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Petworth Community Garden Could Fall Victim To D.C. School Parking Lot

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A plan by D.C. to pave over a community garden to create a parking lot for a nearby public school has drawn opposition from urban farmers.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
A plan by D.C. to pave over a community garden to create a parking lot for a nearby public school has drawn opposition from urban farmers.

This post has been updated with comments from a Powell teacher.

In 1970, folk singer Joni Mitchell famously sang about paradise being paved over to put up a parking lot. But in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest D.C., that's exactly what community gardeners say is about to happen.

Urban farmers at the Twin Oaks Community Garden, located at 14th and Taylor streets, are organizing against a plan that would see half of the garden paved over for a 44-spot parking lot. The parking lot isn't the work of a profit-minded developer, though: Instead, it would serve faculty and administrators at nearby Powell Elementary School, which will expand as part of a $42 million modernization set to begin later this year.

Twin Oaks is one of 26 community gardens located on city-owned land. Originally established as a youth garden in the 1960s, seven years ago it became a community garden where residents could practice urban agriculture on 10-by-15-foot plots, growing everything from tomatoes and garlic to squash and corn. The garden has proven extremely popular, and there is currently a two-year wait for a plot.

Twin Oaks Community Garden features 62 plots divided across two portions bisected by Taylor Street NW.

But under a plan presented in June by the D.C. Department General Services, the garden's northern portion and its 30 plots would be paved over and used for a faculty parking lot for Powell, which sits on the same block. The northern portion — the garden is bisected by Taylor Street — sits on Powell's land, though it is managed by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.

Members of the garden are speaking out against the plan.

"The concern is that you’re placing black top over where very productive green space is," says Mark Seltzer, the president of the garden's board.

A federal government employee by day, Seltzer has farmed at Twin Oaks for five years. He says that green space — and community gardens — play an important role in growing cities. (In 2011, a popular garden behind the Masonic Temple on 16th Street NW was also replaced by a parking lot.)

"Green space is important for the quality of life for residents," he says.

D.C. officials say that the parking lot that would replace the garden would serve teachers at Powell, a popular neighborhood school where enrollment is set to grow from 336 to 480 students after the two-year modernization — which will include two new buildings — is completed. Faculty and administrators currently have only one small parking lot behind the school's main building that fits two-dozen cars.

"We have a lot of amazing staff who commute to work from Maryland and Virginia and, because it's about a 10-minute walk from the Petworth Metro, many who live in the city who also drive," says Krystal Beaulieu English, a teacher at Powell. "Teachers notoriously carry too much stuff around, so it's hard to rely on public transit, and hard to walk with heavy loads."

A spokesman with DGS says that under the current proposal, the northern portion of the garden would be moved to a site next to the Upshur Recreation Center, a block north of the current garden.

But Seltzer warns that the soil near the recreation center may be contaminated, and instead wants the city to find parking and commuting alternatives for teachers at Powell.

"We think there are a lot of alternative locations where parking can go or even creative alternatives to not needing as much parking. If you think of transit subsidies or bus subsidies, those kinds of things can encourage faculty to carpool," he says. In comments responding to DGS's proposal, Seltzer identified other nearby parking options.

He also says that D.C. could create on-street parking zones for the teachers, as it did around Bancroft Elementary School in nearby Mt. Pleasant.

The gardeners have received support from D.C. Council members Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David Grosso (I-At Large), along with the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, all of which criticized the lack of advance notice from DGS.

A DGS spokesman says that the agency is considering all the options it has been presented, and if it sticks with its original plan to pave over the garden, will wait until the end of the growing season in October to do so.

Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for D.C. Public Schools, says that the school system will work with the gardeners and Powell faculty to find a solution.

“We are very excited about the much-needed modernization of Powell Elementary School. There are still concerns that need to be resolved in terms of the parking spaces that will be available and we look forward to working with our government partners and the community to resolve them," she says.

Powell School Twin Oaks Garden Community Meeting Presentation 6-25-2014

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