Six years ago, the Virginia Avenue Community Garden, just a mile or so away from the US Capitol, was a deserted lot, with a broken playground, a ramshackle building, thriving drug activity, and not much else. But it was decent land, with full sun and lot of potential. So a few hardy gardeners on Capitol Hill took on the task of creating a community garden, working with the parks department, getting initial grants, trucking in compost and soil and slowly turning the park into an urban oasis that now is home to 60 gardening families, a fruit orchard, a fig tree and blackberry brambles -- all of it organic.
I'm one of those gardeners who joined in year two. The soil was hard, and about six inches down was hardpan clay that you couldn't break with a pick axe, let alone a shovel. So for years, I've added compost, even hauling composted manure from an organic farm in Maryland. It's been successful, I've learned a lot and I've also grown a lot of food -- in fact, around half of our produce from around May through October comes from this garden.
Now all that work is under threat. Under master plans being pursued by the U.S. Marines, the park and garden are being viewed as a perfect location for new barracks. The Marines currently have barracks and parade grounds nearby, a historic location that dates back to 1801. But the main living facilities are inadequate because of their tight quarters and close proximity to the highway. So they need to move. They are considering various options outlined in the schematic below. The two options that would directly impact the park are represented by the two green ovals in the upper right, near the highway. If they pursue either one, the park and garden will be relocated.
The Marines have been a great neighbor. They open up the parade grounds to the public on summer nights to hear military marching bands, the young men and women jog (okay, run) around the neighborhood (at times, in formation, with flags), they helped tend the park at one time, and to their credit the brass has at least been listening to the community about their plans. According to the Hill is Home blog:
There are unmet facility needs and security requirements at Marine Barracks Washington (Building 20), and there is potential to meet common community and military needs through this process. Recognizing that the Marine Barracks and the community are linked in past and present, the goal is to use a coordinated planning process to create a win-win in meeting the development needs of the local community and Marine Corps.
The option that's causing the most consternation is so called "Square 929, 930 and Adjacent Area" -- a development that would involve building on the current park and relocating the garden nearly under the highway (to a site pictured below). Many commenters on the Master Plan web site have opposed this option.
This could be further complicated by plans by CSX to dig right under this land, to expand an underground railway track to accommodate larger freight cars. (Yes, the key North-South rail artery runs right through D.C.). Although this rail expansion has been stalled for the moment by a lack of funding, neither moving the garden to this spot nor the future digging by the railroad bodes well for community organic gardening.
A second option for the Marines would be to take over a nearby closed gasoline station that is across the street from the park and expand there. But this too would mean moving the garden -- to where, it's not clear by the drawings. Again, comments are generally in opposition to this plan, too.
So far, the proposals which seem to garner the most support are ones that leave the park alone. Currently, there's a list 50-people deep to get into the garden and there is a dearth of open space on Capitol Hill. To lose more to development would diminish the community, one that has had a great relationship with the Marines so far. And it seems especially ironic at a time when First Lady Michelle Obama is promoting just the kind of child-friendly garden we currently have -- not four miles from the White House kitchen garden. Hopefully, the Virginia Avenue Park and garden will be part of the "win-win" the Marines are seeking.
- Samuel Fromartz