It started with a high-profile promise to thousands of heartbroken fans.
“Don’t you think we need to find a way to remember Chuck Brown forever?” Mayor Vincent C. Gray asked the crowd grieving the death of the Godfather of Go-Go at the Washington Convention Center last May.
Gray announced he would name a park after Brown: “A place just like Chuck — a place where there’s action, a place where there’s people, a place where there’s traffic, a place where there will be the sounds of the city.”
The pledge to immortalize the D.C. musical icon won Gray a standing ovation that day. But 10 months later, his plans to honor Brown by renovating a Northeast park are in limbo after neighbors have made it clear that more action, more people, more traffic and more sounds are precisely what they don’t want.
A portion of what was Langdon Park, between 18th and 20th streets south of Rhode Island Avenue NE, is now officially known as Chuck Brown Park, after a D.C. Council vote last year. But plans to build a large amphitheater there, seating more than 900, have been scaled back in the face of community protests. The newer plans have also been met with skepticism, imperiling hopes that a ribbon might be cut on Brown’s birthday, Aug. 22.
“I like Chuck Brown, but the issue is . . . why was the community not consulted?” said Delores Bushong, a two-decade resident of nearby Hamlin Street NE who has organized opposition to the plans. “They did not tell us there was going to be a music pavilion here.”
The pushback has been awkward for Gray, who ran for mayor in 2010 on a platform of more broadly engaging residents in government initiatives. The rollout of Chuck Brown Park, residents say, has not been so collaborative — at least, not until recently.
“We’re trying to work with everyone to have an open dialogue on this,” Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said. “Obviously, you can’t make everyone happy, but we’ve really gone forward to help bring folks into the design process, to involve the community.”
Plans for the park steadily grew in scope before they shrunk. About three weeks after the memorial service, the Gray administration asked legislators to rename Langdon Park’s western half after Brown, with no mention of additional amenities for the site, which now hosts tennis courts, a playground and a modest amphitheater.
In August, on what would have been Brown’s 76th birthday, the city released rough renderings that proposed a rebuilt amphitheater for the first time, as well as a statue of Brown.
The uproar did not begin in earnest until January, when the city released new renderings of a vastly larger and more ambitious pavilion — one meant to follow “ancient design concepts that the Romans used to build open-air amphitheaters,” according to architect Marshall Moya Design. Among the features: a “timeline tower” featuring a list of Brown’s hit songs.
The current amphitheater, shabby and disused as it might be, is a point of contention for immediate neighbors. On weekends during the warmer months, several nearby residents say, there are regular parties, bringing loud music, trash and traffic to the vicinity. While that might make it a Chuck Brown kind of place, in Gray’s formulation, neighbors aren’t so keen on encouraging that.
Betty Jamison has lived across 18th Street NE from the park since 1958. The noise is so bad, she said, that she has stopped hosting her pinochle club on weekends. “I can’t hear my TV, I can’t read, I can’t even have guests,” she said.
Skeptics of the pavilion plan have seized on a city regulation limiting noise in parks to 60 decibels or below — about the level of a normal speaking voice. “They’re going to build an amphitheater that is illegal to use except for maybe an acoustic guitar,” said Nolan Treadway, the elected advisory neighborhood commissioner representing the area.
Treadway said that honoring Brown with a musical venue is “not a bad idea” and that not all neighbors are so adamantly opposed to the amphitheater as Bushong and Jamison. But he said the outreach and planning for the site has been lacking — particularly compared with the neighboring Woodridge public library branch, which has been the subject of repeated community meetings over the course of years.
“There hasn’t been a lot of thought,” he said. “Frankly, the neighbors are pleased with the level of liveliness and don’t need a music festival in their back yard every day.”
Late last month, with officials acknowledging that the plans for the large pavilion were overambitious, the city assumed a new tack. It has released plans for a more modest amphitheater — one with about 200 seats, about the size of the current facility, and without provisions for amplification — characterizing the changes as a fix-up.
“At this point, it’s a renovation of the existing structure,” said John Stokes, a spokesman for the city parks department. In addition to the amphitheater, he said, the city will install new lighting, trash cans, signage and landscaping.
There are no plans to program musical or other events for the pavilion, Stokes said, but residents will be able to seek permits to have events there, which must be approved by the elected neighborhood commission. “If there is an unpermitted event,” such as the impromptu weekend parties, he said, park rangers “will shut it down.”
The more modest plans are an improvement, said the area’s elected officials, Treadway and D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). The smaller theater also has the backing of Brown’s family, according to daughter Cherita Whiting, who has dealt with the Gray administration on the issue.
While family members never requested the large pavilion, she said, they are in favor of some sort of musical landmark. “It’s important to have that,” she said. “My dad would love to know that there’s a safe place for little kids to go and enjoy themselves in a safe environment.”
But the immediate neighbors remain unconvinced.
“I invited the mayor to set up a band, come sit in my living room and listen to what I have to listen to,” Jamison said. “Ain’t heard from him.”