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Park to Replace Gage-Eckington School Site in Northwest

Norma Porter | 8/20/2009, 1:47 a.m.

After District Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee implemented her restructuring plan in the fall of 2007, the axe fell on 23 public schools throughout the city, with the exception of Ward 3. So, when residents of the LeDroit Park community learned that Gage-Eckington Elementary School in Northwest was among the group slated to close in June 2008, neighbors mobilized to ensure that the former school site would not become a magnet for vagrants and open air drug activity.

More than one year and hundreds of community meetings later, it was decided that a new park would be built on the former site of the historic elementary school. The LeDroit Park community worked closely with the District€s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Development to reach a consensus. Both city officials and residents agreed that a park and green space would spruce-up the neighborhood.

€We€ve worked hand-in-glove with the LeDroit Park community to get us where we are today,€ Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), told a group who had gathered on the school grounds Tue., Aug. 4 for the announcement and to witness the symbolic demolition of the school.

€This is going to be a beautiful city park with great features for everyone in the neighborhood,€ he said.

Originally, LeDroit Park residents tried to save the school building because of its historical significance. The school grounds also provided neighborhood children with a safe haven for them to play outdoors.

€We tried to see if there was a way to keep it open because the school had been around for 100 years,€ said John Sallati, the ANC commissioner for 5C04.

€The old Gage [Elementary School] was built in 1904 and the new Gage-Eckington Elementary School was built in 1973. There are lots of services east, north, and west of the city geared towards children. But, there aren€t a lot of services like libraries and parks geared towards children in this neighborhood. The school was the focal point for children in this community,€ he said.

Initially, the mayor was adamant about keeping the building intact, Sallati said. The Office of Deputy Mayor for Planning and Development had preliminary plans to use the structure as a government building.

€We wanted to see if we could use the building internally as an office building. We did some testing to see if it would be feasible to make the building appropriate for an office but, the plan was too expensive,€ said Sean Madigan, a spokesperson for the Office of Deputy Mayor for Planning and Development. The city decided to tear the building down in February, he said.

Madigan said the LeDroit Park community was extremely vocal about their desire to ensure that the building was secured until it was either razed or occupied by new tenants.

€The LeDroit Park community is very organized, so we began to engage the community and get their input on what they would like the site to [become] in their community,€ Madigan said.

€The neighbors wanted to avoid problems that come with abandoned buildings, which usually become a magnet for people to [participate in all sorts of activities].€

Madigan said once residents decided on a community park, District officials agreed to a temporary park site. He said the city plans to develop the site within the next four-to-five years.

Residents were also insistent that construction on the park begin immediately. Thirty-five years elapsed before the old Gage Elementary School site was developed, Sallati said. Today, it€s known as the Parker Flats at Gage School, luxury loft-style homes, located at 2nd and V Streets.

Marleen Harding, a 20-year resident of LeDroit Park and mother of three, mourned the closing of her neighborhood school. She had to enroll her children in H.D. Cooke Elementary School on Bryant Street, approximately eight-to-nine blocks from her home.

But, there€s a bright side, too.

Harding said that a park would have a positive influence on a neighborhood that€s primarily comprised of seniors and young people.

€The park will help enhance the neighborhood and bring everyone together,€ Harding, 39, said.

€When you bring a park to the community everyone -- the elderly and the youth -- can benefit because they both have a place where they can come and relax.€

The new park is expected to be completed in June 2010. It will include a tot lot, a playground, a dog park, a multi-purpose athletic field, running trails and rain gardens.

€It will be a pleasure to see and hear the [laughter] of children [again],€ Harding said, with a smile.