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Kalorama and Kemp Mill: Two Parks Where Compromise Proved Too Difficult

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the sixteenth installment in a series of 20 posts.    

It isn’t always possible to reach a compromise when it comes to different uses within a park. In Maryland, when 2.5-acre Kemp Mill Urban Park, with its ornamental pond, came up for renovations, the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) asked the park agency to consider treating runoff from the adjacent street in the water basin. It would become one of many sites where the county planned to reduce neighborhood runoff to meet water quality standards.

It seemed like a win-win situation. The iconic pond was popular with the community, and the renovations would add artificial wetlands and increase water circulation to better mimic a complete ecosystem. But planners at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which oversees the park, worried that the addition of oil, salt, sediment, and other street pollution would be too much for the delicate water pumps and sensitive vegetation. (After extensive study, the park commission had concluded that mechanical separators and other pre-treatment techniques were incompatible with the site.) The biggest obstacle, however, was the county’s requirement that all stormwater facilities in parks be maintained by DEP, rather than by the park commission.

Kemp Mill Urban Park - mongtomerycountyismyplayground

Kemp Mill Urban Park’s ornamental pond is a beloved feature of the park. (montgomerycountyismyplayground.wordpress.com)

“We knew from experience that DEP would maintain our pond as a stormwater feature, not as an ornamental pond. There was plenty of good will from each agency, but DEP had a very different maintenance plan,” explained Aaron Feldman, designer for the park commission. “We calculated that somebody would have to dredge the pond every six months to remove sediment, and we worried that the plants would have to be replaced after every winter of salty runoff. That level of maintenance just wouldn’t get done, and eventually the park might fill up with algae or just be a dry pond between big rainstorms.”

“In the end, we concluded that the pond couldn’t be both a defining feature of the park and a runoff control tool,” adds Feldman. “We were lucky that people were willing to stand up for the original intent of the park.” The county is looking at other sites to meet its pollution control standards instead.

A classic case of a ragged community process over a proposed redesign to control stormwater occurred at Kalorama Park in Washington, D.C. A 3-acre park in a dense neighborhood of apartment buildings and rowhouses, Kalorama Park slopes down from a major road with residences on all sides. Over time, erosion became steadily more obvious. A group of neighbors, working with a landscape architect, devised a plan to use permeable concrete to repave an old plaza at the park’s highest point. The group also selected several downhill locations for both water storage swales and new overflow drains. A different group, dismayed by the planned destruction of historic resources, asked that the park’s drainage pipes first be investigated for possible clogging before any new construction was done. With lack of clear direction and oversight, other activists entered the fray, including a group of parents who wanted a new playground.

In light of the controversy, the project lurched forward slowly, with neighbors increasingly fragmented over the solutions and even the problems. Swales were built and drains installed, but since neither pre-construction nor post-construction stormwater flow was measured, no one knew if they were working – which exacerbated the controversy. The construction work, done by a firm experienced only with highways, was not adequately overseen by the park department, resulting in the installation (and subsequent removal) of roadway-scaled drains on people-scaled walking paths. At the time of this posting, the neighborhood and city are still not unified on a comprehensive plan to move forward.

Many factors led to these challenges for Kalorama. As a small park in a dense neighborhood, Kalorama may be a sort of political pressure cooker with little physical room for compromise. Perhaps issues of historical authenticity complicate the ability to compromise over innovative designs. Maybe the negative impacts of stormwater were not so publicly visible, or perhaps the civic leadership was not clear enough in describing and justifying the proposed solutions. All these factors, and more, need to be carefully considered when a community begins the process of evaluating a park for stormwater management.

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