Where now there is a lush green meadow and towering trees along Nebraska Avenue NW, there would be a baseball diamond and a field for football, soccer and lacrosse. Four heritage trees would be uprooted and replanted to make way for synthetic turf, a scoreboard, bleachers and 50 newly constructed parking spaces.
The fact that the land is privately owned by the Episcopal Center for Children — and technically off-limits to the public — has not dampened the fury of those who live nearby, a prosperous set of lawyers, architects, politicos, communications specialists and retirees.
They say the new complex would generate traffic and pollution, and threaten their property values for years to come — 50 to be exact, under the terms of the lease, which would also allow Maret to rent out the fields to outside youth groups.
What others might describe as the joyous clamor of teen sports, they predict will be high-decibel noise bleeding through the walls of their well-appointed houses.
“Are there going to be traffic guards — traffic people — so I can get home?” Tom Bulger, a neighbor, asked during an at-times contentious recent Zoom meeting, imagining a bottleneck of spectators driving to and from games.
“You’re not going to deal with pitching and batting sounds behind your house,” Marcello Abbruzzetti, another neighbor, told Maret officials when it was his turn.
“Why is it that Maret has to go in search of disrupting neighborhoods?” asked Crystal Wright, another neighbor. She suggested a better alternative would be the school leaving the District.
Ian Cameron, president of Maret’s Board of Trustees, said the 110-year-old school considers itself part of Washington’s fabric and that it’s seeking to provide adequate facilities for students in a city where playing fields are hard to find.
A move to the suburbs, he said, is out of the question, particularly because Maret’s students commute from all corners of the city.
“We’re not putting in a Walmart,” he said, adding that he understands that when “there’s change in a neighborhood, there are neighbors who aren’t going to like the change.
“But that’s not sustainable in a city that has such a shortage of land available,” he said.
Maret, one of a cluster of wealthy prep schools in the District, has a $35 million endowment and a principal whose compensation was $553,000 in 2020, according to its tax filings. Cameron, a former ABC News executive producer, is married to Susan Rice, President Biden’s appointed head of the Domestic Policy Council.
Maret has a multipurpose field on its seven-acre campus in Woodley Park, where school officials make a point of highlighting that a quarter of its 650 K-12 students receive financial assistance. Those who don’t receive aid pay as much as $42,000 in annual tuition.
But the on-campus field is not regulation size for high school soccer, lacrosse and football, a deficiency that led Maret officials to make inquiries when they learned that the financially beleaguered Episcopal Center’s land may be available.
Two years ago, Maret was at the center of another fierce debate when it signed a no-bid deal with the D.C. government that gave it near-exclusive access to the Jelleff Recreation Center in Georgetown. The arrangement blocked Hardy Middle School, located across the street, from using it during peak hours.
Still, Maret’s plan in Chevy Chase is not without support among a faction of neighbors who dismiss the naysayers’ sense of impending bedlam.
“Who are these people who think they own the street in front of their house?” asked Brian Eriksen, 52, a software engineer whose backyard is across from the field. “This is an opportunity for us to have an asset.”
Eriksen has been counseling neighbors to maintain calm during discussions with Maret officials, who, beyond the Zoom meeting, have invited residents to voice concerns at four well-attended backyard gatherings. The school also has presented its plan to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
“I’m trying to have the conversation be civil so the engagement can be high and we can get concessions, and our input is taken seriously,” Eriksen said. “If we get positive engagement now, then that feedback will be incorporated.”
Maret is scheduled to present its plan in March to the District’s Board of Zoning and Adjustment, which will decide whether to grant it special exceptions to “to permit a private school use in a residential district” and to “allow parking spaces” on the property’s front yard, according to the application.
The school’s lease is contingent on the board’s approval, said Carolyn Law, Maret’s spokesperson.
Maret officials have expressed a willingness to be flexible about details of their plan, such as the placement of the scoreboard. To minimize the disruption, the school also has promised there would be no public address system or night games.
But school officials are unwilling to negotiate the scope of the project, such as building one field instead of two, as some neighbors have suggested.
“This is too much and too intense,” said David Patton, 70, a transportation planner who lives on a street bordering the property and who is among the more than 100 residents who have signed a petition opposing the project.
Patton described himself as a “keyboard warrior” in a battle to stop the proposal.
“They’re coming at us like a ton of bricks with plans already in hand,” he said. “It’s just an affront.”
A multisided deal
Since 1930, the Episcopal Center for Children has occupied the triangular property between Utah and Nebraska avenues, first as an orphanage and then as a treatment center for children with special needs.
At points, the center’s enrollment reached as high as 55 to 60 students, said Stephanie Nash, ECC’s president and chief executive. More recently, the number fell into the 40s.
In June 2019, as a result of funding cuts, the center’s financial losses — over $1.5 million that year, according to its tax returns — forced it to close. The next day, Nash said, developers began calling about buying the property.
Nash said ECC chose to lease the land to Maret because a school seemed like a natural partner. She declined to reveal the lease’s financial terms, but she said the revenue would make it possible for the center to reopen next year.
Preserving the field as it is now, she said, would mean that the center cannot start up again.
“We want to stay true to our mission,” she said. “We don’t want to be another school that’s forced to close down and not be able to meet the needs of this underserved population. That’s our priority we are blessed to own.”
Maret has been searching for suitable athletic space for more than two decades, school officials say. At the moment, its students play home football games and swim at Woodrow Wilson High School, play baseball at Jelleff, play tennis at the University of the District of Columbia, and practice golf at East Potomac Park.
The school is seeking a location for its track team.
“The challenge is to find space that’s within a reasonable commute — we have looked far and wide,” Cameron said. “There’s land in this city that’s not developed, but to get five or six acres is very difficult.”
Tom Downs, D.C.’s former city administrator during the 1980s under then-Mayor Marion Barry, has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 50 years and says ECC’s vista has hardly changed.
“It’s exactly the same, only the trees are slightly bigger,” he said.
Downs, 70, said he doesn’t consider himself someone who is reflexively opposed to change. What he objects to is a proposal that he says has caught everyone off guard.
“I thought developers had learned their lesson — you don’t surprise people — but they did, and the result is people expect the worst,” he said. The Episcopal Center, he said, should have involved the neighborhood in exploring other possibilities.
“A middle school, maybe, or wouldn’t it be great to have a neighborhood library?” he asked. “The lack of respect for the neighborhood and people who are immediately adjacent to it have precluded discussions about that.”
Jenny Backus, another neighbor, knows that her support for the plan could be dismissed because her son is a Maret 10th-grader. But she points out that he is to graduate around the time it’s completed.
“It’s not realistic to assume that the property is going to stay the same for the next 50 years,” said Backus, a former spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services. “I would rather see a field with kids playing on it than a bunch of condos.”
Claudia Russell, 69, an architect who lives on the edge of the ECC property, has no children. But she is quick to add that she’s “not a child hater” and has loved the sounds of kids building forts during the pandemic beneath a tree a few yards from her backyard.
Her worry, she said, is that an entirely natural setting is being sacrificed too quickly.
“We should take a moment and think about what we’re doing,” she said as she gazed out at the field while the light faded on a recent late afternoon. “If you let these things happen and you don’t resist, then it’s like you really are paving over paradise.
“It’s beauty, and market forces don’t necessarily respect beauty.”