Buzzard Point today: Still not Tysons Corner

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There was something for everyone in the D.C. Council-commissioned report on the D.C. United soccer stadium plan released last week. For critics of the deal and its complicated land swaps, there was the finding that the city would overpay for land at the Buzzard Point stadium site while receiving less than market value for the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center it’s trading away—-to the tune of a $25 million deficit. For supporters of the deal, there was the calculation that the plan would bring the city $109 million in net benefits, and that in its absence, Buzzard Point would be unlikely to see meaningful development in the next eight to 10 years.

But predicting the future of Buzzard Point isn’t easy. To wit: A 1989 Washington Post story titled “The Renaissance of Buzzard Point: Will Washington’s Southeast Warehouse District Be the Next Tysons Corner?”

The story is no longer publicly available online, but here are some choice excerpts:

The smart money in local real estate is betting that the scruffy waterfront that stretches east from Buzzard Point to the Washington Navy Yard will become the Tysons Corner of the 21st century — an out-of- the-way neighborhood transformed into a new city by billions of dollars of public and private investment.

“In 10 years, you’ll probably see some development. It could start within five,” said developer Ben Jacobs, the J in JBG Associates. His firm is both a landowner in the neighborhood and a consultant to the Buzzard Point Planning Association, a group of property holders that has asked the District to rezone more than a dozen blocks from industrial to office and residential use. […]

Tomorrow, predict the people who dream of the future of Washington, the vacant lots and crumbling warehouses of Buzzard Point, the gay bars and junkyards of Southeast and Southwest will be transformed by the most ambitious redevelopment scheme Washington has seen in decades.

As many as 50,000 people will work in the waterfront neighborhoods straddling South Capitol Street below M Street, where two subway stations are to open in 1991. After the $5 billion metamorphosis is completed perhaps 20 years from now, thousands of Washingtonians will live near the newly fashionable Anacostia waterfront, where they will stroll along a riverfront parkway to a pair of restaurant and shopping complexes patterned on Baltimore’s Harborplace and Boston’s Faneuil Hall. […]

Buzzard Point and beyond could become the District’s biggest redevelopment project since the creation of L’Enfant Plaza opposite the Smithsonian on Independence Avenue and the new town house neighborhoods built in the District’s Southwest 25 years ago, Green said. But the days of government-financed “urban renewal” are gone, he said. It is no longer philosophically fashionable nor economically feasible to condemn entire neighborhoods, move out all the people, bulldoze the buildings and rebuild from scratch as was done in Southwest. The push for redevelopment now has to come from the private sector, and the private sector is pushing on Buzzard Point.

“It will occur — it is just a matter of time,” predicted Frank Spingler, vice president for real estate of Potomac Capital Investment Corp., an offshoot of Potomac Electric Power Co. and the biggest landowner in Buzzard Point. Pepco bought land in Buzzard Point decades ago, when it was an active industrial area.

And then, this prescient disclaimer:

Planners can be wrong, of course. Even developers who have made millions in real estate can make mistakes. Sometimes grand dreams turn into bad memories. More than a century ago, there were plans to develop South Capitol Street as a grand avenue leading to the seat of government. Twenty years ago, a couple of office buildings were built on Buzzard Point, and the South Capitol area was supposed to be on its way to becoming the Capitol Gateway. But despite its proximity to Capitol Hill, the neighborhood never blossomed, and has gone to seed for the last 20 years.

The takeaway from this story—-one that predicted a Buzzard Point development boom starting as early as 1994—-is clear: We have no idea what we’re talking about. A stadium could be the key to getting the long-dormant neighborhood off the ground. Or the predicted development explosion could be yet another dud. Or the prognosticators in 1989 could have been right, just ahead of their time, and the Buzzard Point boom will soon come regardless of whether a stadium is built there.

For now, we truly don’t know. And all the guesses about what will and won’t happen at the city’s most forlorn tip should be taken as just that.

Photo by Aaron Wiener