A preschool playground has become the subject of a heated dispute among neighbors in a condominium development in the District.
Some residents that share a building with AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in Columbia Heights want to dismantle the school’s playground, which they say is located in common space, and replace it with something quieter and more appealing to the adults that live there.
AppleTree officials are fighting to keep it. They say their school is an anchor of the mixed-use, mixed income development that the city approved in the gentrifying neighborhood about a decade ago, and that the playground is an integral part of the school that was included in planning documents.
“The problem is that there are a few residents who don’t like the noise of children playing on the playground,” said Jack McCarthy the president and chief executive of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation.
“It’s one of these issues where you just say, ‘Hey, can we be reasonable?'”
James Abadian, past president of the board of directors for the condo owners’ association, said the problem is not about children; it’s about decibels.
“The noise. It’s real. It’s crazy,” he said. “With windows closed and everything, I can’t take a phone call.”
Abadian, an attorney and realtor, said he works from home and has to go into the bathroom to take work calls sometimes when recess is in session because it’s so loud. He said the noise factor drives some residents out of the building during the day and some have left completely.
Charter schools in the District face a steep challenge finding adequate facilities that include playgrounds. Some schools build playgrounds on roof tops or use city parks or make do without playground equipment at all.
“There is a tremendous need for quality early learning in Washington D.C. and there are limited places where you could do this,” McCarthy said.
He said the school, which serves 160 students, relies on the on-site playground to meet city requirements for exercise and gross motor development standards. He likened the neighbors’ reaction to buying houses near the airport for a reasonable rate and then complaining about the noise under the flight path.
The issue came to a head in November, when the condo owners’ board of directors passed a resolution to remove the playground and pursue plans to redevelop the site t0 allow for “more natural, green and open space uses.”
Abadian said he believes the board has the authority to tear it down because of a legal opinion it obtained that says the playground area behind the building is actually commonly owned space that the board has a right to regulate. Many residents would like to use the space to barbecue or to have a more quiet area with benches and plants, he said.
The school responded to the resolution with an attorney’s letter, and McCarthy said a tear down could lead to litigation.
The resolution followed years of complaints from residents and months of conversations between the condo board and school officials, Abadian said.
He said he’s asked whether the school could limit time on the playground or create “a silent study area” for the children in place of the playground. Residents have suggested that the school use a larger playground located a block away next to community recreation center.
McCarthy said the school has worked in “good faith” to address noise concerns by reducing the amount of time that the students are outside playing to four hours a day. He said the teachers sometimes take children to the rec center down the block, though he cited safety concerns in the neighborhood and said the prospect of having children walking back and forth every day is worrisome.
For now the neighbors are at a standoff.