New trail’s tran­quil­ity be­lies a tur­bu­lent di­vide

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MARY HUI

Nes­tled in a steep wooded ravine be­neath the thick canopy of a stream-val­ley for­est in the heart of the Dis­trict is a wind­ing trail of seven-tenths of a mile. Chil­dren zip by on their scoot­ers, cy­clists cruise down the slope and walk­ers, jog­gers and dogs log their miles.

But this short stretch of road has been tied up in a long-run­ning saga. Twenty-six years af­ter Klin­gle Road NW was closed to the public, it was fi­nally re­opened June 24 as Klin­gle Val­ley Trail.

It was the much-de­layed prod­uct of years of ac­ri­mo­nious fight­ing, and prob­a­bly ranks as one of the most de­layed trans­porta­tion projects in the city.

“I’m de­lighted,” said D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who led the charge to turn Klin­gle Road into a recre­ational na­ture trail. “I’m very happy and very re­lieved that it’s fi­nally here.”

Klin­gle Road, which dates to 1831, was closed to the public in 1991 af­ter a sew­er­age col­lapse, brought about by heavy rains, caused wide­spread flood dam­age. For years, the road lay aban­doned and in dis­re­pair as the city strug­gled to find the funds to fix it.

But when money was found and the gears were set in mo­tion for a re­con­struc­tion project, Klin­gle Road be­came caught in a con­tentious de­bate. One side de­manded that it be re­built as a

road for driv­ers, a con­ve­nient east-west short­cut across Rock Creek Park. The other side wanted the road turned into a trail for hik­ers and bik­ers, which op­po­nents claimed would cut off ac­cess for less well-off res­i­dents east of the park. Both sides dug in deep.

The ques­tions that pit­ted the road pro­po­nents (“road­ies,” as they were called) against the trail pro­po­nents are still as rel­e­vant to­day as they were two decades ago. As the Dis­trict con­tin­ues to change rapidly, ques­tions about how to use the city’s green spa­ces abound. Who has ac­cess to them — peo­ple of all in­come lev­els or just the af­flu­ent? And how should the city bal­ance devel­op­ment, preser­va­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity?

“Dis­cus­sions about spa­ces are dis­cus­sions that have very high stakes,” said Mar­garet Far­rar, author of “Build­ing the Body Politic: Power and Ur­ban Space in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.” and dean of the Col­lege of Arts and Sciences at John Car­roll Univer­sity in Ohio. “… When we de­bate about space, we’re re­ally de­bat­ing about our­selves, and who we imag­ine our­selves to be as peo­ple.”

For peo­ple on both sides in the fight over the fu­ture of Klin­gle Road, there was no mid­dle ground.

Ac­tivists put up war­ring web­sites and front-yard signs, and sported their own bumper stick­ers and but­tons. Anti-road ac­tivists, in­clud­ing Jim Dougherty, a leader of the Dis­trict chap­ter of the Sierra Club and a vet­eran of the fight to turn Klin­gle Road into a trail, dressed as trees to make their point about the im­por­tance of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion. Ad­vo­cates of re­open­ing the road put up a wooden plac­ard ac­cus­ing the other side of be­ing “racist plu­to­crats.”

“It was un­for­tu­nately very ac­ri­mo­nious, and there was no love lost be­tween the two sides,” said Ja­son Broehm, a trail pro­po­nent who used to live be­tween the Cleve­land Park and Wood­ley Park neigh­bor­hoods on the west side of Rock Creek Park.

For Dougherty, the lon­gawaited open­ing of the Klin­gle Val­ley Trail is “im­mensely re­ward­ing” and a vin­di­ca­tion of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism.

“We’re es­sen­tially un­de­feated to de­fend the parks from over­the-top devel­op­ment,” Dougherty said. “And I hope now that the gov­ern­ment is pay­ing at­ten­tion . . . we can’t af­ford to give up any more park­land and we don’t need any more roads.”

The devel­op­ment of the Klin­gle Val­ley Trail re­flects the larger trend of the Dis­trict be­com­ing in­creas­ingly more pedes­tri­anand bike-friendly in re­cent years, Cheh said.

The trail rep­re­sents “part of a shift in our think­ing” to­ward more of an em­pha­sis on pre­serv­ing green spa­ces, she said. Re­sis­tance to this still ex­ists, the D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber added, but much less so now than be­fore as peo­ple adapt to a chang­ing ur- ban cul­ture and re­al­ize that cars “can’t reign supreme.”

“The value of [pre­serv­ing green spa­ces] to us and to our chil­dren in the fu­ture is some­thing that has to be el­e­vated above a con­ve­nient short­cut by car,” Cheh said.

Gale Black, a leader of the road cam­paign and the lead plain­tiff in a 2011 law­suit seek­ing to re­open Klin­gle Road, fun­da­men­tally dis­agrees with the ar­gu­ment that road pro­po­nents were anti-en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist.

To Black, who is an ad­vi­sory neigh­bor­hood com­mis­sioner in Ward 4, keep­ing Klin­gle Road open to cars was a mat­ter of main­tain­ing an east-west con­nec­tion through Rock Creek Park and en­sur­ing ac­cess to the park for ev­ery­one.

“We want to pre­serve green space, but not . . . at the cost of ac­cess­ing Rock Creek Park,” she said. “This is an oa­sis for all of us,” she added, not just for those who are close enough or able­bod­ied enough to walk or bike there.

Stephen What­ley, an­other ad­vi­sory neigh­bor­hood com­mis­sioner in Ward 4 who also ac­tively cam­paigned for the re­open­ing of Klin­gle Road and was an­other plain­tiff in the law­suit, sees the split be­tween driv­ers and the walk­ers and bik­ers as a gen­er­a­tional di­vide that con­tin­ues to course through the Dis­trict as younger res­i­dents and fam­i­lies move into neigh­bor­hoods.

“This is go­ing to be the split that oc­curs through­out the city as devel­op­ment con­tin­ues . . . this is go­ing to be an on­go­ing dis­cus­sion,” he said. “And it’s only nat­u­ral.”

Black, 66, thinks it is prob­lem­atic that the needs of older driv­ers like her were shunted aside.

“Not every­body can bike it or hike it,” Black said. “Pre­serve it for all of us, not some of us.”

That both sides of the de­bate lay claim to the en­vi­ron­men­tal preser­va­tion ar­gu­ment is a re­flec­tion of how sus­tain­abil­ity has be­come a kind of trump card in public con­ver­sa­tions, Far­rar said.

Eco­log­i­cal “sus­tain­abil­ity has as­sumed a promi­nence and cul­tural weight in our dis­cus­sions that it has never had be­fore, and that is a good thing in many ways,” she said.

But eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­ity is not the only con­sid­er­a­tion, she added. “Sus­tain­abil­ity can also mean his­toric preser­va­tion . . . and sus­tain­ing and main­tain­ing so­cial and eco­nomic di­ver­sity.”

Black, a for­mer Mount Pleas­ant res­i­dent who used to drive reg­u­larly on Klin­gle Road be­fore its clo­sure, says she thinks that Klin­gle Val­ley Trail ben­e­fits the wealth­ier res­i­dents on the west side of the park at the ex­pense of the less well-off res­i­dents east of it.

To have a vi­tal con­nec­tion be­tween neigh­bor­hoods turned into a “very ex­pen­sive dog walk . . . de­fies logic in so many ways,” she said.

Dougherty dismisses the ar­gu­ment that turn­ing Klin­gle Road into a trail seg­re­gates eastern and west­ern neigh­bor­hoods as “ut­terly bo­gus.”

“We de­fend all the parks equally,” he said. He also pointed out that Klin­gle Road, when it was open, was lightly traf­ficked: It car­ried 3,200 ve­hi­cles a day, out of a to­tal of 90,000 ve­hi­cles that crossed Rock Creek Park, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the Dis­trict Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment.

Oth­ers, how­ever, ar­gue that Klin­gle Road shouldn’t be looked at in iso­la­tion, but rather as an im­por­tant con­nec­tion in a larger net­work of roads.

“It’s an area that’s al­ready light on roads, and road net­works are usu­ally more re­silient when there is re­dun­dancy in them,” said Rolf Pen­dall, the co-di­rec­tor of the Metropoli­tan Hous­ing and Com­mu­ni­ties Pol­icy Cen­ter at the Ur­ban In­sti­tute. Any link, he said, even if lit­tle-used, “can be im­por­tant when you have a re­gional net­work that . . . is de­pend­ing on the avail­abil­ity of other routes to make the sys­tem work.”

He also noted that the Rock Creek Park area does not lack open spa­ces and that the ar­gu­ment was over a pre­ex­ist­ing road rather than a new one.

As a pro­po­nent for in­te­gra­tion in cities across class and racial lines, Pen­dall sees the Klin­gle Road clo­sure as an ex­am­ple of the con­tin­ued di­vi­sion of the Wash­ing­ton re­gion.

“You can read the en­tire di­vide in the re­gion through the clo­sure of the three-quar­ter­mile link,” he said.

What­ley, de­spite hav­ing lost the cam­paign to re­open Klin­gle Road to cars, ac­knowl­edges that “hav­ing a trail is a good thing” and wishes the trail users well.

And while Black is glad that the decades-long fight is fi­nally over, she is not about to con­cede com­plete de­feat, ei­ther.

“Time will tell whether we lost the war or the bat­tle,” she said.


A biker uses the Klin­gle Val­ley Trail, a stretch of road that had been closed for 26 years amid of­ten-bit­ter de­bate about its fu­ture.


When the newly opened Klin­gle Val­ley Trail was Klin­gle Road, which dates to 1831, it spent 26 years closed to the public af­ter a 1991 sewage col­lapse. De­bate over its fu­ture raged, with one side want­ing the trail and an­other hop­ing it would re­main driv­able.

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