03 May 2007

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?

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At 03 May, 2007 11:08, Blogger EdTheRed said...

Fisher conveniently forgets that there actually IS a stadium in Rock Creek Park - the 7,500-seat tennis stadium...not to mention the 4,200-seat Carter Barron amphitheater.

At 03 May, 2007 14:56, Anonymous matt w said...

What Fisher wants to ignore is that the neighborhoods around Rock Creek Park aren't exactly crying out for people to invest in them.

A couple of points:
1. Anacostia Park (not a city park -- it's run by the NPS) just upriver from Poplar Point is underutilized. Pretty in spots, maybe, but I didn't get the sense the few times I was there that a whole lot of people from the neighborhoods surrounding it take advantage of its amenities.

Which sort of raises the point -- where exactly is the citizen outcry for another riverside park that's cut off (by 295 and by the river itself) from the parts of the city where people actually live and work and play? If Poplar Point were converted into a city park sort of like Rock Creek Park, who would actually use it? In what way would they use it?

I don't want to stereotype, but I sort of doubt that a Poplar Point Park would be a popular gathering spot for people looking to breathe in the fresh air.

2. I keep going back and forth on this, but Poplar Point does seem like a choice spot to bridge the physical and cultural gap between the parts of the district that are seeing development and those parts of the district that have been neglected. A sss would be essentially the twin of the Nats' stadium across the river, linked by the new, prettified Douglass Bridge. The sss itself, along with the commercial and residential development surrounding it, would then link with the Anacostia metro stop and potential and existing development around that, provided we see the promised pedestrian bridge over 295.

All this would have to be thought through and developed carefully. There would need to be some sort of visually unifying points of emphasis, attractive and welcoming amenities along the way, and a real emphasis on the pedestrian-level experience. But if done right, it could really spur interest in Anacostia (the specific neighborhood), that could then radiate along Howard Road and MLK Avenue.

None of that will happen if you just clean the site up a little and put a couple of teeter-totters and a ballfield in. And it's not guaranteed to happen with a sss. I'm no real estate expert, but it's no secret that there hasn't been much of a push until now for any kind of development in DC anywhere east of the river. This is one big fortuitous chance to get it right. Hope they don't flub it.

At 03 May, 2007 15:07, Anonymous matt w said...

And let me just add that Fisher's anti-soccer bias is pretty appalling. Maybe the pinnacle of the Free Beer Movement would be to get him to Lot 8 and then Section 134 or 135 for the Red Bulls match.

Think he would accept the challenge?

At 03 May, 2007 15:47, Blogger D said...

Ed: You're right. And I should have noted that too, having caught a show there last summer.

Matt W: Point 1 - I agree with you 100%. There is no demand, nor any other environmental reason (endangered species habitat, runoff concerns) that would preclude development that I am aware of.

Point 2 - I agree again. I know Fisher thinks that putting the stadium near bolling AFB is a good idea, but from a smart growth perspective that seems odd, given that it's pushing the location outside of easy walkability to Metro.

Point 3 - I believe it was tried. I think he's still anti-soccer. Sigh.

At 04 May, 2007 12:35, Anonymous matt w said...

D, this will be an ongoing discussion, I'm sure. The opponents (and Fisher, whom I think we can safely number among the opponents) are fishing around for an excuse to oppose the stadium. And like any fishing along the lower Anacostia, what they drag up can't be very healthy.

What I want to know from Fisher et. al. is this: the chief complaint among residents of Ward 8 (and Ward 7) is not lack of green space, but lack of retail, lack of good jobs, lack of new, decent housing. Say Poplar Point becomes a nice little riverside park. Teeter-totters, swings, a ballfield, maybe even a boat dock. Cute, just like a park should be. What sort of economic development spillover into the area across 295 would such a park likely create on its own.? Would those teeter-totters lead inexorably to the opening of a new grocery store in Ward 8? Would the boat dock be able to employ hundreds of kids and adults from the neighborhood?

Maybe we can invite Fisher or one of his informants here to answer those questions.


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