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Last month, developer Douglas Jemal purchased a nine-story office building at 1900 Half St. SW, near the mouth of the Anacostia River on a bulge of land called Buzzard Point. Jemal’s latest acquisition, which has been vacant for five years, is one of the few office buildings in an area where most landmarks consist of sand and gravel lots, two marinas, an old PEPCO generating plant, and Fort McNair.
The last tenant, according to Jemal, was a military procurement office. Before that, the FBI’s Washington field office occupied the building for 19 years, moving out in 1996. No one expected the FBI to last that long. Before the bureau agreed to take the space, Uncle Sam tried unsuccessfully to force four other federal agencies to move there. General Services Administration officials reportedly started calling it Eagle’s Nest to make it sound more appealing.
The problem with the place, Special Agent Nick Stames told the Washington Post in 1977, was the name. “Reminds people of an animal that thrives on dead meat,” he said. “They should rename it Peacock Lane or something.” To better tolerate their desolate surroundings, the G-men referred to their location simply as “the Point.”
Jemal is just as fixated on a name for the area, which stretches from South Capitol Street to Fort McNair and as far north as the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, by some estimates. He plans on naming his building the Riverside, a moniker inspired by city plans to turn the banks of the Anacostia into a band of green and the industrial zone into high-rise office buildings and apartments.
“I just think ‘Riverside’ looks nicer than ‘Buzzard,’” Jemal explains. “I was just thinking that it has water, and I haven’t seen any buzzards there. And the government is doing a river walk, so why not?”
Jemal suggests that a good marketing handle could do wonders for the neighborhood, too. “It wouldn’t hurt if they renamed the area Riverside as well,” he says.
Jemal joins a long list of developers and city boosters who would like to banish the name Buzzard Point from the plat books. Last year, advocates of rezoning Buzzard Point for nonindustrial uses dropped the “Buzzard” from the title of their zoning case, subsuming the area into the Capitol Gateway. In a Web update on the case, real-estate attorney David W. Briggs explained that “Buzzard Point” “didn’t connote a positive and successful development opportunity.”
Indeed it didn’t. For much of its history, the point has been an unpleasant place. As late as the 1930s, Washingtonians still recalled when James Creek, which ran between Greenleaf and Buzzard Points, was little more than an open sewer that emptied into the Anacostia River. The stench alone kept people at bay.
Even after the city put in a closed sewer system in the late 19th century, the neighborhood remained isolated. A June 29, 1932, Washington Star article notes that Buzzard Point “was sparsely settled and for years it had an unsavory repute as part of the territory locally known as ‘Bloodfield,’ scene of many furious battles between disorderly groups.”
Today, it’s a moribund industrial zone, with weedy lots and railroad tracks, that has served as a backdrop for scandal. In the ’70s, members of Congress assailed the Carter administration for paying too much rent for Buzzard Point office space. More recently, in March 2002, it was where the U.S. Park Police found a $5 rock of crack cocaine in the car of former Mayor Marion Barry, nipping his much-ballyhooed third coming in D.C. politics.
It all adds up to an obvious target for the District’s civic leaders, who have always been quick to sacrifice character on the map for the sake of progress. Back in the 19th century, the District’s overseers buried much of the legendary Swampoodle neighborhood, where the Washington Nationals baseball franchise once played, underneath Union Station. In the ’20s, federal officials booted Chinatown from Pennsylvania Avenue NW and replaced it with an empty tourist trap.
Real-estate brokers haven’t helped matters; they are notorious for stretching neighborhood boundaries or coming up with new place names to save property from the taint of unsavory associations. The results are predictably dull: “NoLa”north of Logan Circleinstead of “Shaw,” “Capitol Hill East” instead of “Barney Circle.”
Other cities aren’t as terrified of having personality. San Franciscans haven’t given up on “the Tenderloin.” Baltimoreans can hardly keep a straight face when anyone tries to substitute “Washington Village” for “Pigtown.” New Yorkers stumble when you ask them for directions to “Clinton” instead of “Hell’s Kitchen.”
No market-tested, brochure-ready, generic-sounding title can improve upon 400 years of history. But at Buzzard Point, people have been trying for a long time.
Maps made in the 17th century describe the point where the Potomac and the Anacostia rivers meet as Turkey Buzzard Point. The early European settlers probably applied the term “buzzard” to turkey vultures, which are common to the mid-Atlantic, says Gary Graves, curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History.
Before long, the peninsula began gathering alternative epithets. In the 1700s, the area west of the creek belonged to Notley Young, inspiring the name “Young’s Point.” “Young’s Point” became “Greenleaf Point,” after James Greenleaf, a real-estate speculator who bought out Notley in the late 18th century. The land east of the creek, which is now underground, retained the Buzzard Point appellation.
In the ’30s, the federal and local leaders who decided to turn the area into an industrial zone thought “Buzzard Point” didn’t jibe with the spirit of modern-day free enterprise. In 1932, local historian James F. Duhamel lobbied the National Capital Park and Planning Commission to rechristen it Duddington, a name once given to it by a local landowner. The Washington Herald editorial board chimed in with “Carrolls Point,” after Carrollsburg, a subdivision created in 1670 that was never built out.
Only one designation stuck, though: Buzzard Point. It remained the name of a marina, and more importantly, it was etched in stone across the entrance of the new Pepco generating station, which opened in 1933.
In the ’60s, the Navy Yard closed its weapons plant and industry began to leave Buzzard Point, according to National Capital Planning Commission planners familiar with the area. As the city’s population swelled past 800,000, real-estate speculators and city planners began trickling in with new ideas for the site. The 1970 National Capital Planning Commission’s Comprehensive Plan called for a riverfront park that stretched from Kingman Lake to Fort McNair.
The notion of refining Buzzard Point has been around ever since. During the ’80s office boom, the area became a virtual Monopoly board for the city’s major real-estate players. A 1989 Post story touted it as “the Tysons Corner of the 21st century.”
In recent years, the remaking of Buzzard Point has moved beyond hype, thanks to a string of nearby developments: In 2001, the Naval Sea Systems Command moved from Crystal City to the Navy Yard, bringing with it contractors in need of office space. The federal government is also building a new headquarters for the U.S. Department of Transportation on 3rd Street, just south of M Street SW.
The folks who know Buzzard Point best are bracing for the changes to come. Edwin Cohn, who has rented slips at the Buzzard Point Marina for 40 years, says he’s not looking forward to a deluge of office workers. As it is, he spends his days chasing out U.S. Coast Guard employees who try to park illegally in the marina lot.
He’s holding his ground on the name of the neighborhood, too. “Oh yeah, it doesn’t sound right. It’s not politically correct. It doesn’t go with ‘Capitol Hill,’” he scoffs. “I had a customer once say, ‘You have a gold mine here if you change the name.’ Why don’t they fix the sewer so the river isn’t so polluted?…Nothing wrong with buzzards. They perform a necessary cleanup detail.”
Anyone who is squeamish about the Buzzard Point tag underestimates its power. The name could prove to be more malleable than the uninspired Europeans who conceived it ever anticipated. Who knows? Future residents may tell their children that the place got its designation from a massive influx of lawyers in the early years of the 21st century. Historians remember Swampoodle for a reason. A sobriquet like Riverside is nothing but a curiosity-killer.
That leaves Jemal with a small dilemma. When told the history of the name, he warms to it. “I didn’t know it was that old,” the developer says. “I thought it was a nickname….I don’t like to change names that old.”
He’s not too keen on “Buzzard Building,” though. After a few minutes, he comes up with an alternative: “Maybe I’ll call it ‘Riverside at Buzzard Point.’” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.