From Blight to Blossoms

Vacant lot reborn as public green space

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Tuesday, Sep 14, 2010  |  Updated 12:16 PM EDT
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From Blight to Blossoms

P.J. Orvetti

North Columbia Heights Green

A vacant lot near Park Road in northwest D.C. has become a public green space, due to the efforts of neighborhood residents and the nonprofit group Washington Parks & People.

Steve Coleman, who heads the nonprofit, said the idea for North Columbia Heights Green “came from community residents, tired of dumping and crime at the site, who wanted the space turned into something useful.” They asked his group to help “mobilize volunteers to help clean up and transform the site.”

The property “has been a horrible nuisance for 45 years,” said Larry Ray, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner and community activist. Ray says the seven people with property interests in the site were persuaded to donate the land.

The project brought together disparate parts of the area, including schoolchildren who planted a garden, hundreds of volunteers, and “former gang members who helped with initial reclamation,” Coleman said.

Still, there was some initial resistance to the project.

Some residents feared cars that were illegally parked outside the vacant lot would relocate to street parking, which is already limited in the area, though as Coleman explained, most of the cars there were abandoned or unregistered.  Others feared the green space “would be a magnet for dumping and nighttime problems, but the fence and improvements on the site now help ensure that the Green is used only for positive community programs.”

Greater resistance came from city agencies, who “did not know how to treat such a community green site and initially tried to fine the community for outsiders dumping on the site, and to tax the community for the Green despite its value as a public amenity,” Coleman said.

Councilmember Jim Graham, an early advocate for the project, helped the advocates of the Green to get past this reluctance.

The Green was officially opened on Saturday, and will be used for community gardens, a learning and demonstration garden, and discovery gardens for youth groups and schools. Coleman said the Green will also be home to a butterfly garden, a berry patch, and even a small orchard.

“We hope the site can be an inspiring model for dozens of similar long-blighted vacant lots across the city,” Coleman said. “There is tremendous potential to use these kinds of places to give our communities new life, health, jobs, hope, and vitality.”

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