Georgetown Current

Watergate fights Park Service on new trees

January 18, 2011

The National Park Service faced off this month against angry residents of the Watergate complex who fear some newly planted sycamore trees in Rock Creek Park will block their views and lower their property values.

Caught in the middle of a surprisingly contentious dispute, the National Capital Planning Commission blinked. At its Jan. 6 meeting, the commission voted 8-2 to put off for one month a final vote on new plantings, pathways and other improvements to the narrow strip of parkland that borders the Potomac River near the Watergate. Commissioners have asked the Park Service to see if it can find shorter trees.

“It’s a shame we’re at this point, since the waterfront project has generated so much goodwill,” said Rob Miller, who represents Mayor Vincent Gray on the commission. “Is there any interest in exploring alternatives?”

“I’m sympathetic to the Watergate, but aware of the precedent,” said Harriet Tregoning, the D.C. planning director who also sits on the federal commission. “We have hundreds of trees planted by the river.If every time someone’s view is obstructed, we cut trees down, it would be devastating to the city.”

But even Tregoning wondered if shorter trees would do. “Can they be trimmed?” she asked Park Service officials.

At issue is the last phase of a waterfront improvement project that has transformed the paved-over banks of the Potomac in Georgetown into a park, and installed a bike path and separate pedestrian “promenade” from Thompson Boat Center to the Kennedy Center.

Together, the park and new paths fill the last gap in a roughly 200-mile stretch of trail from Cumberland, Md., to Mount Vernon. This last phase improves public access to a busy stretch of shoreline. It has been widely praised, except for the row of sycamores that the Park Service planted in 2009 to restore trees that lined the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway in the early 20th century. Some died off over time, but the Park Service for many decades didn’t have the money to replace them.

The parkway is a national landmark, its landmark nomination specifically citing “the widely spaced allée of sycamore trees [that] function as a graceful transition between the monumentally designed national Mall and the natural landscape of the Rock Creek Valley.”

Thus the young sycamores that line the west side of the parkway are “historically accurate.” But since mature sycamores can reach up 60 to 70 feet, they could also grow to block the treasured river views from the pricey cooperatives, offices and hotel rooms of the Watergate, built in the 1950s and also a national landmark.

The planning commission, without debate, signed off on the general concept for the park project in 2006. But the Park Service has since tweaked the plan, and residents of the Watergate were so upset about the sycamore trees they insisted the planning commission review it again even though construction is essentially complete.

The residents are asking the Park Service to remove nine or 10 sycamores, replant them where they would be more welcome, and replace them with shorter-growing trees or shrubs. Residents and owners of the co-op complex have even offered to bear the cost.

Debate over the sycamores pits concerns about historic preservation and the environmental benefits of trees -- shade, cooling, and better air and water quality -- against fears of Watergate residents and owners that blocked views will dramatically lower their property values.

That debate came to a head at the planning commission’s hearing.

“Nobody is against trees, but these are so large, a green wall that would totally wipe out the river vista,” testified Nancy Hicks of Watergate East. Hicks said she had recently refinanced her co-op, and that the appraiser specifically noted her river view in setting the value. “All of Foggy Bottom will be impacted in a negative way, with declining property values if river views are destroyed,” she said.

Liz Sara, representing Watergate South, predicted declining sale prices at the complex would “drag down” other real estate prices in Foggy Bottom. Sara called the Park Service’s decision to restore an 80-year-old landscape plan along the parkway “unreasonable and rigid.”

“A 1930s plan could not possibly take into account the evolution of this particular neighborhood,” she said.

Real estate agent Katrina Piano injected a touch of irony, pointing out that waterfront views at the Watergate had become even more desirable with “Roosevelt Island and the shoreline of Georgetown, which has become so beautiful with improvements the Park Service has done.”

The Foggy Bottom advisory neighborhood commission, Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans and D.C. Del. Eleanor Homes Norton submitted statements urging replacement of the sycamores with shorter trees or shrubs.

The Park Service’s position was unyielding.

Steve Lorenzetti, deputy director for the National Mall and the monuments, said replacement of trees -- even those that died decades ago -- is Park Service policy and does not require public hearings or approval.

“These trees pre-dated and post-date the Watergate,” Lorenzetti said. “In the late ’70s, we were not as efficient in replacing trees, and now we’re finally able to replace them.” He said the agency was unaware of any opposition before the sycamores went in.

Lorenzetti also explained why other species would not do. The sycamore, he said, “is a fine tree for us, because they climb up high, so the view [for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists on the parkway] is maintained. … A lower tree will not give you that boulevard, that majestic sense.”

Peter May, an associate regional director with the National Park Service who also sits on the planning commission, said some community residents “strongly support” the new sycamore trees.

“We’re sensitive to this, but there’s a broader benefit that goes beyond people immediately impacted,” he said.

The planning commissioners were clearly torn. They asked if other trees, or perhaps another species of sycamore, could accomplish the Park Service’s goal. “You’d get a funny allée, not a uniform allée,” Lorenzetti replied.

“Would the offer from property owners to pay for removal be accepted?” asked Bradley Provancha, representing the U.S. Department of Defense.

“We’ve never gotten to the funding aspect, because we’re dealing with the historic aspect,” Lorenzetti said.

Miller moved to table a vote for one month and asked the Park Service to research other types of trees.

Tregoning seconded the motion. “I’m not convinced we couldn’t meet the historic plan, yet mitigate some of the concerns of the Watergate residents,” she said.

May and Mina Wright, representing the U.S. General Services Administration, were the only dissenters.

Asked if the delay will cause the Park Service any problems, May acknowledged approval is “not time- sensitive” because construction is already complete.



Current Staff Writer

This article appears in the Jan. 19 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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2nd District sees command change

January 12, 2011

Cmdr. Matthew Klein of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 2nd District announced this weekend that he is stepping down from the post he has held for a little over two years. In an open letter to the community, he said the transfer would allow him to spend “much needed time” with his family.

Klein will be replaced by Inspector Michael Reese, formerly of the Capitol Hill substation in the 1st District.

Fraternal Order of Police head Kris Baumann openly doubted Klein’s time-with-family claim -- a workhorse for outgoing officials of all professions.

In a Washington City Paper report, Baumann alleged that the move is a result of Klein’s role in exposing the open-book cheating scandal that had Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes investigated and then exonerated. Baumann cited “widespread information” within the department that Klein was involved as a whistleblower, but neither Klein nor department officials have discussed the lead-up to Groomes’ suspension.

Those reports are “very troubling” if true, Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh said in an interview. She added that she is “sorry to see [Klein] go” and described him as a commander who was responsive to the community.

In an interview, Klein said that he was not forced to step down. “I’ll just say I asked Chief Lanier for a move,” he said. Klein will retain the rank of commander in his new post as court liaison, within the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

Klein, who oversaw a 10 percent drop in crime in the past year in his district, said that he will miss the men and women who “work tirelessly” to protect the community. He also noted another focus during his tenure: “We have worked to improve our responsiveness to the community,” he said.

“We’re sorry to see him go,” said Ed Solomon, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Georgetown and Burleith. “We had a superb working relationship with Cmdr. Klein -- he was attentive to community needs, he responded to requests and directed resources where they were needed.” But, he added, “we understand there will always be changes within the command structure.”

In recent months, problem areas in Klein’s district included spikes in burglaries in Ward 3 and thefts from autos across the 2nd District. The former led Police Chief Cathy Lanier to issue a letter to the community saying that she had ordered Klein to redeploy units to the area and update her daily on progress.

Alma Gates, a community coordinator for Police Service Area 205 in the Palisades, said Klein’s “greatest strength was his ability to listen and assess and respond.” He followed the community listserv and addressed issues before they had a chance to escalate, Gates added.

Both Gates and Solomon said they are optimistic about the chances for continuing the outgoing commander’s community-oriented policing. The newly promoted Reese had reached out to each of them in recent days to introduce himself, they said.

“Ongoing and consistent communication with the community” is key to good police work, Reese said in an interview yesterday.

“That’s what they’ll get with me,” added Reese, a Bloomingdale resident who spent years in investigative units before returning to patrol divisions, including school security, under Chief Lanier.

“He wants to get off to a fast start to learning about neighborhood issues,” Solomon said. “So reaching out to community leaders was a positive step.”

That said, each change in leadership is a challenge for the community, said Gates, who also welcomed Reese’s overtures. “There’s an adjustment period felt … through the entire staff. Everyone is on new ground.”

Council member Cheh agreed. “Of course we welcome Cmdr. Reese,” she said. “But there is a benefit to the continuity of command.”


Current Staff Writer



This article appears in the Jan. 12 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.



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Georgetown Park angels seek to enliven mall

January 11, 2011

Current Staff Writer

If Hallmark made retail-themed holiday specials, the plot might look something like this: An oft-derided shopping mall, doing poorly despite its fabulous location, doesn’t have much in the way of holiday spirit -- no Santa to bring in the kids, and little besides poinsettias for decoration. The darkness of shuttered shops cancels the twinkle of the surviving merchants, and locals shun the once-popular spot.

Enter a trio of female entrepreneurs -- let’s call them angels -- eager to spread a little holiday magic and boost everyone’s bottom line in the process.

But this is no soft-focus television movie; it’s a story unfolding right now at the Shops at Georgetown Park. Business owners (and friends) Kassie Rempel of Simply Soles, Heidi Kallett of The Dandelion Patch and Stephanie Fornash Kennedy of Fornash have joined forces to breathe new life into the 1980s structure.

And the trio has chosen not harp-plucking heavenly hosts as their inspiration, but cultural icons from the era when the mall was new: Charlie’s Angels, meet Georgetown’s Angels.

The year has been a busy one for the Shops at Georgetown Park, which went to auction this summer. One advantage of the sale to a New York-based firm (which brought in Virginia-based Vornado to manage the mall) was the curtain call on a years-long legal battle between mall developer Herb Miller and Georgetown-based competitor Anthony Lanier.

That wrangling had left merchants uncertain and redevelopment plans on the sidelines. But as new owners Angelo, Gordon & Co. get their bearings, the status quo has largely held for shop owners, say the entrepreneurs.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Kennedy, who runs a wholesale business as well as a women’s clothing-and-accessories retail operation out of her Georgetown Park storefront. A Georgetown resident who has been in the mall since 2002, Kennedy has seen it decline as her own business has grown -- most visibly last year when Oprah Winfrey selected a Fornash scarf as one of her “favorite things.”

“I personally got to experience the Oprah effect,” Kennedy said with a laugh.

Kennedy may be accustomed to the mall’s lacking foot traffic, but Rempel and Kallett are experiencing their first holiday season at Georgetown Park -- and it’s an eye-opener, said Kallett.

“I’m right where I projected I would be,” she said. Unfortunately, that means her Georgetown store has performed only 20 percent as well as her other locations did in their first quarters.

But Kallett, who got a recent nod in the Washington Business Journal as a “Woman Who Means Business,” said she’s still glad she made the decision to locate one of her four area gift-and-bridal shops in the mall. When she goes to D.C. bridal shows in the new year, it’ll be a huge advantage to have a local address to offer brides, said Kallett, who estimates that her other locations have captured 10 percent of the Northern Virginia market for wedding invitations.

It was over a celebratory meal for Kallett’s new storefront that the “angels” were born. Venting about the mall’s issues wasn’t enough for the entrepreneurs. “We can’t just sit here and complain,” Kallett recalled thinking.

Each is kept busy by her own business, but the trio has managed already to alert their merchant neighbors, mall management and the Georgetown Business Improvement District to their new initiative -- which comes complete with a Charlie’s Angels-inspired poster and logo.

And they’ve taken one step toward their ultimate goal: bringing the Georgetown-resident shopper back to the mall. A mailer went out in November to neighbors of the mall, and there’s been some traffic thanks to that, say the business owners.

But look out for more angel activity in the new year, said Simply Soles’ Rempel, who offers her shoe designs -- including one featured in InStyle magazine this month -- out of two storefronts and has a significant online presence as well. “We’ll work with the owners to have a spring event to draw traffic,” she said. So far, she said, mall management has been supportive -- but has not offered financial assistance to the angels’ marketing effort.

Rempel said she hopes the year will also bring information from the mall’s new ownership about what redevelopment scheme it will pursue. But a year is a long time in retail, she noted. “That’s why we want to find ways to improve the mall now.”

But just as the original angels were always left guessing by the cryptic Charlie, this trio has to wonder what the future holds for the mall and their storefronts. “I really hope [the owners] come back with a plan that’s strategic and thoughtful,” said Kallett. “I just hope it’s not three years from now.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15 print edition of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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