Supporters of the Washington D.C. Center for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender People had assumed their plan to build a $15 million community center in Dupont Circle's Stead Park would be embraced by the entire neighborhood.
Patrick Menasco, the GLBT group's president, said the project would give the gay community its first central meeting place and create new facilities for everyone, including a theater, a gymnasium and meeting space for an abundance of educational and cultural activities.
But the proposed center has stirred up a debate that threatens to divide the very community it is designed to serve.
Dupont Circle residents have a longstanding reputation for civic involvement, and some said the center's proponents and District officials have left them out of the loop. They worry that the proposed center would eliminate the area's only large green space, used by rugby teams and several other local youth organizations.
"The people here are not going to be presented with any done deal and accept it, even if it is a good done deal," said Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative Mike Silverstein.
"We do not want this to split the community," he said, adding that residents need to be given a complete proposal to consider.
Under the plan, a multi-story center would replace a 19th-century carriage house, now used for a computer lab and a few youth programs. Menasco said the GLBT group, a two-year-old organization, plans to raise the money from private donors and lease the public park space from the District, which manages the land.
Residents were concerned by media accounts that said the District is close to signing a 99-year, $1-a-year lease with the center, even though no one has presented a formal proposal to residents.
"We've all felt blindsided and sort of stunned by this," said Drew Fields, a resident of the Church Street Condominiums. "From what we've seen, there's been zero public process, the exact opposite of what should happen when working with public land."
Another resident, Tom Jennings, said he was especially concerned about whether a community center on the property would be out of sync with the park's intent.
Architect and philanthropist Robert Stead stated in his will that the land is to be used for the "perpetual use of the children of Washington." The park is named for his wife, Mary Force Stead.
"People aren't against a GLBT center. What this is about is a use of public space, who has access to that public space and who decides that," said Dupont Circle ANC representative Karyn-Siobhan Robinson as she sat in the park on a recent Sunday afternoon.
Menasco said residents' concerns are based on misperceptions about the center's dealings with city and neighborhood officials.
"This has been an open process all along," he said. "The assertion that this project has been a secret is ridiculous."
Menasco said he is convinced that the community center could unite an often fractured GLBT community and show that gay-straight partnerships can work. "We aren't going to give up on a project that isn't fully vetted," he said.
Wanda Alston, special assistant to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender affairs, said the mayor supports the idea of having a center in the city. She said the center's proponents were told that they needed community support before the city would negotiate a lease agreement.
Meanwhile, some residents have complained that two city officials may have a conflict of interest. They point out that Alston is a member of the center's advisory board and that Lars Etzkorn, associate director for the D.C. Department of Transportation and chair of the D.C. Committee on Public Space, was the treasurer of the center.
Alston said her role as liaison is to provide access to city officials, nothing more.
In a July 26 interview with a Washington Post reporter, Etzkorn said he would resign from the board, citing a desire to see attention focused back on the center's goals. He also said he has no jurisdiction over any decisions the Parks and Recreation Department would make on the proposal.
"What saddens me is the misinformation out there," he said. "What should be the story is a need for a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender center."
Menasco's group has had informal discussions with neighborhood groups, and the next step is to have formal meetings to obtain community feedback. A proposal will be presented to the ANC after those meetings, Menasco said.
Dupont Circle ANC Chairman Darren Bowie said the commission will consider the proposal carefully. "I think the idea is generally something I support. The question is whether the placement of the center at Stead Park will benefit the neighborhood," Bowie said.
Several commissioners said they want the proposal to be flexible in site location, services provided and funding sources.
ANC representative Mark Bjorge said commissioners are concerned that the Department of Parks and Recreation's file on Stead Park is missing. He said the file contains the historical records needed to help the ANC evaluate the formal proposal.
In addition, Bjorge said, the D.C. Historic Preservation Office may extend the boundaries of the Dupont Circle Historic District to include Stead Park and the 1888 carriage house. A historic designation could complicate any plan to raze the carriage house, he said.
Meanwhile, Menasco's group raised $1,300 for the center at a movie night last month on the Stead Park field.
"Most people have seen a good bit in this project they like," he said.