Dozens of raised planting beds sit in neat rows at Bruce Monroe Community Park. The beds are divided into more than 200 individual plots, each rented for $30 a year.
For five years, community members have flocked to the park along Georgia Avenue NW in Park View to grow their own herbs, radishes and raspberries, not far from the recreational areas where adults and children play basketball and run around the playground.
Now, some of those residents say their urban oasis is in jeopardy.
The city is proposing to use at least half of the park for a new, mixed-income residential project that would replace the nearby Park Morton public apartment complex.
Park View residents are fighting that site selection, saying the expansive park has become an integral part of their booming neighborhood not far from the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station. They are packing community meetings and flooding neighborhood email lists with their objections, and they are lobbying city officials to redevelop Park Morton elsewhere.
“Bruce Monroe Park is an asset to the community — it is highly used and valued by many. Park Morton must be redeveloped, but not at the expense of this community asset,” an online petition to save the park reads. “D.C. residents deserve better.”
City officials counter that the expansive park, created on the site of a demolished public school, was always intended to be temporary, and they say they are committed to keeping a park on part of the land even after the new residences are built.
The redevelopment project goes back to 2008, when the 174-unit Park Morton public housing complex was included in the city’s New Communities Initiative — an effort announced under then-Mayor Anthony Williams to redevelop blighted public housing into mixed-income developments.
The initiative — which has struggled to achieve its goals — requires developers to “build first,” so that tenants can move into new residences as soon as they leave the housing that is being replaced.
In February 2014, then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration parted ways with the project’s original developers, Landex Corp., saying the project had been unacceptably delayed. The city has since selected new developers — Community Builders and Dante Partners — and designated Bruce Monroe park, which also includes a tennis court, playground and dog run, as the optimal “build-first” location.
As part of the first phase of the project, about two dozen Park Morton families have already been relocated to a newly built mixed-use building called the Avenue. Once construction on Bruce Monroe is complete, the plan is to then build another complex at the current Park Morton site. There would eventually be a total of 500 mixed-income units across both sites with some retail space.
All parties agree that razing Park Morton, which is more than 50 years old, is long overdue. Residents there complain of dingy, bug-infested apartments, leaky faucets and broken furnaces. On top of that, the layout of the complex — 15 garden-style apartment buildings, two of which are boarded up — is conducive to crime and drug activity, wrote Brian Kenner, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, in a letter to residents last month explaining the latest in the development plans.
“We have determined that of all the options that we looked at, that Bruce Monroe is our best option for rebuilding without displacing them from the neighborhood,” said Angie Rodgers, director of the New Communities Initiative. “That is key and something that we are striving and racing toward.”
But residents insist the city has other options beyond using Bruce Monroe Community Park, such as acquiring vacant properties along Georgia Avenue NW or using a long-vacant assisted-living facility on nearby Spring Road. Officials say neither of those locations would provide enough space to build units to accommodate families.
“Using Bruce Monroe is the easy option, and the city didn’t look at the bigger picture and leverage all of its resources,” said William Jordan, who has lived in the Park View area for about 25 years and who sits on the Georgia Avenue Community Development Task Force.
Bruce Monroe, however, was never intended to be a park. The property used to house Bruce Monroe School, which D.C. Public Schools closed in 2008 because of underenrollment. Neighborhood residents successfully lobbied to turn the land into a park until the city decided on a permanent use.
The city planning office and the Park Morton developers insist that about half of Bruce Monroe will be preserved as a park after the new residences are built. When the D.C. Housing Authority Board of Commissioners selected the developers for the project in 2014, it ensured the proposed plans called for green space, Kenner said.
“We are supportive of a plan only if it includes park and recreational spaces returning to the site,” Kenner wrote in the letter to residents. “The current proposal preserves half of the site as a park, which would allow all of the site’s current uses including courts, playground, garden, to be brought back to the site.”
Kenner says that parts of the park will be usable during construction and that the plan is to eventually put more green space back on the original Park Morton site.
Residents are skeptical, however. They say the process hasn’t been transparent so far and did not give them enough input into the site selection process.
Those leading the project, including New Communities director Rodgers and representatives from Community Builders and Dante Partners, say they have received extensive community input, including at packed community meetings over the past two months at which they asked residents what they want to see out of the revitalized Park Morton.
“We are very comfortable with the proof of process we have here,” said Robert Fossi, the regional vice president of development at the Community Builders. “We are confident this public process will create a feasible and balanced outcome that will advance the opportunities for Park Morton residents and the Park View community as a whole.”
Most residents listed safety and green spaces for children among their paramount requests. Park View, like much of the city, has seen a spike in crime recently, most notably when a 6-year-old girl was hit by a stray bullet on a playground in May 2014.
“I don’t understand why it can’t be a compromise. There will still be green space; your kids can still play at the park,” said Candice Smith, 32, who lives in Park Morton with her four children. “I would like to see Park Morton redeveloped.”
The D.C. Council must still pass a “disposition resolution” before the park site can be transferred to the developers. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who represents the area, says she is in favor of the plan.
“I think the Bruce Monroe parcel gives us the opportunity not only to build affordable housing, but also meaningful robust green space and neighborhood amenities,” Nadeau said. “I haven’t seen an opportunity like this in the city for a really long time.”