National Capital Parks Director Jack Fish has pledged to begin an extensive landscaping and beautification program this fall along the George Washington Memorial Parkway between Washington and Alexandria.
Local civic groups have been accusing the Park Service not only of neglecting that section of the federal government's oldest parkway but of inviting development along it and "turning it into just another freeway."
On a tour of the parkway last Friday, Fish called the section around National Airport "definitely in need of some work" and said Park Service landscape designers will review and come up with a new landscape plan for the entire area. He also pledged that the roadway, opened in 1932 and hailed as America's most beautiful parkway, would not be widened. "It still is a very special, scenic roadway, a gateway to Mount Vernon . . . and we do not see it primarily as a commuter route," Fish said.
While Fish did not name any specific dollar amount for parkway improvement, his recently-appointed parkway superintendent, Donald Castleberry, said there are discretionary funds in the budget and a large and capable maintenance and horticultural staff that can be committed to such a project.
A similar review of parkland around the Tidal Basin resulted in 500 to 600 new cherry and other trees being planted there last fall, Fish said. The Park Service also has been doing extensive planting along the parkway around Memorial Bridge and, Fish said, a similar effort now will be made south of the 14th Street Bridge.
The six-mile section between the 14th Street Bridges and Alexandria is the most densely developed, with National Airport parking lots and buildings expanding to the east side and Crystal City high-rise buildings edging closer on the west. Five new bridges and a Metro subway tunnel also have been built along the section in the past 10 years. And it is one of several parts of the parkway that commuters are urging the Park Service to widen to six lanes.
What local residents and conservationists consider the latest major threat to the parkway, however, is a proposed mammoth $150 million high-rise office complex just south of the airport. It would have its major entrance directly onto the parkway, over a four-lane bridge with traffic lights, parallel roads and seven separate entrances and exits into the development.
Called Potomac Center, the office development is planned to be within 200 feet of the parkway. It would be almost as large and twice as high as Crystal City, with buildings ranging up to 29 stories, and parking for more than 18,000 cars, according to the latest figures given the Park Service by developer Charles Fairchild. Fairchild said last month, however, that the exact size of the project has yet to be determined.
The development was made possible by a 1970 land swap, now being challenged in U.S. District Court, between Fairchild and the Park Service. The government traded access to the parkway to Fairchild for 29 acres of marshland he owned south of Alexandria at Dyke Marsh. The trade was designed to forestall first a high-rise development Fairchild proposed for Dyke Marsh and then a Palm Beach-type [WORD ILLEGIBLE]housing development them which Fairchild said he planned to create by dredging and filling the marsh to make canals and boat docks.
The suit against the Park Service over the Potomac Center, to be heard before U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Gasch July 13, was brought by local citizens and sailors who use the marina on Daingerfield Island south of the airport and who claim the Park Service approved the land swap without the required environmental reviews.
Kenneth R. Williams, president of Alexandria's Northeast Citizens Association, and one of those suing the Park Service, said this week "the real problem is development. Alexandria, Arlington and the airport are all expanding along the parkway, without looking ahead . . . and then, once the developments are built, there is pressure for more and bigger roads." He said the parkway along the airport already is the "busiest, least attractive and worst maintained" section and that its future appears bleak, particularly if the Potomac Center is built.
Fish and other Park Service officials are now having second thoughts about the land swap that would make the Potomac Center possible. Fish last year proposed buying out Fairchild's access rights to the parkway, something the Park Service now estimates could cost more than $1 million and would require a congressional appropriation.
Potomac Center is not the first highrise complex proposed along the parkway and the river, although it would be the largest and the highest.
The City of Alexandria, whose residents in 1883 first suggested the idea of a memorial road (for horse and carriage) to Washington's home and grave at Mount Vernon, has since World War II actively encouraged intensive highrise development both along the parkway and the river and near its own historic district. The parkway now is included in the city's historic district, which gives it some zoning protection but only along the parkway's narrow right of way.
In the 1950s, the city broke the "irrevocable easement" it had signed with the federal government in 1929, promising not to commercialize or detract from the "dignity" of Washington Street (as the parkway is called as it passes through Alexandria). The Park Service kept up its end of the agreement for several decades by paying and repairing Washington Street. It was mostly unpaved in 1929 and was lined with old homes. Many of them have since been replaced by gas stations, motels and commercial establishments.
The first of the city's high rises appeared in 1949 when the city permitted the construction of Hunting Tower apartments, then the tallest and largest apartment complex in post-war Washington and the first to be built directly on the Potomac. Apparently there were no objections to it raised by the Park Service, and few citizens saw it as a threat to the parkway. Newspaper accounts praised the building for the view it would provide its tenants.
The Park Service was involved with several highly-controversial Alexandria high-rise proposals in the mid 1960s and inadvertently stalled several large projects in the 1970s because of its claim that much of the city's shore is actually government land, a claim still before a U.S. District Court. One of the recently dropped proposals was for a second Watergate, but two-to-three times higher than the buildings beside the Kennedy Center. The waterfront land it was planned for is now a city park, following a land swap in which the city gave Watergate developers a former school site nearby. Watergate is building townhouses on it.
When the Park Service was beginning to negotiate the Fairchild land swap in the mid-1960s, it also was unsuccessfully opposing a 15-story apartment complex. Marina Towers, which the city had approved just south of the sailing marina by the Pepco power plant.
And the Park Service was vacillating on a second huge apartment complex at Hunting Towers, this one proposed to be built by filling marshes and mud-flats where Hunting Creeks flows into the Potomac. Top Park Service officials, under then Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall, initially opposed filling the marshes here, just as they were opposing Fairchild's plan to fill marshes at Dyke Marsh less than three miles downriver. But they then reversed themselves and refused to allow Park Service and wildlife officials, who steadfastly opposed the project from appearing and speaking at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hearing on the landfill.
The second Hunting Towers project was killed in 1969 when newly appointed Interior Secretary Walter J. Hickel again put his agency on record against the high-rise project. The Potomac River shoreline, he told a congressional committee, has been "desecrated" enough.