Housing Complex

Take Back the Capital

Franklin Square

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?

  • Darrell

    Another doozy from Aaron Weiner, the man who thinks he is pointing out true things to Washingtonians that they don't already know about their own city, and calling it news "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."

    Thanks dude. Yeah, we know that many (certainly not all) parks are (competently) managed by NPS. Another thing. Not everyone agrees with you about the height limit. "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,”

    It is in the federal interest when people who've lived here a short period of time want to come in and change the fundamental design of the place. It's in the international interest.

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  • DC John

    Let us take back all the Circles under NPS control too...Dupont, Logan, etc etc. While we are at it...let's take all of Rock Creek Park that is within our area.

  • Mike Madden

    @ Darrell:

    I was born in D.C., my father was born in D.C., and his father was born in D.C., and I don't think it makes any sense for the feds to regulate how tall buildings are in Chevy Chase.

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/ David Alpert

    Darrell: If you ask the average person on the street in, say, Logan CIrcle, even if they work in the government or even work for Congress or the administration, they don't know that DC doesn't control Logan Circle.

  • Steve

    Yippee! Let's find a way to move hundreds of thousands (millions?) of dollars in NPS expenses to the DC government budget! Who would pay for this additional local expense?

  • Unregenerate Idealist

    It's a tragedy that the Federal government has handed over properties to the District, because all our local government has done is run them into the ground. Take for example St. Elizabeth's, which was a model psychiatric hospital and research facility for about a century until D.C. took responsibility for it. More to the point, there's McMillan Park. About 25 years ago, the Feds offered the 25-acre greenspace for free if D.C. would restore and maintain it as a park, or $8 million if they were going to develop it. Inasmuch as business is boss, D.C. paid the $8 million, cut down the trees, and has gotten as far as choosing in a closed-door deal (no RFP) a massively mediocre development firm to "advise" on how to utterly erase the Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. National Register park so that a replica of Rockville Towne Centre may be built there. Born in D.C., a resident for more than 30 years, and a proponent of statehood, I consider the National Capital Planning Commission far more qualified to recommend retention of the Height Act than a twit like OP director Harriet Tregoning and her Cheney-esque boss, Victor Hoskins, who have never met a national retailer or developer they wouldn't embrace for short-term gain.

  • Typical DC BS

    "DC is running surpluses...". HAHAHAHAHA. And you think it's because of ANYTHING that DC does on it's own? Maybe it's because the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT forced DC to do maintain a rainy day fund, like MOST cities, counties and states do that are fiscally responsible?

    Please, without the feds MAKING DC do the ssmart, right thing in so many areas you can't count, DC would be a shithole like it was in the 1980's and 1990's.

  • Sally

    Yes, Aaron, please enlighten us on how long you've lived in Washington. Are you a recent transplant from somewhere else who feels that DC should be remade in the image of where that was?

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/ Aaron Wiener

    @Sally: I've lived in D.C. for 5.5 years. I came here from New Jersey and New Haven, CT, and curious as I'd be to see how D.C. could possibly be remade in either of those images, I couldn't really advise trying to do so.

  • Sally

    "Let's find a way to move hundreds of thousands (millions?) of dollars in NPS expenses to the DC government budget! Who would pay for this additional local expense?"

    Well, the taxpayers obviously. Which is why the DC government will need more revenue. Which is why we need to raise the height limit and massively re-write the zoning regs. And so on....

  • Typical DC BS

    Right Sally. Unfortunately for you, MOST people don't want to pay more taxes. And MOST people would prefer not to turn DC into a faux Manhattan.

  • Eric

    First of all, the NPS does a horrible job at managing parks within DC, and I think most DC residents would be glad to take them back.

    Secondly, who said anything about Manhattan? Who said anything about building taller in the first place? This is all about AUTONOMY; the ABILITY to build taller if WE want to, not if CONGRESS wants to.

    I have no problem proclaiming that anyone who has objections to these concepts either doesn't understand the nuance or doesn't have DC's interests at heart. Trolls, go elsewhere.

  • Sally

    @Typical DC BS--

    Sally was being sarcastic (and mocking).

  • Typical DC BS

    Consider me humbled, Sally. Missed the snark.

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