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Stead Park Community Center Plans As of Now Being Received Positively

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the November issue 2017 issue pdf

 By William G. Schulz

In a city where plans to build almost anything are routinely greeted with protests — and often lawsuits — a proposed major addition to the historic carriage house in Dupont Circle’s Stead Park appears to have drawn the genie of neighborly accord from its gilded bottle — at least for now.

And perhaps the magic words were not so hard to conjure. Documents shared with The InTowner show a remarkably thorough and clear, step-by-step program of community engagement — piloted by the board of directors of the Friends of Stead Park (FOSP) community group that, as it rolls out, appears to be yielding the handsome rewards of trust and confidence from people who live in both the Dupont and nearby Logan Circle neighborhoods.

Stead Park — which fronts on P Street, NW, near the intersection with 17th Street and extends north almost to Q Street — was established in 1953 by a private bequest from Robert Stead for the specific purpose of creating a playground for the children of Washington, DC, in memory of his late wife, Mary Force Stead. It is a public park administered by the Department of Recreation and Parks (DPR) with a small staff, and it is financially supported in part by funding from a private trust, also created by Robert Stead, which annually funds FOSP –- which,  in collaboration with DPR, manages how the Trust funds are utilized.

[Editor’s Note: Our September 2004 “Scenes from the Past” feature in that month’s issue at page 12 is devoted to informing about how Stead Park came into being.]

The city council has pledged a whopping $10 million toward the project, with groundbreaking scheduled for October 2019. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans has praised the effort as “an excellent opportunity” to renew and expand what he called “the clubhouse,” but what is promised to be a renovated carriage house with an added multi-use facility to house numerous community group meetings, ANC meetings, arts activities and more.

To date, FOSP has hosted two of three community meetings to share architectural plans and the overall vision for the project. After those meetings, FOSP plans to hold quarterly community meetings until the project is shovel-ready and construction starts. They are doubtless aware of an ill-thought out proposal to renovate Stead Park put forward in 2004 by the Metro DC Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, and Transgender Community Center that failed miserably.

 [Editor’s Note: For the full story, see “City May be Ready to Give up Stead Park; Gay & Lesbian Center Group Claim to be in Final Stages of Acquiring 99-Year Lease,” InTowner, July 2004 issue pdf page 1. See also, a follow-up page 1 story in our August 2004 issue pdf reporting on major community opposition to the proposal; additionally, our July 2004 editorial will be of interest.]

FOSP President Kari Cunningham told The InTowner that today’s proposal is actually Phase III of a three-part plan to revive the park that was first mapped out a decade ago: renovation of the playground, restoration of the playing field, and now the restoration of the carriage house/community center addition. Indeed, at the first meeting held on September 23rd, Evans recalled a time when the playground and playing field that makes the park so distinctive had fallen into such disrepair that it was more eyesore than resource.

 Still, FOSP has not escaped any criticism for its renovation plans. Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) President Robin Diener has questioned the notion that the proposal is a true public/private partnership — FOSP is a nonprofit organization — and questions if the community engagement process FOSP has launched is all that it should be — and could be.

Diener, who insists that she and DCCA are not opposed to the overall FOSP vision, is skeptical of the plans for the community center and questions how architectural plans can be drawn up before the community has had enough time to really consider what uses the new facility might have.

“I feel that they are a year ahead of themselves,” Diener says. She worries that plans for the building and all that it will be used for could be finalized and ready to build when “it’s too late to include anybody else.”

But FOSP records show that it has already met with approximately 16 neighborhood community groups, the most recent being November 7th with DCCA. Its representatives have also had individual “sit downs” with every Dupont Circle ANC commissioner.

John Stokes, DPR’s deputy director for community engagement, told The InTowner that “DPR works with our sister agency, the Department of General Services (DGS) on community engagement for modernization projects, such as Stead. This includes working with the ANC, community groups, civic associations and the community at large. DPR and DGS are also being assisted on this project by an outreach firm hired by the Friends of Stead Park.” That outreach firm is Link Strategic Partners. In addition, Stokes said, updated project information gets posted on the DGS website.

The recent meeting with DCCA, which included officials of the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), Diener says was “the first time the city stepped in and took any ownership of the project.” Given the millions of dollars in taxpayer money now budgeted to support the project, she added, “I would like to see a public agency running this. Do they have control of the planning?” According to Stokes, they do: “As the owner agency of Stead, DPR is always involved in the project from design to completion.  However, DGS is the District’s implementing agency and is responsible for management of the architectural and construction contractors during the modernization process, as well facility maintenance once the project is completed.”

Diener also said that is wary of an attitude on the part of the FOSP board of “’we know best how to do this, and we will get it done.’”

Cunningham counters Diener’s assessment of the situation by saying that what FOSP has presented is simply a detailed proposal with many more steps necessary to move forward, almost all of which will require community input.

One community survey of more than 400 people living near the park is already complete, Cunningham says, and the results will soon be posted online, on either the FOSP Facebook page, or the FOSP website — or both. Another survey is also planned, she says, but did not specify when that will be.

Cunningham did share raw data from the existing survey with The InTowner; review of the data indeed shows that a lack of community space is a key reason that discourages residents from using park facilities more often. But  the survey also indicates the overwhelming popularity of Stead’s basketball court, playground, and large playing field –- more than 40% of respondents claimed those amenities are the reason that is, for now, the main draw and reason they go to the park.

And for that, Cunningham says, the footprint of the proposed addition is premised on obtaining the most useable new space “without compromising the playing field or any other [existing] amenity of the park.”

But exhaustive reviews of the proposal will be necessary. Along with the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, for example, the project must also be presented to the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board — tough customers by anyone’s reckoning.

But Cunningham and others also express confidence in what they have achieved so far and believe they are ready for those reviews. The next FOSP meeting will be held on November 30th at Foundry United Methodist Church at 16th and P Streets, around the corner from the park. Discussion and feedback from the community will once again be vital to a productive meeting, Cunningham says.

*Associate Editor William G. Schulz, a resident of Dupont Circle since the 1980s, has been a journalist specializing in science and investigative reporting for over 30 years.

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.