Hearst pool critics ask city for further studies

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Plans for a pool at Hearst Park have sparked debate in the community. (Brian Kapur/The Current/March 2017)

While the city is pushing ahead with plans to restore Hearst Park and build an outdoor pool where tennis courts are now located, community leaders continue to urge the city to take a closer look at the plans.

The project’s first phase — which will restore the park and add various facilities, but which does not include the pool — is nearing the end of its design stage. Speaking at the Sept. 19 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F (Forest Hills, North Cleveland Park, Van Ness), Peter Nohrden of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation said that $5 million would become available to fund the restoration efforts on Oct. 1. He also announced that a hydrology study for Hearst Park would be taking place.

General upgrades target Hearst Park’s outdated drainage system, which contributed to its tendency to flood. “We want to make sure that we don’t lose out and lose sight of a huge portion of the park, which is the overall hydrology improvements,” Nohrden said.

Other updates under consideration include a regraded soccer field; a synthetic walking trail; native plantings; site furnishings like drinking fountains, a bulletin board, benches and a bicycle rack; workout stations; a new rain garden with educational signage and a raised boardwalk; and picnic tables and pavilions.

While Hearst’s restoration project has largely been well-received, plans to build an outdoor pool have been more divisive. While some in the neighborhood are enthusiastic about the idea, others fear that the pool would infringe on the site’s coveted green space and endanger its 14 willow oak trees. Neighbors for Hearst Park, an organization comprising more than 100 families, has repeatedly called for more studies to be done on Hearst, to ensure that a pool wouldn’t harm the environment.

The D.C. Urban Forestry Division recommended that a pool be built on top of Hearst Park’s elevated tennis courts to avoid damaging nearby oaks. But the Neighbors for Hearst Park group wasn’t convinced, and hired another arborist, Keith Pitchford, to study the site. His findings aligned with the group’s suspicions: A pool might damage adjacent trees. 

“This option is severely limited by its small building envelope, and close proximity to at least five of the large willow oaks,” Pitchford wrote in a March 9 letter to group member Harry Martin. “I do not see this location as tenable for both construction and tree preservation. There are simply too many things that could go wrong.”

Meanwhile, on Sept. 18, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3C (Cleveland Park, Massachusetts Avenue Heights, Woodley Park) adopted a resolution urging officials to assess the environmental impacts of an outdoor pool at Hearst Park carefully before moving ahead with the pool portion of the project. ANC 3C did endorse the other renovations at Hearst.

“There is a lack of factual information about what the size of the [pool] project would be and what the potential impacts might be,” ANC 3C chair Nancy MacWood said in an interview. Many of the planned upgrades for the park are urgently needed, she added. “I would just hate to see this situation delayed any further.”

Two other potential Ward 3 pool sites were briefly considered: Palisades and Friendship recreation centers. But Neighbors for Hearst Park members said that through a Freedom of Information Act request they’d learned that the city hadn’t actually studied these alternate sites, which members said were clearly not feasible from the outset. Palisades has historic status and Friendship was already in the midst of renovations.

In an interview last week, Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh cited Tenleytown’s Fort Reno Park as a possible alternative pool site if studies indicate that Hearst Park is not viable. Built in 1861 as a Civil War fort, the 5-acre site — bounded by Nebraska Avenue, Fessenden Street, Belt Road and Chesapeake Street NW — is more complicated to build on than Hearst because it is owned by the National Park Service and has historic significance.

While the site has been hotly debated, many residents support the general idea of an outdoor pool. To escape the District’s scorching summers, Elham Dehbozorgi said she and her two young children frequent Wilson High School’s indoor pool.

“I’m really excited for an outdoor pool,” Dehbozorgi said adding that she couldn’t think of a better site in Ward 3. “I trust that the city will do their job.”