A garden helps grow a community

May 20, 2011

Amid the small water fountain, the picnic table and the trees, it might not have seemed possible that the space at 13th and C streets SE was just years earlier a parking lot with a dumpster and plagued by drainage problems.

And it might have been hard to tell near the shaded pergola that the once-vacant area said much about a neighborhood where pricey homes sat steps away from a senior community and residents seldom spoke to one another.

So it was telling on Friday that despite four years of unexpected costs, uncertainties and hard work, residents making last-minute preparations for the unveiling of the 13th and C Street Community Park and Garden were mostly concerned that the official ribbon-cutting went off without a hitch.

“People talked about their visions and ideas,” said Richard Lukas, one of the organizers behind the creation of the community garden and now president of its nonprofit group. “We always wanted this to be a meeting place, a coming together of all the people in the neighborhood.”

In May 2007, Lukas and other homeowners began thinking about ways to do something with the blighted corner. They came up with the idea of transforming the nearly 3,600 square feet into “something better,” he said.

Lukas, who has lived on 13th Street for seven years, said residents began meeting that winter. They started crafting the architectural design of the space, and design and landscape architects volunteered to help. The D.C. Housing Authority provided early funding and hired an engineering firm.

“We wanted to emphasize the community involvement,” said Dena Michaelson, director of public affairs and communication for DCHA.

“We don’t want to put up barriers between the folks in public housing and the folks who are their neighbors,” Michaelson said. “We wanted to get a lot of different people to play together, to talk about what they wanted. It was a good process to bring the community and the public-housing folks together.”

The initial budget soon proved insufficient. To begin construction on the lot, a dumpster that was being used by the seniors at Kentucky Courts needed to be moved and a ramp built to provide access to residents of the apartments while the lot was being renovated.

“This was something we were not originally considering, and it took a lot of the money,” Lukas said. “As most people know, there are always hidden costs you never think of when you are building a house or having a renovation. It always skyrockets.”

It was also the beginning of the economic slump. “I was concerned,” he added.

The community and city workers spent time brainstorming. A long permitting process — for water and electricity installations and curb cuts, for example — also delayed construction. Grants turned out to be the solution.

The DCHA received $34 million in federal stimulus funds in September 2009, and $650,000 went to the community garden. In the fall of 2010, contractors broke ground on the nearly $814,000 project.

Months of hard work followed. Sustainable design and locally sourced components were a priority. The benches and the picnic table are made of recycled plastic. The garden — six plots for seniors at Kentucky Courts, six for others in the community — will be organic. Two of the plots are raised to accommodate wheelchairs.

“Community gardens are not just something that you temporarily do with vacant land in a city,” said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). “It’s a place where people can grow food, a public meeting space. It brings a diverse group together.”

Now that the park and garden are open, it will be up to the community to decide the activities that will be held there. Movie nights? Yoga? Dance classes?

“I have plans to plant fruits and vegetables,” said Dana Floyd, president of the Kentucky Courts Senior Residents Council. She has been there since the beginning, attending meetings, offering suggestions.

She said she was “very happy” with the results. “It’s going to bring the community together,” Floyd said.

For Lukas, the garden’s opening will signal an end for him — he will step down as president of the nonprofit in the fall.

“It’s great to look out at the space and know that we helped with the environment, we helped with the community,” he said. “Now it’s done, it’s been four years, maybe I’ll find another project.”

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