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Neighbors oppose Grand Prix race

(Published November 19, 2001)


Staff Writer

Residents who live near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium say they were not consulted before the city signed a 10-year contract to host international sports car races near their homes and they are unhappy about the noise and traffic the events will generate.

The National Grand Prix of Washington D.C. is set to rev into action on the RFK Stadium grounds next July. The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission teamed up with Mayor Anthony A. Williams in August to announce the 10-year agreement with National Grand Prix Holdings LLC for the annual competition, which will showcase sports car endurance racing in the Le Mans series.

George Gurley, who was president of the River Terrace Community Organization last summer, said he "found out through the grapevine" about the planned auto races. Gurley lives in River Terrace, which sits across the Anacostia River from the stadium grounds. He said his neighborhood "will be directly impacted by this," yet the mayor and the sports commission "never told anybody" before announcing the contact.

"This racetrack is being shoved down our throat without us knowing anything about it," Gurley said.

At a recent meeting with surrounding neighborhoods, Gurley said he mentioned the upcoming race and found out that no one was aware that the temporary race track was going to be built. Gurley said they were "really disturbed about it."

"We are totally against this," he said.

Kingman Park Civic Association President Frazier Walton said he was approached by representatives of the Grand Prix event to attend what he called "an opening." Walton said he declined the offer, because it seemed to him that the representatives were announcing the event without getting input from his neighborhood, which is adjacent to the stadium grounds.

"Itís not even negotiable with us. Itís just out of the question," Walton said.

Area residents such as Gurley already refer to their neighborhoods as the "death zone" because of existing environmental hazards. They are concerned with the carbon monoxide fumes the race cars will emit, that the race will attract large amounts of traffic to their neighborhoods, and that the sewage-polluted Anacostia River may be damaged further.

While the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, has not yet taken an official stance on the race, club activist Julie Eisenhart said she is concerned about the environmental ramifications. Eisenhartís role in the Sierra Club is to support community campaigns, which sometimes obtain the organizationís backing.

"Theyíre building a grease pit next to the Anacostia River," Eisenhart said.

Race cars, she said, pollute more than other cars. Theyíre "designed to create large amounts of pollution to go faster," she said. She also said the cars use a higher octane fuel that is "more flammable and more dangerous."

Kathy Etemad, a spokeswoman for Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, acknowledged hearing of complaints from neighboring residents, but added that these are "premature" and "based on a lack of information."

Much of the area on the west bank of the Anacostia River that is adjacent to the stadium grounds will become part of Ward 7 in January due to redistricting. Calls for comment to Ward 6 Councilwoman Sharon Ambroseís office were not returned.

"Thereís gonna be more traffic and a parking issue," Etemad said. But she said there also will be benefits for residents. There will be "an increase in basic services in that area," she said, as the streets are cleaned up and the area is renovated to make way for the crowds.

"Weíre going to make sure thatÖ it will only improve specific quality of life issues in the ward," Etemad said.

Sports commission President Bobby Goldwater said he is "excited" because he believes the event will improve the environment. He said the race will actually decrease traffic in the area because Parking Lots 6 and 7 will be used for the racetrack, rather than parking, and the sponsors will be "shuttling people in."

There will also be "long-overdue improvements on the parking lot" as the potholes are filled in, Goldwater said. He said that this "environmental improvement" will ensure the lots are "better maintained [for the] flea markets and farmersí market" throughout the year.

The sports commission plans to have a company called Safety Clean monitor the area to ensure that there is less runoff in the Anacostia River, Goldwater said.

Neighborhood residents are also concerned about safety issues arising from the race. Walton calls it a "pure public safety issue." He said he thinks of the race "in light of Sept. 11" and doesnít like the idea of bringing crowds together for such a large event. He associates the event with a "rambunctious crowd" and worries that it might draw drug dealers to the area, which has a large elderly population.

"The policeÖ [and] Mr. WilliamsÖ will not ensure the safety of the people," Walton said.

Walton also said the event is "ethically inappropriate." Born and raised in the area, Walton emphasized that "itís a memorial stadium" and he considers the land around it "hallowed ground" that should be respected. The civic association won a fight against the building of a second stadium there in the past.

Eisenhart said she is concerned that "the D.C. government always makes a decision and then wants a rubber-stamp from the community."

"You canít call it citizensí input when [they] take it or [they] donít," she added.

"This is not some idea somebody had that they could pull a fast one," counters the sports commissionís Goldwater. He said he arranged a meeting in June with local community leaders, which he found to be "very encouraging and very gratifying." Goldwater did not identify which community leaders were present. He added that since the meeting, he has heard only "secondhand" that there are concerns from the public.

The sports commission emphasizes the positive economic impact the event will have on the District. Goldwater said the event is expected to bring in $30 million to $40 million per year and "gives opportunities to the community" by creating jobs for days or weeks. He said community-based charitable organizations also will be involved in the event.

"Everyone wants economic development, but at what price?" said River Terrace resident Gurley.

He and other residents living near RFK Stadium are more concerned with the additional environmental degradation the Grand Prix may bring to the area. "Iím thinking about the people who are dying over here right now," Gurley said. "We donít understand why they would want to put some more pollution in this area."

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A Chairman Ivette Basterrechea said the issue has not come up before the ANC. "It hasnít crossed our radar screen yet," she said.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator