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North Columbia Heights Green Nearing Completion; Opening Set for Sep. 11th

By Steve Coleman*

Accompanying images can be viewed in the September 2010 issue pdf

The District will gain a new, permanent public green space in September, 2010, as the North Columbia Heights Green community oasis, just off 11th and Park Road (through the alley behind Red Rocks Pizza), on Saturday, September 11th, at 11 am.


A community coalition led by neighborhood residents, Washington Parks & People, and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has forged the historic transformation of this long-blighted vacant lot, bounded by alleys behind 11th Street, Park Road, Sherman Avenue, and Lamont Street. [Ed. Note: The implementation of this project was first reported by The InTowner in the April 2009 issue; see, “New Park to be Created in Columbia Heights,” page 1; available in Current & Back Issues Archive.]

Once home to dilapidated garages and for many years a magnet for illegal dumping of garbage, truckloads of rubble, and abandoned vehicles, the Green, a vision that many doubted could ever happen, when fully completed by late October will feature a 16-plot organic raised-bed community garden, a butterfly garden, a rain garden, a healing and herb garden, a berry patch, a greenhouse, native flowering and shade trees, a staging site for community re-forestation and green job training, and a learning and gathering space. Additional features include an arbor, solar lighting, rain gathering, tool storage, compost bin, and parking.

Part of the reason the site once seemed so hopeless to many was that over a dozen speculators had attached more than 25 tax liens on the site and mired it in what appeared to be permanent ownership limbo. It took special legislation by the DC Council, coupled with a massive legal effort donated by Goulston & Storrs and others, to wipe out the tax liens and at last deliver the site for unprecedented and permanent community ownership.

Councilmember Graham’s leadership and persistence have been critical to the success of the project. With advocacy by the community and Parks & People and major support from former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Larry Ray, Graham introduced emergency legislation to help wipe out the speculator liens on the property, which won the support of Council’s finance and revenue committee chair, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, and overcame tough challenges to win a sweeping majority of the Council. Graham then aided the project obtain a city grant of $140,000 to help cover the costs of the acquisition and permanent transformation of the site.

Even after the community acquisition, the Green faced entrenched illegal dumping and enforcement challenges, complex storm water engineering requirements, and bureaucratic and permitting hurdles. Parks & People is now seeking to use the Green as a model to make it easier for communities across the city to undertake similar green conversions of blighted vacant lots. As part of the nationwide surge in community greening and gardening, Parks & People has provided mini-grants, tools, and technical assistance to 50 community greening sites across the city.

Washington Parks & People began work in Columbia Heights 20 years ago with the dramatic transformation of Meridian Hill (Malcolm X) Park from being DC’s single most violent national park into one of its safest. That transformation began as a volunteer community crime patrol that was first reported by this newspaper in 1990, and ultimately was recognized by President Clinton as the first urban parks partnership in the nation ever to receive the highest organizational honor in the national park system. Today, Parks & People is a leader in the urban parks and greening movement, helping communities transform parks and green spaces and sharing best practices in park-based community health and economic renewal with leading community partnerships around the world.

The first call to Parks & People for help on the North Columbia Heights lot came in 2006 from frustrated neighbors worried that the site was becoming a permanent eyesore and crime magnet. Chip Fawcett, the late chair of Parks & People and a lifelong champion of DC’s parks, saw the opportunity to transform the site into a lasting community green, if Parks & People could mobilize the same kind of broad community partnership that has been critical to the success of every one of its other site transformations.

Community planning for the Green was led by two neighborhood residents, Architect Ian Tyndall and Park Planner John Henderson, along with Garry Meuss, Parks & People’s landscape architect, who became the project manager for the creation of the Green.

More than 250 volunteers and job trainees, backed by public and private grants, enabled the acquisition and transformation of the site.

Parks & People’s partners in the successful transformation of the Green have included the DC Council, the North Columbia Heights Civic Association, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A, City Blossoms, E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, the Latin-American Youth Center, Columbia Heights Garden Club, Columbia Heights Community Marketplace, George Washington University, Georgetown Day School, Greater DC Cares, YouthWorks, the TKF Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, Department of the Environment, Office of Tax and Revenue, Office of the Attorney General, DDOT Trees, and others.

Parks & People and its community partners are planning a wide range of programs and plantings for the fall season, led by a neighborhood working group that will manage the site. The Columbia Heights Community Marketplace, the popular farm market two blocks west at 14th Street and Park Road, will use two of the garden beds to showcase urban farming and provide demonstration and training programs at the site. Winter crops will include hardy greens for salads and cooking, herbs, garlic, turnips, radishes, and sweet potatoes. Interested gardeners and other partners, including youth, school, or community groups wanting to do classes and programs or otherwise become involved at the Green, can obtain information by visiting or sending an email to [email protected].

*Steve Coleman is the Executive Director of Washington Parks & People, which has its headquarters in the Josephine Butler Parks Center on 15th Street, the handsomely restored one-time private mansion then embassy located across from Meridian Hill Park.

Copyright (c) 2010 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Washington Parks & People. All rights reserved.