Like a way station in Siberia, the new Fort Totten Metro station in Northeast Washington rises starkly from the empty plain around it.
It is in the city, yet, incongruously, it is remote.
Isolated from the immediate hubbub of traffic, shops, homes and major roadways, it lies in the middle of an otherwise desolate tract of land south of Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue - a monument to the planner's compromise of building a new facility intended for lots of people but some-what removed from them so as not to disrupt existing facilities already in use by the people
The people of the area - a predominantly black neighborhood of modest but well tended duplexes, row houses and garden apartments - have mixed feelings about the new station, part of the Metro Red Line extension from Rhode Island Avenue NE to Silver Spring scheduled to open Feb.6.
Some like the idea of having speedy rail service for working and shopping, but others say the station's remoteness makes it inconvenient.
"It's a good 10-minute walk from here, and there's no direct route," says Robert J. Coffer Jr., himself a Metro bus driver, of 407 Kennedy St., just off South Dakota Avenue near one of only two long access roads to the train station.
The closest housing is the 232-unit Riggs Plaza garden apartment complex across South Dakota Avenue from Coffer's home and a fifth to a quarter of a mile from the station. More distant housing on Fort Totten Drive west of the station and beyond Coffer's home northeast of South Dakota Avenue is up to a mile away, requiring a long and circuitious walk for most residents.
Many of the residents who live closer in also fear that the station's small parking lot (300 spaces) will overflow, and long distance commuters from the suburbs will cluter up nearby streets with their cars.
Merchants in the area, on the other hand, want to see more commuters and hope they will generate new business.
"One reason I bought this store and moved in here 15 months ago was because of Metro," says Bill Pappas, owner of Dakota Liquors at 3rd Street and Riggs Road.
Pappas and other merchants in the adjacent Riggs Park Shopping Centre - where there are a Giant Food store. Peoples drugstore, McIntire Hardware and other outlets - hope auto-driving commuters will stop at their stores for incidentials on the way to and from work.
"I'm definitely expecting more business," says Harry Ferguson, owner of a Sunoco service station at 115 Riggs Rd., adjacent to the First Place access road to the Fort Totten station a quarter mile south. "I figure a lot of people will leave their cars here to have work done on them during the day and then pick them up on the way home in the evening."
Al McLean, manager of the Thrifty Business Supply Center across First Place from the Sunoco station, says he plans an advertising campaign to encourage downtown and suburban Virginia customers to ride Metro, rather than drive, to see his showroom.
There are signs that commercial development, which declined after the 1966 riots, has been undergoing rejuvenation for some time, and in the eyes of the merchants, the new Metro station is simply an added bonus.
Perpetual Federal Savings and Loan Association, considered a pioneer among traditionally conservative financial institutions, opened a branch in Riggs Park Shopping Center in late 1973.
Owners of the shopping center, buoyed by Perpetual's arrival and a more recent lease extension by Giant Food, are now considering rebuilding the center and greatly increasing commercial floor space and parking.
"This area is coming back" says William Brawner, a member of the family that owns the center. "Home ownership is increasing. The neighborhood is very stable."
Johnny L. Ward, manager of Perpetual's branch office, says. "We've had a lot of growth, a lot of new accounts . . . the bulk of them people who live in the area."
He said, "We think Metro will generate new business for us and the shopping center as a whole as (commuters) get to know our location."
W.P. Jones, of 602 Jefferson St., a retired Veterans Hospital employe, expressed a common concern among residents that commuter traffic generated by Metro will make life miserable for them.
"Those 300 parking spaces at the station, that's not enough," he said. "The commuters are going to start parking on the side streets and then we'll have to get a (commuter parking ban) like other parts of the city . . . I can see it coming."
One of the leaders in limiting the size of the Fort Totten parking lot is another resident, Everett W. Scott, chairman of the Upper Northeast Coordinating Council and a longtime automobile and freeway foe.
"If I had my way, therewould be no parking facilities at all," he said.
"Metro," he said, "is here as an alternative to the freeways. Once the rail system is in, the principal behind it is to have no cars coming into the city. If there are no parking facilities, then the commuters have to think of alternatives, like a bus feeder system."
Scott has been warning with Metro and District government planners for years over basic transportation concepts. His purist all-rail - no cars philosophy stands in sharp contrast to the balanced-system-by-political-compromise approach of the planners.
Planners in the D.C. Municipal Planning Office, for example, say they originally envisioned a parking lot withup to 1000 spaces, but community resistance pushed it down to the present 300.
Robert Pickett, a planner for Metro, also noted that numerous bus lines will be realigned, starting Feb. 19, to provide an effective feeder bus systme to the Fort Totten station as well.
Pickett said no firm ridership estimates for Fort Totten and the other three stations to open Monday have been developed. But the four stations are expected to generate some 30,000 new riders a day, with about half getting on or off at Silver Spring, the busiest station. The rest, Pickett said, will be scattered among Fort Totten, Takoma and Brookland stations with Takoma "and the high side, Brookland on the low side and Totten somewhere in between."
Albert J. Roohr, another Metro planner, said the bulk of Fort Totten riders are expected to arrive by bus with smaller numbers driving or walking.
Ridership at Fort Totten will increase significantly if a second Metro line - the downtown to Greenbelt - is built to interest at Fort Totten and create a transfer station. That proposal, however, is in political and financial limbo and may never be built.
Evan with the existing single line, there are problems enough. The Metro line lies along the right-of-way of the Baltimore & Ohio Railraod which cuts through the Fort Totten-Riggs Road community, forming a north-south barrier with the underpass at Riggs Road the only crossing for cars or pedestrians.
"Pedestrian access is extremely poor for several reasons," says a Metro impact plan prepared by the municipal planning office. " . . . The industrial areas surrounding the station have few through roads, severly restricting vehicular and pedestrian movement from resedential areas directly to the station.
The station lies 1,600feet south of Riggs Road on the B&O right-of-way and has two access roads: First Place off Riggs Road to the north and Galloway Street off South Dakota Avenue to the east.
Workmen have begun widening the already congested Riggs Road access area only in the last two weeks to meet the anticipated increased volume of buses and cars. One additional access lane is expected to be open and a temporary traffic signal at Riggs Road and First Place operating by Feb. 6, but workmen said the long range job of widening Riggs Road from four to six lanes will not be completed for about a year.
"Since 1959," says the Metro impact plan, "the impact area has seen little development projects, several warehouses, and a cluster of several single-family detached houses account for all the development."
The several acres of vacant land immediately around Fort Totten station are currently zoned for light industrial development. A few warehouses plus the lightly forested land of Fort Totten Park and the steel radio tower of station WOOK are the major features on the periphery of the open land.
Nathan Gross, a planner in the municipal planning office, says the Metro station location was moved to the open land from the more congested area to the north to reduce construction costs and minimize disruption of existing buildings and roads.
Ideally, he said, the vacant land surrounding the station could be developed with a combination of low density housing and retail outlets to supplement the more distant stores north of Rigg Road.
"The opportunity for development is there," Gross said, "but I am not aware of any great rush of developers."
He said the market for medium or high rise apartments is down because of skyrocketing maintenance costs, and there has been little demand for office developement outside of downtown.
The Fort Totten-Riggs area has been one of the last sections of Northeast Washington to be developed.
Dominated by the long, low hill of Fort Totten - one of a series of Civil War fortifications encircling the city and now part of the National Park system - the area was largely made up of farmland, meadows and forests before 1900.
In the 1870s, the B&O built its railroad track through the area, and more homes began to sprout. It was not until the boom times of World War I and the 1920s that extensive residential construction began with the influx of thousnands of government workers.
Development slowed during the Depression of the 1930s but bloomed again during World War II and the post-war years.
The Riggs Park housing development northeast of South Dakota Avenue and the Riggs Park Shopping Center were not built until the mid-1950s.
The population of the area at this time also began to shift from white to black. New apartment buildings constructed in the 1960s were occupied initially by blacks which pushed the black percentage for the area as a whole even futher up.
The eight census tracts surrounding Fort Totten - from 5th Street NW on the west and Michigan Avenue NE on the south to 18th Street NE on the east and Eastern Avenue on the north - shifted from predominantly white in the 1950s to more than 90 per cent black by 1975.
he population as whole also dropped slightly during that time from more than 55,000 to about 52,000, but the general middle class character of the area remained essentially the same.