Park Makeover Planned

Lack of Public Input Frustrates Some Neighbors

Posted May 16, 2003 at 2:38pm

Next to a flat, concrete circle, a flock of white paper napkins shivers in the breeze. Here and there, a lonely maple or oak provides a brief reprieve from an otherwise barren landscape of weed-riven grass and discarded 7-11 hot dog wrappers.

At first glance, this “handkerchief” park bounded by Maryland Avenue and F and 11th streets Northeast doesn’t look like much. For that matter, it doesn’t look like much on the second or third glance either.

“It’s beyond pitiful at this point,” lamented Heather Swartz, a local resident and stay-at-home mom with three young children.

In a neighborhood undergoing an influx of couples in their late 20s and early 30s — some with young children — the dilapidated, old park, part of the original L’Enfant Plan for the city, appears the ideal candidate for an “extreme makeover.”

Beginning later this summer, the National Park Service — the agency with jurisdiction over the triangle of land — plans to contract out work to install slides, fireman’s poles, seesaws, benches, an ornamental iron fence, and even a cushioned surface beneath the new playground equipment, said landscape architect Michael McMahon of the National Park Service’s national capital region. “Things should be up and running by early fall,” he said.

The approximately $160,000 park service project, which emerged at the end of the Clinton administration as part of DC Sparkle — an initiative designed to improve inner-city neighborhoods — has been slow in coming, primarily due to the numerous commissions and boards which must first approve the plan, including some it must go through due to the park’s location in a historic district, McMahon observed.

(The project subsequently received additional funds in the form of fee demonstration money, which is not earmarked for a particular year.)

Once approval from the various panels was finalized last fall, the park service presented the design to local residents at a neighborhood meeting in October.

While most individuals who attended the meeting were reportedly pleased with the proposal, some, like attorney Micah Salb, were less than sanguine with the manner in which it was presented.

“I’m delighted they [are] doing something about it, but disappointed that it was announced as a fait accompli,” said Salb, asserting that the mere fact that renovations would not conclude until September meant that it would be “virtually another useless year.”

“It was kind of an awkward situation. Going into it we thought they would want input from us, but at the meeting people from the parks department … were coming at it from the viewpoint that this is how it would be,” added Swartz, who, along with her husband, Joe, hosted the October meeting.

McMahon, however, rejected notions that the park service did not adequately solicit public input.

“The design standards are established,” he asserted, referring to park service criteria for such parks. “There’s not much room for a lot of variation.”

Still, McMahon said, the park service did concede to a fence around the perimeter of the playground equipment in deference to neighborhood residents’ demands.

“We’ll put an ornamental fence along F Street and then a low, black-coated, vinyl chain-link fence hidden in the shrubs around the playground area,” he explained.

About six blocks south, at Lincoln Park, renovations — at a cost of $103,000 — are also in the works. The park service plans to install new Victorian jardinieres and benches around the Mary McLeod Bethune statue, as well as replace the playground equipment on the north side of the park this summer. And closer to Capitol Hill, at Stanton Park, a new concept design is in the planning stages.

As for the Maryland Avenue park, Tapio Christiansen, a longtime supporter of its rehabilitation, said the park service’s efforts to move forward with the park’s reconstruction represented a victory for local residents.

“I’m used to having to fight for every single thing, and I was prepared to lead a charge, and when they showed up [last October] with the chart and the map, I was just shocked,” he said. “As long as they build this thing, I don’t have any bones to pick with them.”