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Adams Morgan’s Kalorama Park Ruinous Water Run-off Problems Being Corrected; Neighbors Succeed in Coaxing Parks Dep’t. Into Action

Accompanying images can be viewed in the January 2014 issue PDF

 By Mike Persley*

On December 13, 2013 nearly 300 plants and shrubs were installed at the 19th Street and Belmont Road entrance to Kalorama Park in Adams Morgan, marking the first phase in an attempt to rejuvenate a park that has sat largely neglected for decades.

The garden project, which seeks to revitalize the park’s original Victorian design with a visually cohesive mix of shrubs and flowers that are durable throughout the year is the result of a tremendous effort by long-time neighborhood residents.

Kathryn Kross, president and founder of the Fund for Kalorama Park, along with several others, have spent the last few years working with environmental groups, landscape designers and the city government in order to turn the park into a unifying destination that the neighborhood currently lacks.

“I think that property like this in the middle of the city is where waterfront property was like 40 years ago,” says Kross. “People didn’t value it and now it’s like, ‘Oh my God, your parents sold their house that’s on the water?!’”

Kross initially thought of restoring the park in the early 1990s, when she first arrived in DC and bought a house a few blocks away, she told The InTowner.

After walking past and viewing its bleak conditions daily, she and her boyfriend at the time formed the Fund for Kalorama Park, an organization that raises funds and works to improve the park’s condition.

“I was like, ‘This could be a beautiful park,’ and I wanted to have a beautiful park,” she says.

The Fund was also formed, she says, out of her innate impulse to take something unkempt and turn it into something beautiful.

“What I really dig is taking something that I know can be beautiful and making it see its potential. I love anything that takes something old and preserves the character of it but makes it usable for a new age.”

Another example of her urges to improve and beautify, Kross says, was when she moved to DC and bought an old, run-down row house which she has since substantially improved by replacing its entire rear section and adding an English basement apartment and additional bathrooms.

Throughout much of its history, however, the Fund was largely ineffective due to Kross’ work as a journalist overseas, she say But in recent years, she has stopped working as a reporter and returned to Washington, giving her time and energy to put into the restoration of the park.

Her renewed efforts began in April of 2013 when the Fund applied for and received a $5,000 “Keep America Beautiful” Community Improvement Grant from Lowe’s.

The grant, she says, which required a detailed plan showing how the funds were to be used, gave her leverage to approach the city about restoration work which could, in effect, incorporate her project.

“I basically said to the city, ‘Look, we don’t want to lose out on this grant.’ “They agreed.”

 Because the grant was not nearly enough for a complete restoration, she says, she decided to focus on one area of the park and “make it excellent.”

Out sprung the idea for the garden.

“This place has been a park since the forties,” she says. “Knowing that it dated back, I wanted something that was free-flowing that complimented the neighborhood.”

But just as soon as the garden plan came about, so came about a whole series of problems that threatened to derail it.

The park, which is roughly a three-acre triangle bounded by 19th Street on the west and Columbia Road to the east, with Kalorama Road bisecting its southward pointing apex. To the north, the park slopes noticeably downward toward the rear of the properties along the south side of Mintwood Place.

At the top of the slope sits a small recreation center building with downspouts that empty out onto the street. Many of the trench drains designed to catch the rainwater are broken, and as a result, rain builds up and runs directly down the sidewalk into the path to the entryway where the garden was to be built.

The problem was noticed immediately by Dianne Seiffert, the landscape designer engaged for the project.

“You have these erosion and structural problems that have to be taken care of before beautification can occur,” says Seiffert. “If you don’t figure out a way to redirect the water, everything would simply be wiped out.”

But there was also a larger problem with soil erosion that had stalled the city’s efforts to restore the park in the past.

In 2009, the Department of Parks and Recreation began what was to be a failed and somewhat contentious attempt at fixing the erosion and runoff problem in the park.

For a time, the contractors hired by DPR closed off  most of the north side of the park in order to build a series of berms designed to hold water back that would otherwise have been runoff. The berms, however, proved ineffective because they had been raised in an area where very little of the rainwater run-off actually flowed.

The contractors also added new layers of soil before realizing that what had been added was ineffective in absorbing rainwater. Further, much of the heavy equipment that they had used damaged the root systems of many of the trees.

“It was a project that, what I can see, was not a success at all. It didn’t seem to fix the problem and probably created whole new problems,” says Ted Guthrie, an Adams Morgan ANC Commissioner who has watched the park’s progress for over a decade. “The District has not been good at maintaining what they’ve got. They’re very good at building new things, but they’ve been terrible at keeping them that way.”

The contractors for the project were eventually fired and replaced, but the second group failed to fix the problem as well.

In order to take on the erosion issue herself, Kross brought in several neighborhood residents, and they each took turns standing outside during rainstorms to track the path of the rainwater throughout the park.

Together they compiled photos and video footage while monitoring the recreation center’s downspouts, emptying rain barrels, and tracking the flow of the water down the slope.

Virginia Johnson, who stood in the rain seven or eight times over the past two years recalls being surprised by the amount of runoff she saw.

“There’s an incredible amount of runoff,” she says. “You could really see that it was a problem.”

Guthrie remembers his amazement as well. “It was really quite spectacular there for a while. It almost looked like Rock Creek park for a while there.”

Working with the DC Department of the Environment, along with dozens of contractors, landscapers, and environmental groups such as the Anacostia Watershed Society, the volunteers learned how to calculate runoff in the hundreds of gallons, as well as other ways to preserve the soil.

Their work culminated in a 15-page report the group presented to the parks and recreation department.

The city, after holding a public meeting on the subject in July, agreed to fix the documented problems, and for the most part, according to Kross, they’ve been helpful.

“I’ve got to give it to them,” she says, “I wish the bureaucracy would move faster, but they’ve been great.”

New, deeper gutters have been added to the recreation center which redirect the water away from the downslope, and the downspouts on the building have been eliminated. They also agreed to install the garden as a first act in a number of park improvements.

This-coming spring, the bad soil that had been previously laid will be replaced with newer soil better suited to absorb rainwater, and the Hydrangea’s, Holly, Junipers, Geraniums, and other plants the group worked to install, will be in full bloom.

“Bit-by-bit, we want to make this place beautiful,” says Kross, “I want this to be the place where moms and dads want to bring their kids and that older people can come to sit and relax.”

Kross says she plans on applying for another grant through Lowe’s in the spring, this time for the larger, $20 thousand that she hopes will speed up the restoration project.

“I believe that if you change public space, you change the contract between neighbors, and it basically says that ‘I don’t know you, but I care about you enough to make sure that what you see looks good,’” she says. “I think that changes a community. It brings out our better selves. I don’t really have evidence of that, but I’m going with it.”

*The writer, a resident of the Bloomingdale neighborhood, is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago where he majored in political science, and is now studying for his Masters degree at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism.