City Paper is not for tourists
Justice Park, at 14th and Euclid Streets NW, isn’t a particularly attractive leisure spot. Most of the park consists of a kidney-shaped expanse of powder-blue concrete that was originally designed to be a spray pool, where people could dip their feet on a hot day. Other features include upturned benches, some scrubby greenery, and a wall that cuts most of the park off from the street.
“They call that brutalist design,” says Steve Coleman, head of Washington Parks and People. “It was…a sort of urban-fortress-type thing that was done all over the country.”
After neglecting it for years, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) has suddenly awakened to the fact that Justice Park is located in red-hot Columbia Heights, where the value of every last square foot of land is skyrocketing. Why not put a “For Sale” sign on this eyesore?
That notion got an airing in late February, when D.C. Neighborhood Service Coordinator Jose Sueiro brought local residents to a meeting with DPR Director Neil Albert to discuss options for renovating the park. One of the “neighbors” who appeared at the meeting was John Casey, project manager for Bogdan Builders, a
Bethesda-based development firm that is working on a condominium next door to the park.
At the meeting, Albert asked, “‘What about selling that land?’” recalls Sueiro. “At first, we all thought it was a joke. It was offhand. Neil looked at John Casey and said, ‘You want to buy it?’ And John Casey, being a developer, of course he said yes. And we all laughed.”
Casey is quick to point out that Bogdan Brothers did not make a proposal to the agency. “My understanding was that DPR was not willing to put up the funds to renovate it to the extent that Parks and People would like to see….If they would be willing to sell, we are willing to talk to them,” he says.
Unimproved lots of comparable size in Columbia Heights sell for around $600,000. The DPR’s level of interest in selling Justice Park is a function of its bottom line. In the current budget year, the agency has $34.1 million to manage more than 350 parks and facilities. It is constantly struggling to mow its lawns, paint its fences, and resurface its tennis courts.
“If we can find the resources to make it a good park, we will,” says Albert. Otherwise, he adds, the department could sell Justice Park and use the revenue to renovate the nearby Girard Park, at 14th and Girard Streets. Says Albert of the current site: “That is just a hard property to develop. It’s behind a gas station. It has no real presence on the street. It was put there after the  riots without much thought.”
Albert’s portrayal of Justice Park describes many of the more than 250 other small parks in his agency’s portfolio. “There are a lot of very tiny park sites that were dumped on the parks department some time ago. It’s been hard for the department to sustain them. The issue is whether they can sell it and buy a larger piece of land,” says Coleman.
The sale of public parkland is unprecedented within the District. “We have never reduced our inventory like that,” says Neil Rodgers, DPR chief of staff. “This hasn’t happened in D.C., but it’s happened all over the country,” says Albert, adding that he first learned about the idea from his counterparts in other cities.
Before the sale could occur, the D.C. Council would have to declare the land surplus—which would mean that the city had no public purpose for it. Then the council and the mayor would have to vote on it. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, whose jurisdiction includes Justice Park, says, “We don’t want to sell our green space—our green space is very precious. If it can be shown to me that we can make this work, and that there’s a constituency for this green space, I don’t want to lose it.”
Whatever the security considerations, the DPR isn’t going to forge a radical precedent without some more consultation. Last week, Albert met with Graham, Coleman, and three community members. “We’re going to poll a larger segment of the community,” Albert says, explaining that his office is also working on estimating how much it would cost to renovate the park.
Pointing out that there are no existing estimates for the cost of renovating Justice Park, Coleman suggests that renovations may be much more economical than buying a new park. “Is selling a park, which is a one-time thing, an appropriate way to solve ongoing capital and maintenance challenges?” he asks. “There’s so many of these little forgotten parks. There’s a larger issue here: Are we really willing to stand up for them? They’re our little village greens.”
Before selling the park to the highest bidder, Coleman suggests, the DPR should look into fixing it. He points to the wall that obscures the park from view as one of the main challenges. The wall, which was originally supposed to be a fountain, is inscribed with words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” One possible solution, Coleman says, involves “pok[ing] some artful holes in the wall.” He also suggests adding a second entrance to the park.
“DPR has spent absolutely no money on the park for the past decade….Let’s give the park a chance,” says Coleman, who points out that the park’s lights don’t work and that trash doesn’t get picked up unless community members do it. He continues, “Our parks are not even patrolled. Once in a while in Justice Park, there are police who walk within it, but it’s very unusual.”
Sueiro hints at one of the reasons that Bogdan may be interested in the property: “Kids with bad intentions can hop over the wall into the back balconies of the condos.”CP