Upgrading public schools and promoting community gardens are both goals laid out in Mayor Vince Gray’s 2011 Vision for a Sustainable DC. This summer, the expansion of a faculty parking lot at Petworth’s Powell Elementary School showed how even laudable aims can end up clashing in an increasingly crowded District.
Powell’s new lot is part of a long-awaited modernization of the Upshur Road school that most residents applaud and that the city’s Department of General Services had been working on for months. But this spring, neighbors began to hear rumors that the new parking spaces would be built over a portion of the Twin Oaks Community Garden, a ¾-acre fixture in Ward 4 since the 1960s.
Only after Twin Oaks gardeners inquired did DGS confirm the garden was in the way. “There was not an effort in the first place to involve us or even inform us that this is happening,” says Mark Betancourt, a Twin Oaks gardener.
The planned lot threatened to divide gardeners with children and those without. “Some in the garden community wanted to fight this no matter what, without considering what this expansion meant not just for the kids at the school, but for the neighborhood,” says Michael Wasse, who has a plot at Twin Oaks and a preschooler on the waiting list for Powell.
“Powell lost funding for a renovation plan years ago,” says Wasse. “When it came up again, some parents were very concerned that if this fight got heated, they may lose that funding again.”
The city admitted its mistake—“They were notified late, and we took responsibility for notifying them late,” says Kenneth Diggs, a spokesman for DGS—and partnered with a newly formed Twin Oaks Transition Team to develop a compromise. Even so, a solution took most of the summer to reach.
On September 16, the partners are expected to formally approve a new plan in which Twin Oaks will swap the contested north end of the garden for a new lot a block away, beside the Upshur Recreation Center. The space will include 28 plots plus composting stations and beehives, and will be entirely ADA accessible. The new plan will be announced at a community meeting on October 7.
Construction of the new garden is planned to begin in October after soil remediation at the site. DGS has also written a letter assuring Twin Oaks the old garden will not be destroyed until the new one is completed.
Some gardeners, like Twin Oaks board member Mark Seltzer, had initial reservations. “It will be in an isolated location up on a hill where passersby, as we routinely have, won’t have the opportunity to enjoy the space. It will be more for the privileged few who know where the garden is,” Seltzer says.
And Seltzer is concerned the agreement concedes to DGS the power to take more gardens. “It definitely sets a potential precedent for destruction of community gardens at the whim of a perceived higher development need,” he said.
But Betancourt points out that the deal with DGS includes creating a new usage agreement for community gardens, which prevents similar situations from befalling other gardens. He also hopes it will provide other communities an opportunity to discuss land use in their neighborhoods.
“Ideally what we can achieve through this process is to establish better protocols for how the garden community and the community at large is engaged when the city wants to change how public land is used,” he says.
If this situation has split the garden itself, it’s also shown Twin Oaks gardeners the importance of pulling together. “We’ve had this completely different idea of what it means to be part of the community,” said Betancourt. “We need to be able to compromise and do that as a whole garden, instead of be fractured in any way.”