Anacostia is the "forgotten" part of the city, Mayor Marion Barry remarked to passengers aboard the tour boat "Spirit of '76" as it glided past the shoreline of the District's easternmost community one afternoon this week.
And later, in response to a reporter's question, the mayor decried the fact that Anacostia had the highest unemployment rate of any of the District's major subdivisions. Fewer than 20 percent of Anacostia's residents are homeowners, he calculated.
He could have added that Sears, Roebuck & Co. is the only major general-merchandise retailer that has a store in Anacostia, or that there aren't enough supermarkets to serve the population there, or that, except for federal installations on the banks of the Anacostia River, there is no major employment center in this forgotten geographic appendage.
Those installations -- Bolling Air Force Base, the Naval Research Center or the Defense Intelligence Agency -- draw most of their employes from other parts of the city and the suburbs and not from the large labor pool of unskilled and semi-skilled residents in the immediate area.
Investors, by and large, have not ventured beyond the Anacostia waterfront, which the mayor described as "unsightly" during Wednesday's tour of the city's shoreline of the Anacostia and its sister, the Potomac. Economic development in any form stops west of the Anacostia River.
East of the river, especially in wards 7 and 8, the lack of commercial services is a "major issue," District officials noted in the planning report for the Comprehensive Plan. Jobs, too are a major issue. Economic development too is a major issue now -- it was a non-issue until recently.
Nobody, it seems, is willing to risk investing in Anacostia, even though land values are far less than what developers are willing to pay elsewhere. District agencies, in fact, balk at the thought of being relocated to Anacostia. The mayor had to "force" the D.C. Lottery Board to move to new offices across the river. Even though Anacostia is home to some of the District's most affluent neighborhoods and some of its most influential residents -- the mayor himself lives there -- fewer than 20 of the city's top administrators live there, Barry volunteered.
For too long, Barry insisted, the Anacostia area "has been viewed as a negative environment" for economic development. That could change with Wednesday's formal announcement of plans to transform the Anacostia waterfront into a "showcase of excellence." Construction of a new Metro station in Anacostia Park, which will be expanded by the addition of 71 acres of national parklands, will transform the river's waterfront into an attractive setting.
A critical question, however, is how large a role will the extension of the Green Line and construction of this unique Metro station play in commercial development in Anacostia? "No other station has such specialized facilities," declared Metro's general manager Carmen Turner.
The additional parklands "will improve the quality of life in Anacostia for both the park neighbors and for those people who will work in the new developments that will be stimulated by the new Metro station," predicted Manus J. Fish, regional director of the National Park Service.
"Transportation brings jobs," declared D.C. Councilwoman Wilhelmina Rolark, reflecting the heady optimism expressed by many of the political and civic leaders on board the tour boat.
More than any other, the Anacostia Park terminal will provide the real litmus test for the argument that subway stations in metropolitan Washington are catalysts for commercial development.
Although the mayor repeatedly proclaimed Wednesday as "Super Bowl day" in celebration of plans to upgrade the Anacostia and Georgetown waterfronts, his euphoria was tempered by realism. "We hope the Anacostia project will spread more interest in this area," he noted.
The city, he promised, will take the lead in trying to attract development and jobs to Anacostia by using incentives such as Urban Development Action Grants (UDAG) and industrial revenue bonds (IRB). But the key to any effort in that regard, he quickly pointed out, lies in the free enterprise system.
The mayor didn't have to spell it out. He knows that it will take more than UDAG money and IRBs to induce investors to duplicate the kind of development that is taking place on the Georgetown waterfront. But having identified some prospective development sites, he is confident that the city can attract the kind of medium density commercial projects that will work as well in Anacostia as other areas of metropolitan Washington.
At one point during the waterfront tour, Barry boasted that his administration is "innovative, imaginative and creative."
It will take all of those and more to persuade the business comunity to remove the blinders that have stopped it from seeing the investment potential in Anacostia.