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What if...the Anacostia River had its own nature center?

Steven Mutschler, managing director for Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region, with renderings for a proposed nature center on Kingman Island on the Anacostia River

Mutschler brings the eight-year-old nature center renderings with him when he meets with stakeholders, just in case


Bryant Curry, program coordinator for Kingman Island, at the bridge leading to the manmade island


A long-forgotten plan for a nature center on Kingman Island on the Anacostia is slowly coming back to life.
A pair of posters on the wall in Living Classrooms Foundation’s D.C. office bears the renderings for a state-of-the-art environmental education center planned for the Anacostia River’s Kingman Island.

The center that’s pictured features a green roof, a greenhouse and the capacity to treat its own wastewater and generate its own electricity. It looks futuristic yet blends in with a natural environment that, in the drawings, is teeming with greenery and wildlife.

But, nearly eight years after pro-bono firms penned this visual draft for a nature center, it is still just a dream. While the environment around its planned location has been vastly improved, welcoming back wildlife and natural species that had been missing from the Anacostia for decades, the center that organizers hoped would draw people to its shores has yet to become a reality.

“I’ve looked at this document closely,” says Steven Mutschler, managing director for Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region, as he holds up a poster-sized spiral notebook of additional drawings. “This [project] predates all of us. We’re working off of a very old agenda.”

The District selected Living Classrooms, a foundation that educates youth and young adults on the environment, to head restoration efforts at the manmade Kingman and Heritage islands not far from RFK Stadium on the Anacostia River.

Before he left office in 2007, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams had helped launch an Anacostia Waterfront Corporation that would oversee an $8 billion cleanup and redevelopment plan for the river and surrounding area.

But after Williams left office, the corporations’ funds were absorbed into the city budget and the large-scale Anacostia project was tabled.

The $9 million nature center that had been proposed was “really a small part of a much larger initiative,” Mutschler says.

Since then, many of the initial goals for that portion of the Anacostia River have been achieved piecemeal, with various nonprofits and government agencies chipping away at small cleanup or educational projects.

Living Classrooms now employs a Green Team of young adults that maintains a burgeoning trail system on Kingman and Heritage islands. The waterfront islands are walk-able and bike-able, featuring unique plant species that have become visible now that their invasive counterparts have been controlled.

The islands serve as an outdoor classroom for visiting students, a natural oasis in the middle of the city. But organizers at Living Classrooms say there is still room — and need — for a more official educational center.

Living Classrooms maintains a similar educational facility, the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center, at a former dumping grounds in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Elementary students from nearby schools, some of which don’t have playgrounds, visit the center daily to interact with wildlife and learn about water ecology.

But the building that accompanies this unique mission in Baltimore is a fraction of what had been planned for Kingman Island.
 
Creating momentum
Though the nature center has yet to come to fruition, other components of what was once dreamed for the Anacostia have.

Public and private development along the river’s shores — like mixed-use retail and outdoor spaces constructed at Yards Park — have brought new attention and new audiences to the waterfront. 

Nonprofits that have long worked in silos, chipping away at their pieces of the Anacostia cleanup, have begun to work together under a newly established United for a Healthy Anacostia River coalition.

Doug Siglin is helping to lead the coalition as the executive director of the Federal City Council’s new Anacostia River Initiative.
"I think it's still a wonderful opportunity, but somebody has to grab it."
The initiative, funded by a sizable grant, is evidence that Mayor Williams — now CEO and executive director of the Federal City Council — has not given up his high hopes for the Anacostia.

“I think it’s still a wonderful opportunity,” Siglin says of the environmental center, “but somebody has to grab it. It’s sitting there waiting for someone to take it.”

Taking up the project would mean raising the funds to build it — and competing with a growing list of priorities along the Anacostia for those funds. As interest in this river and its cleanup grows, so does competition for the available funding and opinions about what the priorities should be.

Siglin has other priorities for now, like cleaning up toxic contamination in the river, but says the environmental center is still on Williams’ radar.

An avid birder at Kingman Island, Williams recently made the case that an environmental center there should focus on the return of unique bird species to the Anacostia, which was historically an impressive flyway.
 
For now, Mutschler has taken up the nature center’s cause. He’s begun to bring the long-forgotten renderings with him when he meets with stakeholders along the Anacostia. He propped them up against his car when he met with a group of D.C. officials at Kingman Island in the fall. And they’ll be prominently featured at Living Classroom’s biggest fundraiser, the annual Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival, which is expected to draw more than 10,000 people to the island in April.

Mutschler hopes to generate new momentum for a project that’s been collecting dust for the past eight years, and, he says, “we’re at the beginning of creating it.”

Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin.

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist who covers food, agriculture, and the environment and lives in Alexandria, Va. She writes about food, etc. at thinkabouteat.com.
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