Fenty Goes Fishing Around Poplar Point

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007

A morning cruise along the Anacostia River on the swanky Odyssey tour boat. A free breakfast buffet featuring chocolate cake for dessert. A pep talk from D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

In one of the hottest commercial real estate markets in the world, the District government rolled out the red carpet yesterday to woo high-powered developers to Poplar Point, a 110-acre swath of neglected parkland in Southeast Washington, across the river from the new Nationals' baseball stadium.

The mayor envisions houses, offices, shops, jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue. But to get there, the city must find a partner, which is why officials hosted an information session for more than 130 developers, builders, urban planners, architects and financiers aboard the Odyssey.

"We want to make sure we have all the great ideas before we go forward," Fenty (D) told the power players, decked out in corporate pinstripes, not a pair of boat shoes in sight. "We have every assurance that you're going to dig deep into your creativity to make the waterfront come to life. Be as creative as humanly possible. Think outside the box."

Last month, the Fenty administration put the brakes on informal negotiations with D.C. United, the professional soccer franchise whose lead investor wants to build a stadium and additional development at Poplar Point. Instead, the mayor opened a competition to find a "master developer" for the property, which Fenty considers a prime chance to spread prosperity to a long-neglected part of the city.

D.C. planners could not estimate how many firms would submit formal proposals by the Oct. 19 deadline. The District held a similar cruise for its Southwest waterfront redevelopment project, resulting in 17 companies issuing proposals. (PN Hoffman was selected as the master developer in that project.)

Fenty aides said Poplar Point, which is owned by the federal government, is a more complicated situation because of the nature of the land transfer to the District. They said they expect fewer bids.

But first things first. After the developers pinned name cards to their lapels, they huddled over coffee and plates of eggs, sausage, pastries and fruit. Although some big firms had their eyes on becoming master developer, others were watching the big guys, the better to get hired on as a partner once the design work and building get started.

Paul Devrouax, whose small, District-based architecture company is a co-designer of the Nationals' ballpark, made no secret of his strategy.

"Eventually, they'll need architectural work," he said with a smile. "We're here to find out what they're looking for, get some information. And when they do select an architect, we'll be in position."

Fenty departed the Odyssey before it set off and turned over the program to his deputies, who herded the developers into a glass-enclosed conference area. Some groaned when they saw a microphone and two plasma televisions: It was PowerPoint time.

Delivering the details were: Valerie Santos-Young, the District's chief operating officer for economic development; Harriet Tregoning, director of planning; and Diane Sullivan, a planner. They explained that 70 acres must be reserved for parkland, that the city expects 30 percent of the housing to be affordable and that the development must tie Poplar Point into nearby Ward 8 communities.

They tried to spice up the presentation by talking about creating an "urban gateway." But mostly they used mind-numbing technical jargon about such topics as NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, which will require the developers to comply with federal standards.

To the audience, the project seemed increasingly daunting. It didn't help that community activists were aboard to lobby against a potential soccer stadium, and D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) commandeered the microphone to announce that he and his allies will stand in the way of any plan that does not include a soccer stadium.

As the Odyssey motored north along the Anacostia, past the Nationals' stadium rising on the west bank and trees covering the mostly barren parkland on the east, the developers stepped into the morning sun for a better look at the property and a breath of fresh air.

"This project is going to require a lot of fortitude and a lot of patience," said S. Ross Little, development director for LCOR, a company with national reach. "You're being asked to create something that works well for lots of different constituencies. You hope you can do it in less than a decade."

Most of the big-name developers were cagey, since the potential competition was on hand. Representatives for Victor B. MacFarlane, the principal investor in D.C. United, attended but declined to say whether he would submit a formal proposal next month.

"It's a big project," Deborah Weinman, director of mixed-use development with Archstone-Smith, said as the Odyssey headed to shore. "As with any other project, this comes with a unique set of obstacles. Right now, we're seriously looking at it. But after this, we'll have a lot of information to go over."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company