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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In treehouse dispute, blogger's bite matches her bark

Posted By on Wed, May 26, 2010 at 11:04 PM

Pretty wild scene taking place over at That's Church concerning a proposed treehouse memorial for Amy Ambrusko's two children, who died in a tragic car accident. The memorial was to be installed in Frick Park, and as Montanez tells the tale:

Amy thought it fitting to raise the funds to put a playground of some sort in Frick Park for them.  Those plans grew and shifted and changed until Amy and the Parks Conservancy decided on a unique treehouse type of play area for children to play in at Frick Park.

She began silently raising funds to pay for the proposed treehouse, and secured donations from 700 people and groups all around the world … including me.

So, with money coming into the conservancy, proposed designs being drawn up, and a perfect spot in Frick Park identified, it appeared everything was moving along just swimmingly.

Until Amy sent me an email a week or so ago, to put me on notice that she was hearing rumblings that some residents in the Frick Park area planned to oppose the treehouse. She and I couldn’t fathom why.

It's worth noting here that, by the Conservancy's own admission today, "no formal presentation has been made either to the community, or to the city, or to Councilman [Doug] Shields," who represents the district. Montanez, as a contributor to a silent fundraising campaign, may have known more about the proposal than some of the Regent Square residents living a few doors down from it. And as we'll see, neighbors had some reason to be on edge anyway. 

More from Montanez:

A representative with the Parks Conservancy met with [some neighbors] to hear their concerns and told Amy ... that their minds are made up. That one person went so far as to say something along the lines of, “Why does this woman think that just because her kids died and she raised all this money, she’s entitled to put a playground in our neighborhood?”

A public meeting on the park was scheduled, but then, Montanez reports, a staffer in Shields' office reportedly urged Ambrusko to drop the matter, and said, "Do you really want your kids' names to be part of this controversy?"

That, to Montanez, "went beyond the pale" by playing the "You'll tarnish the Names of Your Dead Kids card." 

There was only one thing for it: Montanez called out her supporters to contact Shields' office and tell him "[t]hat you object to their methods. That you object to their callousness."

And lo! So it came to pass. Shields tells me he got more than 100 e-mails, many of which were in the "Doug is a jagoff, and how can he be so horrible" mode. (One correspondent informed him that "You are going to rue the effin' day" he refused to support the treehouse; another called him an "ogre.") City hall observers say Shields was "flipping out" as the missives came in.

Needless to say, this did not endear Shields to Ms. Montanez, or her legion of adherents. Montanez "published this without ever consulting me," he says -- and after doing so, she Tweeted the request that reporters "not ask me for comment ... I am merely the bullhorn."

Montanez has a standing policy of not talking to reporters on the record, even in innocuous situations. (For example, she declined to give an interview to City Paper for last year's "Best of" issue.) But as far as Shields is concerned, what the policy amounts to is, "She just lights this fire, and then runs away."

I quoted the claim that Shields' office had played the "You'll Tarnish the Names of Your Dead Kids" card. Shields said, "That's not what Judy [Feldman, his chief of staff] is telling me, and it's not what I'm saying now."

As a city councilor, Shields says, it's not his job to support or oppose a project right out of the gate. His job is "to get in the middle of these situations, and act as a mediator" between different sides. "That's never happened here" -- in part because the Conservancy hadn't kept him up to speed on developments, or put a formal proposal on the table.

But why would a community oppose a treehouse in the first place? Shields says the  proposal came along amidst protracted discussions about the expansion of an environmental charter school nearby.

"Regent Square is an active community, and there was a great deal of concern about the school's expansion," he said. And there was, it seems, a considerable amount of confusion about the treehouse proposal -- whether it be part of the school's expanded "footprint," whether it would be a simple bench or plaque, or something else. 

The treehouse is proposed to go in "Turtle Park," which adjoins the school. Residents are concerned about building "an attraction" there, Shields says, in part because of a dearth of parking nearby.

The formal presentation of the thing is still scheduled for June 7. It's scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Wilkins School community center (7604 Charleston Avenue). And now, of course, Montanez's het-up blog readers are pledging to attend. Perhaps they will share sentiments like the comments-thread claim that opposing the treehouse "boils down to race and class and geographical dividers." Then the healing can really begin!

Is it possible Doug Shields, daunted by Montanez's minions, is now engaged in a defensive crouch? Sure. Is it possible that race and class play a role in community fears about who will use the park? Maybe: They play a role in just about everything else, after all. Finally, is Regent Square engaged in a classic "not in my backyard" response? Well, as Shields himself acknowledges, there is concern about attracting more visitors than the area wants to handle.

But I gotta say -- if you're gonna blame Regent Square for being insular and tribal ... there seems to be a bit of that going around today.

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