District pledges to address ADA issues at two playgrounds

City officials pledged to replace the wood-chip play surface at Lafayette Park this spring after more than a year of complaints that it didn't meet ADA requirements. (Brian Kapur/The Current/April 2017)

The D.C. government is preparing to replace the playground surfaces in Lafayette and Kalorama playgrounds following months of complaints that the wood chip play areas don’t meet Americans With Disabilities Act standards for wheelchair accessibility.

In Chevy Chase, the D.C. Department of General Services will soon replace Lafayette Park’s “engineered wood fiber” surface with artificial turf, agency spokesperson Jackie Stanley told The Current. Work at Kalorama Park, 1875 Columbia Road NW, will begin after further community engagement, Stanley said.

Chevy Chase resident Jamie Davis Smith, whose daughter uses a wheelchair, has been raising concerns about the Lafayette play surface since the playground’s $1.5 million renovation in early 2015. Her complaint about the park at 5900 33rd St. NW was bolstered by a January 2016 opinion by the D.C. Office of Disability Rights and a July 2016 legal challenge by the independent Disability Rights DC agency — both of which said the wood chips failed to meet current ADA standards for playgrounds because wheelchairs can get bogged down in the loose pellets or even tip over on the uneven surface.

But the Lafayette Park play surface hasn’t yet changed, and Kalorama’s $800,000 playground renovation debuted last spring with the same issue.

“Inexplicably, not only have they not remedied the problem at Lafayette playground, but they continued to build new playgrounds with the same issue,” Davis Smith said in an interview, “which to me demonstrates not only disregard for federal law but also a lack of respect and disregard for the dignity of individuals with disabilities.”

D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump told The Current last summer that city agencies would review the ADA concerns but that community stakeholders had “overwhelmingly preferred” wood chips at Kalorama and Lafayette because they stay cool in the heat. In January the city agreed to replace the play surfaces at the two parks, though the promised spring start date for that work hasn’t yet materialized in action.

“We continue to urge DC to adhere strictly to its timeline for removing the inaccessible surfaces at both playgrounds,” Kristina Majewski, an attorney for Disability Rights DC, wrote in an email to The Current last month. “Without accessible routes and surfaces, DC continues to deny children with disabilities equal access to the playgrounds.” Disability Rights DC is a federally funded organization that ensures disability access as part of the University Legal Services nonprofit.

Responding to some residents’ preference for the more natural wood-chip material, Majewski said last summer that the ADA regulations on playground surfaces are “an obligation where there’s no wiggle room.”

Stanley said the Lafayette artificial turf is still on track to be replaced at some point this spring. Asked why the work hasn’t taken place already, she replied that “the replacement of the surface is weather-sensitive.”

Meanwhile, in Kalorama, the Department of General Services and the Department of Parks and Recreation haven’t yet chosen a path forward.

“The Kalorama community has asked for additional consideration for the type of surface to be installed at the Kalorama playground,” Stanley wrote. “Our partners at DPR will work the community to ensure that all of their comments are received before a final decision is made. DGS, as the implementing agency, will install the surface after DPR’s community engagement is completed.”

Hector Huezo of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C (Adams Morgan) said neither he nor Ted Guthrie, the two ANC 1C members representing areas around Kalorama Park, was aware of the discussions.

“I want to hear more about it from DGS,” Huezo wrote in an email. “However, I can say that I am disappointed that they have not reached out to either Commissioner Guthrie or me about it.”

In Chevy Chase, Davis Smith was also outraged when two of Lafayette Elementary School’s renovated playgrounds opened early this year with the same non-compliant wood chips.

Stanley said that the wood chips there were always intended as an interim solution until the weather was warm enough, and the planned poured-in-place rubber surface was installed at both school playgrounds during spring break.