Conservationists Detail Initiative To Restore a Pair of Urban Oases

From left, Jailan Moore, 4, Thelton Franklin, 10, and Trenton Franklin, 8, all of Anacostia, get painted tattoos from Nico Piro of the Discovery Creek Children's Museum at the grand opening of Kingman and Heritage islands. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

Kingman Island, a muddy finger of land in the Anacostia River, was supposed to become a landing strip, a children's recreation center, then a theme park. Instead, for many years, it has been used like a landfill.

Yesterday, a group of environmentalists and city development officials announced their ambition to reopen the island and another nearby, outfitted with hiking trails and an education center. They said the plan is to celebrate the long-neglected islands for what they have always been: wooded, wild places hidden in the middle of the District.

"This is the biggest new park that the city has had in decades," Stephen W. Coleman, executive director of the group Washington Parks & People, said yesterday during a "grand opening" event on the island. "It wasn't a park before. It was a dumping ground."

Kingman Island starts south of RFK Stadium and extends north past Benning Road NE. Next to it is Heritage Island, a smaller piece of land visible from the stadium parking lots. Together, they cover about 45 acres.

Both islands were created in 1916 with mud the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged from the river bottom. Since then, the islands have become mostly wilderness, grown up with trees and thick underbrush. And, for almost as long, people have been scheming about turning them into something else.

In the 1940s, there was a plan to build a private airstrip. In the 1970s, a children's recreation center was proposed. In the 1980s, an Indian philanthropist who was also an Italian countess sought to build an amusement park. That proposal, called "Children's Island," was rejected by the District's financial control board in 1999.

During the wrangling, the island was kept off-limits: City officials said a fence was put up at least two decades ago. But people still came. City workers dumped leave. Others dumped bricks, pipes, tree stumps and other waste. Homeless people camped out. And some nature-lovers made excursions to see foxes, waterfowl and other wildlife.

"It was just amazing to be so close to an urban environment and be so far away from an urban environment," said Alphonso Coles, 50. Once, he spotted something in the Anacostia that looked like the biggest rat he had ever seen.

"It was a beaver," Coles said.

Now, the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., a city-chartered development group that controls the islands, is trying to give others that same kind of experience. At yesterday's event, officials said they plan to clean up the island's trash, clear trails and build a glass-box Environmental Education Center extending out over the water.

But officials said they do not have the millions of dollars needed to build the center. And, despite yesterday's grand opening, the island is not yet open to the public. People who want to visit were asked to contact the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation ( or the Earth Conservation Corps ( about education programs on the islands.

Still, people who know the islands said they were hopeful that this vision would be the one that finally comes true.

"Seeing this come back again," said Frazer Walton Jr., 57, who grew up playing on the island and is now president of the Kingman Park Civic Association, "is really one of the greatest things the city can do."

Staff researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.

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