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D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation has turned some things around in recent times. First, its name: A few years back, former director Robert Newman swapped words in the agency title to make parks come first. He hoped the switcheroo would offer a psychic boost to the beleaguered department’s mission to keep the city’s green spaces safe, clean, and accessible to all District residents.
Newman resigned less than a year later, after other creative approaches to the management of his department came to light.
Now, according to some Dupont Circle neighbors, Newman’s old department has devised an even more harebrained swap: to give valuable city parkland to a private group for a pittance and hope that they lend a hand to keep the trash collected and the grass cut.
Whatever grass might grow in Stead Park, that is, after the construction of a 35,000- to 40,000-square-foot, four-story building on the P Street NW property. The building would house the Center: Home for GLBT in Metro D.C., a community center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered District residents.
Right now, the approximately 68,000-square-foot park hosts a basketball court, a big field, and an old carriage house converted into an indoor recreation center. It’s one of the only public spaces in the downtown neighborhood where one can play hoops, hop on a swing, or have a rugby scrum. According to a Power Point presentation, the Center complex would add a theater, a gymnasium, and offices, as well as a computer lab, a day-care center, and an underground parking garage for more than 500 cars on the site. “The Center’s building will occupy less than 17 percent of the Park’s square footage, and green space will be maintained at current levels, at roughly 65 percent,” reads one slide in the presentation.
It’s as if Queer Eye’s Thom Filicia hosted the D.C. Cable Channel 16 version of Trading Spaces!
D.C. parks department officials deny any plans for a makeover. “The department right now has no plans about transferring over or selling any property,” spokesperson Terry Lee told LL on Monday. “There’s a lot of unneeded speculation taking place. It’s a story feeding itself without anything concrete to back it up from the department.”
Actually, the story is feeding off of a 20-plus-page draft lease agreement for the property between the “District of Columbia” and the “Metro D.C. Community Center Inc.” The document outlines a 99-year lease agreement, in which the Center would rent Stead Park for $1 a year.
Stop right there: One dollar a year, when 500-square-foot studio apartments rent down the street for $1,200 a month?
Who is the Center’s brilliant rental agent?
Patrick S. Menasco, a lawyer with Steptoe & Johnson, president of the Center, and champion of the $1 lease. When he hasn’t been racking up billable hours in the past few years, Menasco has served as a director of the Cherry Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization that throws an annual gay-oriented, weekendlong party that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars. The fund then contributes that money to other gay and lesbian nonprofit organizations. At least some of the money, that is. According to tax filings, the Cherry Fund claimed total revenue adding up to nearly $380,000 in 2002. The fund donated $90,750 that year to seven gay and lesbian organizations, including the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League and the Mautner Project for Lesbians with Cancer, among other local groups.
About a year ago, Menasco says, he stepped down from the Cherry Fund to devote his energies to the building of the Center. Other cities, including San Francisco and Pittsburgh, have gay and lesbian community centers. D.C., with its sizable GLBT community, has had a couple of failed attempts to keep such an enterprise afloat.
So Menasco started meeting with city leaders to build support for the project. On April 8, 2003, Menasco put out a press release on the Center’s Web site detailing his efforts thus far: “As plans for a new gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community center for the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area continue to evolve, local elected officials and community leaders have begun offering support and assistance, including Deputy Mayor Eric Price, DC Parks & Recreation Director Neil Albert, DC Council members David Catania, Jack Evans, Jim Graham, and Carol Schwartz.”
“All of them are in favor of a community center,” Menasco told LL last week. “All of them are in favor of our mission.”
Of course they are: D.C.’s gay community knows how to flex its political muscle, and no savvy public official would say he’s against a GLBT community center. Especially not the council’s two gay legislators (Catania and Graham), the councilmember representing the heart of D.C.’s gay community (Evans), and the council’s fashionista and gay icon (Schwartz).
“I’m very supportive of a center,” says Schwartz, who took the opportunity to remind LL that D.C. tax-free shopping week starts Aug. 7 and ends Aug. 15. Schwartz says she met with Menasco more than a year ago to discuss a GLBT community center, but location never crept into the chat. “It was never discussed that it would be in a public building or on public land,” recalls Schwartz.
Menasco tells LL that the Center’s board members considered sites other than Stead, including the Central Union Mission building on 14th Street NW and one or two surplus school properties. Stead Park, however, had a big advantage: It would be cheap.
Why put out big bucks when the city might give away the land for the price of an ice cream cone?
Dupont citizens feared a Good Humor deal was in the offing when they read a June 25 article in the Washington Blade. The lead paragraph of Lou Chibbaro Jr.’s story disclosed that city officials were “negotiating terms of a lease” that would hand over Stead Park to Menasco’s group for the Center. In a July 23 follow-up in the Blade by writer Adrian Brune, Menasco characterized the lease as “a fait accompli,” even though he acknowledged that the Center needed community support before such a lease would be signed by the city.
“This is the kind of neighborhood where you can’t change the part in your own hair without getting prior approval from neighborhood groups, and if you’re over the age of 50, you have to get the approval of the Historic Preservation Review Board,” says Mike Silverstein, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the Dupont Circle area. “That’s not the way the Dupont Circle neighborhood works.”
Ever since June 25, Silverstein’s neighbors have been experiencing bad hair days. They say that, until the Blade story hit the streets, they had no idea that the city had even been entertaining proposals for Stead. And the deception goes deep: They claim the city government has ignored community concerns, engaged in dirty tricks, and done insider trading.
First off, Dupont neighbors say, the Stead family willed the property to the city for the benefit of the city’s children, as noted on a plaque on the property. Yet when a few inquiring minds went to the city’s parks department to research that fact, the Stead Park file was missing.
Neighbors say they have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the Stead Park X-File.
Then there are other oddities. At a meeting with community members, according to neighbors, Parks and Recreation Associate Director Drew Becher told Dupont Circle residents that he came to D.C. from a job in Chicago to make a gay and lesbian center a reality. “He told me directly that he was brought here to build a GLBT center on public space,” says advisory neighborhood commissioner Mark Bjorge, who has been very involved in the community response to the Center.
Becher referred LL’s calls to Department of Parks and Recreation spokesperson Lee.
“He denied saying that,” responds Albert, who has recently been promoted to Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth, Families and Elders. “Drew is extremely busy trying to ensure that we have beautiful open space in the District of Columbia.”
Albert says that he never made any commitments to Menasco and too much has been made of his meeting with the Center organizers. “I am very angry at the misrepresentations,” says Albert. Yet Albert didn’t exactly dismiss the idea when he was asked about the proposal on WAMU’s D.C. Politics Hour With Kojo and Jonetta on July 2. “We want to partner with them,” said Albert to a caller who asked about Stead Park. “Again, we’re just in preliminary discussions. There is no signed deal.”
As further evidence of a cooked deal for the Center, Dupont neighbors point to the dual role of Wanda Alston, a special assistant to Mayor Anthony A. Williams for gay and lesbian affairs who also serves as a member of the Center’s advisory board. “We met Wanda Alston through Cornelius Baker,” explains Menasco, referring to the head of the Whitman-Walker Clinic. “Cornelius introduced us to the establishment.”
Says Bjorge: “There’s an appearance of self-dealing here.”
Alston admits to being a promoter of the concept to D.C. government officials. “My role as an advisory member is to provide access to members of the board to the D.C. government,” says Alston. “I would have to agree with whoever is making that claim, and I would be more than happy to resign from the advisory board.”
Alston says she helped Menasco set up meetings last year with Williams administration big shots. When Menasco reported to Alston this spring, he touted his commitments from city leaders and neighbors. Alston, who works out of the mayor’s Office of Community Outreach, says she took Menasco at his word. “When he came back to us this year, he had led us to believe the community was behind him,” says Alston.
There’s yet more for conspiracy theorists to chew on: D.C. Department of Transportation Associate Director Lars Etzkorn served as the Center’s treasurer while he headed the mayor’s Public Space Committee. “The chair of the PSC has no jurisdiction whatsoever over D.C. parkland,” Etzkorn told LL when asked if Etzkorn might have any professional conflict of interest.
Nevertheless, last week Etzkorn resigned as the Center’s treasurer.
Despite his salesmanship and rumored political juice, Menasco admits that he hasn’t exactly gotten the thumbs up from city leaders. “The city has agreed to nothing,” Menasco told LL last week.
That’s what Albert said as well in an e-mail to those involved with Stead Park. “I sent a clarifying e-mail which said that the city hasn’t entered into any lease agreement for Stead Park and that the city hasn’t offered to sell Stead Park, but that the city is working with a group of neighborhood residents to look at redevelopment of Stead Park,” comments Albert.
According to Williams administration sources, community outrage has been so great that Albert will likely tell Menasco soon that a GLBT community center at Stead is dead on arrival.
Albert had no comment for LL on that likelihood. —Elissa Silverman
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