Some Needed New Year’s Resolutions

Our River: The Anacostia

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Junkyards Along Lower Beaverdam Creek. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

It’s time for some New Year’s Resolutions for Our River – some for the City, some for our favorite Federal agencies and some for you, Dear Reader. In all cases, we need to focus on improvements in areas that comprise the three “C”s – communication, consistency and conviction.

This is not to say that we don’t have good progress and cooperation under way in many areas. Recent examples include the entire Riverfront Area from the Navy Yard to the Stadium, the beginnings of the Reservation 13 redevelopment along the River below RFK Stadium, and the 11the Street Bridge Project activities in Anacostia neighborhoods. In all these, people are talking and working together on common goals and willingly talking through differences and opinions on where to go.

But there are lots of other areas where there is room for improvement of the three “C”s, where there is confusion, back-tracking, bad communications, potential for danger, or just plain ignorance. Three such areas along our River come to mind: the RFK site, the proposed bridge at the National Arboretum, and the problem of PCB pollution from Lower Beaverdam Creek, which enters the River at the DC line right below the Route 50 bridge. Let’s examine why each of these is food for some New Year’s Resolutions to do better:

The Future of RFK
The plans for the future of the RFK Stadium site have been thrown into confusion by two recent surprises – that the City is working with the owner of the Redskins on plans for a new stadium, and that Congress is looking at ways to transfer the land from the Park Service to the City; it is currently under a 50-year lease that runs out in 2038. While the latter is being driven by the Redskins owner, even if the stadium does not happen it might be a benefit to have the land permanently in City hands. If the Stadium does get built, however, the owner’s plans include a “moat” to be filled with restaurants, shops and office buildings. None of that fits with the current limitations on the lease to sports and entertainment.

And more important, it is contrary to all the plans developed by local residents in recent years with Events DC, the City non-profit that allegedly had the authority to plan the develop of the land. For starters, it would be interesting to know if the folks at Events DC were in on the new stadium discussions or were blind-sided as much as the City Council and the local neighborhoods.   Those earlier plans called for redevelopment of the parking areas north of the stadium into sports fields, playgrounds and a permanent farmers market, among other uses. In fact, there is work already underway removing some of the asphalt. They were also to be consistent with the Mayor’s designation of parts of Kingman and Heritage Islands in the adjacent River as protected wild areas. It is obvious that if the City is now seeking a new stadium  all those efforts are inconsistent with the need for parking cars for 60,000 people.

Bottom line – previous efforts by the local neighborhoods to work with the City through Events DC are in tatters. It is not clear how long this courtship between the Redskins and the City will continue (the owner is also working with the Maryland Governor to get a site from the Park Service near National Harbor). But there is plenty of room for the City to adopt some New Years Resolutions on how to deal better with the City Council and the citizens who have devoted so much time and effort to what happens there along Our River.

The Bridge at the Arboretum
After years of work designing a bridge to cross the River and give access for trail users to enter the National Arboretum, as well as allowing Arboretum visitors to walk to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens (and vice-versa), plans have come up against opposition. The opponents are members of the rowing community who were never consulted on the design of the bridge. Because they represent clubs, colleges and high schools that field rowing and sculling teams in competitions, the safety of students and others learning to row is their highest priority, and the new bridge was designed with piers in the middle of the River in an area otherwise clear of obstructions.

Because the process is so far along, the Park Service has been reluctant to reopen the design and discuss a free-span structure without piers with the boaters. It is not clear if it was ignorance or indifference on the part of the Park Service that led them to fail to consult with so important and fierce a group of users. But their continued resistance to redesigning the structure is not being well received. The claim that a free-span is not a viable option falls deaf on the ears of rowers who start each trip from Bladensburg Marina, where there is an existing free-span longer than the one that would be at the proposed site. The Arboretum supports the idea of the bridge, but has taken no position on the design. But the Park Service, under new leadership in the Anacostia, is overdue for some New Year’s Resolutions about ways of communicating with the public. And they should adopt those Resolutions before taking on the pending transfer of Kenilworth Park to the City, because there is a long history of soil contamination at that site.

Lower Beaverdam Creek
Here we have a creek that drains a large section of Maryland but enters the Anacostia at the DC line, so that all its effects are felt only in the District. Most important it is responsible for 83% of the water-borne PCB’s entering the River, a serious toxic that derives from a variety of sources, including electronic gear and machinery. Amazingly enough, after alleging years of study, the State of Maryland is unable to identify this major source of deadly pollution, which contaminates all the fish and other species in the River. Even more astonishing, shortly before the Creek enters the Anacostia, it passes through a neighborhood of about a dozen large junk yards and recycling centers with enormous piles of abandoned appliances, car parts, wrecked autos and other metal debris. It would seem that some Resolutions about visits to places along Beaver Dam Creek are in order for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

In sum, we all need to adopt some New Year’s Resolutions. As members of the public, we need to get informed, stay informed and demand from our public officials the three “C”s – consistency, conviction and communication.

The Federal agencies need to resolve to communicate better – no surprises, learn better who is using the River for what, and make use of the environmental impact provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act – no “assessments” hidden in drawers, but full Environmental Impact Statements with public comments and, where appropriate, full public hearings.

Maryland officials need to commit to finding the sources of PCB’s and getting them under control, as well as informing the public on progress.

And the City administration needs to give the public and the City Council a sense of confidence that it will stop changing its plans for lands along the River. Some development with protected public riverfront is possible – we’ve proven that – but the sooner the City commits to open space along the River, with carefully constructed areas for development such as Reservation 13, Poplar Point and Buzzard’s Point, the better.

 

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.