Stepping through the thicket between RFK Stadium’s Parking Lot 6 and an old wooden bridge to Heritage Island, it’s hard to believe you’re in Southeast D.C. A short, wooded foot trail separates the lot from the bridge, which passes over a 50-foot-wide stretch of the muddy Anacostia River. The view from the first rickety plank could be from any forested spot on the Eastern seaboard: A lush wall of foliage guards two islands—Heritage and Kingman, collectively known as Children’s Island—which shelter about 60 bird species, countless turtles, insects, snakes, at least one fox, and a well-hidden homeless man in a bunker on the landmass’s southern tip.
But this slice of urban island paradise—and a large chunk of the two parcels—may soon be disrupted, as a bill authorizing construction of a theme park on Children’s Island rolls through the House of Representatives. D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton drafted legislation to turn the National Park Service-owned land over to the District, which would hand it directly to developers eager to break ground on an amusement park.
A prior bill, transferring jurisdiction but not title, died in 1994 because Congress was skeptical of entrusting more land to a city that is having trouble governing the land it has. But Republican control on the Hill means House members can live out a long-repressed conservative fantasy—the transfer of federal lands to localities. Their efforts in the District have drawn fire from the Anacostia Watershed Society and its director, Bob Boone, who want Children’s Island to remain undisturbed and un-themed.
Boone and others, including the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and Kingman Park Civic Association, are running out of time to knock down island development. This Tuesday, a House subcommittee gave its approval, which may ultimately allow the developers to fulfill their micro-Disney vision.
Asecond wooden walkway bridges the 75 feet between Heritage and Kingman Islands. There, a morning’s idyll is interrupted by a splash as a turtle slides from a log. Sixteen others float nearby, their heads barely breaking the surface. Bulbous lawn bags, along with illegally abandoned trash, offer testament to the islands’ use as a city leaf dump. But strolling the islands’ foot trails, rife with vegetation and birdsong, it’s easy to forget where you are.
The Watershed Society’s Boone has spent the past six years fighting to enhance the Anacostia River. He leads canoe trips, tree plantings, and trash pickups in the belief that the Anacostia can be “swimmable and fishable by the year 2000.” Boone is convinced that a massive theme park on its shore will bury efforts to redeem the river.
In 1916, the Army Corps of Engineers created several islands out of dumped dredge materials, so Children’s Island actually has a relatively short history. Nonetheless Boone is fascinated by this man-made respite. Boone came to the area 14 years ago from the North Carolina mountains, “where you could drink from the streams,” and was captivated by the Anacostia and its tributaries. In 1989, he and local developer Curtis Peterson started the Watershed Society in an effort to maintain urban access to natural settings.
But the promise of jobs associated with development has divided the nearby community, which is primarily composed of black people struggling to make ends meet. Boone, who is white, says the black community is beginning to see the value of preserving some undeveloped urban land. “We all suffer when the air and water are dirty,” Boone says. He argues that the neighbors have been left out of the dialogue over whether Children’s Island is going to feature wildlife or wild rides.
“We are not anti-business or anti-fun, we just want the community involved in [neighborhood projects],” says the wiry 55-year-old. Boone lives in College Park, Md., but says local green causes “are regional, not municipal.” Advocates of economic development on Children’s Island see Boone and his fellow granolas as interlopers, not saviors.
“This guy comes down from College Park, has no respect for black people, and says he’s going to dictate what’s going on,” snaps Carroll Harvey, who has been on the board of the nonprofit National Children’s Island Inc. (NCI) since the mid-1970s. NCI has led the development charge for the last 15 years, and environmentalists’ attempts to block development now constitute “an outrageous rump session intended to nullify home rule,” Harvey says after the June 14 Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6A meeting. Plans to build on the islands date to the 1960s, but repeatedly came up short in the financial muscle required to pull the deal off. NCI and its for-profit arm, Island Development Corp. (IDC), are largely financed by Contessa Bina Sella di Monteluce, a native of India who married an Italian count. She has poured about $5 million into the project and will provide at least part of the estimated $100 million-plus to get the theme park rolling.
Momentum began to develop anew in 1993, after an 11-1 D.C. Council vote favoring development. Norton proposed a feds-to-D.C. jurisdiction transfer, and a lease was drawn up to sanction fairly extensive building on Kingman and Heritage Islands.
Norton sees the project as a straightforward exercise of home rule and local powers, according to press secretary Donna Brazile. Norton’s bill, HR-1508, would put the land in D.C.’s pocket, for use by the firms under the land lease. Brazile says that since the process has been both public and local, with ample time for concerns to be raised, “Who is Eleanor Holmes Norton to second-guess the council and the mayor?”
Although the developers have some hard and fast plans for the island, there seems to be some lingering confusion about what it will comprise. In an April 7 press release, Norton touted the establishment of National Children’s Island Park, “a recreational and educational nature park and playground that will be free to the public.” The language implies that the entire park would be free, when in fact only a 13-acre playground for small children would be accessible without a toll.
“The big question is, “What is it? Does Norton know what she’s approving?’ ” asks Fern Shepard of the Legal Defense Fund. “Who are these [companies] and what have they done in the past? Is there any indication that they’re responsible developers?”
If the developers and their political allies prevail, the turtles of Children’s Island will find themselves surrounded by a “dynamic motion theater”; a hall of sports; a 150-by-70-foot model of the human body; cafés and elegant restaurants; and an “underwater world.” The developer proposes to squeeze all this virtual fun into only five of the 45.5 available acres and leave the rest to green space and more traditional recreational uses.
NCI’s Harvey claims revenues from the $11-per-head park will turn NCI into a “major philanthropic organization to help kids and work with families.” Asked to detail his philanthropic intentions, the NCI board member boomed that the park outline was supported by three D.C. mayors (Washington, Kelly, and Barry), the D.C. Council, schools, churches, ANCs and residents. But Boone and others remain skeptical of Harvey’s claims.
“I hear this man saying he’ll create 1,700 to 2,400 jobs under a five-acre roof, say he’ll simultaneously develop and clean up the river…when he hasn’t picked up one styrofoam cup out there,” Boone told ANC 6A June 14. “We have enough virtual reality, we want earth reality,” he opined, noting that the city’s west side has spacious, tree-filled parks, while Anacostia neighborhoods have been whittled away by greedy developers in the past three decades.
“What are we gonna leave our kids? A theme park? Where you pay 10 bucks a head to perpetuate the exploitation [of the city’s poor]?” Boone asked. The land in question “is a jewel waiting to be polished.” Kingman Park Civic Association President Frazer Walton doubts Harvey’s sincerity. “He said [it would be a] “small project’ that would also be a boon to city coffers, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. No real impact study is going to show what would happen to the river and the land,” Walton notes. Some 3.3 million visitors would patronize the park yearly, according to D.C. estimates (Disney’s failed Prince William County, Va., park was expected to draw 6 million annually). The attraction would be open daily from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., except on Redskins’ game days at nearby RFK Stadium.
Shepard, Boone, and Kingman Park’s Walton gripe that the bill strips federal environmental protection from the land, and substitutes the weaker D.C. flora, fauna, and river-preservation policies. Theme park opponents are interested in development, but only the type that produces a nature center, foot trails, camping areas, and a small boat dock, with no provisions for a “dynamic motion theater.”