D.C. recreation fields, facilities caught up in probe of construction contracts

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

Football coach Steve Zanders praised D.C. leaders last year when Stanton Elementary School got a new athletic field, a much-needed facility that the founder of the Woodland Tigers program said was key to his longtime effort to get wayward youths off the streets.

But Zanders said he is worried that other improvements, such as a new Fort Stanton Recreation Center and a basketball court at the school in Ward 8, are tangled in the D.C. Council's probe of questionable construction contracts.

Zanders is among a chorus of community activists and parks advocates throughout the District who say they fear that long-awaited parks and recreation facilities will be delayed or stopped by the latest fight between the council and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

Controversy erupted last month when some council members learned that the Fenty administration had agreed to route an estimated $86 million through the D.C. Housing Authority to build recreation centers, parks and ballfields. Several contracts were awarded to firms with political and personal ties to the mayor. By law, contracts exceeding $1 million must be approved by the council.

Attorney General Peter Nickles has said the contracts are unlawful but should go forward. The council wants all contracts to be submitted for approval, a process that could postpone completion of more than a dozen recreational facilities.

In interviews with advocates from Chevy Chase to Woodland Terrace to U Street, most activists said they oppose the delays. "They'll be fighting, and our kids and residents are suffering," Zanders said.

Sondra Phillips-Gilbert, who has been clamoring for a new Rosedale Recreation Center in Ward 6, said the council is largely ignoring the community's worries. She said she testified at the council's first hearing on the issue.

"They kept saying we would appreciate them taking the time" to investigate, said Phillips-Gilbert, a city government worker. "We would appreciate them not putting our concerns between a political fight with the mayor."

The council will hold a third hearing Monday.

Willie Ross, a Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, said the contracts must be investigated, but the council should have been more vigilant about its initial oversight. He said that some members attended groundbreakings with the mayor for projects that are now under scrutiny.

Ross said the Kenilworth-Parkside Recreation Center has been closed to make way for renovations, leaving the community in limbo. "I'm not speaking on the mayor's behalf. I'm not speaking on the council's behalf," he said. "They've made all these promises. They showed us state-of-the-art designs. Right now, the people just want the community center opened."

Activist Scot Rogerson has pushed for the renovation of Ward 2's French Street Park, a once-abandoned green space that straddles the Shaw, Logan Circle and U Street neighborhoods. "Our concern is that we don't want to be caught in the crossfire," he said.

But Rogerson, who said he supports the council's probe, appeared more optimistic and patient than other parks advocates.

"This is just a speed bump," he said. "We're going to get a park."

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