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Watergate fights Park Service on new trees

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.