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Klingle debate heats up

(Published June 17, 2002)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Staff Writer

Faced with mounting criticism from the D.C. City Council and the public over his decision to convert long-closed Klingle Road into a park, Mayor Anthony A. Williams is expected to take steps soon to end years of controversy over whether the cross-town shortcut should be reopened to vehicular traffic.

"We’re certainly aware of the council’s recent action and of the debate in the community," said Bill Rice, a Department of Transportation spokesman designated as the mayor’s spokesman on Klingle Road. "We’re developing our response to the current situation with both in mind."

Rice declined to give details of the mayor’s planned actions, but said the public "will see developments on this in the next two to three weeks."

He said the mayor’s plans will take into account the fact that, measured by endorsements and citizen support in neighborhoods, popular and political sentiment in the city seems to be swinging against the mayor’s position on the issue.

Last December, citing high costs and environmental concerns, Williams announced that the city would not rebuild a long-closed section of Klingle Road, which runs through Rock Creek Park beneath Connecticut Avenue NW, between Mount Pleasant and the Cathedral area.

Instead, Williams announced that the city would transform the road – one road -- one of the city’s few east-west passages across the park before it was closed in 1991 for never-funded repairs – into a biking and walking park closed to cars.

But a majority of the city council soon objected, saying the mayor’s plan amounted to a road closure – an action that council members declared only the council could finalize.

Last month, the council voted to deny the mayor funding to turn the road into a park unless he first puts his plan before the council for a vote by the end of the year.

Both the mayor and council are acting against a charged political background, since the question of whether to reopen Klingle Road has long been one of the city’s hottest, most divisive neighborhood controversies.

It pits anti-road environmentalists and nature-loving neighbors of upscale Klingle Valley, in upper Northwest near Cleveland Park, against pro-road cross-town commuters, especially those from east-of-the-park neighborhoods such as Mount Pleasant, Shepherd Park and Brookland.

Recently, an aggressive campaign for endorsements waged by the Coalition to Repair and Reopen Klingle Road has considerably increased visibility and support for the pro-road position across the city.

The group has won letters of support, posted to its Web site, from two key constituencies: local fire and emergency organizations that want access to Klingle Road, and the city’s elected bodies closest to neighborhood sentiment, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), along with other local associations.

"It seems that every week there’s somebody else coming out in support of the open-it-up position," a city council staff member observed last week.

Perhaps as a result, online postings and debate about Klingle Road on local internet community boards has recently grown so heavy – and the back-and-forth arguments so repetitive – that one of the most popular, themail@dcwatch.com, last week banned Klingle Road as a debate topic.

Rice said the mayor is aware of the recent citywide swing away from his position on the issue.

"There have been a lot of e-mails recently, and documents that we’re aware of," Rice said, "and we’ll be responding to that."

However, he did not indicate that the mayor was considering changing his basic position.

In April, D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few joined a growing list of city fire, police and emergency organizations saying they wanted access to Klingle Road as one of the best of a small number of cross-town routes.

Few penned his letter of support to the Coalition to Repair and Reopen Klingle Road, the leading pro-road group, after several senior D.C. fire department officers wrote memos urging that Klingle be reopened. Few and the officers cited the road’s usefulness as a quick route to Washington Hospital Center, as a needed cross-town route in case of a major emergency, and as a platform for enhanced access for fighting brush fires in Rock Creek Park.

After calls from the mayor’s office, Few reversed himself, saying he had not realized that the mayor’s plan also provides for emergency vehicle access to respond to nearby fires and other emergencies in the immediate area.

In April the coalition also won a letter of "strong" support from the union representing the 325 uniformed U.S. Secret Service officers patrolling sites in the District.

"What happened on September 11 was gridlock and made us all more aware of how traffic has increased in our area," reads the letter of support to the Coalition from Steven Smith, president of the Secret Service officers’ local union chapter.

The union that represents the city’s 420 emergency medical personnel has also publicly stated its support for pro-road forces, as have at least two local ambulance services.

"We’re talking about human lives here, and we have patients whose lives depend on seconds," said Kenneth Lyons, president of the local chapter of the emergency medical technicians’ union. "Right now we have a dwindling infrastructure and number of roads to use, and response time is an issue."

Councilman Adrian Fenty, D-Ward 4, an opponent of the mayor on Klingle Road, said last week that momentum in recent weeks "definitely" has swung to the pro-road forces.

"We’ve heard from an overwhelming number of public safety officials who want the road open," he said.

Fenty is one of three council members – along with Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, and council Chairman Linda Cropp – who publicly support reopening the road.

"If you take the neighborhoods that surround the park, east and west, I think a majority of the residents support getting it reopened," Fenty added.

"The sentiment for repairing the road is huge probably over 90 percent in my ward," he said.

Two Ward 4 ANCs – 4A and 4C, both of which abut Rock Creek Park – have voiced support for opening Klingle Road to cars.

Even a staff member to Councilman Phil Mendelson, D-At Large, who opposes opening up the road to motor traffic, acknowledged the shift in popular support.

"Those who want to build the road have the momentum right now," said senior Mendelson staffer Alec Evans, noting that Mendelson nonetheless believes that the city is still fairly evenly divided on the issue.

Besides those Ward 4 ANCs, leaders of the pro-road coalition say they received votes of support from ANC 5C in March and ANC 1B last month. They say they now have the backing of a total of nine ANCs in Wards 1, 3, 4 and 5.

"We’ve got virtually all of Ward 1," said coalition leader Laurie Collins, a Mount Pleasant resident and ANC 1E commissioner.

Besides ANC 1E’s, the coalition has the support of ANC 1A, covering the U Street-Cardozo area, and 1B, covering Columbia Heights.

The coalition recently lost the support of ANC 1C, based in Adams Morgan, which with a largely new slate of commissioners recently voted to reverse a 2000 pro-road vote.

ANC 1C was the first and so far only ANC won by pro-park allies of the mayor.

"We’ve been ambushed a bit on the ANC issue," acknowledged Jason Broehm, a leader of the pro-park side. He complained that park advocates hadn’t been invited to present their case before at least some of the ANC votes.

Judith Anderson, an ANC 4A commissioner who voted to support the pro-road coalition, said the main issue in her neighborhood was east-west access.

"We have a number of older residents and commissioners who remember the road when it was open," she said. "And if you were going to Georgetown or the Cathedral area, it took you there faster. Klingle Road was the way to get where you wanted to go. And I don’t think anybody has the right to tell you where you can go."

There is also a sense among some east-of-the-park residents that the anti-road position reinforces the residential, occupational and social patterns of a city still divided by race and class.

"People have been locked into their little neighborhoods," said Toni Ritzenberg, a life-long Washingtonian who led the effort in ANC 3B to support the pro-road cause.

"That was my reason for bringing it up," she said. "When I was younger, if you were black, you didn’t cross 14th Street. I’m Jewish – you couldn’t go across town from the Gold Coast," east of upper 16th Street NW.

"I’m all for bikers and dog walkers," she said. "But if you want to live in an integrated city, you have to make some little concessions."

Mendelson, who last month led the failed effort, supported by Williams, to block the council from requiring council approval for his Klingle Road plan, said last week he recently received "informal" assurances from Williams that the mayor would accede to the council’s wishes and submit a Klingle Road proposal later this year.

"‘Yes, we will comply,’" Mendelson characterized the mayor’s response.

Other council members said they had no idea of the mayor’s next move.

"I am in the dark," said Graham, whose ward contains part of Klingle Road. "I don’t know where things stand with the mayor."

A spokesman for Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, D-Ward 3, whose ward contains the other main section of the road, said Patterson had heard nothing from the mayor about his plans following the council vote.

And Carol Schwartz, R-At Large, who heads a council oversight committee on city roads, said both she and Cropp sent letters to the mayor after last month’s vote, asking him to respect the council’s prerogative on approving road closures.

"But he didn’t respond at all," she said. "Now it’s like a stalemate. I hope he won’t be stubborn about this."

If the mayor does decide to present his plan to transform the road to parkland to the council, there were signs last week that some council members, like their constituents, are moving away from him and toward the pro-road position.

To date, only three members – Graham, Fenty and Cropp – have publicly opposed the mayor’s public position.

But Schwartz indicated she was leaning toward the pro-road option. "I know our traffic problems are immense," she said. "Repairing Klingle Road for continued use" could be a partial solution, she said. "And I’m very aware that there are so few cross-town routes."

Councilman Kevin Chavous, D-Ward 7, also indicated he might be moving in the pro-road direction.

"Early on in this issue, I took a position to keep the road closed" because of environmental concerns, he said. "But there is also an argument that the environment will be better off by diverting traffic off of some of these heavily traveled routes like Connecticut Avenue."

"I’m still where I am," he said. "But I think the issue is not as clear-cut as it looked at first."

And a senior staffer in the office of Councilman Harold Brazil, D-At Large, said that staff members there were very aware of growing support citywide for reopening the road.

However, she said there was no indication now that Brazil was leaning toward supporting car traffic on the road. "He’s already changed his position once on this issue," she said.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator