D.C.’s National Parks: “It’s Really About Changing the Rules”
On Saturday, all of D.C.'s grievances about the National Park Service's treatment of D.C.'s parks finally got a hearing, in the form of a town hall meeting of top Park Service brass convened by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. And it looks like the feds at least got the message that people are unhappy.
"We have occasionally heard that we are difficult to work with," said new-on-the-job National Mall superintendent Bob Vogel. "And I apologize for that, because we really do want you in the parks."
Vogel has a job ahead of him to persuade Washingtonians he's for real. One after another, the handful of people who had made it to Judiciary Square on a weekend complained about negative experiences with Park Service bureaucracy, from Soccer in the Circle to neglect of Fort Circle parks east of the river.
On a few issues, it sounded like they'd been listening: Vogel said that they were exploring options for different forms of transportation in a post-Tourmobile world, that they would scrap the inconvenient-but-historic fence on a Dupont Circle triangle park, and even that they were considering the possibility of turning the sidewalks on Pennsylvania Avenue over to the District, which would make all kinds of difference.
That's all very well and good. But towards the end of the forum, Joe Sternlieb—who worked at the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District before decamping to developer Eastbanc—got up to make a larger point. Sternlieb has wrangled with the Park Service for decades now, whether over starting the Circulator or trying to get wayfinding signs on the Mall. He recalled touring in Alaska and hearing about how parks in that state had their very own set of regulations, and recommended that the same be true of NPS' largest and most complex urban park system, such that D.C. residents take priority over some nebulous "federal interest."
"I recognize that three hundred years from now, a President of the United States will be born in a state that hasn't even been named yet, and that will be something extraordinary, and we will need a piece of land somewhere in the city to memorialize that in the year 2379," Sternlieb said. "And I recognize that we need to maintain a federal focus in any planning that we do. But at the same time, you're not going to need that land for another 300 years. And we need some system to make it easier for you to communicate with us and us to communicate with you. But it's more than communication. It's really about changing the rules, so that the parks are used for the people who live here now, until they're needed for some other federal purpose."
For the first time that afternoon, people in the audience clapped.
Well, it turns out that the National Capital Region does have its own place in the law. But that section of the Code of Federal Regulations mostly deals with permitting demonstrations, and is otherwise more proscriptive than anywhere else, forbidding everything from swimming to ice skating to flying model planes, on top of blanket prohibitions on things like food vending outside a concession contract. Even with progressive plans like CapitalSpace—which was approved by the National Capital Planning Commission last year but has yet to be implemented—those are the kinds of rules that will prevent D.C.'s parks from serving D.C.'s citizens.
In response to Sternlieb's plea, National Capital Region director Stephen Whitesell said he thought we'd probably need an act of Congress to change the rules for the District's parks. That's not necessarily true; the administration can change regulations without legislative approval. The prospect of congressional resistance sure is a convenient excuse for inaction, though.