Turkey Thicket And Brookland Middle School – So Many Questions, So Few Answers

by Shani on March 4, 2013

Readers, it has been challenging to capture the various moving parts of this latest neighborhood kerfuffle succinctly, but I have tried.  The existing Brookland Elementary School building located at 1150 Michigan Avenue, NE has been shuttered since 2008, and will either be torn down or refurbished and reopened by summer 2014 as the Brookland Middle School. The overall budget for this project is $50 Million dollars. Last week, we attended a meeting where plans to create one campus of the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center and the new Brookland Middle School were discussed. The meeting was attended by over 70 very vocal Brookland and North Michigan Park residents. I went into the meeting hopeful that the community would realize a win-win scenario where the best features of this new school and our fully used recreation center could be leveraged in a way that benefits with whole community. I was apparently too optimistic. Here are birdseye views of the current buildings and the plans presented by the Department of General Services at the meeting.

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The meeting quickly devolved into a two-hour-long, tense series of exchanges between the community and representatives from the Departments of Parks and Recreation (DPR), General Services (DGS) and DC Public Schools (DCPS). The reason why, in short, is because the plan presented for the new school amounted to short-changing the future middle school kids and the loss of currently used community facilities. Here is what I found most frustrating about the meeting:

1) There were no substantive answers given to basic questions and concerns raised by the community. We were essentially told that important details that need to be thought out now would be resolved at some unspecified time in the future.

2) There was either a lack of community involvement in these plans, or where there was involvement, those stakeholders were completely blindsided by new plans. For example, the Ward 5 Council on Education and the Brookland School Improvement Team (SIT) have been working with the city for over a year on the plans for the new school. So you could imagine their surprise when the plans shown at the meeting were not the ones they have been working on, but a completely new concept they had not seen yet. We were told that the plans presented are not definite, but DPS, DGS and DCPS were not prepared to discuss other options at the meeting. The Request For Proposals (RFP), for the design of the new school states that “…outdoor spaces will be shared with the city recreation facility. Those spaces include a multi-purpose soccer field and tennis courts. In return, the community will have access to the middle school’s gymnasium during evenings and weekends.” Because the only gymnasium in the plan presented was the one currently belonging to Turkey Thicket, I am concluding that the gymnasium will change ownership and now belong to the school, and the community will lose this much-needed and heavily used amenity.

3) There were no definitive answers given about potential changes to plans to overhaul the Turkey Thicket Playground, which seemed imminent, and construction slated to begin in weeks. The RFP for this project has long been out, and Studio 39 was hired to develop concept plans, with expected delivery of the new playground by summer 2013. The new school plans presented showed the school sitting atop what would be the new playground and the elements of the playground overhaul in a different configuration on the property than what is currently planned.

As of now, there is a lot up in the air, a lot at stake, and few clear answers. Here are the biggest outstanding issues, as we see them, which were not addressed at the meeting:

  • School security requirements vs. community access. If the school and Turkey Thicket are to be one campus, how will the different populations served by the two interact, be restricted, etc?
  • Status of the Turkey Thicket playground overhaul. If the plan presented goes through, will we still get the same playground amenities as currently planned? Since the planning for the new middle school has been going on for a year and a half, why has there been no coordination between these two projects and RFPs? What will happen to the funding allocated for the playground overhaul as part of the Mayor’s PlayDC project? How will this playground, geared significantly towards toddlers, function in the same space with middle school students who are teenagers?
  • Accommodating the whole community. Brookland and the surrounding areas are growing quickly. As it stands now, Turkey Thicket fields and facilities are used not only by the general community, but also by charter schools and other groups. Since this amenity is used at or near capacity already, shouldn’t the plans accommodate growth and be a scaled upward not downward?
  • Parking and Traffic. The school, as planned, will serve 540 students. Traffic on 10th Street NE and Michigan Ave NE is pretty congested already in the mornings and afternoons. There has been no traffic study done because of the stage this project is in, fine, but there also hasn’t been any outreach to the neighbors that live on 10th Street where the proposed pick up and drop off points are. If an entirely new school is to be built why not have underground parking?

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Since the meeting, concerned citizens have been raising awareness wherever they can in order to get some answers, and hopefully, a new plan. We reached out to Tom Bridge, president of the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association and here’s what he had to say:

“BNCA’s leadership is significantly concerned with the DGS/DPR/DCPS plan to co-locate the Brookland Middle School and Turkey Thicket Recreation Center. At this time, we are lacking the detail to make good judgments concerning this plan, and that by itself is concerning to us. Turkey Thicket is a multi-generational facility at the heart of the community, and plans to alter that space need to be detailed to the community before any progress is made toward a final plan.”

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie made a statement on the Brookland listserv, here is an outtake

“I was dismayed by the recent announcement by the Department of General Services (DGS) to co-locate the new Brookland Middle School with the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center without community input. I share the outrage the Ward 5 Council on Education expressed regarding the lack of transparency and inclusion of stakeholders in this new design. While our community is in dire need of the proposed middle school, it should not come at the expense of another well used amenity.”

We couldn’t agree more. Two days after the community meeting CM McDuffie questioned the collocation plans at the Committee on Government Operations, agency performance oversight hearing for DGS. It is hoped that McDuffie’s involvement and the amount of public outcry will spur DGS to involve the community more fully and revisit earlier proposals that did not combine the two buildings. We are in touch with the Ward 5 Council on Education who will provide us with an update and next steps to pass along to you; but for now you can remain involved in the process by contacting our elected officials such as Councilmembers and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, support the Ward 5 Council on Education and the SIT, and engage with the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association and the Michigan Park Citizens Association (MPCA).  This topic will be discussed at a MPCA meeting tomorrow evening, Tuesday, March 5th at 7:15 pm, at Bunkerhill Elementary School, located at 14th Street & Michigan Avenue NE.

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