Last in a five-part series
Poplar Point. Ask any taxi driver to take you there, ask any longtime Washington resident where it is, ask almost anybody. Chances are good, you'll draw a blank.
This is because Poplar Point, a prominent bend in the eastern shoreline of the Anacostia River, has been treated for decades as if it were invisible.
Technically, it is public parkland, but much of the territory is fenced off. Much of the land is polluted. Traffic roars by on Interstate 295. The Frederick Douglass Bridge soars overhead. It's drive-by terrain.
Yet this particular piece of ill-used riverside, with nearly a mile of unimpeded access to the water and spectacular views of the Capitol and downtown, could be one of the most pleasant places in the entire city.
And will be, say the authors of the city's Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.
This bend in the river will become, they predict, "a showcase of ecological restoration, culture, history and community," and also "a catalyst for neighborhood economic development."
Transforming Poplar Point is but the most dramatic action proposed by the city's wide-ranging plan for the areas east of the river. The whole plan is predicated on the idea of mitigating perceived and actual inequalities between the west and east sides of the Anacostia.
Two unavoidable facts conditioned the plan's approach to the eastern side. One is that the eastern edge of the river is predominantly parkland owned by the federal government.
This long strip of federal parkland is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, it saved the riverfront from the industrial depredations familiar in other cities. On the other hand, it prevented the growth of lively waterfront communities.
This is why, with the exception of Poplar Point, all of the intensive urban development anticipated by the plan will take place on the western side of the river, as we have seen.
To overcome this imbalance, the plan's chief tactic is to use west-side growth to help finance east-side improvements, such as "housing, commercial revitalization, public parks and community facilities."
"The basic idea is that a portion of the revenue generated on the waterfront should stay on the waterfront," says Andrew Altman, director of the city's Office of Planning. "That way, we're always reinvesting in the neighborhoods and vitality of the waterfront."
Great idea. Altman is understandably fond of pointing out that the building of Battery Park City in the 1980s generated 20,000 units of affordable housing in other areas of New York City.
But follow-through down here in Washington is absolutely key. If the east side does not see significant benefits, then the plan will have failed its chief ethical test.
The other inescapable east-side condition is Interstate 295, otherwise known as the Anacostia Freeway.
Like many other urban highways of the 1950s and 1960s, this one was built with a single goal in mind: Move the commuters. Consequently, no heed was paid to the fact that the road created an insurmountable wall between the river and all those communities in the Anacostia hills.
Longtime residents such as Arrington Dixon remember what it was like before the highway: "We'd just walk on over, family and friends, spread a blanket and eat soft-shell crabs."
After the highway, though, approaching the park became an inconvenient, unwelcoming experience. Today, you have to seek out a limited number of narrow, unlovely underpasses.
"You've got the space, you've got the air, you've got the water," says Dixon of the east side, "but unfortunately you've got the highway, too."
The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative does not promise a return to the good old days before the road. That would require the tunneling of the highway, a vastly expensive and technically challenging endeavor.
"Ultimately, we settled with living with the fact that this thing was going to be there," says Uwe Brandes of the Office of Planning. Instead, Brandes says, the idea is to "radically transform its image and design."
This means, basically, to reconfigure the road's entrances and exits, thereby reducing negative impact on the community, and also to make the road more "parkway-like," with improved plantings and the like. Though welcome, such changes will not alter the fact that, to the people living in Anacostia, the highway will remain a formidable (if somewhat better-looking) barrier.
To improve accessibility to the waterfront, the plan proposes a series of six "gateways" -- at Howard Road SE, Good Hope Road SE, Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Massachusetts Avenue SE, Benning Road NE and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE. A pedestrian bridge at W Street SE, in the heart of the historic Anacostia business district, also is proposed.
"Gateways" is a fancy way of characterizing what amount to relatively minor alterations in existing conditions.
The reconfigured interchange at Pennsylvania Avenue, however, is an exception. There, the proposal is to burrow the freeway under the avenue, reversing the current arrangement.
This is a significant change, opening a vista to the Capitol and greatly improving opportunities for the commercial center there.
Otherwise, there's nothing dramatically new about the "new" entry points. The freeway underpasses at Burroughs, Howard and Good Hope, for example, will be given new sidewalks, lighting and, possibly, a public artwork or two.
Hmmm. Not terribly impressive. The plan's approach to this intrusive highway seems altogether too timid.
Planners hope, however, that conditions at each of the nearby commercial clusters will improve significantly. Altman points out that these "mini town centers" are where some of the west side reinvestment likely would be spent. Dan Tangherlini, director of the city's transportation system, has made the construction of a light-rail line on the east side a high priority.
Another way to make the plan benefit the east side neighborhoods -- and the rest of the city and region, too -- is to make sure that long stretch of riverside parkland is worth getting to. Or, let's make that more worth the effort.
The parks as they are today aren't terrible, but they definitely will profit from changes such as a greatly improved river walk, new and improved athletic fields, "daylighting" of hidden streams, and restored wetlands. And a new, world-class aquatic center, first proposed during the city's Olympics bid, clearly would invite year-round attention.
On the green eastern edges of the river there is, however, one place where intensive urban development is both desirable and possible: Poplar Point.
The future of the point, says the plan, is a two-step matter. The first phase is to construct a great civic park. Fences will go down. Large patches of deeply polluted soil will be cleaned up. Temporary National Park Service buildings -- despite their very permanent look -- will disappear in favor of meadows and ball fields.
Invisible Stickfoot Creek, by contrast, will magically reappear and feed a splendid new marsh. A civic space will be shaped at the rounded point itself, suitable for large gatherings and smaller performances. There will be plenty of room for a national monument, perhaps celebrating Frederick Douglass or some other worthy facet of local and national history.
This new Poplar Point park will serve as an orienting place for all of the east side waterfront parks. You'll be able to park your car nearby when you stop in at the new visitors' center, and then drive along an elegant, crescent-shaped boulevard. Or, conversely, you'll arrive at the Anacostia Metro station and take a pleasant walk to the riverside. You can stop to rent a bike. Or a boat.
Eventually, you'll be able to live there, too. This is step two. Though all of Poplar Point is federally owned, there are chunks and slivers of privately owned land along Howard Road, and additional parcels of District-controlled land under the present-day South Capitol Street Bridge. Using the remade riverfront as a lure, planners hope to persuade private developers to go to work on these tracts of land.
Linked both to the water to its west and the historic Anacostia community to its east, this is envisioned as a lively, distinctive, mixed-use urban neighborhood, similar to the ones intended for the river's western shores. There is even enough room, around the immense Metro parking garage, to build a little circle of museums. The idea is to make this the east side version of the plan's west side theme: making places where the city meets the river.
Much of the step-two vision, however, is dependent on something else happening first -- namely, the construction of a new South Capitol Street Bridge over the Anacostia and a new commuter traffic tunnel under the river.
Bluntly put, the neighborhood won't get built until the bridge is done. However, in a perverse sort of way, there's a bright side to this inevitable pause between vision and reality. It'll give planners, or somebody, time to improve upon a far-from-perfect plan for the new neighborhood.
In particular, they have to figure out a much better way to connect the new community to historic Anacostia. That Howard Road underpass doesn't cut it. Neither does the half-hearted redesign of the current Metro station, a no-man's land that is, in itself, something of a barrier.
The stakes are high. If this part of the plan is not improved significantly, the "vibrant" neighborhood will turn out to be nothing more than an enclave that's isolated physically, economically and psychologically from the rest of Anacostia.
But, as I said, there's time. It'll be a decade, at minimum, before we see that new bridge. Meanwhile, the city needs to get on with the job of transforming the park at Poplar Point into the civic asset that it can be, and that two visionary plans say it should become.
Two plans, let's not forget. We're lucky to have two. First came the federal government's 1997 Legacy plan, with helpful ideas about transforming Washington's other river. And now, the city's own complex, comprehensive plan for the Anacostia and its environs, four years in the making, is on the cusp of action.
Change is upon us, and change can be chaotic and scary. Still, as the authors of these plans also knew, change is what makes great cities. Trying to control change, as these plans nobly attempt to do, is a chancy business. But the prospect is exhilarating.
Benjamin Forgey will be online to discuss this series today at noon at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.