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

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 2009; A01

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.

"Kids from Maryland and Virginia drive by these fields and say, 'Wow, we want these fields,' " Fenty said.

Fenty campaigned in 2006 on a platform of investing more resources in city neighborhoods. Shortly after he took office, he started expediting the construction of recreational facilities.

"The goal was to meet with community groups, set timetables and come to a consensus to move a project forward," said Clark E. Ray, the former director of parks and recreation. "He wanted to have premier athletic fields across the city."

Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said opening new playgrounds "is [Fenty's] way to say something is happening," even though other construction has stalled.

And, as he gears up for his 2010 campaign, Fenty is making sure that each playground opening is well publicized.

About 10 p.m. Tuesday, viewers of Channel 13, a public access station, would have seen footage of Fenty opening a $1.4 million playground at Barnard Elementary School in Petworth. About the same time, Fenty could be seen on Channel 16, another access venue, announcing that the city was teaming with Nike to construct a foam basketball court at Barry Farms in Southeast.

The city is borrowing much of the money to build the new facilities.

The D.C. Council has authorized $58 million for parks and recreation construction projects this year, compared with $14 million approved two years ago. The District's long-term financial plan calls for at least $30 million for parks and recreation upgrades through 2012. Under a $1 billion school construction program, the Office of Facilities Modernization is also pumping tens of millions of dollars into new playgrounds and athletic fields at schools.

Local residents say they are starting to see the results of the spending.

Earlier in the decade, the pool at Wilson High School symbolized the city's decaying parks system when it closed in 2003 after a wall collapsed. The new indoor facility features a competition pool as well as a smaller children's pool and an adult whirlpool.

"It's the best thing I have ever gotten for my D.C. taxes, and I have lived in D.C. since 1971," Steve Rattien, 66, who uses the pool daily, said in an interview Thursday.

The new pool had been proposed before Fenty took office, but Amy Dine, 38, said the mayor deserves credit.

"Clearly his personal interest in fitness has carried over," said Dine, who was at the pool with her two sons.

Several people at the pool said they are nervous that the city won't be able to maintain the facility.

According to the recently approved 2010 budget, $9.5 million has been appropriated for the Department of Parks and Recreation's facility management budget next year, a $300,000 increase over this year. In fiscal 2008, the District spent about $10.4 million on maintenance.

Ximena Hartsock, interim director of parks and recreation, concedes that the city faces challenges in making sure its facilities are well maintained, given budget constraints. When she took over in May, she said, there was a backlog of more than 1,000 complaints from patrons and employees about the conditions of neighborhood parks and recreational centers.

"We want to build top of the line, but we have to maintain top of the line, and we are still miles away from that," Hartsock said, adding that the department will be doubling its preventive maintenance.

Brendan McElroy, the city's former aquatics director, said the city continues to struggle to maintain its swimming pools. He said the indoor pool at the Takoma Aquatic Center, which opened five years ago, has never been drained because of insufficient resources. Hartsock said she would investigate McElroy's claim.

Consider the resources that will be needed to keep up the newly renovated Girard Park, which reopened last month on a small corner lot in Columbia Heights.

In addition to a rubber basketball court, the city installed new bathrooms. During a visit Thursday, the women's bathroom was closed while three city workers were blasting through the tile floor to try to unclog a pipe.

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