By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006; DZ01
Under a broiling midday sun this week, Greg Rhett and Clark Ray stood in the middle of the vast Kenilworth-Parkside recreation complex surveying their surroundings.
The Northeast site is 10 acres, but no one else was around, save a reporter, a photographer, three people playing handball on a vertical slab of concrete and a couple others playing tennis on the hard courts nearby.
If the heat kept people away, so did the condition of the playing fields. The track is two lanes of bumpy gravel. Three of six basketball hoops are gone. A makeshift football field was removed a few months ago for a rebuilding project that has been talked about for years but has gone nowhere.
Rhett, president of the Eastland Gardens Civic Association, and Ray, external affairs director for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, are spearheading a $4.5 million rebuilding project that is set to begin within days.
When finished, about six months from now, the Kenilworth-Parkside complex is to have a regulation six-lane track, a football-soccer field with lights and bleachers, a high school baseball diamond, repaved basketball courts and parking lot, and a concession stand complete with bathrooms and a storage shed. The new baseball field probably will be used by the Spingarn and H.D. Woodson high school teams.
"The potential is unlimited. I hope we have a brand-new home next fall for the Kenilworth Lions," Rhett said of the peewee football team he coaches.
The Kenilworth-Parkside renovation has been a long time coming.
The park's modern history began in 1972 when the federally owned land was being used as a landfill. Neighbors protested by lying in front of bulldozers, Rhett said, until the landfill was shut down.
To the north of the 10-acre site is the National Park Service's 100-acre Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.
The Kenilworth-Parkside recreation center opened in 1973 and features an outdoor pool, tennis courts and a handball wall. Children and seniors alike use the building for daily activities such as dancing and muy Thai martial arts lessons.
In recent years, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's D.C. subcommittee, sought to use the vast federal acreage near the rec center to build a $5 million federally funded, 20-field soccer complex, but her efforts were blocked by neighbors who argued that the community would be better served by a multi-use facility.
The residents and Landrieu negotiated a compromise, and the federal grant was approved by Congress. However, the project's politics got even trickier.
The federal government intended to transfer the 10 acres nearest the recreation center to the city because the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation oversaw activities on the land. But although the feds approved the transfer, the District failed to complete the necessary paperwork to complete the transaction, Ray said.
When the sports commission tried to begin the renovation project last year, it was ordered to stop while the federal government reviewed the scope of the project, Ray added.
"This land is in the jurisdiction of Rod Sterling," Rhett joked. "It's the Twilight Zone."
Only recently have the feds given the go-ahead. The sports commission has done environmental assessments, obtained permits and named a contractor to do the construction work.
"The project has been so tedious," Ray said.
Last summer, the sports commission and Major League Baseball paid for a $400,000 renovation of the Fort Greble ballfields in Southeast. Officials said the effort was a sign that the arrival of the Washington Nationals would spread benefits to youth sports. The Kenilworth-Parkside project was planned long before that effort and does not include money generated by the Nationals, Ray said.
Of the $5 million in federal money allocated a few years ago, the commission has only about $3.2 million remaining because much of the money was spent on studies and planning during the project's fitful stops and starts. The city's parks and recreation office is chipping in $1.3 million for the renovation toward the $4.5 million total.
Rhett said he hopes the investment will pay big dividends beyond the obvious increase in sports opportunities.
"Recreation is the key to curbing juvenile crime," he said. "Most of the kids, when they're bored, they get into stuff. If you give them something to do and get them involved, they'll be a lot better off."