Photo by dbking on Flickr.

Inflexible National Park Service rules and rude employees have created huge headaches for neighbors in Dupont Circle trying to bring community energy to their neighborhood park.

Over 2,000 people, many decked out in flags or other creative costumes, packed Dupont Circle last summer to watch the United States play England in the first round of the World Cup. That was just one of many recent events organized by a new community group, Dupont Festival.

Organizers, however, had to contend with a hostile reception from Park Service permit officials, sudden last-minute changes, expensive yet unhelpful Park Police, and complex paperwork requirements which threatened to derail this and other events even up to the very end.

Many people sit in the park and enjoy the fountain during nice weather, but it hosts few structured events. Dupont Festival organizers want to activate the circle to become more of a community gathering place and focal point for events drawing neighbors and people from around the region.

Besides the World Cup viewing, they arranged for the park to host Police Night Out in August, a FotoWeekDC photography exhibition in November, Youth Pride Day in April, and a screening of E.T. in June.

These are just the kind of events that any city would love to have in one of their parks. But organizers report encountering little more than hostility and obstruction from the National Park Service.

Aaron DeNu is a manager of technology and outreach at The George Washington University, and has lived in DC since 2007. He was a principal organizer of the soccer day and the E.T. screening. He characterizes his experience with the Park Service as a string of “unprovoked and highly irritating tactics toward citizen groups.”

For the soccer event, DeNu says he sat down with NPS officials after he and the other organizers spent considerable time crafting a detailed plan for the event. In a meeting with people from the local ANC, the Mayor’s office, and Jack Evans’ office, he was hoping for honest feedback and a genuine interest in collaboration to figure out how to make the event work.

Instead, he says, an official from the NPS permit office just flipped the paper DeNu had prepared upside down on the table and flatly rejected the idea, giving a long litany of reasons it wouldn’t work. DeNu repeatedly asked how he could make this work, to an icy response; DeNu says “you could cut the tension in the air” at that initial permitting meeting.

They eventually did get permission to put on the event, at a cost of about $30,000, which they raised online and through local businesses. The $2,000 permit cost included hiring several Park Police officers for $66 per hour each, for a minimum of 6 hours.

Despite this, at the soccer event, DeNu says the Park Police just sat in their cruisers even when he approached them for assistance with crowd control around the edge of the circle. Instead, he turned to local MPD Lt. Scott Dignan, who brought a small team of police officers on his own initiative and helped keep the event running smoothly entirely pro bono.

DeNu ended up getting fined $3,189.85 after that event, for what NPS officials tell him was damage to the flowerbeds. But they refused to let him find some community organizations willing to fix any flowerbed issues instead.

At a wrap-up meeting following the soccer event, Dupont Festival President Mike Feldstein says, the permit official “gave a long rant about all of the awful things that they thought happened that day.” But MPD Sergeant John McDonald quietly pointed out to the Park Service that such events are “about the best things to happen in Dupont Circle, since they directly contribute to reducing crime in the area,” Feldstein said.

The Park Police were much more helpful a year later for E.T. DeNu says the officer there was very encouraging and supportive when he was wrangling with another hostile NPS employee, a park ranger who arrived just a few hours before the event. As DeNu tells it, the ranger immediately started criticizing him for arriving in the park before the hour specified on his permit, not having pieces of plywood to place beneath two tripods. She also threatened to completely “pull the plug” on the event.

According to DeNu, none of this had been discussed during meetings with the permit office, but was in the permit. Why hadn’t he read the permit in detail? Because, DeNu says, their contact in the permit office refused to send it over email or provide it in person but instead would only fax it the day of the event, while DeNu was busy setting up.

The day before, DeNu received an email at 5:06 pm notifying him he had to procure insurance for the event. The email says that this was part of a letter sent to Feldstein a week earlier. Feldstein says in a reply that he never received that letter. Nor, DeNu notes, did anyone tell them of this requirement during face-to-face meetings.

DeNu frantically called around the next morning and managed to find an insurer in Indianapolis who could cover the event on short notice. DeNu says he then showed up in person to deliver proof of insurance, only to hear of additional paperwork issues that had to be resolved involving W-9 forms.

He forwarded their permit official the proper form, which he claims he had already sent, and asked the official to check his email right away to ensure it had arrived; instead, he says, the official “stared me down” and made things “very uncomfortable there at the permit office.”

An email thread from the day in question goes into a lot of minute detail about various forms, but it’s clear from reading the exchange that the permit official is not taking advantage of opportunities to work constructively with DeNu and Feldstein to help make the event happen.

Whether there were indeed errors in the forms, or whether a letter was sent or not, is not the point. Reading the exchange, it appears that that DeNu was trying to do everything to make the event work, even sending copies of forms both on paper and electronically, while the NPS permit office set up a gauntlet of bureaucratic obstacles with the threat of rejecting the permit entirely at the last moment as penalty for a mistake.

Feldstein said in one of the emails, “While last-minute notifications by the National Park Service is our usual experience, it is still upsetting, time consuming and most certainly not operating in a friendly, supportive manner.”

Repeatedly, DeNu says, the NPS explained these bureaucratic procedures on the grounds that they apply the same procedures to parks across the country, from the Grand Canyon to Dupont. But local neighborhood parks are not the same as Yellowstone. That is a unique wilderness area that needs strong protection. Anyone organizing an event there surely has the ability and resources to plan far ahead and comply with complex procedures.

Car manufacturers and movie studios would love to bring heavy equipment into some large wilderness parks to shoot commercials or films, and that could certainly damage the fragile environment. Giant rallies have a right to operate on the Mall, but without provision for cleaning up trash and handling bathroom facilities, it could turn into a nightmare.

For small neighborhood parks, however, it’s just not necessary to impose the same complex rules and procedures. A few small tripods for E.T. will not cause the same damage as a crane-mounted camera might. It serves a park’s purpose to help energetic residents or small neighborhood organizations to hold events even if they don’t have years of experience and teams of lawyers to ensure they get every form right the first time.

This is one of the many reasons the Park Service needs to develop separate procedures for events in urban parks. Or, better yet, they could encourage local Parks Conservancy organizations, as New York has, that handle much of the day-to-day administration and maintenance in the parks.

A local Dupont organization could manage such events, perhaps getting the insurance themselves and helping neighbors through the process, including teaching them to anticipate issues NPS officials don’t bring up during the in-person meetings. It could also either make sure tripods don’t damage the ground, or get local groups to fix any damage that might result, without having to go through the Park Service’s complex national procedures and rules.

Dupont Festival hopes to make future events easier and build the expertise and resources needed to deal with NPS’s requirements each time. That could assist more residents who want to make Dupont able to fulfill its potential for the neighborhood. But they could do so much more if NPS could only look beyond its strange insistence on identical rules for Dupont as for Yosemite, and its hostility toward working with community groups.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.