No Cause Is So Noble...
Marc Fisher in the Washington Post brings out the newest potential hurdle for the Poplar Point development deal: Poplar Point should be a park. In an interview with Brian Van Wye, he poses this parallel:
"If somebody said they were going to build a stadium and condos and shopping centers in Rock Creek Park, there'd be a storm of protest and the idea would be dead in a day."
Wye is 100% correct in that statement, but Fisher and Wye err in drawing a simple parallel to Poplar Point. According to Fisher, the politicians and developers that destroyed Poplar Point and the ones looking to develop it are one and the same, and the environmental concerns will naturally be trampled:
It's [Poplar Point] a hellish wreck, a field of broken glass, rusted radiators, bizarrely twisted pipes, all left to rot because, hey, the politicians figure, the people who live here won't squawk.
Inevitably, politicians and developers will point to this mess and say, see, it's not a park anymore, it needs to be paved over. But there's no such need: Anacostia, sadly enough, is full of empty spaces crying out for development. Every bit of the economic boost the Fenty administration pines for can be accomplished just outside the park, on sites with spectacular river views. And Poplar Point could become what was always intended -- another Rock Creek Park.
If true, it would be a fascinating argument. Only, of course, it isn't. If Anacostia was "full" of places as described by Fisher, then why wouldn't developers have come in already? Why wait on such a laborious process as the land-swap deal with all the inherent risk that comes with it? Because, quite simply, the places aren't the same. There's also a great assertion that is made with no evidence what-so-ever: that Poplar Point was always intended to be another Rock Creek Park. That may be true in the eyes of a few people, but I find no evidence to support this claim among representatives of the District at large.
Still, this line of reasoning may well prove effective. Environmental concerns are powerful ones, and should be respected. The problem is that too frequently environmentalism is a front of other agendas. Let me tell you a story.
About ten years ago, I was in high school in Montgomery County. My high school had the largest student population on the smallest campus size in the county. The overcrowding was incredible. When the ball rang to change classes, large traffic jams of hundreds of students would wedge against one another in the small corridors, people pushing shoulders to get to class in the allotted time. Fortunately, the county had decided that a new, larger high school would be built.
The problem was that this high school was proposed for a new location, near a fairly affluent residential neighborhood. My high school was also referred to as a "majority minority school," the white student population was only about 30%. You can imagine the horror stories spun by the neighborhood associations that were developed and traded around the garden fences. Yet using racially tinged objections to a plan was clearly a non-starter politically, so instead the anti-high school forces and their associated NIMBYs found a new objection: The proposed high school site was to be built on "ecologically vulnerable wetlands." Nevermind that the wetlands had been created artificially due to transportation improvements. The NIMBY groups clothed their objections in environmental grounds, asked for environmental study after study, and tried to scuttle the project in that manner. Ultimately, it failed, but the cheap attempt to gain the moral high ground for some people that were acting in a borderline racist manner stuck with me.
The point isn't that this is a racial debate. The point is that environmentalism is always the cheap disguise that can be adopted by anti-development forces to hide their true objectives. For real environmentalism, this is a disservice to their cause. I have no doubt that Mr. Wye is in earnest in his objections. But I wonder who will glom onto his line of reasoning to support their own objectives? Mr. Fisher may be the first.
That Marc opposes the proposed development concept is in no doubt. He's made that clear, but previously he clothed his objections in the guise of a populist crusader. Viewing the DC Government through the lens of Tammany Hall, he constructed a vision of a compliant City facilitating the rapacious machinations of rich developers to exploit the common tax payer. It's a powerful narrative, and because Mr. Fisher is an excellent writer he knows the power of narrative. In fact, he has settled on the narrative before understanding anything of the deal that is on the table. As we have noted: There is no deal on the table yet, but Mr. Fisher has already decided that he will be the champion of the weak against the powerful. He may be right, but he's also premature. Still, that's the power of narrative, it lures you into a mindset. It assumes a natural progression of events that one would expect. In fact, you'll only look for those events that fit the narrative, that reinforce the preconceived notions that you have about the way in which this story must be told. He will look, and he will find only the stories that confirm his view. In his search for allies, he will find them, and once again he can tell their story the same way he told his original story: Powerful, selfish, greedy politicians and developers will exploit the land and the people. It is a story as old as the Canterbury Tales (and since the Canterbury tales were primarily re-tellings of other stories, probably even older.)
The problem with this is that the deal that's eventually presented may well offer a win-win scenario for all involved. Such things can, and do, happen. Mutual benefit is more often the rule than the exception in financial dealings. That's not to say the exploitative agreements aren't reached, or that this deal won't be awful. But wouldn't it be worse if the deal proposed by McFarlane and the City was truly beneficial to all involved, and Mr. Fisher opposed it simply out of authorial necessity? Wouldn't the ultimate result be that everyone lost?