Two blocks from the spot where the suits say a soccer stadium will rise in the crazy-quilt backwater known as Buzzard Point, a hawk and an owl share a rooftop home. One block from the proposed home for D.C. United, the sole thriving business is a gay nightclub that moved there four years ago after being forced out of its long-standing space in what is now center field at Nationals Park. And one long kick from the soccer field that would finally put RFK Stadium out of its misery, an old man lives in the last remaining houseboat on this stretch of the Anacostia River.
Buzzard Point is one of the last unknown corners of the District, a ragtag collection of junkyards, rock-crushing-hard industry, idyllic riverfront boat slips, hideaways for sexual rendezvous, the headquarters of the U.S. Coast Guard, an Army fort that dates to the birth of the nation — and an expanse of surface parking lots that developers have been eyeing for decades.
When Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. United executives announced a tentative deal last week to erect a $300 million, 20,000-seat stadium four blocks from the city’s six-year-old baseball park, city officials touted the power of sports facilities to spur development, saying that the franchise would get not only a new home but also the chance to create restaurants, stores and even a hotel adjacent to their stadium.
But there are reasons why Buzzard Point has remained a jumble of unkempt lots, broken-up streets and unrealized dreams, even as much of the rest of the city has enjoyed more than 15 years of surging growth.
Kellie Bolinder sees one reason in the commanding view of the waterfront from the roof of the Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center building on Half Street SW: Buzzard Point is, well, a point — a narrow spit of land tucked between Washington Channel and the Anacostia River. The area has proved so inhospitable to development that it became the perfect spot for the river reclamation program Bolinder runs, where young people from the city’s toughest neighborhoods learn how to care for the snakes and turtles that outnumber human residents there. It’s a place that raptors call home and where Bolinder holds Friday night fishing events. The catfish are biting these days.
“This neighborhood was a forgotten oversight,” said Bolinder, executive director of the Earth Conservation Corps. “There’s been a complete renaissance up the street around the baseball stadium, but here, it’s still the way it was 20 years ago, when this was just one more abandoned building.”
Buzzard Point is about as secluded a spot as the city offers; it’s where U.S. Park Police found D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) parked in a car in 2002, with marijuana and $5 worth of crack cocaine in his Jaguar. (Barry accused police of planting the drugs in his car; no charges were filed, but Barry, then running for council, dropped out of the race because of the controversy.)
Buzzard Point was so empty a few years ago that when the District was wielding its power of eminent domain to clear more than a dozen blocks of space for the Washington Nationals’ $700 million home, several of the businesses that had to move — including the Florida Rock gravel plant and the Ziegfeld’s/Secrets gay nightclub — found relief amid the vacant lots and decrepit industrial strips across South Capitol Street.
Ziegfeld’s/Secrets reopened on Half Street SW in 2009, three years after it was forced out of its home of more than three decades on the other side of Capitol Street, on Half Street SE, on the ballpark site.
The new place had its liquor license suspended for five days in 2010 after an inspector for the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board reported seeing nude male performers at the club “standing on individual pedestals, each performing a sexual act on themselves.” Today, the club offers “all nude male dancers, all night long” and runs a limousine service from Dupont Circle to Buzzard Point.
For displaced businesses, the remake of the area around Nationals Park, once home to sex clubs, auto body shops and scattered rowhouses, meant the loss of a rare, cheap industrial back lot a dozen blocks from the Capitol. But to the city government, the transformation has meant a significant expansion of the tax base.
In the long political battle over whether the city should use its financing prowess to fund the baseball stadium, proponents touted the promise that a stadium would spark a much broader array of office, residential and entertainment development. Six years into the baseball era in Southeast, two empty lots sit just outside the center-field gate of Nationals Park, but cranes dot the area; thousands of new apartments and offices have sprung up, more than tripling the population of the neighborhood, and a flurry of restaurant and bar openings is expected this year.
Opponents of city financing argue that development would have come to the stadium-Navy Yard area even without the crowds for 81 baseball games each year; those who supported the city’s role in building the ballpark say the flow of 2.3 million fans each summer is critical to the speedy development of a 35-block area around the stadium.
In a 20,000-seat stadium, D.C. United, in contrast, could draw up to 480,000 fans to its 24 home games. And the potential for development around Buzzard Point is limited to, at most, seven blocks because Fort McNair cuts off the western edge of the site, the southern and eastern sides are within a block of the river, and a densely populated residential area is one block to the north.
Developers say Buzzard Point has failed to attract the interest that has created booms in other Washington neighborhoods because the area is so hemmed in, because of traffic concerns — only a couple of streets enter and exit the narrow patch of land — and because the current uses of the land are unattractive.
In the midday sun, the only pedestrians seen in the area are homeless men wheeling supermarket carts full of aluminum cans that they can sell to a metal-salvage plant on Half Street. One man, who gave his name only as Victor, said the metal poles in his cart used to support stop signs near Capitol Hill; now, he hoped, the salvage yard would take them and give him enough to buy a fish dinner at the Southwest waterfront fish market.
The limited opportunity for development leaves many who work and live in Buzzard Point hoping that a stadium will prove a modest addition to their corner of the city rather than a transforming economic engine.
“We just hope we can keep doing what we do,” Bolinder said.
Alongside the Coast Guard headquarters on the riverfront, pleasure boats sparkle against the water under the summer sun. At the two marinas, James Creek and Buzzard Point, boaters find quiet and escape from the rush and noise of the city.
“The stadium will be good for Southwest in general,” said Tim Murphy, a federal government computer specialist who lives nearby and was visiting a friend’s boat at the James Creek marina.
“Down here, it’s like being in a club,” he said. “You’re with people who know about this place and can get away from it all here. But it’s going to change a lot with a stadium; it’s not going to be the quiet hideaway it was.”
At the Buzzard Point marina, a lone green wooden houseboat floats amid rows of white motorboats. That’s Eddie Cohn’s place, grandfathered in long ago, when live-aboards were outlawed along this stretch of river. Now it’s his front-row seat on change that’s been threatened for decades but never quite happened.
Cohn has run the marina here since the 1960s, half a century on a waterfront that few D.C. residents know exists. His neighbors are foxes and groundhogs.
Cohn was not available to comment Friday — the company that runs the marina for the National Park Service frowns on talking to reporters, a manager said — but in a previous interview, he said he learned to be skeptical about grand plans for Buzzard Point.
Once, there was going to be a riverwalk all the way from the Navy Yard to the Jefferson Memorial. Never happened, especially with the fort in the way.
Twenty years ago, there were more people around, more live-aboards, but even then, Buzzard Point was a refuge, a secret place. Men went there “to get away from their wives,” Cohn said. “Marinas are always competing with wives. That’s why they name boats after women.”
He still likes it as it is. FedEx can’t find the place, he said. Google Maps’ street view stops a block away.
“I got a better view here than the president of the United States, with no hassle,” Cohn said. “Quiet and peaceful — not too many places in D.C. you can say that.”