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Long park closures, stormwater fears fuel Driskell redesign skepticism

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Posted on: February 7, 2024

By HEATHER MARLÉNE ZADIG

The City of Hyattsville wrapped up its latest Driskell Park redesign public comments period last month, advancing the project to the final concept design development phase of the new master plan. This next phase is expected to last roughly six to 12 months, according to the city’s Hello Hyattsville website, and will involve more community input to further adapt the general concept to a final concept design. 

According to Merrell Hambleton, Driskell Park project manager for the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC), the nonprofit will be hosting two upcoming community conversations, one focused on the theme of “Art in the Park” and one on “Belonging.” 

City efforts to revamp the aging park go back to early 2017, when then-Mayor Candace Hollingsworth introduced the idea in a city council work session, as reported by the Hyattsville Life & Times (HL&T). More than seven years later, many residents may have either long forgotten the initial reasons for exploring a redesign or weren’t yet residing in the city when it was proposed.

In a Jan. 5 through Jan. 6 discussion thread on the HOPE (Hyattsville Organization for a Positive Environment) listserv about the recent Driskell Park redesign survey, several residents questioned the reasons for updating the park at all. Hyattsville resident Patricia Weil, for instance, asked if anyone knew “what particular deficiencies this plan is designed to address.” 

City Communications Manager Cindy Zork told the HL&T that “Driskell Park is our most used city park,” and in need of increasingly frequent and expensive maintenance for standard wear and tear, with park elements “showing their age.” Additionally, she said, there have long been concerns with parking lot safety, and “the City programs hosted there have outgrown the space.” Zork added that leadership chose to develop a new master plan in 2018 “instead of addressing these problems ad hoc.”

Back in 2017, Hollingsworth made a motion to allocate $25,000 to engage the NDC for preliminary park redesign input at a January city council work session (the total costs for later stages so far is around $450,000). In the meeting, Hollingsworth explained, “My personal opinion is that we could elevate the profile of the park, increase the amenities, and make it more consistent with the way that people are using parks now.” She also expressed a desire to make the park more conducive to a generational experience — inclusive of both kids and older adults.

The City Council work session in Jan. 2017 was the official impetus of the Driskell Park redesign process. Courtesy of City of Hyattsville.

At the time, some councilmembers voiced concerns about the city’s ability to follow through with such a large project in a reasonable amount of time. “I’d want to have a sense that we have the will to move forward with the recommendations in short order,” said then-Councilmember Shani Warner (District 2) at the meeting. “What I could see happening is our authorizing this but then taking another three to four years to do something about it, at which point, the determinations that we made a few years ago will have been a council or two past, and we won’t have the buy-in of the sitting council at that point.” 

The council vice president at the time, Bart Lawrence (District 1), then raised the issue that “in order to park, you have to drive through the park, so when it’s soccer Saturday, and there’s 300 kids running around, you’re driving through the kids. Maybe it could be reconfigured in a way so that the parking is off to the side.” The current concept plan addresses that particular design concern, along with several others.

The latest concept map was chosen during previous rounds of community engagement and places the vehicle entrance and parking off to one side of the park, rather than somewhat bisecting the park down the middle as it does now. Zork told the HL&T that the latest map is still just a concept plan and “not a final design, so the elements are still subject to change.” She indicated that work on the redesign was all but halted by the pandemic as city resources pivoted to that crisis. Though some HOPE users questioned the survey’s seemingly low number of participants, Zork explained that “participants” only reflected people who had signed up for project updates through Hello Hyattsville; the responses to the survey numbered around 300.

Some residents expressed frustration at a perceived lack of both urgency and progress made on other city park updates, including Robert J. King Memorial Park, on Gallatin Street, and Nicholson Park, on 40th Avenue, where a new teen center is planned. The two parks have been fenced off since fall of 2022.

HOPE listserv member Donald Rooney referenced those extended park closures in his comments on the Driskell Park redesign: “Driskell is much larger, and the redesign is a much larger project. They need to minimize [the] amount of time it’s closed.” 

Zork told the HL&T that the long closure of King Park was both identified in advance and necessary, “due to required environmental remediation from an old underground oil heating tank.” She said that playground equipment has been purchased, landscape design is underway, and the city aims to reopen the park by the end of May 2024.

Residents have also raised concerns about stormwater management and the potential for polluted runoff entering nearby streams if the proposed new parking lot were to move next to the natural wetlands area known as Trumbule Trail, as pictured in the concept map. 

Zork expressed more than once that the city was very committed to keeping valuable resources, like the wetland, appropriately protected.

Greg Smith, of the community nonprofit Sustainable Hyattsville, told the HL&T in a phone interview that he had faith in city agencies and decision-makers with respect to the Driskell Park redesign. “I hope and believe that the city will practice good oversight and listen to local residents and nonprofits,” Smith said. “By and large, we have a city government that works hard. Our council cares and our staff cares.”

As for the wetland trail — a community-led initiative begun in the 1990s on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission — Zork explained that the boardwalk was recently closed indefinitely due to natural decay of boards and pilings. “State protections on wetlands have increased significantly in the years since it was laid,” Zork said. “It will take some time to work through the permitting and find a good repair solution that does not disturb the wetland.”

NDC project manager Hambleton told the H&LT, “It’s been very moving to see how deeply people love and care about Driskell Park. We hear you, and we’re so excited to bring forward a final design that embodies that love and care.”

The public discussions seem to reflect that passion. In an email exchange with the HL&T, resident Weil wrote, “Brief stretches of our park near the stream appear (to the extent possible) to be natural and can give the passerby a sense of being in nature. I value that very highly and do hope that it doesn’t change. I treasure most the illusion of natural space.” 

A young couple takes maternity photos along the now-closed Trumbule Trail near Driskell Park. Courtesy of H. M. Zadig.

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