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Park Sparks Debate Over Area’s Identity

Since the completion of Nationals Park along the Anacostia River, cranes have been erecting apartment homes and office buildings nonstop, making the once-blighted area ready for new life. But what does that mean for the already-established neighborhoods that sit only blocks from everything that is new?

That is one question that both city officials and residents are wrestling with as they try to bridge the new identity to the old.

Developers and city officials point out that the baseball stadium and the commercial buildings bring life — and jobs — to an area that was plagued with high crime and lacked a sense of community and personality. It was primarily a corridor used to transport suburban federal employees driving from Maryland to downtown D.C.

Sean Madigan, communications director for the D.C Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, said the city and its land development partners are creating a new identity for the ballpark area. The Southeast neighborhood will have its “own look and feel” beyond the stadium.

“We don’t want people to attend a baseball game and then leave,” he said. “We don’t want people to attend 80 games a year, go to a bar and leave. We’re creating a great neighborhood.”

City officials are quick to paint the area as previously lacking a sense of community and being disjointed between the public housing complexes and the townhomes. They argue that the waterfront area was underused and not what one would expect in the nation’s capital.

Aside from the Navy Yard, there were blocks of vacant lots and a strip of men’s clubs, which left a feeling of an industrial dumping ground. Large dump trucks patrolled the streets during the day, while empty roads haunted the region at night.

However, one resident disagrees and believes her neighborhood already has a better identity than widely known.

Deborah Lockhart, who moved to the area in 2003, described her neighborhood as “fairly cohesive,” saying that it is made up of different income brackets that are separated by only physical blocks.

“There is a great sense of community. There is a mixture of socioeconomic strata. You might see it as pockets of community, but it’s really cohesive. There is an identity,” said Lockhart, who argues that the new development may complicate what residents have grown accustomed to.

Some have likened the Ballpark District to the area surrounding the Verizon Center in Chinatown. In the 1990s, Chinatown was marked by empty parking lots and vacant buildings, but by the time the sports and entertainment facility was completed, money started to flow into the area.

However, many complained that the new Chinatown fails to mirror the former downtown neighborhood in more ways than one. Many of the newer buildings take no cues from the Chinese architecture, and aside from the Chinese symbols on top of some buildings, the retail and office spaces are largely devoid of anything Chinese.

Ramsey Meiser, senior vice president of development for Forest City Washington, which is developing a 42-acre site adjacent to the baseball stadium, said he envisions an area that, unlike Chinatown, will use many of the historical buildings in its master plan. He emphasized that Forest City won a bid to develop the federal land before baseball even returned to Washington, arguing that the stadium will not be the neighborhood’s anchor.

“This area has been identified as up and coming. It is a great opportunity,” Meiser said. “We were here before baseball was coming. We were here before baseball was even on the map, and that is the anchor of our design.”

Meiser believes that the Yard, the name given to his project along the waterfront, will eclipse the stadium, as the ballpark serves only one function and is the first step in a plan to showcase the area. He said his project would bring “flavor” as more buildings sprout up to attract residents, shoppers and businesses.

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