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The difference between DPR and NPS: responsiveness

After my article yesterday on the DC Department of Parks and Recreation's maintenance problems with parks, both grounds manager Derek Schultz and director Jesús Aguirre reached out to talk further. This stands in stark contrast to the National Park Service, which hasn't engaged with parks advocates despite frequent efforts.

Photo by DC DPR on Flickr.

Schultz wrote in an email yesterday,

I believe you make some valid points. I would love additional funding for grounds maintenance, but at the same time I feel that recent systematic improvements in our grounds management program deserve attention. Some recent improvements include: installation of computerized central irrigation system for various field sites (makes automatic adjustments to ensure we irrigate at the proper levels) routine planting bed maintenance at 99 high profile DPR locations, implementation of permit limitations at our premier natural turf fields (ensures the long term-sustainability of these fields).
Government agencies seem to take one of two responses to criticism: sullen silence or active engagement.

Before this year, WMATA generally ignored its critics, didn't participate much on social media, and couldn't decide whether their media relations department should or shouldn't answer questions from bloggers. Then, with new management, they flipped entirely and started engaging.

It doesn't mean every problem is getting fixed, but it's a huge start toward a dialogue. Sometimes an agency has reasons for a decision which aren't apparent to others. If we at least know the reason, we might not all agree, but we can gain a better understanding of the constraints that hamper our officials.

DPR, to its credit, seems to be firmly in the engagement camp. DDOT has been generally good on this front as well. Not every DC agency is the same; MPD has largely refused to discuss issues with enforcement of bicycle and pedestrian laws or errors in investigating crashes that involve vulnerable road users.

I invited Peter May, NPS's Associate Regional Director for Lands, Resources, and Planning, to come on for a live chat and explain the Park Service's reasons for decisions that seem nonsensical and contrary to their mission. He was interested at first but ended up declining the offer entirely.

Bill Line, the NPS spokesperson, has never responded to a single email despite my sending one asking for his comment or insight before almost every story about NPS in the last month or more. He hasn't just said he has no comment; he has not sent a single email of any kind in reply.

It's not just me. Numerous parks advocates say that NPS makes no effort to have a dialogue with neighbors about parks. The few meetings that do take place are usually required by Environmental Impact Statement processes, and are then very structured in a way that minimizes discussion or input.

As one of many examples, NPS recently made a "determination" that its parkways are not compatible with bicyclist usage. Most people would agree that the parkways are not friendly to cyclists, but that's a consequence of NPS decisions to design these roads, originally designed for scenic pleasure drives through a park, more and more as high-speed commuter freeways.

WABA's Shane Farthing objects that this determination was made "without the input of the public or the burdened community," and also argues that it's a wrong decision. NPS should be striving for an ongoing dialogue with cyclists about these spaces, regardless of what policies ultimately result.

John Hendel also makes some excellent points about how NPS "doesn't get the new language of transit." Perhaps if they felt a need to converse with affected citizens about their parks instead of ignoring them, they would at least understand concerns and be able to speak to them when making proclamations about parks.

The grass might have caught on fire in Upshur Park, but it's clear DPR at least is in tune with its constituents, even if for whatever reasons, financial or otherwise, they aren't adequately watering the trees and grass.

Here's Schultz's full statement:

My name is Derek Schultz and I coordinate grounds management for DC Parks and Recreation. I am a normal reader of GGW and was pleased to see you taking an interest in the grounds maintenance of DC run parks. In case your readers are interested, I would like to provide a little more background on DC Parks. We maintain roughly 900 acres (including natural growth areas) comprised of 333 individual properties. Included in our inventory are 115 athletic fields (98 natural turf, 15 artificial turf), 70 recreation centers, and 22 outdoor pools.

I believe you make some valid points. I would love additional funding for grounds maintenance, but at the same time I feel that recent systematic improvements in our grounds management program deserve attention. Some recent improvements include: installation of computerized central irrigation system for various field sites (makes automatic adjustments to ensure we irrigate at the proper levels) routine planting bed maintenance at 99 high profile DPR locations, implementation of permit limitations at our premier natural turf fields (ensures the long term-sustainability of these fields). A full list of recent improvements is listed below.

Related to Walter Pierce, yes the site was just completed and the true test will be how it looks in a few years, but we have other examples of premier fields that have stood the test of time. These sites include: Banneker Maury Wills Field (installed in 2009) HQ field (installed 2010), Fort Stanton field (installed 2009). Our new premier field permit regulations assist us in ensuring that our premier fields stay in premier shape.

Yes, we have a way to go, but we are on the right path and have a real focus on improving our park grounds. Our hope is that through DGS we can continue this upward momentum.

I would love to give you a tour of some of our sites and would be happy to discuss some of the opportunities and challenges we face. Please feel free to call or email me at any time. [Editor's note: If I arrange a tour, I will try to arrange it so other GGW readers can attend as well.]

Grounds Management System-wide Improvements

  • Installation of new centrally controlled irrigation system at 13 athletic fields sites
    • This new system allows us to make automatic adjustments to our irrigation schedule based on weather conditions (wind, humidity, solar radiation, rainfall).
    • Improves monitoring of contractors who maintain system ensuring that they are testing the sites properly (they have unique log-in at controller site).
    • Facilitates the fine tuning of watering schedules to allow for the optimum irrigation program for each site (reduces overwatering).
  • Routine planting bed maintenance schedule (pruning, weeding, mulching). First time ever where 99 high profile DPR sites are being serviced on a routine basis. (photo of Palisades bed maintenance)
  • DPR led development of citywide computer based mowing tracking system (DPR has 333 individual properties).
  • Routine EWF installation at all 78 DPR playgrounds.
  • Creation and implementation of comprehensive routine maintenance schedule for natural turf and synthetic fields (113 DPR fields).
  • Installation of new in-field ball diamond mix at 50 playing fields (the most sites completed at one time) 2011 spring baseball season.
  • Implementation of new permit limits for DPR premier natural turf fields with the goal of creating sustainable fields that require less tax payer expenditures for yearly refurbishments.
  • Natural turf premier field maintenance improvements
  • Computer Controlled Musco Sports Lighting Systems (12 sites)
    • Allows DPR to remotely adjust the lighting schedule at each site which leads to fine tuned schedules based on permits. This fine tuning leads to lower electricity use.
    • Requires fewer staff to go around turning on and off lighting systems manually. This saves the district money.
DPR Natural Turf Field Renovations
  • Walter Pierce Field
    • Installation of new Patriot Bermuda grass field
    • Replacement of irrigation system (now on central control)
  • Headquarters Park
    • Installation of new Patriot Bermuda grass field
    • Replacement of irrigation system (now on central control)
  • Barry Farm
    • Installation of new Patriot Bermuda grass field
  • Numerous Baseball Infields brought back online and added to routine dragging schedule after being offline for multiple years
    • Douglass Rec Center
    • Marvin Gaye Rec Center
    • Congress Heights
    • New York Avenue Playground
DPR Field Refurbishments (with partners)
  • Fort Stevens Field
    • Sprigging to restore worn areas
    • Routine fertilization and aeration throughout the summer.
  • Fort Reno Field
    • Sprigging to restore worn areas
    • Routine fertilization and aeration throughout the summer.
  • Hardy
    • Fall overseeding
    • Aeration and fertilization
  • Rudolph
    • Fall overseeding
    • Aeration and fertilization
Thank you,
Derek Schultz
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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Encouraging stuff from DPR, for sure. I'd love to go on a tour of some DPR facilities, and especially, learn more about how they prioritize maintenance and care of their existing assets. That was would be englightening.

by Steve D on Aug 31, 2011 12:14 pm • linkreport

I find the DPR permitting process unnecessarily cumbersome and low tech. It's geared towards highly organized leagues, which is fine, but it ignores smaller less organized, ad-hoc groups that still could be and should be paying a fee. There are tons of unused field hours, but no way to search for and complete a "last minute" field reservation.

Furthermore, the balkanization between DCPS and DPR application and permitting creates further confusion for people trying to find a field. There's also not an easy way to tell when a field is available unless you physically drive by and see the field open.

After the league field assignments are completed (Pee wee football, waka kickball, etc.), there needs to be a web based schedule with available field openings for rent via a credit card over the web. Maybe it requires an account set up by a DC resident (One could scan and upload a copy of one's drivers license which matches the CC used for payment).

Consider this situation. It's Saturday afternoon and you and your friends decide they want to put together a football or soccer game for Sunday. How would one go about finding available space, reserving it, and then paying for it? This needs to happen via the web.

Sorting out the resident/non-resident permitting fees is a waste of time. Get the money flowing in so that you can have the budget to maintain the fields.

by J Church on Aug 31, 2011 12:25 pm • linkreport

NPS is federal. Local politicians have no direct influence on NPS budgets and no way to hold NPS accountable. In DC we don't even have a real federal representative in the House or Senate. NPS does not have to respond to local concerns because locals don't control NPS. On the other hand DPR must respond to citizens and media or the Mayor or Council will jump in. Just that threat of intervention is enough to keep DPR on its toes when it comes to communication. The cultural differences between NPS and DPR are vast.

NPS is generally staffed by hard working experienced government employees who also know how to work the system and avoid the hassle of dealing with the public.

Its not just that NPS does a poor job communicating in the region its that they have no incentive to change. The lack of communication means they often make decisions with little or no input and that's not a good way to make the best decisions.

by Michael on Aug 31, 2011 12:28 pm • linkreport

DPR has tried a number of times to increase fees over the last several years, even once getting as far as publishing a new schedule of fees in the D.C. Register for comment.

However the DC Council continues to stand in the way of letting DPR increase fees to generate the revenue they need to maintain all their stuff.

by dcvoterboy on Aug 31, 2011 12:30 pm • linkreport

Verty glad to see the responsiveness - DPR should be commended for that. However, this doesn't really address the concern about lack of maintainence for standard parks, focusing almost exclusively on rec centers and athletic fields. I hope that maintenance of parks, such as the new Park at Ledroit will be taken into consideration and I hope that if DPR shows commitment on this front that councilmembers will demostrate equal commitment by priotizing funds for such maintenance activities.

by Ledroit Resident on Aug 31, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport

I'm just trying to imagine a NPS twitter feed:

@nps Resurfaced #gwmp eliminating pedestrian crossings for better traffic flow and pedestrian safety
@nps Cut down Prometheus #grba
@nps Chased dancers out of #thje #nacc
@nps Hunting grizzly in #yell after visitor was murdered
@nps Tased pedicab near #wamo for obstruction of traffic #nacc
@nps Dug through new lava to rebuild Chain of Craters rd after new eruption of Kilauea #havo
@nps Fenced off park near #dchd for pedestrian safety and increased traffic flow #dc50
@nps Completed connection on HI-31 #hale
@nps @wmata Please close Smithsonian Metro Station for pedestrian safety during inauguration of #mlkm #nacc

by Jasper on Aug 31, 2011 1:12 pm • linkreport

I wonder if any of this is the result of NPS staff wearing crazy hats.

by Ward 1 Guy on Aug 31, 2011 1:26 pm • linkreport

calling up in response to a blog entry is a step in the right direction, but hardly worth heralding. What is worth heralding is changes in how the agency works, creation and execution of a master plan, etc.

NPS is problematic sure, but lately I am more empathetic about their position. Given that all of their overseers are based here, they have a lot less flexibility to act than park installations farther away from DC--everything they do in DC is subject to hyper-scrutiny. Plus, they don't have the necessary budget to manage the facilities. (Not to mention the other problems.)

FWIW, I've responded to various emails from the Mayor's office about parks issues and made the point there is no parks master plan and have never rec'd a substantive response.

So don't fall into the Kwame Brown trap of believing that how OPM/DRES/DGS maintains City Hall is standard operating procedure for how DC Govt. manages its properties, etc.

by Richard Layman on Aug 31, 2011 1:43 pm • linkreport

@dcvoterboy which specific councilmen? Tommy's my ward rep, and I think I'll have a talk with him about this now that this is his purview.

We have the worst of all worlds, high maintenance and capital costs and a relatively low income tax base. Obviously kids leagues shouldn't be paying too much to use them (although a lot of kids sports leagues are major income producers for adults), but if you charged adults what it would cost to resead/resod a ball field for a year and the kids costs were just nominal, we would have world class facilities. Similarly the schools spend all this money on fields, and have no way to recoup the investment to maintain them. Why not charge adults and put the fees into annual painting and restriping?

Heck, for a year round standing permit, I'd sod and maintain a field myself.

by J Church on Aug 31, 2011 1:53 pm • linkreport

Saying that, now, the key difference between the two agencies is responsiveness (it seems like you're peeved that NPS does not hop right to some transit request you have) seems superficial.

Give Derek the choice - where would he rather work NPS or DPR? Hmmm.... I wonder. There's just no comparison in terms of training and support. NPS has professionals. They have a vision. But I agree, they are not that responsive. But to what effect is all this wonderful DPR responsiveness?

NPS makes solid and sound decisions - if you want to talk about transit, I wish you would have done so in a completely different post. Derek is talking about watering. David is talking about cars. Apples/oranges.

NPS has a vision and a sense of history and aesthetics. Not to mention infrastructure and sound management. Cut them down all you want in drive-by blog postings and comments. They will still be standing.

Having said all that, I am quite sure that Derek is very good at his job and means well and wishes things were different. Maybe there are even a few others like him.

I will even say that I am sure that good employees like Derek (I really don't know, but I hope so!) lack a LOT of support, not only from their own agency, but also from the community in which the parks sit. It's not easy for them.

But again, until there is vision and effective solid leadership at the top, DPR employees will be relegated to responding to the likes of you and me. On blogs.


by Jazzy on Aug 31, 2011 2:11 pm • linkreport

Many years ago, the Baltimore Sun did an investigation that started with anonymous filing of service requests for problems in various Baltimore parks. Then they monitored the status of the request. Most were never addressed after a 3-4 month period.

by Richard Layman on Aug 31, 2011 5:40 pm • linkreport

@J Church: pretty much all of them. when DPR published the proposed new fees even Thomas (who had oversight of DPR at the time) objected to the proposed fees.

DPR also has a long history of receiving a never-ending request of waivers from Councilmembers and even the Mayor's office for any kind of group or organization. I've seen recent complaints that DPR is finally saying no to these requests (I saw something here on GGW or DCist about someone complaining that their Councilmember couldn't get their fees waived). But remember, every fee waived is revenue lost and another field or park that doesn't get mowed or trash picked up or a wall painted.

Compare DPR fees to other jurisdictions and DPR is a bargain. Private schools and other area parks and recreation departments charge $100's per HOUR to use artificial turf fields or indoor pools or lanes; DPR is substantially less and has been for years.

It costs a LOT of money to keep all of these parks, pools, courts, and centers is good shape, but nobody on the Council has been willing in recent years to be the advocate for DPR that we all really need and do the hard job of finding the money to maintain and operate all these great fields and facilities we've built over the last 10 years.

Maybe Councilmember Wells will finally be the District-wide DPR advocate we've all been waiting for instead of just trying to get more projects for his ward...

by dcvoterboy on Sep 1, 2011 9:24 am • linkreport

It is interesting that DPR's Derek Schulz' long list of DPR fields and natural and artificial turf installations and all that new DPR progress fails to mention the Anti-Erosion Project in Kalorama Park in Ward One. The centerpiece of that project,the so-called "Playing Field" to be constructed on the site of a former asphalt court, has been "under construction" now for over two years, yet still lacks turf and is still fenced off from the public. DPR made a show of "firing" (Aguirre's word)the first primary contractor, C & E Services of DC, Inc., and brought in a second contractor, whose excavations of terraces belatedly added to the project disclosed several feet of illegal construction spoils on the site, including plastic garbage bags filled with-- who knows? Now the "Playing Field" project appears to have been abandoned, along with the long ramp of stones made down over park lawns to allow the hundreds of trips by heavy machinery, and also the so-called "bioswales" which have become unvegetated scars on what had been verdant lawns in the park. Please ask DPR's Schulz or other DPR spokespeople to comment on the state of the "fields" of Kalorama Park.. Better yet, visit the park yourselves and see what a scandalous mess DPR has walked away from.

by John Cloud on Sep 1, 2011 12:24 pm • linkreport

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