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Kalorama Park in Adams Morgan Now Set for Long Called For Erosion Mitigation & Other Improvements; ANC Narrowly Approves Project

Accompanying images can be viewed in the December 2014 issue PDF

By: Anthony L. Harvey

By a vote of three in favor, two opposed, and one abstaining, the Adams Morgan ANC cast a midnight vote at its December monthly meeting narrowly endorsing a detailed plan formulated by the District’s Department of General Services (DGS) on behalf of DC’s parks and recreation department DPR), to address several critical problems adversely affecting the integrity of the neighborhood’s Kalorama Park infrastructure, especially the dramatic soil erosion occurring throughout the park’s three acres, and that of the continuing success of the park’s two popular and heavily used children’s playgrounds.

[Editor’s note: The serious soil erosion concerns were the subject of an InTowner news report a year ago. See, “Adams Morgan’s Kalorama Park Ruinous Water Run-off Problems Being Corrected; Neighbors Succeed in Coaxing Parks Dep’t. into Action,” January 2014 issue pdf page 1; http://tinyurl.com/l5anwhw.]

For seeming good measure, the DGS plan includes a redesign and reconstruction of the park’s small central plaza area — a plan which would necessitate the removal of several trees and shrubs within and immediately surrounding the plaza. Two other trees in the park would also be removed, a Norwegian Maple labeled as an invasive tree and thus, asserted by the District, as requiring removal, and a small Japanese Cherry said by DGS and its consultants to be in the way of construction of the plan’s soil erosion mitigation work.

While the redevelopment of the children’s playgrounds has received almost unanimous support throughout the community, the DGS plans for the mitigation of the park’s soil erosion problems, and the removal of 11 mature trees (including flowering shrub trees), as enumerated by Kalorama’s well-known environmentalist and persistent advocate for protecting and restoring the park’s tree canopy, John Cloud, have been received with profound skepticism on the part of many in the immediate neighborhood of the park, despite the fact that DGS has replaced the parks department as the construction manager for all city parks and is already building a reputation for bringing in projects that accomplish their intended goals on time and within budget.

Nonetheless, soil erosion in the park has been a hot topic for 10 years, as poor maintenance of installed drainage mechanisms — clogged drain pipes, inadequate water retention receptacles, bioswales that don’t seem to connect with intended catch basins — has been combined with equal incompetence in contracted construction on the part of the parks department, including the use of dead and rubble-filled soil in the re-shaping of the park’s sloping areas.

Additionally, use of replenishment soil containing grass and plant growing nutrients and possesses water retention capabilities has not been a priority. Further, ground cover plants or grasses that will hold soil on vulnerable slopes or shallow berms has been lacking, both in park areas for which DGS is now responsible and for street trees and berms, for example, along the Columbia Road side of the park, which are under the jurisdiction of the transportation department’s Urban Forestry Administration.

Tree and shrub planting mistakes have added unanticipated problems, such as roots unexpectedly attacking and clogging underground piping and further degrading the park’s drainage system. And to cap it all, disease has attacked and is destroying the four flowering Hawthorne trees that marked each corner of the plaza and provided shade for those sitting on the benches them. Two have already been removed and the remaining two — which are dying — will no doubt soon be.

DGS, vowing to redress the mistakes of the past, both with the District’s soil erosion remediation attempts and the lack of park maintenance generally, is asserting an “holistic” approach to Kalorama Park and, to the unalloyed delight of parents and daycare providers who make intensive use of the children’s playgrounds, announced during the presentations by its consultants at the erosion project planning sessions that DGS had found the money to reconstruct the playgrounds and, while they were at it, the park’s central plaza area, where DGS and its consultants proposed removing the plaza’s concrete decking and replacing it with a permeable pavement system and re-orienting the plaza seating and overall layout.

DGS proposed this three-part plan as an asserted single holistic approach to an, in effect, re-envisioning of the park. Pointing to its city-wide successes with new and reconstructed parks and recreational facilities, including the dramatically improved nearby Marie Reed Learning Center’s soccer field with its handsome new seating, lighting, fencing, and landscaping, DGS asked the community for its reliance on such a track record in going forward with its Kalorama Park proposed plan. In this they are supported by the Fund for Kalorama Park, led by the articulate and persistent Kathryn Kross.

The Fund has marshaled a neighborhood coalition of activist supporters and volunteer park gardeners — and now parents — to help with the park, this in support of the DGS proposal. Parents have long complained about the overall dilapidated nature of the children’s playgrounds, the lack of equipment repair and maintenance, and such features as the worn-out and outmoded sand boxes.

The Fund has not, however, overcome its continuing tension with other neighborhood organizations that claim citizen “jurisdiction” over such community amenities and disagree with certain of the DGS recommendations. This is especially the case with objections from the Kalorama Citizens Association, which was intimately involved in earlier attempts to solve the soil erosion problems with bioswales and catch basins, and has called for community forums on design issues regarding the entire park.

In addition, two long time Kalorama park stalwarts, Belinda Reeder and Cynthia Pols, challenged the DGS design for the plaza area, asserting that the permeable pavement system proposed by DGS to replace the existing and poorly maintained trench drain system will not work and, together with removal of the present concrete deck, is an unnecessary expense to the project. Additional objections include that of the new design for the plaza layout being proposed; it would replace the 1947 National Park System’s design for the plaza which Reeder and Pols assert is protected as part and parcel of the designation of the park as a contributing element to the Kalorama Historic District. (The park is also designated as a District of Columbia archaeological landmark.)

The majority of ANC commissioners were unmoved by these arguments, however, asserting that while the site of the park was historic, the design of the plaza was not; they also took note of the overwhelming support the Commission has received from community residents expressing support for going forward with the project as proposed by DGS.

Fearful that the funds identified by DGS for the playground improvements might be lost by any further delays, and that issues over drainage and permeable pavements should be left to the experts among DGS and its consultants, the Commission, led by Chair Billy Simpson, voted to recommend approval of the DGS proposal. The vote was split between commissioners on either side of 18th Street. The three commissioners whose single member districts surround (or encompass) Kalorama Park voted either against the project as proposed by DGS or abstained. The three commissioners who voted in favor of the DGS proposals represent constituents on the other side of the 18th Street divide. And on the issue of the removal of mature trees, park activist John Cloud asserted that the tree removal controversy was not over!