Gardeners near Capitol Hill prepare to repel a Marine Corps invasion

The private plots cultivated at Ninth and L streets SE are a possible site for the construction of military barracks. Neighbors are rallying to save their four acres.
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

A mile southeast of the U.S. Capitol, residents are fighting to save a thriving garden of fruit trees, lettuce, sorrel, broccoli and other compost-nourished vegetables and herbs shared by 60 families.

The Virginia Avenue Community Garden was built with sweat equity. Until six years go, it was a threadbare city park filled with drug dealers, broken playground equipment and a cracked basketball court wedged between the Navy Yard and the Southeast Freeway.

The new residents of south Capitol Hill trucked in compost and soil and, in return, the District provided a watering system to help grow organic food. Private donations paid for street lamps, landscaping and bird feeders. The waiting list for a plot has grown to 50 families.

Now, the garden is under threat from the U.S. Marines, who are considering the four-acre site at Ninth and L streets SE for a barracks. The Marines' living quarters at Eighth and I streets SE, two tall brick dormitories dating to the 1970s, are not considered secure in a post-2001 world, and the rooms are too cramped for their equipment. The park, with some privately owned properties next to it, could be an ideal site.

But the community gardeners, in Capitol Hill style, are mobilizing to save their home.

"It would be a shame to lose this huge green space to militarization," said Michael P. Filippello, a budgeter for the International Monetary Fund, who is leading the outreach. On Friday, he wrote a letter to first lady Michelle Obama, the country's standard-bearer for the local food movement, to ask for her help in saving the garden.

"Given your own policy interests, it would be sadly ironic to lose to federal development one of the community gardens nearest to the White House," Filippello wrote. The gardeners have a Facebook site and a following on blogs.

The Marines say they will relocate the garden nearby if they decide to use the land. But the gardeners say it has taken them years to amend the unforgiving clay soil with nutrients. For Jenni Lancaster, a physical therapist and the garden's membership coordinator, the joy comes from teaching her 6-year-old and 2-year-old how to plant. "They're watching the seeds grow. They're learning where their food comes from," she said.

It's not the only community garden on Capitol Hill, but members said the others are smaller and have long waiting lists.

There's agreement that the Marines, from a historic perch that dates to 1801, have been good neighbors. On summer nights, the parade ground at the base opens to allow public viewing of military marching bands, and the community has some access to athletic fields at Virginia Avenue and L Street. Community meetings that started this spring will continue in September, when the Marines expect to choose a site.

"Our goal is not to take over a neighborhood," said Capt. Lisa Lawrence, a Marine Corps spokeswoman. "Everything is just in the consideration phase now.'' Other options include building inside the Navy Yard or on the annex property or leasing a former trolley and bus barn outside the Navy Yard -- dubbed the Blue Castle. The park is closest to the base.

"We're looking at every option," Lawrence said. "But we won't be able to please everybody."

In recent weeks, land set aside by the District for a mixed-income development on the site of a razed apartment building for seniors has moved to the bottom of the list, Lawrence said.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), whose district includes the Navy Yard, said he's fighting to keep the garden alive by urging the Marines to tear down the parking lot next to the annex and rebuild it underground, freeing space for a new barracks. Lawrence said a parking lot under a barracks would probably pose a structural challenge.

"We don't have a strong negotiating position," Wells said. "Who wants to take on the U.S. Marines?"

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