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Neighbors say city should cancel 10-year Grand Prix contract at RFK

(Published July 15, 2002)

By KEVIN NASH

Staff Writer

They’ve been offered free tickets, day trips away from their homes and temporary concession jobs. But many residents of Kingman Park, adjacent to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, say they remain angry that city officials agreed to host a noisy, air-polluting high-speed auto race in their neighborhood during the next 10 summers without regard for residents’ welfare.

"It is an event that should not be held," said Julius Lowery, former president of the Kingman Park Civic Association. "It is an intrusion on the community and it is an outrage."

Several homeowners interviewed by The Common Denominator said they feel that city officials are coming into their homes and telling them that they have to leave for a few days while an event takes place that will fatten the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission’s budget and race promoters’ pockets.

The commission successfully lured the Cadillac Grand Prix to Washington and has helped to sign up a number of prominent co-sponsors in an effort to make the race what Mayor Anthony A. Williams has called a "signature event" for the District. Tickets for the race, to be held July 19-21, remained available at press time.

Sports commission Executive Director Robert D. Goldwater estimates that the Grand Prix will bring an estimated $350 million into the District over the 10-year contract, as well as generate national and international visibility. Portions of the Grand Prix are scheduled to be broadcast by two television networks.

The problem with all of that, according to neighbors of the racetrack, is that the dollar signs appear to be all that matters to allegedly callous city officials, who are supposed to be protecting residents’ welfare.

"We were informed by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission that there is a 10-year contract, the cars go 80 miles per hour and there will be a concert," said Kingman Park Civic Association Delegate Veronica E. Raglin.

Sports commission officials said they have been working with Kingman Park leaders on how to appease residents because of the inconvenience that the Grand Prix will cause. Representatives of the sports commission have attended community meetings, have offered free tickets to attend the race and, for those who do not wish to attend, day trips have been offered.

But residents said they are not concerned with what they can get from the commission; they are concerned with the noise, pollution, parking and safety issues that the race will create.

"I feel it is a continuance of the environmental racism that has gone on in this community for years," said resident Brenda Johnson.

Raglin added that officials "have not addressed adequately how they will contain noise and pollution in the air."

Pollution is already a problem in the area, as Parking Lots 6 and 7 at the stadium, where the race is being held, are known for contributing to pollution of the adjacent Anacostia River. Mayor Williams has been encouraging the community to step up and become more involved in efforts to clean up the Anacostia.

"The mayor’s main goal is economic development," Raglin charged. "He doesn’t care about the health and safety of our senior citizens and children. All he cares about is making a buck."

Lowery said he fears the fumes that will be generated by the Grand Prix race cars will cause the District to further violate provisions of the federal Clean Air Act and make it even more difficult for the city to come into compliance. An attempt to give the city more time to comply with Clean Air standards was recently overturned.

"Residents on Oklahoma Avenue have already experienced noise and dirt and dust blowing from the construction site," Lowery said.

The sports commission was not required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement, which is required under D.C. law for any project costing more than $3 million. Instead, city officials recently allowed the sponsors – after months of complaints by neighboring residents – to complete a short environmental "assessment" form, which is the initial step in determining whether a full EIS is required for a project. The Common Denominator initially reported about the complaints from residents of the adjacent Kingman Park and River Terrace neighborhoods last November.

"They didn’t do the Environmental Impact Statement and they should have done this 60 days beforehand," Raglin said.

Goldwater said the sports commission is taking the opportunity to "significantly improve the environment." Along with repairs to the parking lots, he said a storm water management system has been introduced to deal with the pollution problems.

"We have cut down dead or diseased trees," Goldwater said. "We will be planting more trees and landscaping in conjunction with the National Park Service." The National Park Service owns RFK Stadium and the surrounding grounds but leases them to the District.

Residents also expressed safety concerns related to the racetrack’s proximity to their homes, Benning Road NE (a major thoroughfare) and Metrorail track supports.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials have been assured that Metro’s elevated orange and blue rail lines – under which the Grand Prix races will be run – will be protected from harm if a driver loses control of a speeding car.

"There is plenty of concrete barriers and protection to ensure that all vehicles stay inside of the course’s perimeters," Goldwater said. "This is standard for any auto racing event."

Parking is also an issue for the community. During past stadium events, residents said illegal parking has even made it difficult for some residents to access alleys so that they could park their own cars behind their homes.

There will be no general parking provided in the neighborhood for Grand Prix spectators, officials said. Spectators are being urged to use Metrorail and a free spectator shuttle that will run from parking areas at U.S. Airways Arena in suburban Maryland.

Lowery also expressed concern about the treatment people will receive when they attempt to visit friends and family members living in the neighborhood while the Grand Prix is in progress.

"Visitors have to go through road barriers as if they were terrorists," Lowery said. "The terrorist are those over there polluting our air."

Despite the efforts city officials say they have made to contact neighboring residents, several interviewed randomly for this story said they did not even know that the event will be taking place.

"That’s just the way the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission operates," Lowery said. "They might pretend to [share information], but they don’t share information with the community."

Johnson complained of "blatant arrogance" by sports commission officials.

"I find [it] disconcerting," Johnson said. "If this was Ward 3, it would not even cross their minds to do something like this."

Raglin said she believes there is a much more appropriate way for city officials to promote the nation’s capital to tourists.

"This is a city for history, government, culture and education," Raglin said. "It [the Grand Prix] has no place in Washington."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator