D.C. should keep up new schools, parks upgrades over time and not squander funds

Mike DeBonis
District of DeBonis August 18, 2011

Can the District have nice things?

I don’t mean to sound like Mom here — city residents deserve nice things — but it’s a good question for D.C. officials to ask themselves as they crisscross the city this week cutting ribbons on gleaming new public facilities.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays. View Archive

On Thursday, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) reopened Wilson High School in Tenleytown, which features a striking new atrium and new amenities galore. Earlier this week, he cut the ribbon on a renovated gymnasium and other improvements at Anacostia High School, and he led the dedication of H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7, a $103 million facility built from the ground up.

It’s the culmination of a billion-dollar-plus commitment to improving the city’s education, parks and recreation facilities, an effort fueled by tax windfalls generated by the previous decade’s real estate boom.

But as they wield those gigantic scissors, Hizzoner and his fellow elected officials need to be mindful of how easy it can be to squander such public investments. It was on the minds of many in attendance Wednesday at the Woodson dedication.

The new school is not the first H.D. Woodson High School to stand at 55th and Eads streets NE. Not 30 years ago, another set of officials cut another ribbon and threw open the doors to another state-of-the-art building. It was, strangely for a neighborhood of squat garden apartments, a nine-story reinforced-concrete tower. But it was distinctive, and it became a symbol of student pride: The “Tower of Power,” home of the Woodson Warriors.

The folks who ran the city and its schools didn’t always share that pride, it turned out.

As city revenue crashed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the school was left to rot, inasmuch as concrete can rot. The heating and cooling system failed from lack of maintenance, causing pipes to burst regularly on the upper floors, flooding classrooms below. The school’s swimming pool, once home to a champion aquatics team, fell into such disrepair that it was essentially abandoned — drained and locked behind metal doors. By the time the city had enough money to fix any of it, less than a decade ago, Woodson wasn’t worth saving. So a mere 16 years after it opened to students, the Tower of Power came down.

It was no mistake that Granville L. Woodson, grandson of the school’s namesake, remarked at the Wednesday dedication on his hopes “that this current administration will see to it that the funding that needs to be there will continue to be there for this new and glorious building.”

One woman, strolling just outside the new school’s auditorium, the envy of any suburban high school or community college, put it this way. “I hope they take care of this school,” she said. “Take care of it, not destroy the place.”

If she or Woodson were to visit Upshur Park in Ward 4 these days, they might get nervous.

This year, the city park at 14th Street and Arkansas Avenue NW got a new playground, surrounded by new sod and lovely landscaping. All the new greenery was a big upgrade for what had been a somewhat barren space. But watering and otherwise maintaining the greenery has been more difficult. Unlike other new city parks, Upshur didn’t get an irrigation system, and this summer’s heat took a drastic toll.

By last week, the vegetation was so desiccated that at least two of the newly planted trees appeared dead, and the sod wasn’t faring much better. Last month, the grass was dry enough that it caught on fire — probably ignited by a stray cigarette, according to Maria Barry, who leads a group of park volunteers.

The Parks and Recreation Department has pledged to water the vegetation for the remainder of the summer, but Barry is concerned that there wasn’t a better plan to sustain what the city spent good money to plant.

“I think it’s just equally important to the success of a new capital project, whether it’s a building or grounds, that there needs to be funds and a plan to maintain it,” she said.

John Stokes, a parks department spokesman, cited the record-breaking heat waves and said, “We certainly do not have the resources to water every tree and every green space under our jurisdiction.”

The department did tremendous work this summer keeping pools and rec centers open late to keep residents cool in the blasting heat. It’s understandable, but reason for concern, that in times of tightening budgets that basic maintenance might be sacrificed, even to expand access to those in need.

Gray, talking about the old Woodson High on Wednesday, said that he was optimistic its replacement wouldn’t meet a similar fate. “There are too many things arguing for people to pay attention to these facilities,” he told me.

There will surely be arguments, but 30 years from now, will politicians be listening?

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