D.C. Nabs Two Islands


Don't say that Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton never gave you anything.

The Senate unanimously passed the Kingman and Heritage Islands Act on Monday, securing both manmade islands as future sites for a D.C. environmental education and recreation center.

On paper, those islands belonged to the Department of the Interior. But as the islands have proved since they were built in the 19th century, no one has any claim over them.

The bill may finally settle the tumultuous history of one of D.C.'s most disputed pieces of real estate. If Kingman Island's history is any indication, though, even unanimous bipartisan legislation is not consensus enough to steer development on the island. Instead, Kingman Island has followed its own course.

In a sense, the story of Kingman Island is the story of D.C.'s waterfront itself. The story begins before the arrival of European settlers to North America, when the Anacostia River flowed fast and freely. Settlers, deforestation and the construction of the Benning Bridge in the 19th century, however, changed the river remarkably.

By the 1880s, the Anacostia had developed large mudflats along both banks. With these came streams with gross names ("Succabel's Gut" and "Turtle Gut") and river flora: lotus, lily pads and rice grew in abundance. Authorities feared that the Anacostia flats would attract river fauna as well, including mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow fever.

The marshes, it was decided in 1898, should be dried out and the river dredged to make the Anacostia a commercial channel. The McMillan Commission, established by the Senate in 1900 to advise Congress and the District of Columbia on the city's development, proposed using the dredged material to build islands within a lake planned for the Anacostia River.

The decision to create Kingman Island represents perhaps the last decision about it on which its many developers, the D.C. government, Congress and the courts all agreed.

Virginia, Maryland, D.C. and the United States debated in court who had authority over Kingman Island and Heritage Island, both of which were completed in 1916.

How the islands would function would be a fight that would occupy any number of parties for decades -- right up until yesterday. In 1926, the National Aeronautic Association proposed an airport on (an expanded) Kingman Island. In 1934, the National Park Service proposed a complex of sports stadiums along the Anacostia, which came to include RFK Stadium -- but not the Redskins stadium proposed in the 1990s, whose parking lots would have been built on Kingman and Heritage Islands.

For much of its history, Kingman Island was called "National Children's Island," after an idea that took hold in the late 1960s to turn the island into a children's theme park. This idea was debated for some 20 years. Developers alternated this proposal and another one from the opposite end of the spectrum: a new D.C. jail.

A number of other uses came and went: Langston Golf Course was built between 1939 and 1955, but the city was ready to tear it down by the early 1960s. A public aquarium, a landfill, and low-income housing were all pitched for Kingman Island. It's even home to a grove of 9/11 memorial trees, planted in 2002.

The only thing that was never suggested for it was a course everyone could agree on.

Development on Kingman Island tracked with city politics and the economy. The Anacostia dredging project was stopped at least once by the Army Corps of Engineers for lack of funding. Though the National Capital Planning Commission approved the National Children's Island theme park in the early 1990s, a number of preservation groups and ANCs opposed it. A stadium parking deal also proposed for Kingman and Heritage Islands at that time fell apart when D.C. City Council Chairman John Wilson committed suicide in 1993. When times were bad and development spending lagged, homeless people would make the island home.

Though development projects never made much progress on Kingman Island over the course of the century, the island's natural development continued unabated. Blue herons, eagles, ospreys and dozens of other critters took up residence. Consequently, the Sierra Club mounted a massive defense of the islands as a natural habitat during the 1990s, frustrating developers who were divided about how to move forward. And the Financial Control Board that took power in 1995 killed the dream of Children's Island for good in 1999.

The National Children's Island Act of 1995 that sanctioned the Children's Island theme park contained a reversionary measure that would give the islands back to the Department of Interior if no park were built. So the bill that passed the Senate yesterday, which Delegate Norton introduced to the House in 1999, essentially authorized Kingman and Heritage Islands to revert to their natural states.

Something the islands have been doing roughly since they were built.

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