A valuable piece of land in Anacostia that once belonged to an ex-slave is the object of a tug-of-war among several governmental agencies, the city and community residents.
The issue is whether to use the land for storage, a tree nursery or badly needed commercial development in an economically depressed area in Southeast Washington.
The property, a former World War II military installation called Camp Simms, is owned by the federal government and controlled by the General Services Administration, an agency that wants to continue using the old warehouses for storage.
The Smithsonian Institution, another contender for the camp, wants to build warehouses there. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority proposes to relocate a federal tree nursery to Camp Simms in order to make way for Metrorail's Green Line to Southeast.
Meanwhile, Ward 8 residents want the land to be used for commercial development that would create jobs and for housing in an area that experienced 11.9 percent unemployment last year when the citywide rate was 9.8 percent. Residents say part of the land could be used for a shopping center. The Camp Simms area has only one major supermarket and no drug stores.
"We think it's stupid for the federal government to put a tree nursery in the middle of the most economically disadvantaged community in the city when it goes against the very grain of Reagan administration policies when it comes to using what you have to the fullest extent," said Leona Redmond, chairman of the Ward 8 Fellowship Council, a group of local residents who organized last year to try to prevent Camp Simms from becoming a nursery.
The two-year-old fight over the 25-acre camp, located between Alabama and Mississippi avenues, Stanton Road and 15th Street SE, may soon end as Metro proceeds with its plans to begin the Green Line subway this year. In order to make way for the southern extension of the subway line into Anacostia, Metro must tunnel through a federal tree nursery and canine kennel located along the Anacostia River near the Naval Annex.
Before it can destroy that site, Metro must find a new home for the nursery, which belongs to the Architect of the Capitol, whose office is responsible for landscaping and care of the buildings in and around the Capitol and the Botanical Gardens. Metro considers Camp Simms the best spot to relocate the large nursery.
In the early 1800s, the Camp Simms site was part of what was known as "The Ridge," which was purchased in 1820 by Tobias Henson, a slave who bought his freedom. The Henson family eventually changed its name to Hanson and its farmland holdings increased to 81 acres, eventually becoming the core of what was known as "Stantontown." In 1945, the federal government forced the residents to sell their land to make way for an Army post and housing projects for the families of World War II soldiers.
Now, according to Redmond, that area is part of Ward 8, which is home for about 78,000 District residents, many of whom live in substandard housing and receive some form of public assistance. Redmond insists that because Ward 8 is poor, the concerns of its residents often are ignored by the city.
Redmond said she has petitioned Mayor Marion Barry and City Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) about the disposition of Camp Simms.
"We may have a good chance of getting the land ," Rolark said. She says she has written several letters to city officials supporting the use of Camp Simms by Ward 8, but added that the final decision is up to the federal government.
Redmond said that in response to the citizen's group, the mayor asked his Office of Planning and Development to acquire the land for the city. Planning and Development Director John McKoy said his office is "trying to work out a solution. . . . We don't want to jeopardize or delay development of Metro." McKoy said his office and the city's departments of transportation and business and economic development are looking for an alternative site for the nursery.
Redmond said she attended a meeting last week with City Administrator Elijah Rogers and other city officials. She said Rogers agreed that the city should try to secure Camp Simms from GSA. Redmond also said that the group agreed that the city will offer the Architect of the Capitol a vacant tract of land for a nursery near D.C. Village. That land probably will have to be transferred to the architect by congressional legislation, however, Redmond said. She said she is hoping that, if legislation is introduced in Congress, it also will include a request to turn Camp Simms over to Ward 8.
Elliot Carroll, spokesman for the office of the Architect of the Capitol, said that other sites for the nursery have been suggested, but so far none of them has been suitable. Carroll said his organization would not be opposed to another location if one can be found.
"From our point of view, we are waiting for WMATA and the city to settle this thing," he said.
As far as Albert J. Roohr, Metro's head of site planning, is concerned, the matter is settled. He said WMATA has "worked out a deal" for moving the nursery to Camp Simms. As for Ward 8 residents' opposition to the plan, Roohr said, "I haven't been in on it." He said he assumes the residents have been informed. "There are always a group of citizens who oppose everything. . . . I don't think anyone wants to hold up the construction of the Anacostia station," he said.
The Anacostia station on Howard Road SE will be the first on the Green Line to be built across the river. The second stop, called Congress Heights, will be on Alabama Avenue near Camp Simms.
"WMATA is trying to blackmail us into submission," said William Washburn, vice president of planning for the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, one of several community organizations that probably would be involved in planning housing or industry for Camp Simms. Washburn says Metro officials have suggested to him that if moving the nursery to Camp Simms is stalled, construction of the Green Line may be lost altogether.
But community leaders say it need not be that way and they hope another accommodation can be made. In the meantime, discussions about the best use of Camp Simms continue. A 1979 study by the Office of Planning and Development suggested that the land could be used for new homes and a shopping center or could be reserved as a historical park, Washburn said.
Last year the urban studies department at the University of the District of Columbia did a similar feasibility study for GSA suggesting that local residents would profit most by building some job-creating light industry and senior citizen housing. Washburn's group favors any combination of these possibilities.
Washburn and McKoy also said that Safeway, Zayre and People's Drug stores have expressed an interest in building new stores in Southeast should the land become available.
"Now," says Redmond, "the only people we have to fight is GSA."