Seeking a Better View On the Waterfront
By Vernon Loeb
Down amid the gravel pits and the trash heaps off South Capitol Street in Washington, the Earth Conservation Corps has staked out a spot on the Anacostia River in an old, abandoned government pump house.
It's an ironic choice for a nature group in a bizarre and battered swath of Washington that is only eight blocks from the U.S. Capitol. This industrial wasteland, critics say, almost defies belief, let alone any semblance of urban planning.
Just the other morning, R. Mark Davis, the corps' chief operating officer, learned a big construction company is about to open an asphalt plant across the street. But he figures this is better than the 40-foot garbage dump -- dubbed Mount Trashmore by his group -- that used to occupy the site.
"This section of town," he lamented, "doesn't appear on any tourist map."
But Davis and numerous local and federal officials say they now believe this bleak waterfront area -- which stretches from the tip of Buzzard Point to the historic Washington Navy Yard in Southeast Washington -- is poised to rise from squalor. He talks effusively about the Navy's decision to relocate 5,000 employees to the Navy Yard, the public housing that is being renovated and the grand visions of private developers who see office buildings going up on trash-strewn vacant lots and dusty industrial sites.
Florida Rock Properties of Jacksonville just received zoning approval to turn its sprawling gravel yard on the river into a major office complex and maritime education center, which the Earth Conservation Corps would run.
The Navy workers will begin arriving from Crystal City over the next four years, transforming its hallowed ceremonial home into the multibillion-dollar purchasing hub for the U.S. fighting fleet.
Government officials say they hope the yard's $200 million expansion will draw other federal agencies and even commercial tenants to the adjoining 55-acre Southeast Federal Center on M Street between First and Fourth streets SE, which the Navy turned over to the General Services Administration in 1963.
"This is one of the most valuable pieces of property on the East Coast, five minutes from the Capitol," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
And along this so-called M Street SE corridor, which parallels the river from South Capitol Street to the Navy Yard, D.C. public housing receiver David I. Gilmore is renovating stark high-rise buildings and decrepit garden apartments that have blighted the area for years.
Gilmore is trying to talk the Marine Corps into expanding its historic barracks at Eighth and I streets SE to include the nearby, vacant high-rise buildings at the Arthur Capper apartments, a deeply troubled public housing complex across the street from the Navy Yard.
And on the other side of the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, between Sixth and Seventh streets SE, the abandoned Ellen Wilson complex has been razed and, financed by a $25 million federal grant, is rising again as the city's first mixed-income public housing development.
For years, hundreds of thousands of tourists have traipsed through the outer edge of Capitol Hill on their way to the Navy Yard's museum and "never so much as bought a cup of coffee in Ward 6," said D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6). "What I'm trying to do is develop a concentration of activity that will encourage people to stop and buy that cup of coffee and maybe even take a look around the neighborhood."
John J. Imparato Jr., the Navy Yard's base relocation coordinator, figures the new Navy employees at the yard could pump $4 million a year into the surrounding community -- in lunch money alone.
The view of the Capitol is particularly striking from a spot near the South Capitol Street Bridge, not far from where the National Capital Planning Commission envisions -- some day -- a monumental new Supreme Court complex.
What's also striking is to see the glistening dome of the world's most powerful legislative body -- while standing next to dozens of junked D.C. police cruisers, jammed into a long lot under the bridge.
Not far away, the National Photographic Interpretation Center, a highly secure spy facility, claims a corner of the Southeast Federal Center -- directly across the street from mounds of garbage heaped inside the smelly sheds of a major trash transfer station.
Aerial photographs of the Anacostia waterfront, which the Earth Conservation Corps obtained last year, vividly illustrate what seems an almost total lack of planning.
"Here's the center of world power," Davis said, pointing to the Capitol in the photo, "and there's Mount Trashmore."
But Davis, whose group is largely funded by an AmeriCorps program to hire low-income youths for conservation projects, is excited about managing the proposed Maritime Park and Education Center -- the public amenity that Florida Rock Properties has promised to build as part of an office complex that could bring 4,500 workers to the area.
Similar development initiatives are being pursued right now on the other side of South Capitol Street in Southwest Washington, a generally prosperous area of high-rise condominiums anchored by Fort McNair and the National War College.
Norton is helping to spearhead a movement to find new government and private tenants for the Waterside Mall, which the Environmental Protection Agency is vacating for new government-owned space in the downtown Ronald Reagan building.
Gilmore is remaking two, once drug-infested housing developments, and government planners are working hard to improve marinas and other development along Main Avenue SW and the Washington Channel.
But the stakes seem higher in Southeast because the starting point for developers is so much lower -- a desolate, mixed landscape of liquor stores, vacant lots, abandoned buildings and industrial sprawl.
"Where is a city that can't see the value of this riverfront," Ambrose asked, speaking over the din of the Florida Rock gravel yard. "And where is a city that can't appreciate the educational resource of a river that runs through it?"
Jim Williams, the GSA's associate regional administrator, admits the Southeast Federal Center is a tough sell right now. Federal agencies "don't want to be the pioneers," he said during a tour of the site, the largest remaining piece of undeveloped federal land in the city. "It's hard for them to see the long-term vision."
When visitors ask Williams and Frank Miles, the federal center's development director, to describe that vision, GSA officials take them to the riverfront and start talking about Baltimore's spectacular inner harbor.
The big fish that Florida Rock and the federal center would love to land is the Department of Transportation, which will be leaving its leased headquarters at Seventh and D streets SW in two years.
But it's the prospect of Navy contractors and their employees following the Naval Sea Systems Command into the Navy Yard neighborhood that has developers and land speculators all excited.
"You're seeing a lot of developers taking land, taking positions down here," Williams said, "in anticipation of this area taking off."
Imparato, the man overseeing the Navy's big move back to Washington, can't quite understand how it is that tourists from the Midwest flock to the Navy Yard -- and many Washingtonians don't even know that it's there, particularly since it is wide open to the public.
Flash a picture identification and walk into this movielike setting -- with old brick industrial buildings, where the Navy once made long guns, and white neoclassical mansions for top Navy brass.
The Navy Yard is the oldest continuously operated Navy facility in the United States, home now to Naval District Washington, the Military Sealift Command and dozens of other administrative divisions. It's also the home of the chief of naval operations, who lives in a mansion on the yard known as Tingey House, built in 1804.
"It's the ceremonial heart of the Navy," Imparato said.
And soon, when all those Naval Sea Systems Command officers and bureaucrats move over from Crystal City, this old shipyard will become an administrative super-yard, the place from which billions of dollars of contracts will flow.
"Even the liquor stores might be displaced," he said. "I believe that someday you'll see M Street as a boulevard that people will enjoy driving down -- even walking down."
The high-rise building for seniors at the Arthur Capper public housing complex lacks the grandeur of the Navy Yard and the history. When the D.C. public housing agency finished renovating the building in 1981, plastic piping used in its steam heating system burst on the day the ribbon was cut -- and wasn't fully fixed until Gilmore arrived as court-appointed public housing receiver in 1995.
He says he's hoping the Marines will decide to take and remake two other high-rises at Capper, one vacant and the other soon to be, both symbols of public housing failures that are eyesores for motorists who pass them on the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.
With new Victorian-style town houses rising from the Ellen Wilson site and extensive renovations taking place at the Carrollsburg apartments, another complex next to Arthur Capper, Gilmore said a Marine landing at Capper would complete the authority's work along the M Street corridor.
"Clearly, there's an opportunity there with the Navy Yard and the need to bridge these two communities," he said. "To think about the notion of 5,000 more people at the Navy Yard -- if that doesn't represent an opportunity, I don't know what does."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company