Jonetta Rose Barras
Jonetta Rose Barras
Opinion Writer

The right way to invest in Anacostia

D.C. Council members are right not to sign up just yet for the cheerleading squad for Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) multimillion-dollar plan to build a soccer stadium with D.C. United at Buzzard Point in Southwest. There are many unanswered questions.

What, for example, is the overall vision for the project? Are Gray and his city administrator, Allen Lew, simply fixated on another sports facility? Who would benefit: the owners of the soccer franchise, developers and corporations trading low-value land for more profitable property or D.C. residents?

Jonetta Rose Barras

Jonetta Rose Barras’s weekly column focuses on local life, government and politics, with an emphasis on the District. With more than 20 years’ experience reporting and commenting for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times, City Paper, WAMU and other outlets, she is a familiar voice in the D.C. region.

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Like thousands of folks in the District, I like soccer and want to keep D.C. United in the city. Further, Lew’s involvement is somewhat reassuring. He has completed major public projects — the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Nationals Park— and renovations of several schools and recreation centers.

Still, there are concerns, particularly about the property swaps critical to amassing the land necessary for the stadium. One agreement would require the city to trade land at Buzzard Point owned by the Akridge real estate and development company for the Frank Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW. Gray and Lew have promised that a new government center would be constructed at Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Ward 8’s Anacostia neighborhood.

“This is an exciting plan that moves the District forward in two areas about which I’m passionate — economic development, particularly in the east end of the District, and sports,” Gray said last week, asserting that the new building would help stimulate economic development along Anacostia’s commercial corridor.

In other words, the municipal center would do for Ward 8 what it did for the 14th and U Street corridor. However, Gray’s recitation of economic development history, as with that of other officials, overlooks the role played by Metro, Studio Theatre, a few well-targeted tax incentives and the natural power of market forces. Further, there already are a half-dozen city agencies in Anacostia and nearby, including the Department of Housing and Community Development. Perhaps Gray and his team are attempting to placate folks in the “east end” who have been waiting decades for their turn.

One thing is certain: A government building isn’t some magic elixir. Without a vision and serious long-term investment, nothing happens. That may be one reason civic and business leaders are not shouting hurray.

“When elected officials want to please their developer-campaign contributors and no one in the city wants what they propose, the city dumps it in the Anacostia Historic District and has the audacity to call it economic development,” said Carolyn Johns-Gray, a civic leader and homeowner in Anacostia’s historic district, which boasts spectacular vistas of the city, large houses and a lively park on the river.

Johns-Gray complained that, instead of amenities that other middle-class communities claim, officials have fashioned a “Social Woes Row,” replete with a women’s shelter, methadone drug treatment center and welfare offices. She said she’s not against helping the vulnerable, but “enough is enough.”

The mayor “imposes things on us, rather than helping us get what we want,” said Absalom Jordan, a Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner, adding that an earlier plan to build a soccer stadium at Poplar Point wouldn’t “disrupt the community” and was much more desirable. He, too, argued that Gray is more interested in developers. “[They] are the ones who fund campaigns.”

Lew has pledged that stadium subcontracts and employment opportunities will flow to residents, including those in Ward 8, as they did with the construction of Nationals baseball sPark. That’s all good, but those benefits are temporary. And while there are transportation projects — the streetcar for example — planned for Anacostia, Lew admitted that specifics about development projects like those sought by Johns-Gray aren’t available.

“Those are details we have to sort out,” continued Lew. “We are going to try to bake those into the deal on Ward 8.”

“Whatever is done, it has to be comprehensive and holistic — not just more government facilities,” said Stan Jackson, a Ward 8 resident who was a former D.C. deputy mayor for economic development in Anthony A. Williams’s administration and is currently director of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation.

Jackson said that the District had 19 million visitors last year, but that Ward 8 didn’t even see one-half of 1 percent of those. The stadium project could serve as a connector, bringing people to Anacostia.

“If we do this the right way, if we have the will,” Jackson continued, “we can transform this market.”

There’s the rub: Does the Gray administration have the will?

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

 
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