Athletic fields

Elite private school’s plan to build sports fields disrupts Chevy Chase



Change is on the horizon in northwest Washington. Only now is the proverbial Grim Reaper dressed for lacrosse.

The district’s latest real estate storm pits a group of Chevy Chase neighborhood residents against Maret, the elite private school, which is leasing five acres of land to build a sports cathedral.

Where there is now a verdant meadow and towering trees along Nebraska Avenue NW, there would be a baseball field and a football, soccer and lacrosse field. Four heritage trees would be uprooted and replanted to make way for synthetic turf, a scoreboard, bleachers and 50 newly constructed parking spaces.

The fact that the land is privately owned by the Episcopal Children’s Center – and technically off-limits to the public – has not dampened the fury of those who live nearby, a prosperous collection of lawyers, architects, politicians, communications specialists and retirees.

They say the new complex would generate traffic and pollution and threaten the value of their properties for years to come – 50 to be exact, under the terms of the lease, which would also allow Maret to lease the fields to groups. young people from outside.

What others might describe as the joyous clamor of teenage sports, they predict will be high decibel noise bleeding through the walls of their well-appointed homes.

“Will there be traffic cops – traffickers – so I can get home?” Tom Bulger, a neighbor, asked in a sometimes contentious discussion recent Zoom meeting, imagining a bottleneck of spectators driving to and from the games.

“You’re not going to face pitching and kicking sounds behind your house,” Marcello Abbruzzetti, another neighbor, told Maret officials when it was his turn.

“Why does Maret have to go in search of disruptive neighborhoods?” asked Crystal Wright, another neighbor. She suggested that a better alternative would be for the school to leave the district.

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Ian Cameron, chairman of Maret’s board of trustees, said the 110-year-old school sees itself as part of the fabric of Washington and seeks to provide adequate facilities for students in a city where playgrounds are hard to find.

A move to the suburbs, he said, is out of the question, especially because Maret students commute from all corners of the city.

“We’re not going to set up a Walmart,” he said, adding that he understands that “when there’s change in a neighborhood, there are neighbors who aren’t going to like the change.”

“But that’s not viable in a city that’s so short on available land,” he said.

Maret, one of the wealthy prep schools in the district, has a $35 million endowment and a principal whose compensation was $553,000 in 2020, according to his tax returns.. Cameron, a former ABC News executive producer, is married to Susan Riceappointed to head the Domestic Policy Council by President Biden.

Maret has a multipurpose field on its seven-acre campus in Woodley Park, where school officials are keen to point out that a quarter of its 650 K-12 students receive financial aid. Those who do not receive aid pay up to $42,000 in annual tuition.

But the field on campus is not regulation size for high school soccer, lacrosse and football., a shortcoming that led Maret officials to inquire when they learned that land at the financially beleaguered episcopal center might be available.

Two years ago, Maret was at the center of still a fierce debate when he signed a no-bid deal with the DC government that gave him near-exclusive access to the Jelleff Recreation Center in Georgetown. The arrangement prevented Hardy Middle School, located across the street, from using it during peak hours.

Still, Maret’s plan at Chevy Chase isn’t without support among a faction of neighbors who dismiss naysayers’ sense of impending heckling.

“Who are these people who think they own the street in front of their house?” asked Brian Eriksen, 52, a software engineer whose garden faces the field. “It’s an opportunity for us to have an asset.”

Eriksen advised neighbors to remain calm during discussions with Maret officials, who beyond the Zoom meeting invited residents to voice their concerns at four well-attended gatherings. The school also presented its plan to the Neighborhood Advisory Board.

“I try to keep the conversation civil so that engagement can be high and we can get concessions, and our input is taken seriously,” Eriksen said. “If we get positive engagement now, then that feedback will be incorporated.”

Maret is due to present his plan in March to the District Zoning and Adjustment Board, which will decide whether to grant him special exceptions to “allow the use of a private school in a residential area” and to “allow parking spaces” on the grounds of the property. front yard, depending on application.

The school’s lease is subject to board approval, said Carolyn Law, a spokeswoman for Maret.

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Maret officials have expressed a willingness to be flexible on the details of their plan, such as the location of the scoreboard. To minimize disruption, the school also promised that there would be no public address system or late-night games.

But school officials are unwilling to negotiate the scope of the project, such as building one pitch instead of two, as some neighbors have suggested.

“It’s too much and too intense,” said David Patton, 70, a transportation planner who lives on a street bordering the property and is among more than 100 residents who have signed a petition opposing the project.

Patton described himself as a “keyboard warrior” in a battle to stop the proposal.

“They come to us like a ton of bricks with plans already in hand,” he said. “It’s just a slight.”

Since 1930, the Episcopal Center for Children occupied the triangular property between Utah and Nebraska avenues, first as an orphanage and then as a treatment center for children with special needs.

At times, enrollment at the center has reached 55 to 60 students, said Stephanie Nash, president and CEO of ECC. More recently, the number has fallen into the 40s.

In June 2019, following funding cuts, the center’s financial losses — more than $1.5 million that year, according to its tax returns — forced it to close. The next day, Nash said, developers began calling to purchase the property.

Nash said ECC chose to lease the land from Maret because a school seemed like a natural partner. She declined to reveal the financial terms of the lease, but said the revenue would allow the center to reopen next year.

Preserving the pitch as it is now, she said, would mean the center could not restart.

“We want to stay true to our mission,” she said. “We don’t want to be another school forced to close and unable to meet the needs of this underserved population. It is our priority that we are lucky to own.

Maret has been searching for a suitable sports space for more than two decades, according to school officials. Currently, his students play home football and swim at Woodrow Wilson High School, play baseball at Jelleff, play tennis at the University of the District of Columbia, and golf at East Potomac. Park.

The school is looking for a place for its athletics team.

“The challenge is finding a space that’s within a reasonable commute – we’ve searched very far,” Cameron said. “There is land in this town that is undeveloped, but to get five or six acres is very difficult.”

Tom DownsA former DC city administrator in the 1980s under then-mayor Marion Barry, has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 50 years and says ECC’s vision hasn’t changed much.

“It’s exactly the same, only the trees are a bit bigger,” he said.

Downs, 70, said he doesn’t see himself as someone who reflexively opposes change. What he opposes is a proposal that he says caught everyone off guard.

“I thought the developers had learned their lesson – you don’t surprise people – but they did, and the result is people expecting the worst,” he said. The episcopal center, he said, should have involved the neighborhood in exploring other possibilities.

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“A college, maybe, or wouldn’t it be great to have a neighborhood library?” ” He asked. “The lack of respect for the neighborhood and the people immediately adjacent to it has prevented discussions about this.”

Jenny Backus, another neighbor, knows her support for the plan could be overruled because her son is a Grade 10 student at Maret. But she points out that he needs to graduate around the time it’s finished.

“It’s not realistic to assume ownership is going to stay the same for the next 50 years,” said Backus, a former spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services. “I’d rather see a lot with kids playing on it than a bunch of condos.”

Claudia Russell, 69, an architect who lives on the edge of the ECC property, has no children. But she is quick to add that she is ‘not a child hater’ and loved the sounds of children building forts during the pandemic under a tree a few yards from her garden.

Her concern, she says, is that an all-natural setting will be sacrificed too quickly.

“We should take a moment and think about what we’re doing,” she said, looking out over the pitch as the light faded recently in the late afternoon. “If you let these things happen and you don’t resist, then it’s like you’re really paving heaven.

“That’s beauty, and market forces don’t necessarily respect beauty.”

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