Wednesday, January 23, 2008

1/15/08: The Washington Post - Poplar Point Prospects Prompt Dialogue

Soccer Stadium Among Possibilities

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; Page B01

The District government publicly unveiled several proposals last month to turn Poplar Point, a 110-acre swath of parkland along the An
acostia River, into a regional attraction. Since then, the possibilities for jobs and development have a lot of people expressing an opinion as the area moves another step closer to a plan being realized.

At least two plans include options for a soccer stadium, an idea that has enjoyed the backing of D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) but doesn't have as much support across the city. A Washington Post poll of 1,000 residents conducted last week showed that 36 percent favored using public funds for a soccer stadium, but 60 percent opposed it.

A soccer stadium is just one of a number of issues about Poplar Point's future that have energized the discussion in Anacostia.

In a small community center, the Historic Anacostia Block Association held an hour-long discussion about the plans and the community's future. At a church, Barry gathered residents to hear their input. On the Web, a blog devoted to Anacostia news is conducting a poll of residents on the proposals.

"For the most part, folks are generally excited about what they're seeing," said Charles E. Wilson, co-founder of the block association, who moderated the discussion. "It's always good to have healthy discussion. We're not trying to come to consensus. We're trying to see how people feel."

The future of Poplar Point has been on the minds of Ward 8 residents for more than three years, ever since District officials announced plans to acquire the property from the federal government. But now that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has said he will choose a "master developer" this month to partner with the city, the project has taken on a sense of urgency in a community that has grown impatient with the city's pace.

Last week, the Fenty administration narrowed the competition to three development teams: Clark Realty Capital, Forest City and a joint effort from Archstone Smith and Madison Marquette. A winner could be announced next week, administration officials said.

Neil O. Albert, Fenty's deputy mayor for economic development, has said that the selection will be based largely on which developer has the expertise and finances to pull off a massive project that is rife with challenges. The city must relocate the National Park Service from the site and prepare the land for construction. It could take two more years before a developer breaks ground on the shops and restaurants that residents are so eager for, and a decade before the majority of the project is complete, city officials said.

Ultimately, Albert said, whichever developer is selected almost certainly will be asked to change plans several times. For residents, regardless of the winning selection, key factors are jobs and business opportunities in the city's poorest ward, where unemployment has hovered around 12 percent, the highest in the District.

"I'm willing to work with whoever wins," said M.J. Lee, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. "But we will be holding people accountable because, in the past, the government has failed in terms of awarding people jobs."

Under the terms of the competitive bid process established by the Fenty administration, the developers were asked to agree that 51 percent of all new jobs created by the Poplar Point development would go to District residents, with 20 percent reserved for residents of Ward 8. In addition, 35 percent of the contracts awarded by the master developer must go to small, disadvantaged businesses, including 10 percent located in Ward 8.
But many residents don't just want to be hired -- they want an ownership stake in the development. At a lively meeting on the Poplar Point plans called by Barry at the Bethlehem Baptist Church on a recent Saturday morning, Jackie Ward, a neighborhood activist, urged the audience of about 50 to ask the developers for equity.

"We have to go to the companies and tell them we want our people trained and the mechanisms to make sure our people can take advantage," she said.

The Fenty administration has asked the companies to wait until a winner is selected before talking with residents about the specifics of economic opportunities.

Each development team included in its plan such basics as housing, retail, restaurants and a 70-acre park mandated as part of the transfer of control of Poplar Point from the federal government to the city. It's the "extras" that have people talking.

So far, Clark's proposal has emerged as the favorite. The plan includes a three-block "deck" that would be built over Interstate 295 so that residents could walk from historic Anacostia to the new development, an environmental museum and business hub, a charter school and an optional soccer stadium.

Clark got the biggest reaction from the crowd of 300 who attended the public unveiling of the plans last month at Birney Elementary School. And of the 52 votes registered in the online poll at the Web site, 38 have gone to Clark.

"They seemed to hit every aspect -- a school, retail, housing, entertainment, a museum for green space, national parkland," said Greta Fuller, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. "We want to see more than housing; we want to see our community have its own grandstand. We go to Georgetown, U Street, Old Town, but where do we really go in Ward 8?"

Clark's rise has been aided by Barry and his allies, who have supported building a 27,000-seat soccer stadium for D.C. United at Poplar Point. Fenty broke off negotiations with team owner Victor B. MacFarlane last summer, saying his proposal to build a mixed-use development anchored by the stadium required too much public subsidy.

Barry, who has criticized Fenty for snubbing MacFarlane, is supporting the two plans that include stadiums, Clark's and the proposal from Archstone Smith and Madison Marquette.

MacFarlane, who was in attendance when the proposals were unveiled last month, is said to be interested in investing in the project, no matter which company wins.

The Ward 8 community continues to be divided.

"Residents who are asking for a stadium lack vision about . . . what else we can bring. That's dangerous and limiting, " Cynthia Davenport told her neighbors during the Historic Anacostia Block Association meeting. A stadium "would endanger the environs, and add to traffic. . . . The reason I live here is green space."

But Catherine Buell disagreed. To her, Ward 8 needs a major draw, something to attract outsiders to Poplar Point. "We do not necessarily need a stadium," she responded to Davenport, "but we need a reason for people to come to this big mass of land."

Yavocka Young, who bought her house in historic Anacostia 14 years ago, said during the block association meeting that she had considered moving because of the lack of basic services in her neighborhood. But after seeing the Poplar proposals, Young, the executive director of Main Street Anacostia, a nonprofit economic development group, said, "It makes me want to say, 'I'm staying.' ".

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