Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

The National Zoo has clarified its safety concerns. Turns out you're the problem.

The National Zoo is changing its hours because of safety concerns, but Zoo users aren't so sure that's necessary. The Zoo director clarified Friday that his concerns aren't about crime or animal safety; what he's really worried about are people jogging and running into Zoo maintenance vehicles.

Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr.

A November 6th email from Lyn Mento, the executive director of Friends of the National Zoo (which handles most of the Zoo's communications to members), said the shorter hours would "protect and safeguard our visitors and animals, especially when it gets dark earlier in the fall and winter."

But it's unclear what, exactly, is threatening animals' health and welfare. In fact, when it comes to actually explaining the safety concerns mentioned in the email, the the only thing Zoo director Dennis Kelly has clarified is that joggers literally run into the Zoo maintenance vehicles and that happens more when it's dark. Here's what he recently told the Washington Post:

"We've had for some time, going back years, increasing concern about safety and security," Kelly said. "We've observed many near misses for walkers and joggers, particularly in the dark. We've had joggers with headphones bumping into parked vehicles."
Rather than blaming visitors for the problem, the Zoo could let them help solve it

It seems like the Zoo is saying that its drivers shouldn't have to act safely and responsibly.

The Post article, noticeably, does not specifically focus on vehicles running into joggers and pedestrians, and seems to only mention people running into vehicles. Rather than assembling a plan for keeping people safe—posting signs that communicate safety concerns, installing more lighting, marking pathways for vehicles and people, or making vehicles more visible, for example—the Zoo director's statement positions joggers and pedestrians as the absolute cause of closing the Zoo for three extra hours everyday.

The focus on blame and consequences leaves the Zoo's visitors locked out from a key decision. The analysis that informed Kelly and his staff is not available for member or public review, and that isn't likely to change before the Zoo's hours do.

There are more ways to fix safety issues than to just close a place down

There are lots of public venues where people driving vehicles need to account for people walking around. The National Park Service maintains the National Mall and other parkland using vehicles, mostly while the parkland is in use. Amusement parks stay open long hours during the summer, while resupplying concessions, picking up trash and making repairs.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the National Zoo, operates a Safety Committee "for gathering and disseminating best practices in safety within zoos and aquariums." This committee could serve as a resource for examining the full range of options to include best practices and professional training. The National Zoo's director currently serves as an adviser to the committee, and a Fire Protection Engineer from the Zoo who serves as a member.

The Zoo could work with the committee to find ways to make its paths safer without just closing them.

The Zoo didn't give the public much notice on this change, which isn't a first

The decision appears to be sudden and based on an issue that had not previously been communicated to stakeholders in member newsletters, Congressional testimony or media interviews. Yet, the Zoo says this has been based on a longstanding problem.

Last summer, the Zoo shocked patrons and received national press coverage for closing its beloved Invertebrate Exhibit on six days' notice. Kelly explained the brief transition time as the only way to maintain "our standard of quality" in the exhibit. Negative comments and feedback dominated social media and press coverage. Here's an example from Wired magazine:

Having the nation's zoo suddenly and with little public warning close a long-standing exhibit is unprecedented. Public comments on the Museum's Facebook page are overwhelmingly shocked and negative, including some from volunteers that work at the Zoo.
By waiting until the last minute to announce changes that the public won't like, is the Zoo limiting public discussion and criticism? I have no way of actually knowing, but I'll say that it certainly seems that way.

The Woodley Park Community Association will host Dennis Kelly, the Zoo's director, at its upcoming meeting for a discussion of the Zoo operating hours changes. The meeting is open to the public and will be held on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 7:30 pm at Stanford University in the Washington Building (2661 Connecticut Ave NW).

A more accessible Anacostia Park would mean a healthier community

Anacostia Park is part more than 1,200 acres of parks and wetlands that sit along the Anacostia River. It's not in great shape, but there are people working to turn it around. If they succeed, residents are set to reap the health and social benefits that come with quality parks.

The waterfront trail running through Anacostia Park. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Overshadowed by the Washington Monument on the National Mall, the Anacostia Waterfront, which the National Parks Service and District government manage together, is one of Washington's most undervalued landmarks.

Originally planned nearly 100 years ago, the waterfront was designed under the McMillan Plan to be a grand public park running along the river, featuring promenades, islands, and bathing lagoons.

Image from the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.

Over the ensuing century, however, Anacostia Park was neglected and underused. Despite all that it has to offer, Anacostia Park never achieved the kind of recognition from tourists or regular use from residents that places like Rock Creek and Meridian Hill do.

Part of the problem is that much of the park is bounded is by the Anacostia River on one side and a busy highway on the other, limiting access by public transportation and connection to the rest of the city.

Parks can help address public health issues in Anacostia

Communities east of the Anacostia River are plagued with elevated rates of asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, so much so that there's clearly an expanding the gulf between these underserved areas and the rest of the District. According to the city's most recent assessment, residents of Ward 8 have the highest rates of obesity and are the least likely to exercise of anyone in the city.

The health woes people in Anacostia face persist despite the fact that many people live within a mile of Anacostia Park or Waterfront Trail.

The Anacostia Waterfront trail has an aast and west branch along both sides of the river, and runs for a total of 15 miles.

There's proof that the active lifestyle parks encourage mean lower obesity rates and high blood pressure rates as well as fewer doctor's visits and fewer annual medical costs. Further benefits include lower levels of cholesterol and respiratory diseases, enhanced survival after a heart attack, faster recovery from surgery, fewer medical complaints, and reduced stress.

Recognizing what Anacostia Park can do for residents as well as how much it's been ignored, recent administrations—starting with Anthony Williams, who was in office from 1999 until 2007—have championed the park and waterfront, slowly shifting investment across the river. In the past decade, new playgrounds have gone up, and 15 miles of new trails have formed the nucleus of the Anacostia Waterfront Trail.

Both what's coming to the Waterfront and what's already there make for tremendous opportunity to serve community health needs in Wards 7 and 8.

Anacostia park lacks the public transportation options that other places have. This is the only bikeshare station located along the eastern branch of the Waterfront Trail.

New programing is a great tool for increasing park attendance. Last year, the National Park Service hosted the first annual Anacostia River Festival to promote "the history, ecology, and communities along its riverbanks." The inaugural event was an opportunity for the community and local politicians to come out in support of the Park and another is in the works for this upcoming spring.

Here's how DC can connect Anacostia Park to its community

For progress to continue, interest in Anacostia Park has to go beyond these periodic events and promising proposals. The easiest way to support active use is making sure people know about all that Anacostia Park has to offer.

According to the American Planning Association, for a park to increase physical activity it needs to be accessible, close to where people live, and have good lighting, toilets, and drinking water, and attractive scenery. Today, Anacostia Park has some of these things, but others are sorely lacking.

This is the south-eastern tip of Anacostia Park and Waterfront Trail, seen from across the river at Yards Park.

The first thing that would get more people using Anacostia Park would be creating convenient points of access. Creative infrastructure and programs could be replicated in Anacostia Park based on what other cities have used to successfully boost attendance and forge a connection with the community.

In Chicago, The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance helped community members create a "Quality of Life Plan," identifying top issues facing the community in order to craft policies that the park to meet the most pressing needs. Since 2005, the initiative has facilitated coordination between local employers, provided employment for 84 local youth, and mobilized over 10,000 residents to support a number of projects.

In New York, a collaboration between the Prospect Park Alliance, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment (BASE) High School resulted in a curriculum based on the physical and educational resources of the Botanic Garden. Such a partnership could be replicated between the National Arboretum, Park Service, and City if the interest and collective will are demonstrated.

Fortunately, creating new ways to access the park and things to do once people are there does not require large sums of money because Anacostia Park doesn't need to be built or set aside. What it does demand, however, is public and private support as well as a willingness to incorporate the communities these changes are meant to benefit into the planning process.

To foster dialogue between the community and other stakeholders, The Anacostia Waterfront Trust has recently partnered with 13 other organizations to form the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative.

While still taking shape, the APCC is designed to engage with nearby residents in order to promote active use and develop long term plans. Efforts like these can help ensure that the many projects and initiatives intended to help residents of the Anacostia Waterfront actually serve their purpose.

Other parks are blossoming nearby

Work is ongoing to create an additional 13 miles of trails connecting the park to other sites along the Waterfront, including the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Yards Park, and the National Arboretum.

Another example of a Waterfront project that can do a lot for its community is the 11th Street Bridge Park. The project will include an education center, outdoor performance spaces, and urban agriculture, and when it's finished, it will be a link Wards 6, 7, and 8.

Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park design team.

The National Zoo will be open for 1,000 fewer hours in 2016

Starting in 2016, the National Zoo's grounds will be open for three fewer hours per day. Beyond not having as many chances to see the animals, the change means people who use the Zoo to walk and exercise early in the morning or late in the afternoon won't be able to anymore.

Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Year-round, the Zoo will open two hours later and close one hour earlier than it does now. That means it will open at 8 am instead of 6, and close at 5 pm in winter and 7 pm the rest of the year rather than the current 6 pm in winter and 8 pm otherwise. The later opening will allow the animal house buildings to open at 9 am, one hour earlier each day than they are now.

The changed hours are the equivalent of the Zoo shutting its doors 7.5 days a month compared to the current winter schedule.

There's more to the Zoo than animals in buildings. When it's open, residents walk through the grounds for fitness or relaxation before and after work or school. The Zoo grounds provide a direct east-west connection, especially for pedestrians. Also, a section of the Rock Creek Trail runs though the Zoo.

In an email to members earlier this month, the Zoo cited visitor and animal safety as the primary reason for this change, particularly when it gets dark on shorter fall and winter days. Not having the public on the grounds will also allow Zoo staff and vendors "to move freely around the park during early morning hours."

What's unclear, however, is the degree to which new safety measures are actually needed.

The Zoo is great in the early morning and late afternoon

Congress chartered the Zoo for "the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people," and some of its wonderful sights and sounds only happen outside during early morning hours. Visitors can watch the Zoo staff introduce new orangutans to the overhead "O Line" when there aren't many people around, or hear sea lions bark or lions roar.

Nearby resident and Zoo member, Sheila Harrington, describes the value for her family of accessing the grounds prior to the Zoo's planned 8 am opening.

I've been walking in the Zoo early in the morning, before starting work, often 2-3 times a week (unless it's freezing or pouring), for decades. My husband used to visit the gibbons with each of our babies in a Snugli, and bonded with the mother gibbons similarly burdened. When the children were in strollers they rode along on my walks—up and down those hills pushing a stroller is a great workout. It's quiet, mostly without vehicles, and the animals are lively and fascinating. Sometimes I stop to sketch. The Zoo staff are usually working on some interesting tasks. Opening at 8 am would be too late because I need to get to work!

The Zoo is a useful travel route across Rock Creek

The paths and roads that the Zoo maintains also fulfill transportation needs, intended or not. The Zoo's 163 acres are directly adjacent to Rock Creek Park, an area with somewhat limited routes through the parkland.

When the Zoo closes its grounds in the evening, there are two big negative impacts to transportation. First, four Zoo entrance gates close across walking paths and roads that normally allow direct east-west (or west-east) routes into and through the Zoo for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers (yellow marks on the map below). Second, two gates close at the two ends of the north-south Rock Creek Trail within Zoo boundaries (green marks).

The yellow dots are entrances to east-west paths that cut through the Zoo, and the green dots are entrances to those that run north-south. Base image from Google Maps, with labels from the author.

Whether the four Zoo entrance gates are open affects anyone who wants to travel across the Zoo and Rock Creek at this point. Pedestrians can walk just 0.8 miles to get from the Harvard Street NW bridge through the Zoo to Connecticut Avenue NW. But the walk doubles to 1.5-1.6 miles when the Zoo is closed when they have to walk around to Porter Street NW or Calvert Street NW. The distance similarly doubles for cyclists and drivers when they have to use Calvert or Porter instead of North Road.

When the two trail gates close, pedestrians and cyclists instead need to traverse the Beach Drive tunnel on a narrow sidewalk. (This area will be widened in late 2016 and early 2017 by planned NPS construction.) DDOT, NPS and the Zoo explored closing Rock Creek Trail at night during the Rock Creek Park Multi-Use Trail Environmental Assessment. Trail users want to see it open 24/7, but Zoo insists this is infeasible "in order to maintain ... accreditation by the American Zoological and Aquarium Association (AZA)."

The November Project DC, a "just show up" fitness group, did its Friday
6:30 am exercises on the Zoo grounds. Photo by tusabeslo on Flickr.

Safety issues? What safety issues?

Zoo users are both surprised and disappointed by the change to fewer open hours. They're also still unsure of what, exactly, the safety issue is because the Zoo did not release the crime or safety data used to support its decision or identify any potential alternatives.

Media coverage on crime at or near the National Zoo has focused on incidents that occurred on three separate Easter Monday events at the Zoo. A shooting in 2000, stabbing in 2011 and shooting in 2014 all occurred in late afternoon between 4 and 6 pm. These events were unfortunate, but they were isolated, and they happened in late April when even the new Zoo hours would mean it'd be open until 7.

Zoo management has historically been great about keeping up a dialog with members, visitors and nearby neighborhoods on an array of issues. But the Zoo hasn't shared any details with the public regarding this decision. Even the announcement only went to members by email and on the public website, not appearing on any of the Zoo's active social media accounts.

Warren Gorlick, a nearby resident, said he wants to know the exact safety concerns that warrant the hours changes.

There is not much we know, however, because the [letter] ... was carefully worded to provide almost no details as to the underlying rationale. It simply mentioned "safety" issues repeatedly, without stating what they were or whether the zoo had considered methods other than restricting public access to the zoo. We have to wonder what is causing this sudden concern about "safety" right now that would result in such a major cutback in public access to this space.
Can Zoo users prompt a change of course?

Zoo users want to understand whether closing the Zoo is the best solution to keep visitors, staff and animals safe, but the Zoo's email is correct in saying the change will "frustrate" some patrons. The closure of Zoo grounds three hours a day represents a significant change in public access to the animals and walking trails. The plan to add one hour of animal house access during hours when the grounds were open anyway doesn't outweigh the overall reduction to grounds access.

What remains to be seen is whether the Zoo will share details behind the safety concerns. There may be other options through sponsorships to support hiring more security staff, partnerships with other law enforcement agencies or even establishing community watch groups. Without more information, we only see the locked gates in the name of keeping visitors safely on the outside.

Photo by Tim Herrick on Flickr.

The Woodley Park Community Association will host Dennis Kelly, the Zoo's director, at its upcoming meeting for a discussion of the Zoo operating hours changes. The meeting is open to the public and will be held on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 7:30 pm at Stanford University in the Washington Building (2661 Connecticut Ave NW).

An abandoned DC road is becoming a trail. Watch how.

Klingle Road runs from Porter Street to Cortland Place in Woodley Park and Cleveland Park, but it's been abandoned for years. The District has been working with residents to decide whether Klingle should reopen as a road or a trail, and the decision is finally in: we're getting a new trail.

The video, from Anchor Construction, shows how hard it can be to take an abandoned road and turn it into something people on bikes and foot can use. For example, a stream has completely taken over the valley Klingle Road runs through, eroding the land around it. Homeless people often live under the bridge, and part of the old road runs over a Metro line.

To fix up the road, the crew has to redirect the stream so it runs under the coming trail. The stream slowly ate away the land where the road was, making a dangerous drop-off right next to where the trail will go, so they'll need to fix that as well. Also, there are exposed gas pipes they'll need to remove.

It is fascinating to think about a stream taking over a road over 20 years. The new trail will be a great connector for the neighborhoods and Rock Creek Park.

Plans to build parks in NoMa just took a big step forward

The foundation that plans park development in NoMa just bought its first piece of land. That means progress for the booming neighborhood, where it's been tough to get an ambitious park plan off the ground.

The site NoMa acquired at 3rd and L St NE. Photo by Google Maps.

The plot is at the southwest corner of 3rd St and L St NE. It's 5,200 square feet, which means that when combined with land the city already owns, NoMa will have about 8,000 square feet of new public space.

In 2012, the NoMa Business Improvement District made a public realm design plan, which BID president Robin Eve-Jasper calls something of a "bible" for park planning in the neighborhood. A year later, the BID budgeted $50 million for creating parks in the neighborhood.

Progress has been slow. The BID has only begun public design work on two spaces: selecting art installations that will brighten and hopefully activate the underpasses on L St and M St NE, and securing commitments from some developers to provide space for a mid-block meander between 1st St NE and North Capitol St.

In addition, NoMa BID faced a setback when a developer outbid it for an 8,720 square foot plot at Florida Avenue, 3rd St and N St NE. The BID had identified the land for a potential N Street Park.

"There was no land that was reserved for parks in the neighborhood," says Eve-Jasper. "We're going out and trying to convince developers to sell their land and give up on the profit they think they'd make."

This is a big step forward...

As NoMa's first closing, the $3.2 million deal for the plot at 3rd and L, which sits behind the Loree Grand apartments, represents an "important acquisition" for neighborhood, says Eve-Jasper.

"We were lucky," she says. "The seller's one requirement was we were able to have a closing within 30 days," something the BID was able to do with its "effective partnership and mechanism for getting through the acquisition process."

The non-profit NoMa Parks Foundation, which is part of the BID, handled the deal. The District of Columbia will officially own the land.

...and it's hopefully just the start

To bring its public realm design plan to life, NoMa needs more land. The BID is in negotiations with a number of landowners for other sites in the neighborhood, says Eve-Jasper. She declines to specify what sites due to confidentiality agreements.

"We hope to have a clear idea of all the acquisitions in the next couple of months, and then we will make a decision on how each parcel fits into the system [of parks]," she says.

This includes determining how to use the site at 3rd and L, she adds. One potential use for the site is a dog park that could replace the unofficial one on the empty lot previously used for the NoMa Summer Screen that will be developed soon.

One closely-watched site is the large Pepco-owned plot north of New York Ave adjacent to the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT). NoMa has identified it as a potential location for a large green space in the design plan.

Base image from Google Maps.

"It's no secret based on the public realm design plan that we've dreamed on acquiring a large plot owned by Pepco," says Eve-Jasper. "That piece is so big, that obviously would be the best place for informal recreation in the neighborhood."

Work will also begin soon on NoMa's underpass projects. It plans to begin installation of Rain in the M St underpass before the end of the year and of Lightweave in the L St underpass before the end of the fiscal year in September 2016, she says.

Construction of the first block of the meander, between N St and Patterson St NE, is expected to begin in 2016, adds Eve-Jasper. Developer JBG will build this first section as part of a planned mixed-use development that will include a new Landmark Cinema.

The feds are the ones who own RFK. Here's what they plan to do with it.

There's been a lot of talk lately about what to do with RFK Stadium and the land around it. One detail that's largely been left out of the conversation: the federal government owns the entire 190-acre site, and it has already developed and adopted an ambitious plan to fill the site with mixed-use development, recreation, and culture.

This parking lot should be active recreation, according to its owner. Photo by the author.

Some have made the occasional calls for sports facilities, like a football stadium or an Olympic arena. RFK's 10,000 parking spaces are also frequently brought up as the solution to any land-use challenge the area faces, particularly new housing.

But since the land underneath RFK is part of the National Park Service's Anacostia Park, the site is owned by the federal government and the National Capital Planning Commission will ultimately decide what to do with it.

NCPC is a federal agency which "preserves and enhances the... federal assets of the National Capital Region to support the needs of the federal government," and it's the federal agency that "coordinates the planning efforts of federal agencies that construct and renovate facilities within the National Capital Region," an authority granted to it under the National Capital Planning Act.

So what does NCPC envision for this "dramatic gateway to the city," half the size of the National Mall? In December 2006, the agency published an "RFK Stadium Site Redevelopment Study" [PDF] that envisions "a lively destination for residents and visitors," with "new cultural and commemorative uses to attract visitors" plus "residential and neighborhood commercial development in this area of the city that is ripe for revitalization," and a chance to "address the recreational needs of local residents."

NCPC RFK vision
Image from NCPC.

Here are the particulars of the plan:

  • Active recreation on 80 acres along the waterfront, replacing the existing parking lots. Not only would new parkland provide considerable space for a city that, while long on total park space, is often short on space for sports. The new parkland would also provide almost enough space to double DPR's existing inventory of 47 playing fields. Returning the site to green space, with a generous natural buffer and trail along the river's edge, would improve water quality in the Anacostia River and reduce the impact of future floods.

    Note that the parking lots are almost entirely below 10 feet above sea level, and thus within the Anacostia River floodplain. They cannot be developed without first raising them out of the floodplain, either by building heavy-duty seawalls or by trucking in lots of dirt.

  • Memorials or museums, on two sites totaling 45 acres: a 30-acre parcel encompassing the existing stadium, and a 15-acre parcel across from the DC Armory. The 30-acre site might be an outdoor memorial on a site slightly larger than the Gateway Arch site in St. Louis, or could house a cultural complex larger than the National Gallery of Art's entire campus.

    The 15-acre site could house a museum, performance house, aquarium, or civic building of 300,000 to 800,000 square feet—about the size of the National Museum of the American Indian on the smaller end, or the National Museum of American History on the larger end. Unusually for a site in DC's neighborhoods, a large and wide building (perfect for a museum) wouldn't look out of place on this site, since it faces the Armory and Eastern High School.

  • 20 acres for mixed-use development, roughly between the Armory and the existing stadium, between 21st and 22nd St. NE, and Independence Ave. SE and C St. NE. The site can accommodate 1.2 million to 2 million square feet of development, in buildings ranging from mid-rises (70 to 90 feet tall) at the center of the site down to low-rises (40 to 60 feet tall) at the edges. The buildings would be no higher than the existing Armory, whose existing ceiling is 88 feet tall.

    The scale of development NCPC identified would be somewhat smaller than what's been built so far at CityCenterDC, or two or three times as large as the Monroe Street Market development at the Brookland Metro. If it were predominantly residential, it would accommodate up to 2,000 housing units at a mix of sizes, plus neighborhood-serving retail and office. The heights that NCPC identified wouldn't be high-rises, but rather relatively more affordable mid-rises.

NCPC identified these three uses for the site as far back as its 1997 "Extending the Legacy" plan for the region, released the same year that FedEx Field opened. That plan "envisioned the site with a major memorial surrounded by new housing and commercial development."

There's room for all three uses

Precedent also exists for the happy coexistence of all three uses in urban national parks. For instance, when the The Presidio in San Francisco was added to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, its five million square feet of buildings (including residences, offices, and educational uses) were retained by a new trust that supports park restoration and programs.

Some citizens are calling for DC to fulfill at least part of NCPC's plan by converting the northeast parking lots into a youth sports park and green space. That can happen without changing the terms of the National Park Service lease, as can future active or passive parkland on the southeast lots.

Any changes to the central part of the site, around the Armory and on the existing stadium footprint, would require negotiations between DC and the federal government. If that happens, DC should respect the federal government's wish to build a new neighborhood, and space for year-round recreation and reflection.

The YMCA is closing its downtown branch, and our contributors have something to say about it

The DC YMCA recently decided to close its downtown National Capital location. Many community members are unhappy with the decision to sell the 37-year old location for redevelopment.

YMCA National Capital branch. Image from Google Streetview.

In fact, we received a letter from a reader expressing frustration (edited for clarity):
I'm sending this along as a Y community member distressed about the peremptory closure of the facility as of the end of this year...I learned about the closure Friday morning from a fellow swimmer... I am shocked at the lack of any public process whatsoever in the trade of a vital community facility for what [I] understand are condos. This seems par for course for DC... that there are no community programs or resources in downtown DC (see Franklin School) and a lack of fiduciary responsibility on the part of the Y Board. The YWCA downtown (where I swam previously) was also closed in a similar fashion to make way for the corporate office building that is there now. I hope the GGW will consider covering this matter.
As a member of the National Capital Y, I can certainly sympathize with this reader. Like others, I was also upset to learn that the branch is closing from Borderstan rather than directly from the organization, no less.

But is it really fair to characterize this as selling out to greedy developers? The YMCA's board made the decision to sell its 37-year-old building as part of an effort to both expand programming beyond the gym and do more for communities that need help.

Situations like these, along with ones like the controversy over plans to redevelop privately-owned church land at 18th and Church Streets nearby, are a reminder of one constant in neighborhoods: places change. When I moved into Dupont Circle about four years ago, many of my favorite businesses and places didn't even exist there yet. Change has not lessened my neighborhood; it's made for a net gain.

The pool at the closing YMCA National Capital. Photo by Esther Dyson on Flickr.

Here is what other Greater Greater Washington contributors have to say:

Dan Malouff talks about the situation in the context of city amenities:

The Y may not be a park exactly, but as a community space it sort of functions like one. And sure, obviously it sucks to lose a "park." But there are some important differences that make this a pretty understandable move for YMCA. The Y is a private organization, with private goals. It's not like the city, or some evil developer, is forcing them to leave the neighborhood. They want to sell because they think that's the best move for them. Why's that? Because YMCA's mission—their whole reason to exist—is to bring social services to underserved communities. And as much as Dupont residents may enjoy a cheap gym, they aren't the Y's target market. Duponters have other options. By selling their 17th Street building, YMCA will make boatloads of cash, which they can spend on improving services in parts of the city where they're more needed.
Owen Chaput builds on Dan's point that the Y is free to make this decision:
The YMCA's board is selling an extremely valuable property in a prosperous neighborhood to improve its services in other (perhaps less prosperous) neighborhoods. That sounds fiscally responsible to me, and anyways it's up to the board to decide how to use its limited resources to meet the organization's mission.

Regardless, it's ultimately at the discretion of the YMCA board to interpret their mission and use their assets as they see fit. If the public doesn't like it, they can not donate to the YMCA or encourage DC government to remove any public support it offers the YMCA. Absent a contract with DC stating otherwise or evidence of some illegal activity, I don't understand why government should have a say in whether a non-profit operates services at any particular address in DC.

Payton Chung talks about non-profits who have to make often difficult decisions:
A lot of private institutions hold land for the public purpose. But like any other business, even a non-profit will sometimes need to make decisions that might sometimes upset some of their customers or neighbors.

Ten years ago, a social services center that actually was in my backyard, in a fast-gentrifying Chicago neighborhood, sold its building for development. Unlike the people they served, or facilities in the many neighborhoods that didn't gentrify, that organization was able to sell its building, move services closer to the families that it served, and build an endowment for the future.

On 14th St. NW, several social service organizations have used surging real estate prices as an opportunity to further their missions. In some cases, where the clientele remains in the neighborhood, the organizations have done joint-venture deals to remain on the site while developing above—as with the Anthony Bowen YMCA or Whitman-Walker Health's Elizabeth Taylor building.

For the Central Union Mission and Martha's Table, though, 14th St. isn't a convenient location for their clientele. Both are using millions of dollars gained from selling their land to expand their services and to move to new locations that better serve their clients. Yet when these groups announced their plans to leave 14th St., there wasn't hue and cry on local blogs' message boards.

The YMCA, too, has seen its clientele leave from Scott Circle. Its membership has dropped by 70%, despite spending millions of dollars to upgrade the facilities. A decline of that magnitude would put just about anything else out of business, and it's honestly surprising that the Y held on so long there.

Plenty of other smaller things bothered me about this letter. I once owned a condominium, and resent when the term "condos" is bandied about as if places for human beings to live are somehow a bad thing.

David Alpert says this might be the right move for more people than first meets the eye:
On a slightly different tack there is a general urbanism/planning question that comes up about whether "the market" takes care of things like recreation. Certainly we don't let education be based on the market need; cities put public schools in rich and poor neighborhoods. They also put in parks and playgrounds.

The market often doesn't seem to meet the need for things like parks. We're seeing that with NoMa, where because of a mistake when the area was upzoned, there's no place set aside for a park and a strong economic disincentive for any property owner to put one in. Plans like the one for White Flint are trying to deal with some of this by tying maximum density to provision of one of a number of public services the area needs.

In the case of indoor recreation, the market isn't really providing fitness opportunities in low-income areas that well, which is why nonprofits like the YMCA are playing a needed role, but in the wealthier areas the market actually seems to be doing okay. There are a lot of private fitness facilities in new buildings in the downtown area. They cost more to use than the YMCA, for sure, but while I don't know the economic circumstances of this letter writer, financial hardship might not be the reason she uses the YMCA.

For all we know, Akridge is already thinking about putting a fitness club in some of the building they plan to build.

So, personally, while I'm super-bummed to be losing my YMCA (especially that glorious pool!), I also recognize that it might well serve the YMCA's mission to close the branch. And with YMCA Anthony Bowen a mile away, and at least four other gyms/fitness centers (to say nothing of city-owned rec facilities) as close a walk from my place as the closing Y branch, this too shall pass.

A net loss for me? Sure. A net win for the Y's mission of serving underserved populations? Yes.

What do you think about the YMCA's decision? Let us know in the comments.

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