Booking athletic fields in DC can be very difficult. But the problem isn't that there aren't enough fields in the District. It's that the fields the District has aren't put to use efficiently.
Anybody who is involved in organized sports in DC knows that field time is in short supply, and the way that time gets allocated can get contentious. Last month, a short-term plan for RFK Stadium and the land around it emerged, and it featured a proposal for three new athletic fields. The extra field space would certainly be welcome.
But DC already has a lot of playing fields – hundreds of them. Here's a breakdown:
- There are 127 schools in the DC Public Schools system, and 92 of them have fields, including 35 with artificial turf. There are 118 public charter schools, the Archdiocese of Washington has 20 schools in DC, and there are 25 independent private schools.
- DC is also home to 20 colleges and universities, of which eight are members of the NCAA.
- The National Park Service administers 18 fields around the Mall and West Potomac Park.
- DC Department of Parks and Recreation is the biggest provider of field time to the public. The agency lists 110 fields in their inventory.
In all, there are over 300 athletic fields in DC. So why is there there such a crunch? No one questions that the demand is high, but the reality is that most fields in DC sit vacant most of the time. There are lots of reasons for this.
School principals have little incentive to let others use their fields
For public schools – DCPS and DC Public Charter Schools – the mission is educating children, not providing public recreational facilities. While DCPS and city-owned charter facilities are, in theory, available for public use, there are bureaucratic obstacles to use by the general public.
At each school the principal makes the decision to allow access, but a different agency, the Department of General Services, is responsible for managing the rental. Any fees go to DGS, so principals see no benefit from their school being rented.
A couple weeks ago, DC Councilmembers Bonds, Allen, Grosso and Robert White introduced a bill that would establish a task force to create recommendations for expanding community use of public school facilities. The bill calls for a report from the task force that "shall focus on policies and practices for increasing community use of school facilities for both organized and casual recreation, with an emphasis on promoting healthy activity."
Other jurisdictions – notably Montgomery County – have successfully unified permitting of parks and school facilities for recreational use. If the task force is successful this move could greatly improve public availability of playing fields, as well as gyms.
Zoning puts strict limits on private field use
For the most part, private institutions need either to receive a zoning variance or have an approved campus plan in order to build an athletic field. For at least ten years, DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment has routinely insisted that any approval for an athletic facility at a school contain a provision that it only be used by students at the school.
In just the past few years St. Albans, Field School, St. Patrick’s, Washington International School and Sidwell Friends have built fields that they are not permitted to allow the public to use.
This policy is not limited to just fields, it applies to facilities of all types, such as theaters and gymnasiums. And it’s just bad urban planning. The end result is over-building of special-use facilities because they can’t be shared. A more rational policy would be exactly the opposite: if you’re seeking permission to build a specialized facility, you should be required to open it to broader public use.
Because campus plans and zoning variances can take years to negotiate, it’s unlikely that any of the existing restricted fields will be opened to public use any time soon. All we can hope for is that in the future the BZA takes a more enlightened view.
Fields owned by Parks and Rec have their own set of issues
The situation at DPR is different. Those fields tend to be heavily booked, with at least half of them reserved more than 25 hours a week and about one in ten with permits that grant use for 50 or more hours per week. In general DPR’s policy is not to leave fields empty if someone wants to reserve them.
But challenges remain. DPR’s default is to use “historical” use as the basis for assigning field time: whoever had it last season gets it this season. New applicants complain that the incumbents face no pressure to use field time efficiently and that the historical use policy encourages hoarding, and incumbents complain that they can be displaced by city-run programs – DPR’s own offerings or those of DCPS and public charter schools – who face even less pressure to use field time efficiently, and there is no process for making adjustments when that happens.
DPR also has a problem with its fields not always being the type that people want. New regulations give preference to the “designated use” of fields, but DPR has only two designations of its fields: baseball, and “multipurpose." Of DPR’s 110 fields, 63 are designated for baseball, a number that far exceeds the relative popularity of baseball to other field sports. In other words, there are too many diamonds and not enough rectangles.
Last year DPR created new regulations that improved some aspects of how they allocate permits. And while the agency has been criticized in the past about the lack of transparency in field assignments, it released a complete list of all users and their assignments for the first time in 2016. DPR also began collecting roster information from permit applicants so it could verify numbers of participants— but the agency pulled away from using numbers as the basis for issuing permits.
In 2016 DPR began charging hourly fees, and part of the motivation was to encourage more efficient use of field time. Even though the fees for youth non-profits are very low — $5/hour for natural grass, and $7/hour for artificial turf, or about one twentieth of the open market rate – there were some youth organizations that cut back their time requests in the face of the fees, which supports the conclusion that field time had not been used efficiently in the past. DPR struggles with balancing the fees so they are high enough to encourage efficient field use while not so high as to impose an unreasonable burden on the non-profits which are providing services for children.
If three more fields go in at RFK, they'll be a welcome addition to the recreational landscape. But solving the city-wide fields crunch isn't exactly about building more fields.