[from July 2004 issue]


Our lead story in this issue reporting on a scheme to take over one of the few parks devoted entirely to recreational use within the inner city should be a must-read for all residents. Not only those whose easy access to that park may soon be taken away should be concerned, but also all taxpayers who need to raise serious issue with the manner in which precious public land is up for grabs.

We will not in this space recite the many disturbing facts revealed through our reporter’s nosing about and interviewing key government and non-government players in this developing, hitherto stealth, saga. Not until the publication of a fairly easy-going article in the June 25th issue of the Washington Blade was the story out there--other than to a tight, select group of insiders; even the neighborhood’s citizens association president apparently knew nothing, notwithstanding claims by the organizers that they have all the intentions in the world of working closely with the community.

But why are they waiting? Apparently they have been developing this grand scheme for quite some time now and claim to be closing in on what really will be the next to final plan any day. By the time they are willing to open all this “planning” up for community input the concrete will have set! According to the Blade, the organizers were prepared to share with the editors a “summary book”; we wonder why the same offer wasn’t made to this newspaper.

They could have benefited from consultation with the DC Office of Planning’s Ward 2 Planner Chris Shaheen who would have advised them on how to involve the community from the get-go: the series of detailed community meetings he has been conducting over in Shaw preliminary to developing final proposals for the so-called Convention Center Area Strategic Development Plan could have served as a very useful model indeed on how to meaningfully involve citizens. How ironic that one part of the mayor’s operation--its Office of Planning--does this kind of thing properly and another part--the mayor’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender affairs office, under the direction of Special Assistant Wanda Alston--is condoning through its participation this unseemly casual approach.

We were also troubled--and this really is quite a serious lapse on the part of a public servant--to have learned that Alston was listed as a “leadership member” of the fledgling center’s organization in the recent Power Point presentation noted in our lead story. Moreover, shouldn’t we be wondering how it can be that the mayor allows Lars Etzkorn, the city’s associate director of the transportation department and chairman of the Mayor’s Interagency Committee on Public Space (keep in mind that Stead Park is public space) to hold key positions in the organization, both as its treasurer and as a member of its board of directors?

Somebody needs to remind the key players that conflicts of interest of this kind are not appropriate when public funds and policies are on the table. The mayor has yet to have gotten that message, notwithstanding the extensive exposure he has been subjected to on this very sort of issue.

Let us make one thing absolutely clear: We are in no way whatsoever opposed to a center serving the GLBT community. If properly conceived, operated and well-funded, such could be a tremendous boon for our city as a whole. But, what we are opposed to is planning and decision-making behind closed doors. The organizers are not only seeking to take over public land but they are seeking to impose some major physical alterations to an established neighborhood at government expense, to use government funds for the purpose of creating an enterprise that will compete with both existing private and non-profit enterprises, and to (maybe not consciously) exclude from enjoyment of this public amenity less affluent, young African-Americans who enjoy the park’s basketball court; given the plans we have learned of, we know in our heart of hearts that this a group that will not be happy at Stead should it be transmogrified into a highly “yuppified” oasis.

We know the organizers will counter with how everything will be open and available to all, citing, as they did to the Blade that they would operate in a “similar” fashion as the Jewish Community Center a half-block away. That’s nice, but readers need to keep in mind that the JCC charges membership fees--it’s not free. That is, of course, perfectly acceptable; it is a private organization in a building it owns on land it owns. But Stead is public property; the city should not be charging its citizens, even indirectly, to use its recreation facilities any more than it should charge for library use; that’s what our tax dollars are supposed to cover.

Furthermore, why should the city end up subsidizing the proposed 500-seat theater when we already have excellent theater space in the immediate neighborhood, such as the JCC’s Goldman and the Church Street Theater, to name but two. Those theaters could surely benefit from the grant of public funds; why should one private group get all the largess when there’s none available for others? Anyway, the city already owns and operates (through a contractor) the beautiful Lincoln Theater just a few blocks away--a theater that has yet to approach full utilization.

So, in closing, we urge that the mayor call off his enthusiastic minions and that all others should back off to reconsider the proposal. Let’s find a way to locate the center at another location, possibly by leasing one of the city’s unused historic school buildings which could be beautifully restored and retrofitted for this use and be a place where people would be thrilled to be in; let’s not take away one of the few parks easily accessible to the ordinary citizens of the inner city.