Federal park officials hope a new compromise plan for Rock Creek Park's future will quell a bitter clash of visions between motorists, who consider the park a vital auto route, and recreational enthusiasts who want to create a car-free urban haven.
The plan, the latest variation in an eight-year effort to map a future for the park, which runs through Northwest Washington, would close a portion of Beach Drive to vehicles except during rush hours -- but that portion would be significantly smaller than what park officials had suggested closing last year.
The latest wrinkle in Rock Creek Park planning occurs at the eleventh hour. A 348-page plan has been bound and published. Thousands of people have offered public comment. Dates for its expected final approval have been predicted, have come and have gone.
This year the date has been pushed back again.
That is because Park Service officials believe the transportation details envisioned in the draft -- which also includes recommendations to upgrade some park facilities and build others -- deserve more deliberation. The question of which roads should belong to motorists and which should be reserved for bicyclists and other recreational users has been the plan's most controversial component, by far.
Many bicyclists want Beach Drive, which bisects the park from the Maryland border to the Rock Creek and Potomac parkways, closed to vehicles during weekdays, as it is on weekends. The park should be managed as if it were a recreational sanctuary, they say, and not a highway system.
But some motorists and residents of nearby neighborhoods say restricting vehicles would promote traffic gridlock and clog residential streets with diverted cars.
The debate seemed to be tilting toward resolution last year when the Park Service endorsed a plan to close three sections of Beach Drive to traffic on weekdays except during the rush hours. Of the thousands of comments offered during public meetings, about two-thirds supported the closures, said Adrienne Coleman, superintendent of the park.
"But," Coleman added, "it had no political support."
Politicians from the District and Maryland objected to the closure, and citizens groups advocating no change in the road's status became active. The target date for a final park plan -- late 2003 or early 2004, officials predicted last summer -- came and went. The Park Service announced recently that it was considering a new alternative.
Whereas last year's plan would have closed Beach Drive through most of the park, the newest version would close it from just south of Military Road to Broad Branch Road. Motorists still could drive through the park by switching to Ross Drive, which parallels that section of Beach.
"We've modified the preferred alternative based on public comment we've received," Coleman said. The original alternative "would have eliminated automobile traffic in three sections of Beach Drive. We've taken away two of those closures."
New studies to determine the impact of closures on residential neighborhoods will begin soon, she said.
National Park Service policy and a 1978 law require that each unit of the national park system have a contemporary general management plan. But Rock Creek Park has had only one master plan, written by the Olmsted Bros. planning firm in 1918, 15 years before the Park Service assumed jurisdiction of the park. Other than a broad mandate to preserve the park as an oasis in a rapidly developing city, the plan sent mixed messages concerning the relatively new concept of automobile travel.
After the openings of Rock Creek Parkway in 1936 and the zoo tunnel in 1966, many drivers began using the park as a commuter route linking Montgomery County and parts of Northwest Washington to downtown Washington. According to a 1990 traffic study, Beach Drive attracted about 9,000 vehicles a day between Broad Branch Road and Joyce Road -- which is described on some maps as Old Military Road.
Since the 1970s, sections of Beach Drive have been closed to vehicles on Saturdays and Sundays, and the traffic alternative that the Park Service identified last year as its preferred solution essentially would have made the weekend closures apply to weekdays, excluding rush hours. Under that proposal, three sections of the road would have been closed to vehicles on weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.: from the Maryland border to West Beach Drive, from Wise Road to Picnic Grove No. 10, and from Broad Branch Road to Joyce Road.
Another alternative, backed by many commuters and residents of neighborhoods near the park, would have left the road as is: open to vehicles all day during weekdays.
The Park Service's latest proposal described by Coleman -- which would close Beach Drive between Joyce and Broad Branch roads from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays -- has not been met warmly by either side. Spokesmen for both factions said they see it as a step back: Cyclists say it's a dilution of the Park Service's previous preferred alternative, and commuter groups say any move toward weekday closure is a step in the wrong direction.
Laurie Collins, with the group Friends of Open Parkways, said she and others who advocate keeping the parkway open to traffic are holding out hope that the road will remain open at all times during weekdays.
"All of the ANCs in the area, the D.C. Council, the Montgomery County Council, [D.C. Congressional Del.] Eleanor Holmes Norton -- everyone said, 'Leave it alone,' " said Collins, a Mount Pleasant resident.
D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said he believes the most recent proposal by the Park Service has come from "way out in left field."
"The community feels the weekend closures were a significant compromise," Fenty said. "Now, in the face of that compromise, some people want to push for more."
But bicyclist Jim McCarthy, coordinator of the People's Alliance for Rock Creek, said he doesn't see the new proposal as a compromise that would benefit recreational users of the park. It's less restrictive to cars than what was previously identified as the preferred choice by the Park Service, he said.
"What they're really saying is, 'Let's deny pedestrians and bicyclists access to the best part of the park,' " McCarthy said. "It makes a lot more sense for cars to use" Ross Drive.
The proposed park management plan does not provide funding for the changes under consideration.
The alternative preferred by the Park Service involves about $13.4 million in capital costs and another $8.2 million in annual costs. More than 60 percent of the projected capital expense -- $8.4 million -- would go to improve the Rock Creek Nature Center and Planetarium, to convert the Lodge House into a visitors center and to restore the Peirce Mill area. About $2 million would be spent on trail improvements throughout the park.
Coleman said the existence of the plan would help make the case for making improvements to those who hold the government's purse strings.
Some critics said the lingering status of the plan has become something of a paralyzing force: The agency does not want to allow any park improvements that might conflict with the eventual master plan, they say, even though that long-term vision has not yet been defined.
"It's a shame," McCarthy said. "We were supportive of the general management plan in the first place, but it has become a huge obstacle to any action at all."
Coleman said that one reason no plan has been finalized eight years after the process started is because of organizational restructuring within the Park Service. The number of employees on the park's planning team, she said, fell from about 10 to one. She rejected criticism that decisions were being delayed, but she also said she would be glad when a final document is adopted.
"We didn't plan for it to take so long," she said.