Tucked behind a barbed-wire fence near the Anacostia Metro station is a thicket of weeds, interrupted by six long-abandoned greenhouses where the National Park Service once grew flowers for the offices of Washington's most powerful government leaders.
It's known as Poplar Point, 110 acres just off the eastern end of the Frederick Douglass Bridge, which carries South Capitol Street over the Anacostia River.
The symbolism is inescapable: Prime real estate minutes from Capitol Hill, Poplar Point is an overgrown, neglected gateway to Anacostia, where low-income neighborhoods are starved for economic development and where residents have long complained that the D.C. government doesn't consider them a priority.
That may be about to change.
Poplar Point is the largest of three tracts that D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) is touting for redevelopment as part of a program that aims to revitalize Anacostia--and reverse Southeast Washington's reputation as a high-crime, run-down part of the city that cannot sustain new business.
Williams's administration has held preliminary talks with several potential developers for the site. Parts of the land are owned by the federal government and parts by the city, which would have to agree on any development plan.
City officials envision a commercial center to provide retail outlets for Southeast Washington residents who for years have had to travel to Prince George's County or Northern Virginia to shop. Williams's administration also is proposing Poplar Point as a site for some type of technology education center that would draw workers and students to the area.
Douglas J. Patton, deputy mayor for the Office of Planning and Economic Development, said developers from across the country are coming here this summer to look over Poplar Point and two smaller tracts nearby.
Williams said the District is prepared to use tax breaks and other incentives to lure developers and businesses.
"The market is very strong," the mayor said. "We can talk with a straight face about the District taking steps forward. There is strong interest from major retailers--Kmart, Giant Food, Safeway, Pathmark--in development east of the [Anacostia] river. These are more than idle promises. We'll see real things happening."
It's bold talk about a part of town where residents have long complained that D.C. government has done little to encourage economic development, and where communities lack the supermarkets, drugstores and sit-down restaurants that are staples of other areas.
So it may not be surprising that some Ward 8 residents are a bit skeptical of Williams's program and wonder whether he'll be any more successful than his predecessor, Marion Barry, at improving their neighborhoods.
"For all of Marion Barry's term, they talked about" development, said Jim Bunn, 29, a Ward 8 resident and business owner. "I wouldn't be afraid to bet you it will be another six years and nothing has happened. The mayor's office hasn't been committed enough to see that something gets done there, and the community hasn't been persistent."
Bunn blames D.C. officials for his having to shop in Maryland.
"You can't buy anything in Ward 8," he said. "You want to go to a movie, you have to go to Maryland. You want to go to a bowling alley, you have to go to Maryland. You want to go skating--Maryland."
Other skeptics look at Poplar Point and other potential commercial sites and ask: What's so different now?
Plenty, D.C. officials say.
Although many Southeast Washington residents haven't benefited from the booming economy as much as those who live in wealthier areas, they nevertheless have unprecedented spending power, D.C. officials say.
A promotional brochure distributed by the city indicates that average household income for residents east of the Anacostia River is $38,000, and that the area includes about 150,000 residents who spend $90 million on clothing and accessories, $84 million on furniture and fixtures, $20 million on leisure products and $18 million on entertainment each year.
"There are more people who are working and have more disposable income," said Suman Sorg, the owner of an architectural firm hired by the District to help the redevelopment program. "People have the ability to spend. Crime is going down, and shopkeepers are not afraid. You hardly have a time when all these come together at the same time."
Southeast Washington also is the only area in the District where there is much land to develop, she said.
"All those dollars are just flowing straight across the border to Prince George's County," Sorg said. Poplar Point "is so visible from the highway, it can attract regionally. It's a wonderful idea."
Howard Croft, a former urban affairs professor at the University of the District of Columbia, said that during the 16 years Barry was mayor, most attention was on the city's core.
"The Barry administration really focused on the revitalization of downtown Washington," Croft said. "For all of those years, they didn't have a strategy for revitalizing neighborhoods. The neighborhoods were secondary to downtown development."
Now, with downtown's redevelopment effort maturing, Croft said Williams is "talking in concrete terms about projects and government as a potential catalyst for economic development" east of the Anacostia River. He and other analysts said such efforts may help Williams respond to some activists' claims that he does not understand the needs of low-income residents.
The green-and-white brochure recently released by the mayor's office outlines Williams's vision for commercial development at Poplar Point and several other neighborhoods east of the Anacostia:
A shopping center with fast-food restaurants sitting atop a broad plateau overlooking the river. Retail shops with spectacular views of the District's skyline. An "urban town center" that would offer a series of community services for D.C. residents.
Retta Gilliam, president of the East of the River Community Development Corp., said she's excited about the blueprint, which includes areas in Wards 6, 7 and 8.
"What makes me more optimistic is I've had private conversations with developers who say this thing might really work," Gilliam said. There's "a greater sense of urgency [under Williams]. We have a sense now that even in small neighborhood developments . . . the city is willing to step in [to help developers get] permits, zoning. It's a lot easier for us."
Williams acknowledges that countering Southeast Washington's reputation for crime is a primary hurdle. Besides spotlighting the recent drop in homicide and other violent crimes, he said he is taking other steps to try to make the area more attractive to businesses. He has ordered the demolition of several abandoned buildings, and he has identified six drug markets that police will close down.
The mayor also said he may transfer some D.C. agencies to new neighborhood offices, providing retailers with potential customers.
Lamont Mitchell, a special assistant to the mayor involved in the Anacostia redevelopment efforts, said the environment is finally right.
"This is an opportunity that will come along once in a lifetime," Mitchell said. "The city owes it to the community to turn this around and bring goods and services. I think it will work."
East of the River
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams is supporting an initiative to revitalize several sections of Anacostia. Below are three areas where development would be concentrated.
1. POPLAR POINT
Strategic significance: Site has on- and offramps to the Anacostia Freeway, leading to both north and south, and to Suitland Parkway, leading east. An underground connection on the west side of the freeway provides access to the Metro station. The site provides dramatic views of the river and monuments.
Development possibilities: Proposals for a regional shopping center and higher education complex have been made.
2. ANACOSTIA METRO
Strategic significance: Easily accessible; a terminus of Metro's Green Line and well served by regional roadways: bordered by Howard Road on the north; Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue on the east, Suitland Parkway on the south and the Anacostia Freeway on the west.
Development possibilities: Currently occupied by the Anacostia Metro station and a Metrobus transit center. Near the proposed Anacostia Museum. Various scenarios for development exist, including an arts and sciences school for high school students.
3. ANACOSTIA GATEWAY
Strategic significance: One of the oldest neighborhoods in the District; an important entrance to the city east of the river; site lies between two roadways that connect directly with the on- and offramps of the 11th Street bridge; located on a bluff overlooking downtown Washington.
Development possibilities: Office building (up to 200,000 square feet), plaza with cafes and small-scale retail stores.
SOURCE: Office of Planning & Economic Development