Take Back the Capital
Of the District’s acts of defiance during the first week of federal government shutdown, one stood out for its seemingly undefiant nature. Given that the National Park Service was ceasing most of its operations in D.C. while Congress wasn’t funding it, Mayor Vince Gray announced, the city would start picking up trash at Park Service–controlled sites in town.
A rebel stand? Hardly. But a necessary step. That’s because the vast majority of the so-called national parks in the District are really just local parks that happen to be under the aegis of the Park Service. They’re the downtown squares, bicycle trails, and neighborhood circles that are frequented by Washingtonians who have nothing to do with the federal agencies that were shut down. And so trash was beginning to pile up, and rats were beginning to notice. If the feds weren’t going to act, D.C. would.
For some time, the conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill—and in much of America—has been that D.C. is a city unable to take care of itself, with a history of messy finances and crooked politicians. Of the District’s 40 years of home rule, six were spent under a federal control board after Congress had to step in because D.C. couldn’t balance a budget.
Now, the roles have been reversed. D.C. is running surpluses while Congress lets a band of rogue Republicans hijack the budget. The feds can’t find a way to collect trash in their parks, so we’re doing it for them.
The shutdown hasn’t been kind to the District’s federal workers who are out of a paycheck, or to the city’s bottom line: The 1990s shutdowns cost the city an estimated $50 million in lost revenue. But it has given a boost to our national image. And so the city should take advantage of this uninvited opportunity to try to take back what should have been ours from the start: our parks and our cityscape.
We’ve begun testing the limits of our autonomy, and we’ve found them to be broader than we thought. When Gray announced that D.C. would keep all its operations open during the shutdown—in possible violation of the federal law that requires Congress to appropriate all funds for our spending—Congress responded with a collective shrug. Rep. Darrell Issa, the conservative Republican chairman of the committee that oversees District affairs, told a reporter he doubted that Congress would punish D.C., explaining, “there is no money being saved by sending people home.” (For now, the city is drawing on its previously appropriated reserve fund and waiting for approval from the White House to declare all operations essential.)
So let’s keep testing, starting with the parks. The shutdown has drawn national media attention to the roads and trails that many Washingtonians use daily for their commutes, exercise, or leisure, which are now blocked off because they happen to run through parks that happen to be controlled by the National Park Service. People across the country have learned that our routes to work and our urban backyards are at the mercy not of our own elected officials, but of the whims of John Boehner.
Last week, there was supposed to be a meeting to discuss plans to transform grungy Franklin Square into a vibrant downtown park. Because the park is federal, the city’s so far been unable to add the things it thinks could revitalize the square: food vendors, restrooms, events, a playground—anything to make it a destination in the evenings and on the weekends, rather than a glorified outdoor homeless shelter.
The Park Service, uncharacteristically, appears open to incorporating elements it usually doesn’t allow on its turf. “Typically we were looking at them from within our regulations,” Park Service planner Tammy Stidham told me last month. “This time we’re opening it wide open. What are the possibilities?”
But the shutdown canceled the meeting because the Park Service nixed its planned events, closed all its parks in D.C. and across the country, and even took down its website.
We don’t know how the Park Service would react to an effort to take back our parks, because we’ve never tried. In fact, we’ve done the opposite. In 1985, having mismanaged the Georgetown Waterfront Park for years, the city handed it over to the Park Service for safekeeping.
At least we’re no longer giving our land to the feds for free. Now let’s start reclaiming it. The Park Service may object—but it also may be amenable to turning over parts of its portfolio that bring little glory yet require constant maintenance, like the triangle parks and circles and squares away from the federal core. These little green patches are no Yosemite, but they do mean a lot to D.C. residents—particularly if, freed from federal constraints, we can start adding new amenities.
City officials I’ve spoken with are unsure of how the District could assume control, and which D.C. agency would take the lead. But there’s no time like the present, with our parks in the spotlight, to explore our options.
And why stop with parks? We’re in the middle of a process that could bring a fundamental change to the city: the reassessment of the 103-year-old Height of Buildings Act. The city and the National Capital Planning Commission are currently working to submit recommendations to Congress on modifying the federal law, which sets vertical limits on the city’s buildings.
The NCPC drafted its report first, recommending only modest alterations: no change to building heights, but a small adjustment to the way penthouses are measured. The D.C. Office of Planning followed with a much bolder proposal, allowing slightly taller buildings in the historic central city (the so-called L’Enfant City) and releasing the rest of the city from federal control, with heights subject only to local zoning. Now the two agencies are working to reconcile their vastly divergent recommendations, and will either submit a joint report, likely with two sets of suggestions and a small dose of concurrence, or will file two separate ones altogether.
The man who requested the report and will lead its review is Issa, who’s become the District’s most powerful ally in Congress. But he won’t chair his committee once the new Congress is sworn in following next year’s elections, thanks to GOP term limits for such panels. And in the likely event that the Republicans still control the House, there’s no reason to believe that Issa’s successor in the cliff-diving party will be so sympathetic to D.C.
So let’s act now. The Office of Planning should do all it can to sway the NCPC to its point of view on building-height autonomy—after all, there’s really nothing about regulating heights in Hillcrest or Chevy Chase that’s in the “federal interest,” which the NCPC is supposed to represent—or at least to make its separate recommendations forcefully. And the city should press the Park Service, Congress, or whoever will listen to give it control of neighborhood parks.
After all, does the federal government really mind letting D.C. pick up the trash?