In Ward 8, Residents Voice Skepticism of Poplar Point Plan

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007

D.C. government officials presented plans yesterday for a new soccer stadium and other developments at Poplar Point along the Anacostia River that they said could bring prosperity to a long-neglected area, but the proposal met with a skeptical reaction from residents of the city's poorest ward.

At a public hearing and workshop at Ballou Senior High School, city planners showed off illustrations of a potential mixed-use project that would be built on 110 acres of parkland that is scheduled to be transferred from the federal government to the District in the spring.

The project has the potential to be among the most important in the city in years. Residents who live east of the Anacostia River have complained of being left out of the economic prosperity that spread through downtown and parts of Northwest under former mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Among the features mentioned yesterday were a 27,000-seat stadium for D.C. United, a hotel and conference center, 2,000 housing units and a 70-acre park, said Skip McKoy, vice president of the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., a quasi-independent city agency.

The plans are tentative, McKoy said, subject to change as officials receive more feedback. But even before the crowd of several hundred people was invited to break into discussion groups, residents began objecting to elements of the plan.

They said they feared the high-priced development would keep them from benefiting from the jobs, housing and other opportunities on the Poplar Point site.

"This is gentrification at its best, the restoration of urban property by the rich that will result in the displacement of lower-income people," said D'Angelo Scott, a neighborhood activist, drawing applause from the crowd. "All the billions of dollars that will come from the stadium and the hotel -- is any of it going back to the low-income people who might disappear?"

Another man drew more applause when he loudly yelled, "Who plays soccer?" as city officials were explaining the stadium's benefits.

In many ways, the debate echoed the long fight over the Washington Nationals' new stadium, which is under construction in Ward 6, across the river from Poplar Point. In that case, Williams promised that the $611 million ballpark, funded with public money, would bring jobs and economic development, but residents complained that the city should not have given land and a stadium to the team's wealthy owners.

Government and D.C. United officials have tried to approach the Poplar Point development in a more engaged way, holding several meetings with residents.

Unlike the baseball stadium owners, United's new ownership group, headed by San Francisco real estate magnate Victor B. MacFarlane, has offered to pay for the soccer stadium, to be built by 2009. However, the group has asked the city for the right to develop much of the parkland. Since that land is worth tens of millions of dollars, that would amount to significant public investment in the project.

Before the program began, a letter supporting the project from D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who has been ill with pneumonia, was read to the crowd. Fellow council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) told the audience that he hoped a good mix of development could be built at Poplar Point.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who did not attend the hearing, has expressed general support for the project, but said that he wants to know how the project would be financed before committing to specific plans.

James Bunn, head of the Ward 8 Business Council, said he supported the stadium because "it would do a lot for Ward 8."

But Vanessa Robinson, who lives in Congress Heights, said she feared that city officials "are trying to privatize the project. We don't want that. We want to own it."

McKoy said officials will try to reach consensus by the spring so that the U.S. Department of the Interior can complete the land transfer to the city.

Gail Taylor, a community organizer from Empower D.C., brought the crowd to a roar when she warned of city planners imposing their will.

"Are they really going to listen to us?" Taylor asked. "You deserve development east of the Anacostia, but it's not their way or the highway."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company