A bureaucratic struggle is shaping up over control of the long-delayed National Children's Island, an innovative recreational and educational park being built by the District of Columbia on two islands in the Anacostia River.
Work on the park is already a year behind schedule. It was originally slated for opening on July 4, 1976, as part of the District's bicentennial celebration.
A task force of D.C. officials is to meet within the next week to decide whether supervision of the troubled project will be transferred to the city recreation department or will remain with its executive director, Joseph C. Henson, in a semi-independent status.
Plagued by construction delays and soaring costs, the project is still mostly on the drawing board. So far there is little to be seen on the small islands, which are scheduled to be transformed from city dumps into unusual park facilities. The master plan includes playgrounds with special facilities for the handicapped, a children's theater, library and museum, an international mall with rotating exhibits and demonstrations, an animal petting center, a windmill, greenhouse, nature sanctuary, ranger tower, and a carousel.
Henson, the free-wheeling city management analyst who has headed NCI planning since he became the project director in the D.C. Bicentennial Programs office 2 1/2 years ago, wants to maintain the status quo.
When the city's Bicentennial Programs office ceased operations at the beginning of this year, the National Children's Island project, which is a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation, and all other unfinished bicentennial business were transferred into the D.C. executive secretary's office, headed by Martin Schaller. The secretary handles all the paperwork that goes through the mayor's office and acts as the city's chief of protocol, according to a secretariate spokesman, but it does not normally handle development projects like NCI.
Since the transfer, Henson has been running the Children's Island project with little or no city oversight, according to a District government source, who added that, "NCI has been sitting out there in left field, answerable to no one person."
Last April Schaller suggested that his office be divested of responsibility for the project. He offered a plan to turn it over to the recreation department when he spoke at hearings of the House subcommittee on District appropriations, headed by Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.).
Schaller said that the District would probably be asked to provide 30 to 40 per cent of the cost of the Children's Island in appropriated funds over the next few years. The remaining funds would come from the park's revenues, federal grants and private sources, he added.
Soon after the hearings, the task force was set up to decide whether NCI should remain independent of the District's line agencies or be moved into the recreation department.
Henson said he opposes the move because he believes the transfer will strangle his efforts to secure funds and services for the project.
"Bureaucrats have to stand in line. It will never get built that way," he said, adding that his staff and members of NCI's board of directors are preparing a white paper for the task force in support of maintaining the status quo of the project.
Schaller plays down the effect of the proposed change. "It's no big deal," he said. "We have to find a permanent home for National Children's Island, that's all." Schaller said the mayor will make the final decision on the disposition of the project.
As NCI director, Henson has waged a one-man struggle to obtain funds and support for the project, according to James P. Alexander, who headed the D. C. Bicentennial Programs office in 1975. Alexander said he talked Henson into taking on the project on a shoe-string, with only a secretary and some part-time help.
Henson has raised $3.2 million in funds and services for NCI from District and federal government agencies and private foundations. The director said that he plans to ask he city for another $2.5 million to complete the project. Cost of the park facilities was pegged at $3 million in 1975 but costs have risen sharply since then and the final total is expected to be closer to $5.7 million.
When the project was launched, the Bicentennial office had no money and the islands belonged to the federal government.
"I needed an aggressive, tough, able, effective project manager," said Alexander, who now heads a private consulting firm. He said he picked Henson, who had worked in the city's budget department and the federal government because he "is bright, imaginative and hardnosed. He can capture people's imagination and find allies when he needs them."
Henson gained the aid of Richard Dattner, a New York architect who specializes in playgrounds and recreational activities. Dattner designed Children's Island on speculation and was paid later when money became available.
Using the Dattner designs and slide show, Henson began his crusade to get the plans approved and funded. He won approval from the National Park Service, which administered the islands, to lease them to the city for 25 years and won approval for the plans from the National Capitol Planning Commission, the Fine Arts Commission and residents in the area. He spent "interminable sessions" selling the project to the D. C. City Council, Alexander recalls.
The mayor's office had approved the project and earmarked $200,000 for it in early 1975. Because of delays in Congress, however, the money was not made available until August 1976, more than a year after it was due.
With no funding and facing a July 4, 1976, deadline, Henson became an accompolished scrounger, according to Alexander.
As a result, NCI acquired, in addition to the $200,000 budgeted for it, $600,000 in material and services from city agencies. Nearly half the amount was in basic water and sewer line laid by the Department of Environmental Services.
Henson also persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to build two bridges to the islands as a training project and to do some grading and leveling. Other help came from the U.S. Park Service and the federal Bicentennial Administration. His biggest coup so far has been a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration to pay for construction of the international mail.
D.C. Council woman Polly Shackleton acknowledges that there was a long delay in funding NCI but said that she is now concerned about future expense of the project.
"I want to make certain that there is a basic assurance this will not be a large actual operating expenditure for the city. The D. C. budget is very, very tight and things are being cut, not increased," she said.