A Nov. 25 front-page article misrepresented the position of the Sierra Club's D.C. chapter in the debate over four acres of land being proposed for use in development of a D.C. mayoral mansion. The Sierra Club has not taken a formal position on the matter. The club official quoted in the story was representing his own view. (Published 11/27/02)
The half-dozen neighborhood activists jumped out of their cars, sprinted across Foxhall Road NW and pointed through a metal gate at a white, four-legged creature staring back at them.
"It looks like a unicorn," gasped one woman.
In fact, it was something more earthly -- a rare albino deer. If the animal has been elevated to mythic status, perhaps it is understandable: These activists have made it a symbol in their fight against the expansion of a plan to build a D.C. mayoral mansion for Anthony A. Williams (D) and his successors.
The latest plan for the long-delayed Casey Mansion, proposed 1 1/2 years ago by the Eugene B. Casey Foundation, includes four additional acres that the foundation wants so it can build a service road, guard booth and perimeter fence.
Already, the foundation has purchased 16.5 acres at the old Brady Estate at 1801 Foxhall Rd. NW as part of its $50 million donation to the city for the project.
A growing contingent of neighbors in the affluent neighborhood is outraged by the latest proposal, questioning why the mayor needs more space than President Bush, whose home at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. sits on a mere 18 acres.
The activists say the four acres, owned by the National Park Service, are home to an array of animals and flora, while also serving an important hydrologic function by slowing rainwater runoff and absorbing erosive sediment. They say they fear that political obstacles will prevent the Casey Foundation from building the mansion and that the property will eventually be used for denser development.
"It's the loss of public access to a rare piece of urban parkland," said Howard Bray, who, along with his wife, Ann, was among 37 Foxhall Community Citizen Association members who voted unanimously Wednesday to oppose the Casey Foundation's proposal to obtain the four acres from the National Service. The foundation is offering to exchange two small parcels on the Georgetown waterfront for the parkland.
"It's difficult not to fall in love with it," Bray said of the parkland. "It has an entirely different feel. It's untouched, pristine -- that's what makes it so rare."
If the land is traded to the Casey Foundation, Bray added, "it has the potential to become something else."
Nonsense, said Richard W. Carr, a board member for the Casey Mansion Foundation, who contends that the land deal would benefit the area in several ways.
Building one mansion on the 20.5 acres would limit development by taking up space that otherwise could accommodate 144 homes, Carr said. And the trees on the four acres, which are being destroyed by teeming vegetation, would be treated and saved. Casey Foundation Chairman Betty Brown Casey has also donated $50 million to help save dying trees in the District.
Furthermore, Carr noted, the foundation has agreed to offer the Park Service the right of first refusal to buy back the land if the mansion is never constructed.
"It's pretty simple," Carr said. "The objective has always been to improve the situation in regard to the future of the mansion. That property has never been taken care of. It's suffering. We hope to clean it up. We also thought it was an appropriate location for a second secured entrance to the site. That's the sum total of our motivation."
The mayor, who rents an apartment in Foggy Bottom and has been seeking to purchase a home in the city, chose not to take sides when asked about the debate.
"We hope to work something out with Mrs. Casey and the residents so that we can fulfill her gift to the city," Williams said Friday.
This dispute is just the latest setback in the development of the mansion and illustrates the political minefield of building such a high-profile project.
Casey officials initially said the mansion could be completed by this fall. But architectural designs have yet to be developed, and the project appears at least two years from completion, officials acknowledged. Workers have knocked down a building, cleared undergrowth and planted trees on the 16.5 acres the foundation owns.
When the Casey Foundation offered the gift in February 2001, some activists objected to placing the mansion in the exclusive, high-price Foxhall area, arguing that the mayor should live in a more ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood. But the D.C. Council accepted the gift, saying it would be foolish to turn down such a huge donation.
Now, however, some city officials are raising new questions.
"I have to wonder why the Casey group wants to swap. I don't see what it adds," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who toured the four acres with activists on a recent morning. "I do think there are a lot of unanswered questions for the use of these lands" if the swap is approved.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), in whose ward the mansion would be built, said "the concern that there's an overall loss in public space is very legitimate. It's important not to be excessive."
Because it involves federal parkland, the fate of the land deal will be up to Congress. With the Park Service in favor of the proposal, however, residents say they fear that the swap will be ratified quickly, and they are lobbying Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to fight it. Norton did not respond to several telephone messages left with her staff.
The Park Service has "lost sight of the basic fact that they are supposed to hold the land in trust for the public," said Bob Morris of the Sierra Club's D.C. chapter, which has joined the effort to block the deal. "To enter into an agreement and only have the public involved afterward, you get the feeling it's an annoyance [to the Park Service] to do that."
Joe Cook, chief of land resources for the Park Service, said his department has placed advertisements in newspapers announcing the proposed deal and met with activists several times.
Furthermore, Cook said, the Park Service has built safeguards into the proposal, including a provision that no development can take place on the eastern third of the four-acre site. The Park Service also has agreed to complete an environmental study by Saturday.
"When you look at this thing . . . you have four acres of land that in the worst-case scenario will have a secondary driveway, a gatehouse and a perimeter fence," Cook said. "The property will not be altered very much. It will still serve all the environmental functions it does today. But the upside is that the property remains an open space and the Park Service gets the Georgetown waterfront park townhouses on K Street. It's a win-win for the public."
Some Foxhall activists say they would support the deal under certain conditions. Pete Ross, head of the Foxhall citizens association, said he would endorse it if the Park Service promised to buy back the land if the mansion were not built and agreed to turn the Georgetown waterfront property into a public park. Ross and others fear that the Georgetown land will be used for proposed boathouses for the Georgetown and George Washington university rowing teams.
Carr said the dispute will not discourage the Casey Foundation from continuing the mansion project.
"No matter where you build, you have to go through some process," he said. "That's part of building in an urban environment."
Meantime, residents such as Julia Stevenson will savor their glimpses of wildlife.
"My kids have fallen in love with the herd of deer," said Stevenson, who drives her two children past the parkland each day on their way to Georgetown Day School. "We're worried about displacing them. My kids wrote to the mayor about this, but they never heard back."