­ter au­thor­ity helped ren­o­vate the build­ing. For 23 years, it has housed the Earth Con­ser­va­tion Corps, a non­profit pro­gram for youth from the city’s poor­est wards. To­day, the ECC has en­cour­aged more than 24,000 youth and adults to be­come en­vi­ron­men­tal lead­ers and ed­u­ca­tors. Na­tion­als Park is across the street.

But the fu­ture of the ECC at the pump house hangs in the bal­ance.

Nixon is best known for co-pro­duc­ing the Academy Award-nom­i­nated film “Go­ril­las in the Mist.” A “failed bi­ol­o­gist,” he has a con­ser­va­tion­ist’s heart. He is less known, how­ever, for his ap­pre­ci­a­tion of com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment.

On a spring day, he drives into Mary­land, to Lower Beaver Dam Creek, where ECC mem­bers and stu­dents from the Mid­west are clean­ing up one of the most pol­luted trib­u­taries in the United States. The air smells of earth and sewage. The vol­un­teers, who have pulled 479 pounds of garbage out of the stream, not in­clud­ing 10 car tires and a ce­ment-filled trac­tor tire, are smeared with mud. “We do this ev­ery year,” he said. “It al­lows kids to get back to their roots.”

Nixon is used to giv­ing tours to gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and de­vel­op­ers to en­list sup­port for the ECC. But he has another mo­tive for an­i­mat­ing the cause. The Dis­trict’s build­ing boom has led Nixon and the ECC to a cross­roads. The group is work­ing with the city on a new lease be­cause the ECC is smack in the mid­dle of the Ana­cos­tia Wa­ter­front Ini­tia­tive, a 30-year, $10 bil­lion eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment pro­ject. Which is what Nixon said he al­ways en­vi­sioned: eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity in the area to go along with a re­stored river.

He drives to­ward Po­plar Point, a filled-in tidal marsh across the river from the pump house. The Dis­trict is seek­ing to ac­quire the 110-acre site from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, with plans for res­i­dences, re­tail and of­fice space, en­ter­tain­ment and a park. He fears a land grab will di­min­ish the site’s po­ten­tial. “This is a mat­ter of en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice of the high­est or­der,” he said of the fenced-off and eco­log­i­cally chal­lenged wet­lands, mead­ows and wil­low thick­ets. He wants to pre­serve the en­tire site for a na­tional wildlife refuge in con­junc­tion with the river ini­tia­tive. An un­de­vel­oped 14-acre strip along the in­land side of the point of­fers op­por­tu­ni­ties for new con­struc­tion and ameni­ties that could lure res­i­dents, busi­nesses and tourists, Nixon ar­gues. The ECC owns two small parcels along that stretch.

“Eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment is cen­tral to ev­ery com­mu­nity, and a clean en­vi­ron­ment is cen­tral to that,” he said. “This is the hill we’re gonna die on.”

Cross­ing over the Dou­glass Bridge, Nixon looks down at the pump house, as he did 23 years ago. Now it houses a rap­tor track­ing and con­ser­va­tion pro­gram and a work­shop for art and video pro­duc­tion.

He rel­ishes eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties for youth en­gaged in the ECC or its spinoff non­prof­its. “If we clean this river, we can have all this de­vel­op­ment but we haven’t solved poverty, crime or home­less­ness. We came to the worst river next to vi­o­lent, im­pov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties, and we wanted to put these things to­gether and see what would hap­pen.”

Now, some­thing big is hap­pen­ing. Two decades af­ter he stum­bled across a for­got­ten pump house cov­ered in trash and guano and turned it into a force for con­ser­va­tion and so­cial progress, Nixon may soon see his vi­sion of con­ser­va­tion­minded eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment come to life.


One of the first Earth Con­ser­va­tion Corps teams pulls a tire from Lower Beaver Dam Creek in 1992.

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