The re-opened playground outside of Deanwood Recreation Center. Image by the author.

“Daddy, look! I’m swinging backwards!” On the warm spring day earlier this April, kids of varied ages were doing what they do best: Laughing and playing on the swings and slides at the Deanwood Recreation Center’s outdoor playground. Families lined up at an ice cream truck parked nearby.

This ordinary neighborhood scene? It was nearly two years in the making. The playground had been closed since at least August 2017.

“We did not get notice. One day it was unlocked and then the next day it was locked up,” confirms Nia Bess, President of the Deanwood Citizens Association (DCA). “This is one of the very few available public parks for kids in this community. The importance and urgency of safe play is critical for the development of a child’s brain. It’s also critical for the community in general.”

The DCA, along with their Neighborhood Advisory Commission (ANC) and other concerned residents, eventually learned that playground was closed due to equipment damage. The Department of General Services (DGS), which manages approximately 840 buildings within the District’s owned and leased properties, also had safety concerns. (The playground is operated by the Department of Parks and Recreation, but DGS is responsible for building and maintenance issues.)

“This site required multiple layers of repair in order to maintain safe play for users including the installation of a new playground surface, replacement of cracked slides and broken swing chains, and repair of areas of cracking concrete walls and sharp edges on play apparatus,” says DGS Director Keith Anderson over email. “DGS and the Department of Parks and Recreation determined the safest action forward was to close the playground so that these repairs could be made.”

Anderson adds that DGS had to secure funding for the repairs, in addition to pursuing community engagement as part of the repair process.

A shuttered playground and a pool closed on hot days

Opened in June 2010, the $32 million Deanwood Recreation Center is located across the street from the Deanwood metro station. It features a library, indoor pool with a water slide and locker rooms, multi-purpose meeting space, game room, senior’s room, gymnasium and fitness center, as well as the outdoor playground and a multi-purpose field, often used for football and soccer.

However, with a lack of systematic maintenance and money for repairs, it’s rare to have all of the amenities open and working at the same time. On hot days, the indoor pool tends to be closed, and the current air-conditioning (HVAC) system doesn’t provide adequate airflow.

Andrew Walker, a Deanwood resident who biked to the rec center with his two kids in tow, encountered a closed pool recently. “Today, my two kids were very excited about coming to the pool,” says Walker. “But we had to suffer. Having to explain to kids why adults haven’t done their jobs is a very challenging position to be in.”

Walker's bicycle, packed for a family pool day that didn't happen. Image by the author.

The DCA and ANC 7C are in touch with DGS to update the pool’s heating, ventilation, and HVAC system, and DGS recently issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the HVAC project. There are also earmarked funds to fix the large water slide, which has been closed for at least three years. The Deanwood Library is also waiting for its separate HVAC system to get fixed.

Other repairs include upgrading the rec’s furniture and fixtures, including functioning tables and chairs. The turf field, as with 15 other fields across the city, is also undergoing testing to ensure that its “shock attenuation” is compliant. Per DGS, the field will remain open for leisure and non-contact sports.

Sign announcing that the library will be closing earlier in the afternoon due to excessive heat. Image by the author.

Commissioner Antawan Holmes, Chair of ANC 7C, says it’s important for DGS and other agencies to be up-to-date with maintenance agreements and warranties on equipment, and to figure out how to actively recoup costs by users. Otherwise, community groups have to spend their limited time and resources advocating for repairs and maintenance from the DC Council’s capital improvement budget.

“We want to make sure that the funds we are advocating for is supplementing the rec [and] going into programming, rather than supplanting funds that should have already been available as part of regular maintenance of the facility,” says Bess.

Repairs are finally on the way

After years of advocacy, DGS and the DC Council are taking notice of the problem.

“We are not yet satisfied with the Department’s performance in responding to community needs, and we continue to engage with the Department on a daily basis to make improvements,” says Councilmember Robert White Jr. in an email. White chairs the newly-formed Committee on Facilities and Procurement which oversees DGS.

“In the six months that the Committee has been operational, we have been continuously engaged with DGS to address issues in all areas of the Department’s portfolio,” White says. “Through our continuous oversight, we have pushed the Department to improve efficiency, transparency, and communication in reducing the existing maintenance backlog.”

The Committee has also approved additional funding to assess facility conditions, and has held public oversight hearings on DGS matters, including its performance and leasing decisions. (These hearings are standard; other departments are subject to them as well.)

The indoor pool is often closed when outdoor temperatures reach over 90 degrees. Image by the author.

Anderson, who was appointed director of DGS in November 2018, acknowledges the lack of timeliness: “While the HVAC and playground projets at Deanwood Recreation Center were faced with multiple delays, we are proud to have delivered a first-class play space for families and we are on track to resolve long-troubled ventilation issues at the aquatic center.”

He also says there were unique maintenance challenges that may have contributed to the long wait, including “environmental changes, discontinued replacement parts, excessive wear-and-tear, and budgetary constraints.”

For now, Deanwood residents continue to advocate for repairs and maintenance funds so local families can simply check out a book or swim in the pool on a warm summer day without needing to call first to see if it’s open. Unfortunately, the effort this takes means there’s less time to organize community events or to envision new neighborhood amenities.

Correction: This first article first attributed Robert White’s comments to his chief of staff.

This article is part of the GGWash Urbanist Journalism Fellowship, made possible in part by the Island Press Urban Resilience Project and the Meyer Foundation.

ThienVinh Nguyen is an Urbanist Journalism Fellow with Greater Greater Washington. Vietnamese-born, California-grown, ThienVinh resides in the verdant neighborhood of Deanwood. She focuses on stories about civic engagement, urban development and planning issues that are simultaneously critical and hopeful. ThienVinh holds degrees from UCLA, Columbia University, and the University of London (UCL).