D.C. planning officials are proposing to rip up a popular park on New York Avenue NW to build 98 townhouses as part of an ambitious plan to revitalize a poor neighborhood a few blocks south, around the long-troubled Sursum Corda housing cooperative.
Although the proposal is in preliminary stages, it is drawing fire from residents in the fast-gentrifying area around the park, known as the New York Avenue Playground. Many homeowners are furious about the prospect of seeing the tree-lined space replaced by densely packed housing.
In the District, where skyrocketing real estate prices often are blamed for driving longtime residents out of their neighborhoods and the city, the dispute over the park highlights an instance in which the government is trying to retain territory for poor residents.
Planning officials argue that the park, which occupies much of a city block at New York Avenue and First Street NW, is one of few vacant parcels available for the first phase of the Sursum Corda redevelopment project. That plan, part of Mayor Anthony A. Williams's New Communities initiative, calls for razing several low-income apartment buildings teetering on the brink of financial insolvency and replacing them with a denser mix of new homes for people at all income levels.
In the Sursum Corda neighborhood, Williams (D) hopes to save the homes of 520 poor families who otherwise might be overrun by rising rents and high-end development. Many have lived in the area for more than 30 years. To make sure they don't have to leave during construction, the city wants to use the park as a site for townhouses, about 30 of which would permanently house the very poor.
The development plan grew out of four days of meetings in July with residents of Sursum Corda and of the surrounding neighborhood. City officials have yet to develop a financing package for the redevelopment, and planning officials said that construction is at least 18 months away.
"The irony is, if you go there in the day or the evenings, there are lots of problems with vagrants in the park, anyway," said Michael Downie, who is overseeing the New Communities initiative for the D.C. Office of Planning. "Our perception is the only people using the park are people who walk their dogs and vagrants. There's some use of the courts and fields by Little League teams, but it's not a very programmed, active space."
Nearby homeowners beg to differ. They say the park is filled each evening with people walking their dogs or out for a stroll. On weekends, they say, the baseball field and basketball courts are in constant use. On Saturday, for instance, the park's two basketball courts hosted a day-long tournament. Terrance Judge, founder and president of the Metropolitan Basketball League, said teams play there every summer Saturday. He said it helps relieve tension among groups of kids.
Without the park, he said, "there's going to be tension. The kids won't have an outlet with no court." He worries that young boys would become increasingly involved with gangs and violence.
Cleopatra Jones, a Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents the area, has summoned city officials to a public meeting scheduled for tonight to discuss the plan.
"People are really up in arms," she said. "I want the city to come up with a bona fide plan to say, 'If we take this park, in trade we're going to give you blub blub blub, and we'll develop it to the specifications of the community.' "
Planning officials said the city has addressed that. Though the neighborhood would lose the New York Avenue Playground, it would gain a new park, recreation center and swimming pool two blocks south at First and L streets NW. The city also would redesign a park at the Armstrong School at First and P streets NW and upgrade a park at New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW.
But longtime residents feel connected to the existing park: A few years ago, many of them helped to renovate the space they call a rare oasis of green.
And newer residents say the park figured prominently in their decision to move into the neighborhood.
Joe Riddle, who has been in the neighborhood about two years, is one of them. Riddle, 33, lives on N Street NW and works in advertising. "I'm completely bummed," he said. "It's kind of a betrayal of the people who invested in the neighborhood. Part of the reason we moved here was green space."
Antonio Edwards, in the neighborhood since 2001, is another. Edwards, who lives on Kirby Street, said the green space "was the purpose of me buying a home. I was tired of living in apartment buildings. . . . This is the only place we really can breathe."
Others said they worry that putting new housing on the park site for families from Sursum Corda -- a development long plagued by crime and drugs -- would only worsen those problems on the north side of New York Avenue.
Kevin "Moose" Jones, vice president of the Metropolitan Basketball League, said the loss of the park would be a tragedy. "We're trying to bring the community together, the kids together, to get them out of their rivalry stage and have them acting as one," he said.
Mike Thiem, 30, a spokesman for a Defense Department agency, moved to the neighborhood from Arlington six months ago.
Thiem said he and others are "paying a half-million dollars for these houses. The last thing I want on my doorstep is displaced residents from one of the most violent housing projects in the city. . . . I didn't spend this kind of money to have drug dealers out on my step."
He added, "There's so much vacant land in upper Northeast where they could create these new communities. Why do it downtown where it's so congested and we're experiencing a renaissance?"
Alverta H. Munlyn, president of the Northwest 1 Council, which represents poor residents in the area, said her richer neighbors to the north would lose little.
The Ward 5 advisory commission "has always been very hurtful in terms of pushing low-income people or programs for low-income people around. They made it publicly known that they don't want any more programs for homeless or low-income people in that neighborhood," Munlyn said, calling her neighbors "silly people" who are listening to "malicious gossip."
But D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), a candidate for mayor who represents the area north of New York Avenue, said he would like city planning officials to make a more convincing case for taking over a playground that was renovated just a few years ago.
"We just put that park together for them after there was an outcry because there was no real recreation for that community," Orange said. "I'm certainly in favor of the New Communities concept. I'm in favor of making sure Sursum Corda survives and people are not displaced. But I need more detail on why the New York Avenue site is of such extreme importance right now."