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Where the rec center once stood.

It’s been two years since the old Kenilworth-Parkside Recreation Center, a bunker-ish but serviceable facility on the lush east bank of the Anacostia River, was demolished. As it came down, plans were ready and funds had been set aside to build a new one—-but suddenly, mid-demolition, the National Park Service ordered the District to stop in its tracks. The lot now stands empty and fenced off, while even a new track and football field have to close at night because the recreation center’s lights disappeared.

The story is a classic sequence of bureaucratic snafus, detailed earlier this month in a D.C. Appleseed report commissioned by the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative, which is planning all sorts of great things in Kenilworth-Parkside—-but not, at the moment, a new recreation center. That might have to change. 

Here’s what happened. The Park Service-owned site and surrounding area was used as a landfill for 30 years, until it was closed and capped with clay in 1970, allowing recreation facilities to be built. The feds attempted to give the land to the District in 2004, but the transaction was never completed. Meanwhile, the Park Service was working on a Superfund investigation of remaining contamination; they even found munitions under the soil around the recreation center in 2006.

That’s where federal and local wires really got crossed. In 2009, after deciding to build a completely new recreation center instead of simply renovating the old one—-which wouldn’t have disturbed the soil—-the city went ahead with demolition. Knowing the potential dangers in the dirt, the Park Service made them stop, and only issued a special permit to finish clearing the site. The deal was so dead that $5.8 million slotted for the rec center was yoinked to pay for Hill East. And for the last two years, the 7,000 residents the community center served—-37 percent of whom are under 18 years old—-have had no good place to hang out.

The road forward stretches so far into the future it’s difficult to see the end. The Park Service is expected to finish a feasibility study for different options at the site this year, and will make a decision about what to do sometime next year. That will likely involve between seven and ten years of cleanup. D.C. could start construction on a new rec center before they’re done—-and $11 million is still budgeted for it—-but doesn’t want to do so until it owns the site, and doesn’t want to own the site until it’s all cleaned up, for liability reasons. Before doing any construction, the city would have to do its own environmental impact statement, which could take another year (another example of Superfund’s mixed blessings).

So the Department of Parks and Recreation has formed a committee, and they’ll keep thinking about what to do—-which may involve building a new rec center somewhere else (there’s a stakeholder meeting on April 10th at Kenilworth Elementary). But it’s hard for nearby residents not to feel defeated.

“When I purchased my home in Eastland Gardens eight years ago, it was my hope that my two young sons would have the opportunity to walk one block and partake in the various activities that the recreation center offered,” said Ed Fisher, Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander‘s committee director, testifying as a private citizen at DPR’s oversight hearing a few weeks ago. “Every day I drive past the former site of the recreation center and I am disheartened by what I see. Kenilworth Park sits on 700 acres of beautiful Anacostia River waterfront green space and it is missing its community hub. Instead of a new state of the art recreation center, residents are forced to look at unsightly green fencing and mounds of dirt.”