Nestled in a steep wooded ravine beneath the thick canopy of a stream-valley forest in the heart of the District is a winding trail of seven-tenths of a mile. Children zip by on their scooters, cyclists cruise down the slope and walkers, joggers and dogs log their miles.
But this short stretch of road has been tied up in a long-running saga. Twenty-six years after Klingle Road NW was closed to the public, it was finally reopened June 24 as Klingle Valley Trail. It was the much-delayed product of years of acrimonious fighting, and probably ranks as one of the most delayed transportation projects in the city.
“I’m delighted,” said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who led the charge to turn Klingle Road into a recreational nature trail. “I’m very happy and very relieved that it’s finally here.”
Klingle Road, which dates to 1831, was closed to the public in 1991 after a sewerage collapse, brought about by heavy rains, caused widespread flood damage. For years, the road lay abandoned and in disrepair as the city struggled to find the funds to fix it.
But when money was found and the gears were set in motion for a reconstruction project, Klingle Road became caught in a contentious debate. One side demanded that it be rebuilt as a road for drivers, a convenient east-west shortcut across Rock Creek Park. The other side wanted the road turned into a trail for hikers and bikers, which opponents claimed would cut off access for less well-off residents east of the park. Both sides dug in deep.
The questions that pitted the road proponents (“roadies,” as they were called) against the trail proponents are still as relevant today as they were two decades ago. As the District continues to change rapidly, questions about how to use the city’s green spaces abound. Who has access to them — people of all income levels or just the affluent? And how should the city balance development, preservation and environmental sustainability?
“Discussions about spaces are discussions that have very high stakes,” said Margaret Farrar, author of “Building the Body Politic: Power and Urban Space in Washington, D.C.” and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at John Carroll University in Ohio. “ … When we debate about space, we’re really debating about ourselves, and who we imagine ourselves to be as people.”
For people on both sides in the fight over the future of Klingle Road, there was no middle ground.
Activists put up warring websites and front-yard signs, and sported their own bumper stickers and buttons. Anti-road activists, including Jim Dougherty, a leader of the District chapter of the Sierra Club and a veteran of the fight to turn Klingle Road into a trail, dressed as trees to make their point about the importance of environmental conservation. Advocates of reopening the road put up a wooden placard accusing the other side of being “racist plutocrats.”
“It was unfortunately very acrimonious, and there was no love lost between the two sides,” said Jason Broehm, a trail proponent who used to live between the Cleveland Park and Woodley Park neighborhoods on the west side of Rock Creek Park.
For Dougherty, the long-awaited opening of the Klingle Valley Trail is “immensely rewarding” and a vindication of environmentalism.
“We’re essentially undefeated to defend the parks from over-the-top development,” Dougherty said. “And I hope now that the government is paying attention . . . we can’t afford to give up any more parkland and we don’t need any more roads.”
The development of the Klingle Valley Trail reflects the larger trend of the District becoming increasingly more pedestrian- and bike-friendly in recent years, Cheh said.
The trail represents “part of a shift in our thinking” toward more of an emphasis on preserving green spaces, she said. Resistance to this still exists, the D.C. Council member added, but much less so now than before as people adapt to a changing urban culture and realize that cars “can’t reign supreme.”
“The value of [preserving green spaces] to us and to our children in the future is something that has to be elevated above a convenient shortcut by car,” Cheh said.
Gale Black, a leader of the road campaign and the lead plaintiff in a 2011 lawsuit seeking to reopen Klingle Road, fundamentally disagrees with the argument that road proponents were anti-environmentalist. To Black, who is an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 4, keeping Klingle Road open to cars was a matter of maintaining an east-west connection through Rock Creek Park and ensuring access to the park for everyone.
“We want to preserve green space, but not . . . at the cost of accessing Rock Creek Park,” she said. “This is an oasis for all of us,” she added, not just for those who are close enough or able-bodied enough to walk or bike there.
Stephen Whatley, another advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 4 who also actively campaigned for the reopening of Klingle Road and was another plaintiff in the lawsuit, sees the split between drivers and the walkers and bikers as a generational divide that continues to course through the District as younger residents and families move into neighborhoods.
“This is going to be the split that occurs throughout the city as development continues . . . this is going to be an ongoing discussion,” he said. “And it’s only natural.”
Black, 66, thinks it is problematic that the needs of older drivers like her were shunted aside.
“Not everybody can bike it or hike it,” Black said. “Preserve it for all of us, not some of us.”
That both sides of the debate lay claim to the environmental-preservation argument is a reflection of how sustainability has become a kind of trump card in public conversations, Farrar said.
Ecological “sustainability has assumed a prominence and cultural weight in our discussions that it has never had before, and that is a good thing in many ways,” she said. But ecological sustainability is not the only consideration, she added. “Sustainability can also mean historic preservation . . . and sustaining and maintaining social and economic diversity.”
Black, a former Mount Pleasant resident who used to drive regularly on Klingle Road before its closure, says she thinks that Klingle Valley Trail benefits the wealthier residents on the west side of the park at the expense of the less well-off residents east of it. To have a vital connection between neighborhoods turned into a “very expensive dog walk . . . defies logic in so many ways,” she said.
Dougherty dismisses the argument that turning Klingle Road into a trail segregates eastern and western neighborhoods as “utterly bogus.”
“We defend all the parks equally,” he said. He also pointed out that Klingle Road, when it was open, was lightly trafficked: It carried 3,200 vehicles a day, out of a total of 90,000 vehicles that crossed Rock Creek Park, according to figures from the District Transportation Department.
Others, however, argue that Klingle Road shouldn’t be looked at in isolation, but rather as an important connection in a larger network of roads.
“It’s an area that’s already light on roads, and road networks are usually more resilient when there is redundancy in them,” said Rolf Pendall, co-director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Any link, he said, even if little-used, “can be important when you have a regional network that . . . is depending on the availability of other routes to make the system work.”
He also noted that the Rock Creek Park area does not lack open spaces and that the argument was over a preexisting road rather than a new one.
As a proponent for integration in cities across class and racial lines, Pendall sees the Klingle Road closure as an example of the continued division of the Washington region.
“You can read the entire divide in the region through the closure of the three-quarter-mile link,” he said.
Whatley, despite having lost the campaign to reopen Klingle Road to cars, acknowledges that “having a trail is a good thing” and wishes the trail users well.
And while Black is glad that the decades-long fight is finally over, she is not about to concede complete defeat, either.
“Time will tell whether we lost the war or the battle,” she said.