Most spring mornings for the past 10 years, Walter Lester has walked to the lush grass of Anacostia Park near Anacostia Avenue and Blaine Street NE. He usually brings about six golf balls and his 8-iron.
With the Anacostia River rolling at his back, Lester arcs a line of evenly spaced balls into the breeze. The morning is perfect on this wide expanse of national parkland, but Lester's only company is a flock of honking geese. A nearby gazebo is in need of repair, a cement walking trail is overrun with grass and a playground nearby is deserted. He thinks he knows the reason.
"No one cares about this park anymore," Lester said. "In the summertime, the grass grows so high, I lose most of my golf balls. It's like they forgot about this park. Kids used to play baseball out here, but not anymore."
City planners said they know another reason the park has few visitors: It is utterly landlocked by the Benning Street Bridge to the north and the East Capitol Street Bridge to the south. There's no easy way for anyone to traverse its overgrown walking trail from any other section of the city -- not even folks from just a few neighborhoods over.
Fixing such problems, city planners say, is at the heart of an enormous revitalization project to turn the Anacostia River into a world-class waterfront. Some have said that the effort is on a par with the McMillan Commission Plan for Washington of 1902, which led to the formation of the National Mall.
The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative aims to reshape a 2,800-acre, seven-mile corridor along the Anacostia River from the Potomac River to the Maryland border. It is a multibillion-dollar plan for continuous riverfront walkways and for sports and cultural attractions. It envisions revitalized natural habitats; more business and office space; and new bridges, transit, roads and housing.
The initiative hinges on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and local funds. Some of the money has already begun to flow, but much of it will have to be squeezed out of budgets far into the future.
The first campaign event of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), a canoeing enthusiast, was at Kingman Island on the Anacostia River. There, he promised to put the river back on the map. The initiative is one of the mayor's top priorities, he said -- the most ambitious transformation in the nation's capital and one of only a few large-scale waterfront revitalization projects in the country.
A plan is in the final stages of drafting by a consortium of city, federal and community planners. Parts of it are already under construction, but the comprehensive proposal pulling it all together is scheduled to be released to the public for review and comment this summer.
"This is the most important thing to me, long-term, legacy-wise, in terms of leaving a physical imprint on the city," Williams said in an interview last week. "When I got involved in Washington, D.C., years ago and saw the state of the Anacostia River, it just seemed to me that to have the capital of the world on one of the most polluted rivers in the country was a gross irony that had to be addressed."
The multilayered plan calls for cleaning up pollution and undoing decades of poor city planning -- or lack of planning -- that focused on speeding people out of the city, said D.C. Planning Director Andrew Altman. Disorderly swatches of highways and bridges cut off existing waterfront neighborhoods from the river, he said. The city has long been divided by the Anacostia River -- symbolically, economically and physically -- and not only can be reconnected through smart reinvestment but also made into a destination in itself, much like the Charles River in Boston or the Thames of London, Altman said.
At the initiative's core is this simple concept: connections. Parklands along the Anacostia, which are mostly the providence of the National Park Service, should be connected by continuous walking paths and bike trails, together called the Anacostia Riverwalk and Trail.
Renderings by city planners paint a futuristic picture of an almost utopian Washington. Reclining sunbathers enjoy an outdoor amphitheater at the now-barren Poplar Point; wide sidewalks flank clean, new bridges where new light-rail cars pass; and rolling hills mark new waterfront parks where kite-flying visitors casually stroll by as if on the esplanade in Battery Park in Manhattan or Seattle's Pike Place Market.
Whooping cranes stand sentry over a lush outgrowth of mossy cattails, and kayakers and canoeists glide under pristine new bridges.
Museums, hotels, restaurants, monuments and constellations of new homes -- public housing coexisting with market-rate housing -- pepper the expanse of leafy boulevards.
"It's about the transformation of the city for the next 100 years," Altman said. "Our goal is to put the Anacostia River on the map -- but not just on the map, but at the center of the map."
Not everyone is pleased with the plan. Public forums invariably draw citizens who are skeptical, fearful the initiative will damage wildlife along the river or fail to include enough neighborhoods for revitalization. Many fear it will accelerate gentrification -- pushing people with modest incomes out of the neighborhoods and replacing them with the rich. And some are dubious because so many bold government efforts of the past have come to naught.
From Plans to Promises
The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative is not just a plan on paper. Projects in several key neighborhoods have been approved or are underway. A total of $2 billion in public and private funds has been either spent or committed to the Near Southeast section of the city near the Washington Navy Yard. That includes a new residential and commercial enclave at the long-vacant Southeast Federal Center, anchored by a new U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters complex.
It also includes a planned new mixed-income neighborhood across M Street SE -- which would result from a federally subsidized redevelopment of the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg public housing complexes.
A redevelopment plan for the Southwest Waterfront, including the Maine Avenue Fish Wharf, was made available for public comment early this year and will be submitted to the D.C. Council for approval later this spring.
The council last year approved the city's plan to transform the shuttered D.C. General Hospital campus into a mixed-use waterfront neighborhood over the next two decades.
If all goes well with funding and government approvals, Altman said, in five years a noticeable change should emerge in D.C.'s landscape. By 2025, when the entire plan could be complete, the Anacostia Waterfront could be the "new center of 21st Century Washington."
"The McMillan Plan created the federal image of the Mall," said Uwe S. Brandes, the initiative's project manager. "The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative will completely overhaul the quality of life in the District."
This year's federal appropriations for the District include nearly $65 million for Anacostia River projects. President Bush has proposed $25 million in next year's budget, including $15 million to continue work on preventing sewage from pouring into the river during heavy rains, and $10 million toward the Anacostia Riverwalk, bringing the total federal contribution to $90 million -- beyond the $2 billion spent on or committed to the Near Southeast section. More money has been promised by the city and the private sector, although there are no specific figures yet. The cost of cleaning up the river alone will approach $2 billion, planners said.
"I go by the old Japanese proverb," Williams said. "And that says that a vision without action is a daydream, and an action without a vision is a nightmare. What we're doing is connecting a vision and action into an action agenda."
A Five-Point Strategy
The initiative, which is based on a $1.4 million, two-year study by the D.C. Office of Planning in cooperation with more than 15 public agencies as well as citizen groups, has five themes:
* Cleaning up the river.
"The cleanup is going to be the hardest part," Brandes said. The pollution of the river is "severe," among the worst in the Chesapeake Bay region. The 176-square-mile Anacostia watershed spans Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the District. About 80 percent of it lies in Maryland. As a result, planners said, most of the pollutants originate in Maryland.
* Undoing the mistakes of past city planners.
Altman seeks to rethink the design of transportation projects to allow residents access to the waterfront. The Anacostia Riverwalk and Trail -- a continuous pedestrian and bicycle trail 20 miles long -- would have three new pedestrian and bike crossings at Kenilworth Park, Massachusetts Avenue and the Washington Channel.
All activities along the waterfront, planners said, must be linked by the riverwalk, and public transportation must be enhanced. A new waterfront light rail is central to this vision, which might also include water taxi service.
Planners also want to redesign several bridges across the Anacostia, in the tradition of Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston or London's Millennium Bridge, so they will become less of a barrier between neighborhoods and waterfront parks.
Last March, the District received $500,000 in U.S. highway funds to begin redesigning the deteriorating South Capitol Street corridor and the rusting Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. Among the options are to build a new bridge that would arc farther south on the eastern side of the river to avoid bisecting Poplar Point, or to build a tunnel under the Anacostia River for commuter traffic and erect a smaller bridge for pedestrians and local traffic.
City planners also want to rebuild the 11th Street Bridge and the Officer Kevin J. Welsh Memorial Bridge (known as the 11th Street bridges)to improve connections between neighborhoods on either side of the river; to extend main streets from neighborhood centers east of the river to the waterfront (such as Martin Luther King Boulevard, Minnesota Avenue, Benning Road and Pennsylvania Avenue SE); to transform the Anacostia Freeway into a scenic green parkway with slower traffic; and to create a new public road at the Hill East waterfront -- the new name for the former D.C. General area -- for access to the park.
Several key streets, including M and Eighth streets SE, are already being reconstructed.
* Eliminating the patchwork of parkland along the Anacostia River by making parks continuous.
City planners said they want to add 100 acres of parkland with five new parks, one at Poplar Point and others near the Southeast Federal Center and Hill East waterfronts. The 65-acre park at Poplar Point might include gardens, commemorative spaces, an amphitheater, a major cultural institution and a National Park Service visitors center.
They also envision about 20 acres of festival grounds, including a "sports campus" -- combining several sports fields with the riverfront park system -- in the area of RFK Stadium that would be home to the D.C. United soccer team, along with new gathering spaces and plazas at the Southwest Waterfront.
Watts Branch Park is guaranteed more than $100 million of public funding for the rebuilding of trails and bridges, to restore streams that have been diverted into culverts and to make sewer system improvements.
* Increasing cultural attractions.
Altman said that as the city looks for more places to develop, there is an unavoidable draw to the south and east. The Anacostia riverfront plan envisions the creation of 10 sites for museums, 15 sites for future memorials, and amenities such as cultural parks at M Street SW and Poplar Point SE. He believes they could attract more than 20 million visitors a year to the river.
The National Park Service and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission have received $5 million to begin designing recreational fields in Kenilworth Park. The city's Department of Housing and Community Development has $2.8 million to help revitalize the Maine Avenue Fish Wharf and the Washington Marina.
* Building strong waterfront neighborhoods.
These would provide housing for more than 20,000 additional mixed-income households, toward the mayor's goal of attracting 100,000 new residents to Washington. Altman said the city would invest in existing neighborhoods to ensure that current residents have improved services and amenities, would revitalize existing commercial areas and would connect these historic centers to new public amenities.
The transformation includes redeveloping the D.C. General Hospital site, called Reservation 13, as Hill East waterfront -- an urban, multiuse district with 3.2 million square feet of health-care and office space, 35,200 square feet of retail space and about 800 new residential units. This concept also calls for restoring the Carrollsburg neighborhood on the Near Southeast waterfront with more than 5,000 units of housing and 15 million square feet of commercial space, including 1,500 to 2,000 new housing units at Southeast Federal Center.
City planners also want to redo the Southwest Waterfront, with about 800 housing units, 500,000 square feet of commercial space and 180,000 square feet of cultural sites.
Altman said city officials expect to release their draft document detailing the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative in early summer. Then there will be a series of public hearings before the plan goes to the D.C. Council for approval. After that, it will require approval from the National Capital Planning Commission.
Wayne Young, 46, sitting on his porch in the 300 block of Anacostia Avenue SE, overlooking the river, said it has long been an eyesore. "It's polluted," he said. Neighborhood kids "don't go down there too much. The water's too dirty."
Young said he's in favor of the city's plan to clean the river and make it an attractive new destination, but he wonders whether it can be done. "I'm also afraid that they're going to raise our taxes. I mean, I think it needs to be done, but does that mean that new people will move in here and try to get these houses, and those people like us who have lived here will have to move out because we can't afford the higher property taxes?"
Altman responded that displacement can be prevented. "Because of the size of these sites, there's ample opportunity for new affordable housing to be developed," he said.
Young is still skeptical.
"I can't see it happening," he said. "With everything going on in the world, there's not going to be any money to go around. It sounds like a pipe dream."
But the mayor said funding should not be a problem. "A lot of the investments we have are locked in, and they're going to happen irregardless," he said. "I think as we come out of the war situation, we're going to climb out of the doldrums economically, and I think the city is going to do well.
"In 20 years, you're going to see that Washington, D.C., really set a national standard."