It would be hard to imagine an art exhibition better calculated to make you feel good about the place you live than "Washington on the Potomac," the choice little show of some 80 paintings, prints and drawings organized by associate curator Linda Simmons at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The show records the respect that artists expressed for the beautiful river even before there was a city upon it, but mostly it attends to the great good fortune of the city's location. Lester H. Cooke, the late painter and National Gallery curator, was speaking for all of us when he observed, "The view looking down the Potomac is one of the world's great city views. The lights, winds, mists, reflections and changing seasons make new combinations every hour. I see this view every day; it is never the same, and I never get tired of it."
By celebrating the interdependence of city and river the artists in effect remind us of our responsibility for this magnificent resource, and it is in this spirit that we should respond to a report released this week by the Waterfront Task Force of the Federal City Council. This enlightened report is by no means alarmist, but it does point out how much remains to be done, and how badly we could gum up the works in the next 20 years.
Among major cities, Washington is uniquely fortunate because 96 percent of its 44 miles of shoreline, including the Potomac and the Anacostia Rivers, is publicly owned. This and the fact that much of the Washington waterfront is superbly maintained for the pleasure of its citizens and guests make up a genuine silver lining for the report, which otherwise focuses upon major problem areas along the city's vast riverfront. The authors refer to these problem areas as "opportunities," and at least now, before the damage has been done, we can appreciate their trust that the problems can be managed for the public good.
The report deals with every part of the waterfront south of Georgetown--an acknowledgment that although the Georgetown problem remains sticky, it has received bountiful doses of public attention while the rest of the riverfront goes almost unattended. By focusing upon the tremendous, if largely hidden, "opportunities" in other parts of the city, the report contributes a substantial service.
One of the most heartening aspects of the study that went into the report--literally hundreds of interviews inside the confusing network of local and federal government agencies in whose hands the future of the waterfront largely lies--is the conclusion that, in many places, good plans already exist.
The upper Anacostia, for instance, is one of the city's more remarkable, if underused, natural aquatic environments and the report wisely recommends that the status quo be maintained--with a few simple adjustments. The Department of Agriculture already has a master plan that will greatly improve access to the glorious National Arboretum. The waterfront researchers simply stress that these plans should pay a bit more attention to the riverfront setting and to making some kind of cross-river connection (for "visitors and explorers") between the Arboretum and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, an almost unknown natural resource administered by the National Park Service.
In the next decade, however, the report warns that we will witness potent forces, both private and public, for developing extraordinary segments of the riverfront along both sides of the lower Anacostia and along the Potomac in the Southwest quadrant of the city. How and when these forces are harnessed will be a major test of the ingenuity, imagination and will of the federal and local governments.
The most immediate, and probably the most difficult, problem-opportunity concerns the more than 100 acres of land on Poplar Point, surrounding the proposed Anacostia Metro stop north of the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) Memorial Bridge. The list of players in this contest is long--the Metro folks, several D.C. government agencies, the architect of the Capitol, the National Park Service, a number of private land speculators--and the alarming thing is that no good plan exists to coordinate their efforts.
In the absence of a plan and decisive government action, what could happen is absolutely awful: acres of riverfront land devoted to surface parking and a smattering of ugly office buildings disconnected from the train system and the nearby Anacostia neighborhood. On the other hand, as the report bravely states, the opposite possibility exists: an attractive mixed-use development in just the right place and a large, welcoming patch of green along the river's eastern shore.
A similar if somewhat longer-term challenge exists across the river, from the Navy Yard to Buzzard Point, where developers and various parts of the federal and local governments appear, so far, to be working at cross purposes. Here, too, the researchers recommend a comprehensive strategy that would benefit all parties--and, not incidentally, the rest of us--but they really show their true grit in moving on to the Southwest waterfront, that dessicated riverfront opportunity lost in the miasma of ill-fated and ill-conceived urban renewal plans.
Can you imagine a vibrant Southwest waterfront, hundreds of boats docked along the Washington Channel, a pedestrian bridge (with a cafe, yet) linking the one side of the channel to the other, a Hains Point park that is more than an unchallenging golf course surrounded by an unconscionably narrow strip of popular riverfront parkland, a series of buildings combining major public and private uses spilling down from that useless and totally disconnected 10th Street Overlook?
Can you imagine that, and more? It is a long way from the bucolic wilderness that so awed the painters of the Potomac during the 19th century, but it is a grand vision linking the modern city to the great historic resource of the water, and I daresay that the artists, looking at what is and what could be, would approve.
To their great credit, the Federal City Council and its hard-working task force have resurrected this dream, and others. Their report could be a milestone for the city, or, a decade from now, it could be just another little pamphlet yellowing on the shelf. Only 500 copies were printed.