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The Promise of Poplar Point

By David Nakamura and Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 8, 2007

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 potential 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?

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