Poplar Point is one of the last great urban waterfront redevelopment opportunities on the East Coast. (Courtesy of DMPED.dc.gov)
Poplar Point is one of the last great urban waterfront redevelopment opportunities on the East Coast. (Courtesy of DMPED.dc.gov)

Almost three decades ago, eco-feminist Brenda Richardson and some colleagues with the Earth Conservation Corps stumbled upon a fenced-off, forested area behind Howard Road in Southeast. It turned out to be a very well-hidden gem.

“There was a break in the fence, and there was a little path, so we went through,” Richardson said. “And we came upon these stunningly beautiful rose bushes.”

Poplar Point, an approximately 100-acre site across the Anacostia from Nationals Park, remains fenced off today — more than 25 years later. After discovering the site, Richardson became part of a years-long effort to open the ecologically and historically significant piece of land for the public. 

“It was clearly abandoned, but all these beautiful rose bushes were still growing back there; it was just an incredible thing to see. And we were like, ‘Why aren’t people coming back here to see this?’” Richardson said. 

The answer, it turned out, is a complicated web of chemical contamination and land ownership challenges. As the longtime site of two now-closed tree nurseries, the western portion of Poplar Point is polluted with pesticides, metals, and volatile organic compounds, among other things. 

Now, a group of concerned citizens is once again working to keep Poplar Point on the D.C. government’s radar. Richardson and co-leader Doug Siglin formed the Citizen’s Poplar Point Working Group last year to seek out input from anyone interested in the site’s future. 

And as it turns out, there are quite a few people interested in sharing their thoughts: the Working Group’s listening sessions, held every other month, have sometimes attracted upwards of 30 participants, Richardson said. 

“For those of us who consider ourselves environmentalists, everything that we can do in terms [of] preserving the environment, ensuring that we have green space, that we have tree canopy — all of these kinds of things come together in what we’re looking at in Poplar Point,” said Absalom Jordan, a Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and a fierce advocate for preserving nearby Oxon Run Park. 

Jordan, like Richardson and Siglin, has witnessed the fight for Poplar Point drag on over the years. The federal government owns the land but agreed in 2006 to hand it over to the District when certain conditions were met. Those include finalizing official plans for cleanup and land use as well as finding space to relocate the government buildings that remain on the eastern portion of the site. 

City agencies have held many meetings and even drafted several plans in the early 2000s, including one that would have placed a D.C. United soccer stadium on the site. 

Richardson and others spent two years organizing buses for Ward 8 residents to see every single soccer game in order to build community support for that plan. Then, the plan fell apart. 

The contamination cleanup process is expensive and slow, and more than 20 years later, nothing has materialized. Jordan said the government doesn’t even seem to have documentation of some of those initial plans. 

“They don’t say what they mean and mean what they say, the people who are in charge,” Rev. Anthony Motley said at the Working Group’s listening session in August. That meeting took place in person at Anacostia Park, which sits adjacent to Poplar Point, and focused on capturing the voices of those who have been involved for decades.  

“The government and developers don’t keep their word. It’s stressful,” Motley said. He shared with the group of about 20 that he hadn’t at first wanted to join the meeting because the process around Poplar Point had been so frustrating and difficult in the past. 

But Richardson emphasized that community elders like Motley and Jordan provide institutional knowledge that serves a vital purpose as the new Working Group seeks to honor that struggle. After holding more listening sessions, she and Siglin aim to create a “citizen’s report” based on the feedback while chronicling the process on their website, poplarpointdc.org

“All that institutional knowledge, all that time that the community invested — we want to honor that by hearing their stories and documenting it for the record,” Richardson said. “At the end of the day, it’s just about honoring and remembering those that came before us.

“Too often in this city, new people come in, they don’t know and they don’t bother to check the history,” Richardson added. “And all of a sudden, what they want happens, with no recognition or appreciation for those that laid the groundwork.”

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