The National Park Service will hold its first public meeting this month to determine the future of East Potomac Park, also known as Hains Point--one of the most popular public recreation areas around Washington and for more than five decades a jammed weekend picnicking resort.
Perhaps the most controversial change under consideration is a proposal to eliminate one or two of the park's four nine-hole golf courses, the first and still the cheapest public golf courses in the Washington area.
Previous attempts to close part of the 60-year-old golf complex, one of three public courses left in Washington, have all been dropped because of strong opposition from golfers.
In 1981, golfers played about 100,000 nine-hole rounds in East Potomac Park, up about 30,000 in the past two years. But the Park Service has seen a general decline in use of its city golf courses--150,000 nine-hole rounds were played in 1975 at Hains Point--and two weeks ago the Park Service closed its Langston Golf Course in a dispute with its operator and announced it may soon close its Rock Creek course.
Two basic plans for Hains Point, the 85-year-old island park that has the Jefferson Memorial on its northern tip, will be discussed at the Jan. 27 meeting, at 7:30 p.m. in Park Service headquarters on Hains Point.
The first would keep the park much as it is now, with golf courses, swimming pool and tennis courts, but with improved traffic circulation.
The second plan would eliminate perhaps 18 holes (half of the golf complex) and turn the land into open recreation space for ball fields, picnic areas, possibly some parking lots. It also would improve traffic circulation.
Improving access and easing the traffic jams on Hains Point are major goals of the Park Service plans.
On summer weekends and holidays for the past half dozen years, traffic has been so bad that U.S. Park Police are regularly forced to close off the Ohio Drive access road by noon on Saturdays and Sundays. So many thousands of cars filled with picnickers park along the circular road, on the grass and in the roadway itself, "that Park Police cars and emergency vehicles can't get through," says Park Service spokeswoman Sandra Alley. "They have to patrol on horseback or motorcycles, that's the only way they can get down there."
The park's popularity stems only in part from the golf, tennis and swimming. The vast majority of the 10,000 people who descend on Hains Point on an average summer weekend are picnickers who come to barbecue, fish in the Potomac, watch sailboats and airplanes at National Airport and enjoy the river breeze beneath the cherry trees.
Most of the picnickers are black city residents, many of whose families have been coming regularly since before World War II. Both East and West Potomac Parks have long been popular picnic grounds for Washington's black population, a place for families to find a scenic, peaceful spot outdoors. And picnic was just about all they were permitted to do, since until 1949 blacks were not permitted to play in the segregated golf, tennis and swimming facilities of East Potomac Park. Langston was built specifically for blacks in 1934 and has always been open to all golfers.
Congress recognized the potential of East Potomac Park in 1897 when it decreed that the newly created island must "be forever held and used as a public park for the recreation and enjoyment of the people."
The island was made in the early 1890s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under the command of Maj. Peter C. Hains, dredged shipping channels in the Potomac and along Maine Avenue and created the Tidal Basin. He used the spoil to fill in the huge mud flats and marshes that extended across what are now East and West Potomac Parks, the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool.
Rocks and later a stone wall were put along the river's edge and around East Potomac Park to keep the fill in, but the park has sunk more than six feet since it was built. It is still sinking at the rate of a foot every 10 to 12 years, and needs regular toppings of dirt to stay above river level. Even with constant filling, Hains Point has been flooded at least 40 times; unofficial water holes frequently appear on the golf courses.
The Park Service so far has proposed only general changes for East Potomac Park and is seeking public opinion before making specific recommendations this fall.
But because the park, like nearly all downtown parkland, is on the National Register of Historic Places, the Park Service says it plans no major changes to the older buildings on Hains Point: the original 1922 Greek-columned golf clubhouse and Park Police substation and the 1924 teahouse at the tip of Hains Point, built as a concession stand for Girl Scouts.
The teahouse, briefly converted to a national visitors center in 1962 and since used as an ecological laboratory, conceivably could again become a teahouse or small restaurant.
No major changes are apparently being considered for the swimming pool or the tennis courts, which take up little space and are heavily used. And there are no plans at present to enlarge the three-story regional Park Service and Park Police headquarters or the new Tourmobile garage, all located near the Southwest Freeway and 14th Street bridges over Hains Point.
The most likely place for any changes is the golf course, which "occupies 65 percent of the park's land and serves 16 percent of the visitors," according to a Park Service discussion paper.
The last attempt to eliminate some of the golf courses came in 1964 when a new National Aquarium and huge parking lot were proposed for Hains Point, with a pedestrian bridge linking the island to the Maine Avenue waterfront.
Washington Post cartoonist Herblock challenged then-Secretary of Interior Stewart L. Udall to a golf match to acquaint him with the golf course he planned to eliminate. Herblock lost the match but won a concession from Udall that the golf course would not be touched. The expensive aquarium proposal was later killed in Congress.
But since the first golf course was completed in 1922 and the last of 98 World War I barracks removed, almost no decade has gone bythat Hains Point and the golf courses have not been proposed for elimination. In the 1930s, officials proposed creating a $1 million tourist campground on Hains Point, to replace a small campground already there.
Reaching the people who picnic on Hains Point, the vast majority of those who use the park, is one of the problems the Park Service is having as it considers changes, says William Ruback, superintendent of National Capital Parks-Central. "We're planning to contact civic associations but there is no neighborhood or civic group near Hains Point."
The Park Service has sent out flyers asking for public comment, but has had little response. It plans to keep the record of the Jan. 27 meeting open until March 1, says Ruback, in hopes people will write to the Park Service about Hains Point. Comments should be addressed to Superintendent, National Capital Parks-Central, 900 Ohio Dr. SW, Washington, D.C. 20242.