D.C. Boasts New Recreation Facilities, but Can It Pay for Them?

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is engaged in a major overhaul of the District's long-troubled network of recreational offerings, spending tens of million of dollars on school yards, playgrounds and athletic fields.

In a stunning turnaround from the late 1990s, when the city's parks system fell into a severe state of disrepair, D.C. agencies and the school system are working on more than two dozen projects. Several big initiatives have recently been completed, and residents will soon see more dog parks, playgrounds, pools, and extravagant basketball courts and baseball and soccer fields.

But some officials and activists question whether Fenty (D), in his zeal to make good on his campaign promise to invest more in the city's neighborhoods, has calculated the cost of maintaining the new facilities. Although the District can borrow money on the bond market to build new facilities, maintenance costs come from an operating budget that has been battered by the national recession.

"I think people demand better recreational centers, better playgrounds, and we've got a great team that is doing just that," Fenty said Monday after cutting the ribbon on a $558,000 turf soccer field at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights.

Early this month, Fenty opened the $31 million Wilson Aquatic Center, a huge indoor swimming complex in Tenleytown. Two weeks ago, he christened refurbished tennis and basketball courts at the Chevy Chase playground. Last month, Fenty was at the Hopkins public housing complex in Southeast unveiling a playground and skateboard area.

Fenty, a triathlete who frequently swims at the city's pools, has scored political points with his recreational generosity at a time when many big-city mayors are struggling with public anger over spending cuts.

But the projects are not cheap for taxpayers.

In December, Fenty broke ground on a $33 million indoor pool, recreational center and community center in the Deanwood neighborhood in Northeast, slated to open next summer. The city has spent nearly $1 million this summer on landscaping at a playground under construction at Hearst Recreation Center in North Cleveland Park. The remainder of the project will cost $1.2 million.

Fenty is up for reelection next year, and the pace of his ribbon-cuttings for new or renovated play areas and fields -- recently he has averaged about two a week -- is prompting debate about whether the District can afford the upkeep on its investments.

"People want new recreational centers," said D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who is often mentioned as a potential challenger to Fenty. "But you may not know for another three years whether it can be maintained."

The mayor seems driven to push the city past its wealthier suburban neighbors when it comes to bragging rights for recreational facilities.

In recent years, 10 city high school multipurpose fields have also been upgraded to synthetic turf, the same material used by the National Football League. Each field cost $3.5 million to $5 million.

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