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Public Spaces

It's parks AND recreation, not just recreation

The National Park Service lets down DC residents in many ways when it comes to managing the many neighborhood parks in DC. However, unfortunately DC's Department of Parks and Recreation hasn't yet shown it can do a lot better when it comes to maintaining parks.

In some ways, they certainly do better. DC-run parks are often far better designed for the needs of residents, and have recreational facilities while federally-controlled parks in neighborhoods disappoint on that score . However, actual park maintenance falls short at DPR.

According to Autumn Saxton-Ross of Green Spaces for DC, the $35 million Deanwood Recreation Center, which opened in June 2010, has already lost most of its shrubs and trees. Saxton-Ross says none of the employees at Deanwood are responsible for watering the growing things, and so nobody did.

Mike DeBonis recently highlighted an even bigger failure: Upshur Park, where the grass actually caught on fire. DPR opened the park to great fanfare earlier this year, but then again didn't water the new trees and grass.

DPR followed up with DeBonis to tout Walter Pierce Park, which looks green and verdant. However, DeBonis noted, that might be because it isn't open yet.

DPR is also putting in irrigation at several of its playing fields. But this highlights what many parks advocates say is the issue: a focus on the recreational facilities, like pools, indoor rec centers, and athletic fields, over parks. Ironically, says a former DC government employee, under Mayor Williams the department was renamed to put parks first. Apparently the semantic change didn't translate to policy.

There's been a lot of upheaval at DPR in recent years. Mayor Fenty had 4 separate directors for the agency, one of whom Council refused to confirm amid controversies over contracts that were allegedly improperly routed through DPR. The Williams administration saw similar turnover rates in the job.

Perhaps the biggest cause of problems is funding. Over the last 5 budget cycles, DPR's budget was cut by 47%. It's hard to keep up maintenance of a growing set of parks and rec centers in that climate.

Now, park maintenance is slated to transfer to the new Department of General Services, which could mean it'll get the attention it needs, or it could mean it slips through the cracks entirely.

Perhaps parks slip through the cracks so much because DC has so little actual parkland that's not run by the National Park Service. Maria Barry, the volunteer president of Friends of 16th Street Heights Parks (including Upshur Park, the one that caught on fire), says that many calls to 911 about crime in the park end up routed to the Park Police, even though Upshur and nearby Hamilton Park are not federal and MPD has jurisdiction. Since almost all parkland is federal, dispatchers sometimes erroneously assume that all parkland is.

Tommy Wells now has oversight over DPR on the Council. Will he be able to make any changes? He could fight for more budget, though everyone else has pressing budgetary needs as well. Should he push for any structural reform? Some have suggested creating a separate park division, which could ensure some staff focus on parks, or it could simply rearrange the org chart to no real effect depending on how it's implemented.

When Kwame Brown announced he's open to an income tax increase, he stipulated the money go to maintaining schools, rec centers, and parks. That's a change from earlier promises to use extra money for affordable housing, but could alleviate DPR's woes.

Parks are a significant piece of building a good city for neighborhoods of all types and for all residents. We need to show that DC parks can be great. Failings at DPR aren't an excuse for NPS not to do better, but if DC could make its parks a model for urban parks, it would certainly help set an example for other, federal parks around the city.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I'm no landscape architect nor botanist, so to those with more knowledge in that area: what degree of native vs foreign flora are typically planted in parks? If we're leaning toward the latter, I'd think a shift toward more local flora (native trees, wildflowers, etc) would help reduce associated maintenance costs.

While I admit it's hardly a perfect comparison, I know several people who maintain gardens of only local flora -- they never need to water, fertilise, or tend the soils and they still manage a decent food source & color for almost every month of the year.

by Bossi on Aug 30, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport

The newly opened Park at Ledroit has suffered the same fate. No watering and no irrigation system allowed most of the newly planted sod to die within the first week or two along with much of the larger landscaping plants. There are now only intermittant patches of grass with weeds coming up in the dirt in between. After spending $1.5 million to build a beautiful park, the city let the park fall into disrepair in a few weeks. Disgraceful. Neighbors have organized weekly cleanups which is wonderful, but again this shouldn't be necessary in the first place.

by Ledroit Resident on Aug 30, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

newly planted perennials, even natives, need water everyday for the 1st week and 1x/wk thereafter for the first summer.

Any transplanted tree, including natives, in the ground <3yrs need 25gal/wk. including winter when temps are above freezing.

I disagree that the full responsibility is DCPR. If people value trees in their community they should take on the responsibility and care for trees if its obvious they need care. You can get 25gal slow release water bags for trees for free from

by Tina on Aug 30, 2011 12:33 pm • linkreport

Good stuff but I was pretty disappointed this post wasn't about Ron Swanson.

by Ed on Aug 30, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

DPR is at least humble enough *sometimes* to know that it doesn't have the resources to maintain some of its facilities at the level they need to be and is thus willing to work with private partners like they have done with the Jellef/Maret and Bundy/KIPP Shaw campus fields. With local resources like the DC Master Gardeners program, it's boggling why DPR (and its contracted so called "landscape architects") can't figure out the best landscaping plans.

Mr Brown should stick to the original plan to provide low income housing -- in mixed income level developments and maybe add school maintenance (which should have been in the sham/shortsighted budge to begin with). DPR should be renegotiating its union contracts so that the staff that sit around at rec centers can take some time each day/week to maintain the landscaping around Rec Centers like Kennedy.

It's a shame that with billions of dollars of local development coming to the Shaw and nearby area (Marriott, CityCenter, CityMarket, UNCF and others) local leaders couldn't target some resources to better maintain the rec center that will serve residents in each of these developments.

Maybe shifting maintenance to DGS will do the trick. Pulling out a water hose, mulching trees and shrubs, picking up litter isn't going to kill anyone; it all makes the DPR facilities more enjoyable and shows that our tax dollars are being put to good use for the benefit of everyone in the community.

I'm fine with the NPS having some arcane national agenda and standards, but (preaching to the choir here) they should at least work cooperatively with local leadership in each jurisdiction on local priorities.

When is NPS putting in a reasonable number of bike racks, if not also a CaBi station, at the new King Memorial? The more convenient bike facilities the new Memorial has, the more local people will take time to appreciate it which seems to fit with their objectives.
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by CCCA Prez on Aug 30, 2011 12:50 pm • linkreport

Lack of adequate landscape maintenance from DPR aside, I've always seen DPR as the 'Rec' side of NPS's 'Park'. DPR even handles a lot of the permitting for recreational activities on NPS property if I recall. Given how NPS could care less about DC citizens, I think it's the only way any of the park space in the city will see any real programming (refer to your own coverage of Dupont Circle programming as an example). Until DC has the ability to better control lands within it's borders, it seems like a good compromise.

by jeff on Aug 30, 2011 1:00 pm • linkreport

A realistic upkeep plan should be part of any park before it is opened. I live at 10th & M and the city recently opened a little pocket park on 10th between M and L. In only a few months the grass is completely dead and in some parts its just dirt. There is a water feature in the park so I would have thought it would have been relatively inexpensive to think of some sort of irrigation system when the park was designed. Seems to me like lack of thought and a rush to get something done, instead of doing it right.

by Ryan on Aug 30, 2011 1:29 pm • linkreport

I'm disappointed by the state of the trees at the new dog park at 17th and S. Supposedly the community struggled to have the original trees kept. 2 years later, they're all dying. It's really sad, plus there's little shade during the day.

by MDE on Aug 30, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport

This is a very good post. While it is great there has been so much investment in parks and rec centers - there really doesn't seem to be any coherent plan from DPR. I think that is mainly due to the fact that there is no coherent and consistent leadership. This seems like good task for the council committee to provide some more serious oversight on. Parks should not be a back pocket tool for the mayor in sending money to different wards for park improvements, they are assets to be planned managed professionally.


by norb on Aug 30, 2011 3:19 pm • linkreport


When everyone was saying how great Fenty was because of all the parks he renovated, I asked the question over and over. Have we planned to maintain them? Do we have money set aside in the budget for maintenance and upkeep? Has anyone considered that building really nice things has an annual pricetag -- that each new park we build is going to cost something real every year that we didn't have to pay before?

Why would we build a whole bunch of things that require upkeep, while slashing the budget for upkeep by 47% at the same time?

Our last mayor was great at spending money to please people. Mr. Instant Gratification. I really hope that Gray is able to figure out that when you build or fix something up, you also need to plan beyond the ribbon cutting, or it's just throwing money away.

by Jamie on Aug 30, 2011 3:55 pm • linkreport

the post should have mentioned that there is no DPR master plan. That one was written in 2005 and never released. That the "Capital Space" plan created by OP, NCPC, and NPS isn't a comprehensive parks plan either.

There's a developing section of parks resources links on my blog plus a variety of entries over the years on this topic.

by Richard Layman on Aug 30, 2011 4:15 pm • linkreport

I'll also throw into the mix that while we have all sorts of fights over which active park uses (dog runs, ball fields, playgrounds, etc.) we have very few District parks designed with any conservation/environmental purpose. Certainly there is wildlife in the larger NPS parks (Rock Creek Park, Anacostia Park, etc). But there is no District land-controlling entity charged with protecting environmental value. DDOE sets environmental policy, but has no control of land. When the land goes to DPR or DMPED (including fairly significant chunks of parkland coming in transfers from NPS) its future is largely determined based on those agencies' priorities: active recreation space and economic development.

I hope as this discussion of parks continues the District finds a way to protect the environmental value of some undeveloped land as well. That's not to say we need to start preserving all large tracts at the expense of appropriate urban density and development. But it would be nice if our environmental agency had some say in the management of some of the District's public land. This lack of any land-management authority leads to some odd results that are rather indefensible, like the lack of appropriate mitigation options for the destruction of functioning wetlands habitats.

by Shane on Aug 30, 2011 4:49 pm • linkreport

I think there have been 8 or nine different directors in nine years at DPR.

Until someone, a leader, comes in who shows a passion, knowledge, and commitment to garden/park planning and plants, etc, much will continue as is -- being neglected. One of the katrillion problems with DPR is that there is no park-park presence in the parks. They all sit in offices and only once in a while venture to the park in question, usually to oversee some capital project, and every once in a while to do maintenance (there IS a budget). No one in DPR can really say they have much idea about the community that uses the park and certainly less about the history and original design of it. In short, if DPR is to bring the parks up to even a basic level of decent maintenance, they need to maintain a presence in the park (NOT rec side; but park side).

With this merger, that looks less likely. A lot less likely. In fact it could be the death knell for care of the parks.

What would be interesting for GGW to do would be to compare parks, and ask what makes a good park? There are some examples. Is it the surrounding community that draws better leaders with more knowledge and commitment to run the Friends groups which, very lamentably, do most of the work? What are the ingredients there?

Regarding environmental, there have been environmental projects - some have been unmitigated disasters. And in short, DPR is NOT committed to environmentally friendly ANYthing. They don't know or don't care about best practices. To say the least. They do know about throwing money at capital projects and wasting that money.

Having native plants does not mean they drought-resistant. There are some plants that can take prolonged periods without water better than others. They are not necessarily native plants. I like the idea of planting native plants. And perennials. But because DPR really does not do any maintenance, I think they have zero thought about whether to plant native or non native. There are a lot of invasive plants in the parks. But depending on the park, not a lot is being done to remove them. They can take out the plants we want, shrubs and trees.

Again, it's about doing the basics right, and doing the basics first, before moving on to more ambitious projects. DPR does not do the basics. DPR loves the capital projects but hates maintenance.

by Jazzy on Aug 30, 2011 7:17 pm • linkreport

WRT Jazzy's point that the new DGS and their being responsible for park maintenance among other duties being "problematic" (not his word) I agree 100%.

Given DC Government's multiple failures to properly manage property portfolios with virtually every agency (schools, fire dept., parks, many lease and management agreements from Eastern Market to Reeves Center, the old Star printing plant, etc.) the belief that a super-agency will manage to get it all together and do great things borders on insanity.

by Richard Layman on Aug 31, 2011 10:28 am • linkreport

Shane makes a very valid point ("we have very few District parks designed with any conservation/environmental purpose"). We should also not lose sight of the fact that in the last 10 years at least two urban land conservatories in DC, which provide and maintain parks open to the public but whose primary mission is to conserve natural and historic features. I'm thinking about the Rosedale and Tregaron conservancies, both in Cleveland Park.

by Sarah on Aug 31, 2011 12:15 pm • linkreport

If there is no one able or willing to take care of the parks or any other city or NPS property it should be used for something else even if that means getting rid of the park;since most of the so called parks in DC are nothing more than a 20-60 sq foot area that has some grass most of the population would not give a damn.

by kk on Sep 4, 2011 4:27 pm • linkreport

Yes, the Rosedale Conservancy has come quite a way from its origins in preventing JPDS or St. Albans from buying the property. So, if your neighborhood has $12,000,000 lying around, please do create a private park.

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 4, 2011 10:57 pm • linkreport

The Tregaron Conservancy took $6.5 million dollar residential property and turned it into a 13 acre park promising 8 housing lots the city could get tax money from in the future, if they would grant Tregaron tax free status to create the park. This park could not be created if it was not tax free to the newly created conservancy. Once that deal was done Mary Cheh turned Klingle Road into a bike path making 5 of those housing lots unusable. So the city gave up on 5 $2 million dollar houses and now is being asked to spend $7 million on a bike path on Klingle Road, Klingle listed as an open and necessary road, a bike path no one needs. Fraud, waste and abuse of power, thanks Mary Cheh.

by Concerned on Sep 5, 2011 7:18 am • linkreport

@concerned, I am not sure that is a fully accurate account of Tregaron.

By my recollection, the plans for the houses along Klingle Road had a "bridle path" road that served the houses. At no time were those new residences to have direct access to Klingle Road.

In other words, those houses can be developed at any time, just like the ones along Macomb Street or at the top of Klingle. The fact is, for whatever reason, no one has wanted to buy the parcels or develop the properties.

To blame it on Klingle Road remaining closed to vehicular traffic is simply a falsity.

by William on Sep 5, 2011 9:08 am • linkreport

William your information is incorrect. The Bridle path is too narrow for a car, its use would require cutting across the historic land to get access to the bulding lots and DC Historic Preservation office has said they will not allow a road across the historic land. The only access to the building lots is from Klingle Road and this is why the lots have not been sold or developed. Klingle Road has not been built by Ddot as it should have been and so it is still needed today.

by Concerned on Sep 5, 2011 11:54 am • linkreport

I'd be surprised if you could build on the Tregaron side of Klingle Road, since a stream runs down that side for most of the distance. I doubt it would pass an environmental assessment.

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 5, 2011 3:54 pm • linkreport

Exactly. There were NEVER plans that had direct access from those houses to Klingle Road. The "bridal path" was the vehicular access. Perhaps the HPO killed that concept, but it is erroneous to suggest that the permanent closure of Klingle road stifled this housing potential.

by William on Sep 5, 2011 4:28 pm • linkreport

Neil Flanagan the stream is on the opposite side of Klingle Road and that stream is now a creek with 2 inches of water in it, even after the hurricane. In the past there have been drawings with the access to the house lots from Klingle Road with each house having a driveway off the road. The other access would be off the Washington International Exit driveway which HPO says it will not allow that access across historic land nor the bridal path access. Now the lots are landlocked and DC will not get its tax revenue as promised when DC allowed Tregaron its tax free status for the park. I think Tregaron should live up to its end of the agreement and the testimony it put before the City Council and get the road open and the 8 lots buildable. The other resolution would be Tregaron could loose its tax free status until the 8 promised housing lots are viable.

by concerned on Sep 6, 2011 6:51 am • linkreport


Do you really think the National Park Service was going to allow 8 new driveways onto Klingle Road? Can you produce a link that shows any drawings with this configuration?

I do not recall ever seeing such a scheme in the 30+ years of Tregaron development proposals.

by William on Sep 6, 2011 7:49 am • linkreport

@William, IIRC I saw drawings for houses cut into the cliff there at a meeting at the church across from Eaton school years ago before the Tregaron restoration started - drawings by real estate prospectors that had nothing to do with NPS, except that they placed private property on federal land in the plans, with two options: 1) to gain access via Klingle or 2)to create a private road on the path above.... You're absolutely right that the NPS never approved that idea, and is very unlikely to ever do so. is on the opposite side of Klingle Road...

No. The stream originates from the tregaron side. An attempt was made to directed it with culverts under the road to the other side. That system doesn't work and a large portion of the flow continues above ground from where it flows out of Tregaron down that same side of the hill and traverses the hill farther down closer to the CT Av bridge to join the rest of the flow on the other side.

...and that stream is now a creek with 2 inches of water in it, even after the hurricane.

Clearly you don't ever walk there and make direct observations.

by Klingle Valley hiker on Sep 6, 2011 9:00 am • linkreport

The National Park Service owns the land beside Klingle Road next to the existing creek, and they do not own any land on the side of Klingle where the houses are proposed. This was again reaffirmed in the last EA done by Ddot and FHA. So NPS has no say or interest in how the houses are built. The original drawings called for 11 houses to be built in exchange for the 13 acre park, plans were changed amount of houses changed and entrance driveways from Klingle were part of the plans. What Klingle Valley hiker is calling a stream is water overflow from the damaged pipes that have never been repaired and the water remediation which has never been done in the area. This is not a stream but rain water runoff coming out of broken pipes. The "stream" or creek is still on the other side of the unrepaired road. And I was on Klingle Road last week.

by concerned on Sep 6, 2011 9:26 am • linkreport

@concerned - there is a creek flowing through Tregaron that continues down hill next to Klingle road. The creek on the east side of KLingle Rd. is part of that same body of water and yes, the creek-wrangling fails, thus the creek follows its natural course down the west side of Klingle Rd until it traverses the pavement tumbling into the ravine to continue on its way to Rock Creek.

What do you think "storm run-off" is? If there weren't pavement everywhere the water would be free to follow its natural course, as a natural creek that is naturally fuller following precipitation, through the ravine. Klingle Valley is a ravine. How do you think the ravine was created?

by Tina on Sep 6, 2011 10:28 am • linkreport

This is what Klingle Valley is, geographically:

by Tina on Sep 6, 2011 10:31 am • linkreport

@Tina: for over 100 years Klingle Road has served the city as a road and is still classified as a road. Your definition of ravine does not apply at least within the last 100 years. Most roads entering and exiting Rock Creek Park in NW Washington go from the park and up hills; Porter, Tilden, Albermarle, Brandywine, etc., are good examples.

Unfortunately the water that flows, thankfully ever so small, and at best a trickle, contains polluted sewage as the water pipes have not been repaired since they collapsed presenting a human health hazard.

If the road was rebuilt, and the water pipes repaired, there would be no environmental issues in this area.

by Bill on Sep 7, 2011 12:55 pm • linkreport

@Bill -its a ravine. Its been that way since at least the end of the last ice-age. Just like Wisconsin Ave is on a ridge. Klingle Valley is a ravine.

by Tina on Sep 7, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

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