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A matter of right?

City trying to sidestep public process on new rec centers, critics say

(Published July 15, 2002)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Staff Writer

Something didnít add up.

The more Brookland resident Douglas Tyrka listened to D.C. officials talk about the big, shiny new recreation center they planned to plop down on local parkland, the less he liked the sound of it. So, at a community meeting last month, he asked some questions.

Had the city ever surveyed Brookland residents about what they wanted in a recreation center? No, acknowledged D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation official Sandra Hill.

Could residents vote for something other than such a big building, which with its nearly Olympic-size pool, gym and other facilities, would eat up a sizable chunk of precious local green space? No, Hill said.

How about skipping just the pool, Tyrka asked? (There are two other open or soon-to-be-open indoor public pools within five minutes of Turkey Thicket Park.)

No again, Hill said.

There was no chance to veto the pool, and there would be no more voting on what kind of facility the neighborhood got, she said.

"We canít go back," she said.

It was, Tyrka said last week, the kind of stonewalling response that has frustrated and confused Brookland residents in the three months since city officials first unveiled plans for the new recreation center Ė a building nearly 20 times the size of the modest existing structure Ė in poorly publicized, sometimes chaotic meetings.

"(Theyíve) just made it clear that our agreement is irrelevant," said Tyrka, who like others said he would like to see a new center Ė but done right.

"If you ask questions, youíre an opponent," he said. "So the way they draw the lines, I have to be opposed."

Finally, late in June, Tyrka and others say, they got some news that helped the cityís hasty, our-way-or-the-highway approach make some alarming sense.

They learned that, according to a city official, Turkey Thicket is "a test case."

In February, the Williams administration quietly got a 120-day emergency ruling from the Board of Zoning Adjustment (renewed for another 120 days in June) to let the city skip public zoning hearings--claimed by some to be the average citizenís surest vehicle for an effective voice on local development issues--as it embarks on an ambitious multimillion-dollar plan to do "renovations, raze and reconstruction, and/or additions" to 20 city recreation and community centers, mostly in Wards 5, 6 and 7 on the cityís east side.

The areas range from large open green spaces like Turkey Thicket Park to the small "pocket playground" at 14th and Girard streets NW.

The zoning rule change gives the city a "matter of right" to construct buildings of up to 40 feet in height on up to 60 percent of the area of such sites.

Turkey Thicket, say city sources, is the cityís first attempt to push a recreational project through with no chance for the public to query its suitability at an open zoning hearing.

Next local residents learned that on July 1, city officials scheduled an appearance before the city Zoning Commission to ask that the change be made permanent.

Thus, critics say, the sort of "development by fiat" that some Brookland residents say has characterized the Turkey Thicket project could become the cityís norm, with a crucial democratic tool stripped from local residentsí hands, at least for recreational space.

"Iíve learned that if Parks and Rec feels unfettered, they canít be trusted," Tyrka told the commissioners bluntly.

The cityís request is pending commission action.

Parks and Recreation Director Neil Albert told the commission the reason for the request is time lost in the zoning hearing process.

"Zoning discussions can add six to nine months to a project," he said.

But the commissioners also heard strong opposition to the proposed change from Brookland residents, as well as residents of Takoma, Georgetown and other neighborhoods where the city has in recent years attempted sometimes ill-received renovations and rebuildings of recreational facilities.

Loretta Neumann, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Parks and the Environment at the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which submitted a letter opposing the zoning rule change, said Takoma residents were familiar with the kind of purely pro forma citizen input Brookland residents say the city is seeking there.

"They love to have a meeting, let people ask a few questions--and then they can say they have community support," she said. "ĎNow letís move on,í they say."

In Takoma, she said, Parks and Recreation at first proposed tearing down an existing swimming pool buildingó"a lovely old pool house built in the 1930s, an icon of the neighborhood"--and replacing it with a "big, blocky rec center."

"We told them that wasnít what we wanted," she said--but at first, she said, the city ignored residentsí demands to be consulted on what kind of facility fit the neighborhood.

Only after months of vigorous political lobbying, she said, and a local architect volunteering time to come up with an alternative design, did the city finally turn an ear to residents.

But she warned the zoning commission that "public pressure isnít enough," noting the uncertainty of political pressure tactics.

"Thereís no really meaningful way to stop them" outside of the zoning process, she said.

Brookland resident Diane Pecor, a transportation consultant, said that while the city seeks to avoid a zoning hearing for the Turkey Thicket rec center, it ignores growing traffic and density pressures in Ward 5.

She pointed out that Ward 5 already has more big institutions than any other ward, with three universities and several hospitals, as well as halfway houses, with a longtime deficit of streets and roads.

She said several new projects that will add traffic to local roads around Turkey Thicket will soon come online, including a planned nearby conference center and hotel and further development around the Brookland-CUA Metro stop.

At the same time, she said, the new rec center is described as a regional facility with a capacity of 500 people.

"You are just going to crush these neighborhoods," she said.

Brookland resident Jane Lincoln told the zoning commission that at Turkey Thicket meetings in April and May, city officials misled residents with promised copies of traffic and environmental impact studies. "But they were never delivered," she said.

In June, The Common Denominator reported that Parks and Recreation documents obtained by the newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request showed those studies were never done.

"Iím an idealist, but it seems that what we were being told by city officials was just to keep us happy," said Lincoln.

Others told the commissioners they have had good experiences partnering with Parks and Recreation.

Peter Easely, a member of the Friends of Kennedy Playground, told the commissioners that the group had worked closely with Parks and Recreation on developing a new, bigger rec center there.

"Weíve worked very closely with Parks and Rec on this," he said. "And while there have been some disagreements, itís generally been a very good partnership."

Easley said he is "supportive of any measures that will help them in their work."

Longtime ANC 5A Commissioner Mary Baird Currie, a perennial booster of the Turkey Thicket rec center project who testified in favor of the zoning change proposal, insisted in an interview last week that progress on Turkey Thicket is long overdue.

"There has been a community effort for at least 12 years," she said.

She dismissed the need for environmental or traffic studies.

"These are things that people have come up with of late," she said.

"Turkey Thicket is not the first rec center that Parks and Rec has ever built. They are not going to waver outside of the process. Parks and Rec knows what the process is, and that is what they are going to do," she said.

Last week a Brookland resident said Currie asked him in May not to publicize an upcoming community meeting on Turkey Thicket.

James Watkins, a resident who said he generally supports a new rec center at Turkey Thicket but has gotten disillusioned by the current process, said that after residents told city officials at one of the first Turkey Thicket meetings that they wanted more time to consider the design for the new center so more residents could be notified, Watkins proposed to Currie that he post notice of the new meeting date on the local Internet bulletin board, which many residents use to stay current on Brookland events.

But, he said, after an ally of Currieís in supporting the new center, who overheard his offer and suggested to Currie that posting a notice on the listserv would only cause "people to come in and get involved and ask questions," Currie told him, "Donít put the meeting on the listserv, or what itís going to be about."

Currie last week acknowledged that she discouraged Watkins from posting the notice, but said she did so only because a notice was already posted on the ANCís own website.

Meanwhile, some residents guessed they saw the imprint of a hand bigger than Parks and Recís behind the cityís attempt to avoid public zoning hearings.

"Iím always nervous in a democratic society when people who are elected to represent us do something that allows them to act without consulting us," said Ralph Bucksell, incoming president of the Michigan Park Citizens Association, which represents the area in which Turkey Thicket Park is located.

"Thatís when my antennae go up," he said.

"My big question is, Whatís the rush?" he asked. "I donít know what this is, but itís obviously something."

Brookland resident Melissa Houghton speculated that "the city has an agenda here."

"Theyíre either trying to fill some election promises, or some development promises," she said.

According to some observers, an oft-heard assumption about the cityís move to get a freer hand in redeveloping recreational facilities is that it is related to the Williams administrationís desire to host the 2012 Summer Olympics in the Washington-Baltimore region.

"All the buzz at the (zoning commission) hearing was about the big O," said a resident who testified against the zoning change last week.

Another surmise--since most of the current 20 fast-track projects are in Wards 5, 6 and 7 and the plan originated late last year, when Williams had reason to guess heíd face opposition in this yearís mayoral election--is that the crash-course to visibly gift neighborhoods where Williams lost or ran weakly in 1998 is just raw politics.

"The only emergency behind this emergency legislation was the needs of the mayorís political campaign," said Ward 5 resident Philip Blair Jr., an opponent of the zoning change.

Blair added, "The timing and sudden rush to push it through is because the mayor needs to have a win in Ward 5," which he lost to Councilman Chavous in1998. "Itís not a rational response to the recreational needs of the city."

But last week Jennifer Steingasser, the city Office of Planning official who drafted the proposed zoning changes, sought to distance top officials from the document.

"Parks and Recreation approached the Office of Planning" about the changes, she said, saying that her officeís only role was to devise language to facilitate goals set by the parks department.

"We crafted and submitted the changes on behalf of Parks and Rec," she said.

But William Highsmith, a senior associate at Jair Lynch Consulting, a District firm acting as program manager for six of the 20 fast-track projects, who Parks and Recreation has designated as their spokesman on the zoning proposal, last week responded differently. He said that the Office of Planning, which is an arm of the mayorís office, actively helped devise the zoning-change strategy.

"It was us, the Office of Planning, and Parks and Rec at the table" devising the strategy, he said.

Brookland resident Richard Houghton, an opponent of the cityís zoning petition, said that Highsmith told him last month that a main impetus for the zoning change is that "the mayor wants this done for the community."

Highsmith acknowledged the statement, saying, "To try to further the mayorís aims, we examined a whole array of possibilities, and the text amendment presented itself."

"There was no involvement from anyone in the mayorís office," however, he said.

While testifying before the commissioners, Sara Green, an ANC 4B commissioner active on the Takoma Recreation Center project, told the panel that the cityís proposal represented an unnecessary choice.

"Weíre being told we canít have both a timely process and community input," she said. "Thatís ridiculous. We can have both."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator