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Thanks to developer Brian Brown, it’s gotten a whole lot easier for young baseball players at 1st Street and New York Avenue NW to hit one out of the park.
More than two years ago, Brown’s company, NextGen Development, purchased a dilapidated building at 115 New York Ave., planning to turn it into luxury condominiums. Brown wanted to build a parking lot behind the condos, but he needed a way for cars to have access. So he got permission from the city to create an asphalt roadway through the New York Avenue Playground, connecting his lot to a stretch of little-used existing driveway off N Street.
The extension, which is about 10 feet wide and surrounded by a black iron fence on both sides, effectively split the park in halftruncating right field in the process.
It also prompted community members to cry foul, and not just for the benefit of the pitchers.
“It’s very, very dangerous,” says John Gloster, an attorney who was retained by a group of nearby residents. “This is a public space, a place for the benefit of children, and a huge swath has been cut out and removed.”
Gloster points to a sign that NextGen posted on a mechanical gate that separates the parking lot from the access road. The sign reads: “WARNING: Moving gate can cause serious injury or death.” Lower down, it tells parents that they should not “let children operate the gate or play in the gate area.”
“And this is in the middle of the park,” says Gloster.
On Dec. 8, Gloster filed a lawsuit demanding that Brown remove the extension and replace it with grass. The complaint also asks that the mechanical gate be disabled or taken away, and requests that the easement that was granted to the developer be revoked. In addition to Brown, the suit names Mayor Anthony A. Williams, D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp, and the heads of the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Transportation for their roles in approving the easement.
Brown, who lives nearby, says that his project has actually made the area safer. “What we’ve done is clean up the park,” he says, pointing out that he often brings his 3-year-old daughter to play there. “Right where the extension is, it used to be infested with crackheads and prostitutes. Now they aren’t there anymore.”
He says the sign mentioned by Gloster is a standard requirement for all mechanical gates in the city, and insists that almost all of the money he’s making off the parking spotsthey’re selling for $25,000 eachis going toward park improvements such as new trees, regraded land, and new lights for the baseball field.
But Gloster is unimpressed with Brown’s generosity. “Those lights are more like mood lighting so that his condos look good,” he says.
“We want that driveway out, period,” says nearby resident Gene Cope.
The easement to build the extension, as well as a curb cut on N Street, was approved by the D.C. Council in a unanimous voice vote on July 8. In September, after seeing the results of the easement, Councilmember Carol Schwartz wrote a memo to Cropp in which she lamented the fact that children have to regularly cross the driveway while playing in the park. She called the situation “troubling,” and says she is sympathetic to residents who oppose the extension.
Brown says he is willing to look for other solutions, but thus far he has made little progress. The Department of Transportation opposes building an entrance to the lot on New York Avenue, he says, because the road is a federal highway. The agency is more amenable to building an alternate entrance off nearby Kirby Street, but that option presents problems of its own, including the prospect of moving the park’s playground, as well as the specter of a new group of angry neighbors.
Recently, the situation has gotten more contentious. One of the old light poles near the baseball field fell downa circumstance the neighbors blame on the developer’s having disturbed the soil near the light’s base. (Brown says the pole was old and rusted.) And a water-main break caused by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, which was servicing the new condos, cut off water to the day-care center in the park for three days. Gloster says it also caused a sinkhole near the baseball field.
Brown argues that he deserves credit just for trying to come up with a solution. “I don’t have an obligation to work with the community,” he says. “Because I’m a good neighbor, I’m trying to work with them. A lot of developers wouldn’t even be talking to them.” CP