Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

Beyond Metro, there's no big idea for transit in DC anymore

The excellent Housing Complex writer Aaron Wiener is leaving the local reporting scene for a position at Mother Jones. For his valedictory column, he proposes 15 "not-so-modest proposals for how to make DC better." The first three cover transit. So what's the big pie-in-the-sky for transit?

Pie in the sky image from Shutterstock.

First: "Build new Metro lines."

Second: "At the very least, add some infill stations."

Third: "Stop building streetcar lines in mixed traffic."

Unfortunately, building new Metro lines is not really going to happen. Beyond that, this list doesn't give much to be excited about. And that's not Wiener's fault; it's exactly the problem with transit planning and advocacy in the Washington region right now.

More Metro is best

It's absolutely true that, if we're not "constrained by the limits of reality," putting more Metro lines everywhere is indeed the key. (If you're really unconstrained by reality, you just invent teleportation, but if we're suspending fiscal reality but not the laws of physics, Metro is the way to go).

Even despite disinvestment and mismanagement in WMATA, the Metro is a fast way to travel. If it's working, it's often faster than any other mode—when there's a station near where you want to go. More lines and more stations would undoubtedly offer better transportation than nearly any other system.

Unfortunately, Metro lines cost billions of dollars. Many cities and nations in other parts of the world are willing and able to keep building more tunnels for more trains, but not the United States.

What's the next best idea? Surely there is another, somewhat cheaper, somewhat less speedy, but still eminently worthwhile idea ready for an alternative weekly blogger to tout?

There isn't a second-best idea

Well, not really. And Wiener's list demonstrates this. Not because he's not coming up with it—he's a reporter and blogger, not a transportation planner. Rather, there's nothing on the shelf.

(In DC, anyway. In Maryland, the Purple Line continues to be a slam dunk, and will only not happen if the governor is more intent on punishing a part of the state that mostly didn't vote for him instead of making the state more attractive to businesses and workers.)

Infill stations, sure, and there are a few good spots. Besides Potomac Yard in Alexandria, a station already in the planning stages, Wiener points out an opportunity to build a station east of Stadium-Armory next to the former Pepco plant, if and when all of the toxic chemicals under that plant can get cleaned up.

But there aren't many good places where there's much or even any new development potential. So what else?

All there is for us is an exhortation NOT to build something. Don't build a mixed-traffic streetcar.

DC planners and leaders have not teed up any better solutions. Bus lanes and dedicated streetcar lanes (Wiener mentions the possibility of a dedicated lane on Georgia Avenue) could offer a way to move people quickly and smoothly around the city, but we're very far from being able to make that a reality, and we're moving at a snail's pace.

A study of lanes on H and I Streets foundered amid interagency squabbling between DDOT and WMATA. A study for 16th Street is actually underway, but only after multiple earlier studies in prior years. At best, it seems we can hope DDOT could design something this year, build it a couple of years from now, test it, then maybe slowly start studying some more lanes by Muriel Bowser's second term or the next mayor's first.

There are existing plans for dedicated transit lanes on K Street, but there's no longer enough money in the latest budget to actually build them. These dedicated K Street lanes, by the way, have been rarely mentioned in news stories criticizing streetcars (Wiener's list included).

The MoveDC plan lays out a network of 47 miles of "high-capacity transit" including 25 miles of dedicated lanes, but little idea of how to build those, when, or how to pay for it.

Arlington has canceled its transit vision, which grew out of years of public processes and compromise. Maryland may as well. Beyond finishing the Silver Line, the region may soon be left with no big transit ideas. And as the political climates have shifted in all of these jurisdictions, there also seems to be little appetite right now to make any new big plans.

Wiener brings up many of other excellent ideas as well. Foster some creative architecture in the District. Spread homeless shelters out around the city so every area can be a part of the solution. Buy vacant or blighted property now, when it's cheap, to build affordable housing later. Don't build football stadiums. Get rid of parking minimum requirements in new buildings.

The next Housing Complex writer will surely continue talking about all of these issues. DC leaders need to give him or her, and residents across the city and region, something to get excited about instead of a choice between the practically impossible and the undesirable.

The guy who invented the mall hated cars

Many great minds have opined on cities, design, and urban planning. But few have made such a stark and apocryphal statement as this:

Photo by Chapendra on Flickr.
One technological event has swamped us. That is the advent of the rubber-wheeled vehicle. The private car, the truck, the trailer as means of mass transportation. And their threat to human life and health is just as great as that of the exposed sewer.
Strong words, indeed. But what is more surprising is who uttered them: none other than Victor Gruen, the man who invented the enclosed shopping mall that so came to be nearly synonymous with the American suburb.

A recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast discussed Gruen's career as an architect and noted the seeming dissonance between his work (the shopping mall) and how much he hated cars.

Like many architects and planners of the post-war era, Gruen was attempting to deal with a society facing radical changes in the built form: cities were starting to be hollowed out by parking lots and urban renewal, and the automobile-centric suburbs were starting to sprawl across the landscape. He saw the American suburbs as lacking in the types of "third places" necessary for social engagement. He thought the fact that everyone drove everywhere severely limited social engagement and interaction.

His solution was to build a large enclosed public space centered on a climate controlled court. It would include retail arranged in a sort of main street style with small storefronts facing pedestrian walks. But cars, of course, would be banned. This is the form the typical shopping mall took.

Gruen's vision didn't stop there, though. He actually intended for the mall to be the centerpiece of a mixed-use neighborhood. The projects would include offices, apartments, public services, and other amenities. And within this space, the pedestrian would be king.

That's not how things turned out. The first of his projects, the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, near Minneapolis, was built with only its retail components. And it was surrounded by a sea of parking. People might walk within the mall, but they almost certainly drove to it.

For a fuller discussion of Gruen's vision and his disappointment with how it turned out, make sure to listen to this episode of 99% invisible. The design-focused podcast offers an excellent overview of the built environment and the other ways that design (invisibly) influences our lives.

Federal review pushes the Kennedy Center's new buildings to dry land

The Kennedy Center has tweaked its plans for expansion. The small addition will still connect the Kennedy Center to the Potomac River, but none of it will be floating in the river.

The revised expansion scheme for the Kennedy Center. All images courtesy of the Kennedy Center and Steven Holl Architects.

When the arts center released plans for an expansion in 2013, they were looking for a way to reach out beyond big white box and white tie events. The 60,000 square foot expansion was to contain education rooms, informal performance venues, and a bridge to the Potomac River pathway.

The Kennedy Center's balcony has a gorgeous view of the river, but with no way for visitors to get to it, it's just the backdrop to the lobby. The center has tried to bridge the divide for decades with several schemes for grand staircases. But they had proved too costly for the Kennedy Center to do without federal help.

The designers the Kennedy Center hired, Steven Holl Architects, proposed something more clever than stairs. Their proposal featured three white pavilions: two sitting in a garden atop buried practice rooms and one across a bridge over the parkway, floating in the water. With arts activity in the nearby parkland, the Kennedy Center was not just visually connected to the green space, but rather was functionally mixing with it.

The expansion is still happening, but it's going to be more conventional

The new proposal features a shorter bridge across Rock Creek Parkway, ending at a sculptural ramp and staircase down to the riverfront trail. To keep the blend of park and arts space, the designers placed planters and benches along the route. Alternating solid and minimal railings extend, framing views of the river similarly to how the windows in the pavilions do.

View looking from across the bridge down to the Potomac and Rock Creek Trail.

The cafe and performance space that occupied the floating structure will now go in a third pavilion east of Rock Creek parkway. The multipurpose space will seat 160 people in a space with views of the river. Toward the land, the pavilion overlooks a reflecting pool through a retractable glass wall.

Moving that pavilion makes it harder to spontaneously drop into a show. On the other hand, the architects noted that it will make back-of-house activities like cooking and moving instruments easier since the new location sits atop the expansion's buried infrastructure.

The relocated river pavilion encloses the park area more.

The reorganization does change the the way the site connects to the city. The new location of the river pavilion may make the upper-level garden feel more enclosed and internal. On the other hand, since visitors won't have to pass through the floating pavilion to get to the upper-level park it may feel more public.

Interior of the new River Pavilion, configured as a cafe.

Opposition arose during the federal process

The Commission of Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commission's professional staff supported the original design on the basis of extensive engineering studies. But at NCPC's December 2014 meeting, testimony from recreational boaters and Georgetown residents persuaded commissioners to rejected the staff report and give only partial approval.

Critics singled out the floating pavilion as a problem. The NCPC's chairman, Preston Bryant, who represents Virginia, said he believed the building went against federal directives not to build in flood-prone areas.

Boaters and Georgetown residents favored an alternate scheme that did not put any structures near the river, including the bridge across the parkway. This second design came from the project's environmental assessment, which requires federal agencies to study a few alternative solutions to their needs. For buildings of this size, the second or third designs are usually just a formality. Not here.

Top: The new design. Bottom: The environmental assessment's Alternative B.

The revised scheme uses the environmental assessment's Alternative B as a starting point, but adds the bridge and landscaped ramp. When the architects presented this design at the May 7th NCPC meeting, several commissioners who had criticized the design earlier reacted positively, indicating future approval.

View up the access ramp and toward Georgetown.

There's still a long road ahead of the project

The change in the design means delays. Peter May, the National Park Service's representative on the NCPC noted that the Park Service would have to re-do parts of its environmental assessment and cultural resource studies because the connection to the park is too different from any of the original alternatives to proceed.

May suggested that there could be a separate study for the bridge, allowing the Kennedy Center to proceed with construction. Still the Commission of Fine Arts will have to grant a second conceptual approval to the design, the architects will have to work out some of the design again. For this and other reasons, the Kennedy Center expansion won't open until 2018.

Washington's process is difficult. Still, this project's arc shows that it is possible to bring distinctive architecture and placemaking to the Monumental Core, with the right attitude. The designers and their client didn't simply do what critics asked, or fight back endlessly. They relied on their expertise to do it in a way that is true to the rest of the design. That is hard, and they deserve credit for it.

Public iterations of the expansion. Clockwise from top right: September 2013, December 2014, February 2015, May 2015.

Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is blessed with over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap to visit. Here's a rundown of the very best, all of which you can get to by taking Metro or the bus.

The Smithsonian Castle garden. All photos by DC Gardens on Flickr.

Smithsonian Gardens

The easiest to access are the Smithsonian Gardens, a collection of gardens in and around many of the museums on the National Mall that counterbalance the dark halls of fossils and spacecraft.

The Smithsonian Gardens are comprised of 12 distinct spaces. They range from the Victory Garden, a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Museum of American History, to the contemporary Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

You can get to all of the Smithsonian gardens by Metrorail and bus, and they're all free. A lot of them also host regular tours and other educational programming. The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden's tour, which is hosted by a horitculturist every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October, is one of the best.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall is the US Botanic Garden, a great place to enjoy native plants. In warm months, there is nothing more stunning than the blazing yellow-orange Amsonia with the National Museum of the American Indian in the background, and the glass conservatory is my place to get away from the long, dull gray of winter.

Mark your calendar: the Botanic Garden is open on both Christmas and New Year's Day, and it hosts a holiday garden railroad display.

Because the Architect of the Capitol runs the Botanic Garden rather than it being part of the Smithsonian, it can close unexpectedly, like when it hosts fundraisers for legislators. Make sure to check before you visit!

The US Botanic Garden.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If crowds aren't your thing, check out the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk the mile there, but the H6 and the 80 buses get you even closer.

The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays around Easter, but there are stunning roses in late May and early June, and later in the summer there are tropical gardens that even feature a few palm trees.

Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but it was infrequent and eventually ceased service a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance.

The National Arboretum.

Among the Arboretum's unique collections are the sun-filled Gotelli Dwarf Conifer Collection (dwarf being a very relative term) and Fern Valley, which is shady and full of ephemeral woodland wildflowersin the early spring. Also, the National Herb Garden includes hundreds of species of herbs and visiting is a scent-filled, interactive experience.

The Arboretum is run by the US Department of Agriculture, and in recent years it has been more about research than public outreach and education. But the new director, Dr. Richard Olsen, comes from a horticultural background rather than an administrative one, and local gardeners hope that means a change of focus.

The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is open every day of the year except Christmas. Recently, it was closed three days a week because of sequestration, but that didn't last thanks to fundraising by Friends of the National Arboretum.

The Arboretum's grounds are large and it would take several visits to see it all. Plan to visit often and in all seasons to see how the gardens change throughout the year.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the metro to Deanwood and walk over.

Once there, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself. A former waterlily nursery now a national park, this is the true hidden oasis of the city.

The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

The Aquatic Gardens are also a wildlife haven. Both photographers and birders frequent the gardens in the early mornings, leaving before the heat of the day. They are missing out though, as the hundreds of waterlilies and lotus open up in the direct midday sun. The best time to see them is during July and August.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. To get there, take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.

The Bishop's Close.

The secluded, walled garden is downhill from the south-facing side of the Cathedral, giving it a great view of the building. The garden itself is sunny and bright, which helps the roses and English-style perennial borders grow, but there are also some shady, quiet spots.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, local parks systems run Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, both of which are free to enter. Reaching either by transit takes a combination of Metrorail and bus, but they're both worth it if you're looking for an afternoon outside of the city. Of course, better access by transit would make these gardens even more valuable to their surrounding communities.

Green Springs Garden.

There's a lot more to gardens in DC than a once per year trip to see the cherry blossoms bloom. DC Gardens, a new local nonprofit, sprung up this spring to help spread the word about the city's great public gardens to both tourists and residents. On DCGardens' website, you'll find month to month calendars for lots of our public gardens, along with listings for events, festivals, and activities going on at each.

This post originally said the US Botanic Garden closes unexpectedly to host fundraisers for legislators. In fact, the Garden doesn't allow fundraisers of any kind.

Fairfax trades a parking lot for a new park

Old Town Square in Fairfax used to be a park that nobody used because it was wedged between two parking lots in the middle of the city's small, historic core. Now it's bigger and more inviting, and it's helping Fairfax embrace its urban roots.

Looking towards University Drive and North Street. All photos by the author.

In its former life, the park was called Kitty Pozer Garden, and it sat next to a city-owned gravel parking lot with space for about 25 cars. A lot of that parking lot is now part of the new park.

The extra space allowed the city to install a splash pad where people can cool off in a fountain during the summer. The fountain has a waterfall feature, and there's seating all around as well as a new clock.

The Old Town Square site is sloped toward the intersection of University Drive and North Street, and in the future it will play host to public performances and other community events.

View of the park from across the street. Photo by author.

The new development and historic buildings around it help frame the park. Old Town Hall, which the city now uses for events, is next door, and both the City Fairfax Regional Library and some mixed-use buildings the city built in 2008 (which also replaced some surface parking) are across the street.

Photo by the author.

Like its neighbor Falls Church, the City of Fairfax doesn't have room to grow outwardly since it's an enclave within the much larger Fairfax County. The solution is to become more dense, and parks help ensure efforts to do so include green space.

New bike racks in the park. The remaining parking on the site is in the background. Photo by the author.

In a way, Fairfax is recreating the small, walkable core that it had before shifting its focus to move lots of cars along Chain Bridge Road and Main Street. Old Town Square, a project that was years in the making, will help bring people back into the heart of Fairfax.

The data proves the DC bag fee is working

DC's bag fee has been a success, despite the insinuations and inaccuracies in a recent Washington Post "expose." Plenty of numbers say we're using fewer bags because of the fee.

Photo by the author

The article's authors point to a handful of data points to make the case that the five-cent fee on plastic bags isn't cutting bag usage in the District. But they mischaracterized or took a lot of it out of context, and they simply ignored additional data that contradicted their headline-grabbing argument.

According to several independent studies, in less than five years and for a cost of $.05 per bag, bag usage in DC has dropped by more than 50%.

It's tough to get a count on bag use, both past and present

It's hard to measure how much bag use has gone down since the fee went into place in 2010. Because the District didn't study how many bags retail stores were distributing or assess how many bags residents used in a typical week before the fee, there is no exact baseline number.

To get a starting point, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer used on a 2004 Seattle study to estimate that DC used 270 million bags annually, or 465 bags per resident. Since DC's daytime population tops one million, it's reasonable to think the OCFO's number is actually an underestimate.

And while DC could do a waste sort to estimate how many bags residents are using now, that'd be inexact as well, and we'd be left comparing an estimate to an estimate. It's also unreliable to use revenue collected from the bag fee to assess the change in bag use, as compliance rates change, the District's population has increased by more than 12%, and more than a dozen new grocery stores (among other retailers) have opened since 2010.

These numbers say bag use is way down

The Post article cites the 2013 OpinionWorks study, the product of a partnership between the District Department of the Environment, Alice Ferguson Foundation, and Anacostia Watershed Society. It used results of a survey that asked 600 residents across all eight wards how many bags they used per week before the fee took effect and compared the numbers to how many they use now.

Survey participants reported taking an average of ten bags per week before the fee, and only four bags now, a reduction of 60%.

Chart from OpinionWorks.

The Post article did not include the rest of the study, which also included an extensive survey of 177 businesses subject to the bag fee, including both chains and independent stores, large and small, from across the city. Canvassers visited businesses, looked at receipts showing bag purchases before the fee and after, and reported the number of bags given to consumers. The survey found businesses reported giving out 50% fewer bags than before the fee.

Chart from OpinionWorks.

The Post article claimed the Alice Ferguson Foundation overstated the drop in how many bag its volunteers for its annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup have collected at DC cleanup sites since 2007. But after the article went to print, AFF staff reviewed its data and confirmed a 72% decrease in bags collected in the years before the fee versus after.

Chart from Alice Ferguson Foundation.

This reduction should be taken in context, as the counts are performed by volunteers and participation, weather conditions, and vegetation levels can change the counts from year to year. But even with that caveat, it is very noteworthy that the only jurisdictions with reductions in the number of bags collected during cleanups are the District and Montgomery County. Although the cleanups occur in several jurisdictions, these are the only two with bag fees.

Chart from Alice Ferguson Foundation.

Additional research yielded evidence that bag fees have influenced consumer behavior in the Washington region. In 2014, Sierra Club volunteers observed shoppers leaving chain grocery stores in the District, Montgomery County, and Prince George's County.

Among 20,000 shoppers in all three places, 53% in DC and 57% in Montgomery County used at least one reusable bag, or no bag at all, to carry their purchases. Meanwhile, in Prince George's County, which has no bag fee (despite years of trying), fewer than one in every ten shoppers had a reusable bag.

Whether they're from self-reported experiences, observational data, or cleanup data, all the numbers show the same thing: bag fees encourage consumers to use far fewer plastic bags.

The Anacostia River has a long way to go before it's fully healthy, and plastic bags are far from the only pollution problem. But charging a nickel to get people to think twice about using a plastic bag has proved to be a valuable tool for kickstarting the river's restoration.

Downtown DC doesn't have many playgrounds, but that could change

DC's fast-growing downtown neighborhoods have new restaurants, offices, and apartments. But there aren't many playgrounds. Thousands of children will be born in the District in the next five years. Where will they all play?

Image from DCDPR.

An official map of DC's parks blooms like a colorful garden, with flower-shaped asterisks used to represent new playground projects forming a bright circle over the city.

A second look, however, reveals a problem: the circle is more like a wreath, with park and playground improvements planned for the outer neighborhoods, and lots of blank spaces left downtown. There's parkland, but almost no outdoor play space for kids in the center of the District. Parents say this poses a challenge to the city's livability.

A map showing planned and proposed playgrounds in the District. Image from DPR.

"When you have a kid between 18 months and three years old, you suddenly realize that you need space for them to run and play," says Danielle Pierce, a playground advocate and co-founder of Downtown DC Kids, an online group dedicated to making DC accessible and livable for families. "You can't just put a kid down on the ground in Dupont Circle and expect them not to eat condoms."

With the city growing, more kids need playgrounds

In many ways, DC has become a victim of its own popularity. There are now more kids than there used to be in many neighborhoods, and many people wanting to raise their children in places that did not used to be heavily residential a few years ago.

The public's response to being able to live close to where they work created a rate of demographic change in DC that has surprised everyone. Ward 6 alone has added more than 8,500 new residents between 2000 and 2010. The city anticipates that overall, more than 114,000 new residents will arrive in DC by 2020; 40,000 of those are expected to be children.

City agencies have struggled to keep pace, because keeping families with young children from moving out of the District is seen as a true sign that the city is flourishing economically.

In addition to good schools, parents often rank access to safe, clean parks and playgrounds as top priorities when it comes to real estate options. Many who are worried about issues like childhood obesity and "nature deficit disorder" want places where their children to can get outside for exercise, fresh air and access to green space regularly. So as the city seeks to retain its attractiveness to parents, officials are seeking to add more play space for everyone in all neighborhoods.

In its 2014 report detailing the city's new Play DC playground improvement initiative, the Department of Parks and Recreation announced an ambitious goal: to have "meaningful greenspace" of at least one-third of an acre (less than the size of Dupont Circle) within a half-mile of every resident's home.

"That means a space where there's some level of recreation, whether it is passive or active," says Ella Faulkner, a planning and design officer with the parks department. "It should be pleasing, safe, and functional."

The agency is first working to improve, upgrade and enhance existing playgrounds across the city that are in disrepair after years of neglect.

So much federal land complicates things

Putting in new play space, though, is turning out to be a real challenge in a city where real estate is at a premium and more than 74 percent of existing parkland is owned by the National Park Service (NPS). Many of those NPS "open spaces" in downtown neighborhoods are already filled with statues or intended as memorials, and not amenable to jungle gym additions or even raucous free play.

What's more, NPS budgets are relatively slim and do not usually include playgrounds.

"For the last twenty-five years there has been a continuing decline of resources made available to the National Park Service to do anything," says Ellen Jones, thedirector of infrastructure and sustainability for the Downtown Business Improvement District.

NPS does have a separate National Mall and Memorial Park unit, which has responsibility for the "most sacred spaces" in DC. No one would disagree that should be the agency's priority. Those spaces are heavily visited, she adds, and NPS has been under increasing pressure to enhance security since 9/11. That leaves the non-Mall parks in DC with less attention and resources.

Even so, many groups around the city have been working to re-invent their relationship with the federal agency in hopes of meeting neighborhood needs, too.

"We tried to be as inclusive as possible in the plan and not just look at the DPR properties," Faulkner says of the Play DC evaluation process. "One of our goals is to do more collaborative planning with other groups and agencies."

Business groups want to help find solutions

In the case of Franklin Park downtown, several groups have come together in an almost unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination. NPS, DPR, the DC Office of Planning, the Downtown DC BID, elected officials, and several parent groups have been meeting since 2013 to discuss and implement a series of park enhancements that will transform the northeast quadrant of the park into a family-friendly nature-based "children's garden," coupled with public restrooms and an outdoor café by 2017.

A proposal for the "Children's Garden" at Franklin Square Park, which DC is working on revamping with the National Park Service. Image from the Franklin Park Vision and Transformation Plan.

It might strike some as surprising that a business improvement district would take on playgrounds as one of its key interests. But it is clear that safe, attractive, well-loved parks are seen as a boon to both residents and profit-driven companies.

Hotels downtown, Jones points out, avoided being associated with Franklin Park in the 1980s and early 90s when prostitution and drug dealing were rampant there. Park safety has improved significantly since that time, but the area still lacks amenities parents and children would actually want to use. Jones says the hotels eagerly await the day they can brag about the new play space to tourists, and hope it will bring increased revenues from families.

Kids need space to roam

Neighborhood schools and day cares probably await that day as well. Right now, anyone downtown at lunchtime is likely to see groups of preschool children loosely lassoed together with ropes for safety, being led down busy, traffic-filled streets, or circling around seated in nine-passenger "super wagons."

By law, all day care centers must take children outside for one hour each day, but without any open space, the children are unable to run free, climb, or use swing sets the way many parents would like because such structures and spaces simply don't exist within walking distance.

Thomson Elementary School, a public school around the corner from Franklin Park, also currently lacks outdoor play space. Instead, each floor of the multi-level building has an indoor area for children to use during recess; something many downtown parents have noted as sad, frustrating, and potentially unhealthy.

"Franklin Park is like a beacon of hope," says Claire Schaefer Oleksiak, the president of the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District, which sits just northeast of Chinatown and Judiciary Square. Like downtown, Mount Vernon Triangle has been marked as a neighborhood in need of more open space for recreation.

Some ongoing projects provide reason for optimism

There are some promising projects on the horizon: two small lots at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Fifth Street NW could be developed as play space or playgrounds in the near future as part of a proposal from the Peebles Corporation, which paid $28 million for development rights to a vacant lot across the street last May.

The developer's bid to the city included a promise to enhance the National Park Service-owned lots in the coming years and make them more usable for the community, although it is unclear how much play space the project would actually include.

There's also a tantalizing prospect that Cobbs Park, which just a few years ago was used by the homeless as a makeshift encampment area, could be turned into a family-friendly park. At the moment, that piece of land is buried under backhoes, piles of concrete pipes, and other heavy equipment, as it is being used as staging for Capitol Crossing, a mixed-use, 7-acre development site under construction above I-395 and Massachusetts Avenue.

The plan is to turn Cobbs Park back into park space once construction is finished, Schaefer Oleksiak says. Because it's already owned by the District, the renovation could be relatively straightforward compared to other projects. "We'd like to engage the community and design the space to be more usable, have more amenities, and possibly include a playground. It could even come back better than it was before. It is a space ripe with opportunity."

Parents remain skeptical, however, that a space so close to an I-395 off-ramp could be safe or child-friendly. The parks department says that a realignment of traffic is planned as part of the area's long-term plan.

"When you hear somebody say 'I want to be able to walk to a playground,' what they are really saying is that they want to be able to walk to a playground with a five-year-old, or a three-year-old," says Michelle Martin, who lives with her own five-year-old daughter in Mount Vernon Triangle.

There's a big difference, she says, between walkability for an adult and for a young child. Crossing multiple lanes near a highway with a tiny person is a big challenge, even with a stop light.

Martin wonders if there could be more investment in small, pop-up, temporary parks and small child-friendly spaces in existing streetscapes.

"We tend to look at playgrounds in the literal sense: that it has to have a slide and a swing and things like that," Martin says, referring to herself and fellow parents. But through meetings with MVTCID, she has begun to question those preconceived notions.

"In cities where you have a smaller space to work with, you have think outside the box to come up with play spaces. We may not have the huge space like Franklin Park to create a playground. But we may want to put a small climbing structure in the corner or hang a swing from a lamppost."

NoMa has a foundation dedicated to helping

Like downtown and Mount Vernon Triangle, growth in the District's NoMa neighborhood has been astoundingly fast, and surprisingly full of children. Where just two decades ago there was a large number of vacant lots, there are now shiny condos and apartments bursting with young families.

Both planners and political leaders underestimated the strong desire Millennials would have for short commutes and the increased demand the public would have for long-term housing in the neighborhood. The lack of set-aside park space during re-development has been widely acknowledged as a planning oversight.

In 2012, the NoMa BID created a separate non-profit organization, the NoMa Parks Foundation, to try to address the situation. DC provided $50 million in funding for the group in its 2014 budget.

"The opportunity to create parks in NoMa diminishes with each new building that is constructed," says the group's website. "With the rapid pace of development, it is now urgently important to move the NoMa parks mission forward."

"The private sector understands that you can't have a great neighborhood without parks," says NoMa Parks Foundation president Robin-Eve Jasper, who works to coordinate public and private neighborhood projects.

Although one attempt by the NoMa group to get a small public park space near Metro fell through after some initial negotiating, the foundation is now working acquiring vacant space on the southwestern side of a lot owned by Pepco. The land, which is north of New York Avenue and sandwiched between Harry Thomas Way, NE, on the west and the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) on the east has been labelled by the NoMA BID as "the best and likely last opportunity to provide an expansive open green space in the neighborhood."

Jasper anticipates a playground will be installed at the front of the site; the other acre or so of land at the northern, back part of that same location would be open green space to serve as "the backyard of the neighborhood."

The community, she notes, has requested safety checks to make sure nothing dangerous is coming out of the site's existing substation before beginning. The current design proposals also call for a play structure that can easily be moved offsite and then put back into place as needed so that the utility can continue to function on the property in the coming years.

But just as with the other properties around the city under discussion as new playground space, NoMa's new parks may take as long as two years to develop.

Martin and Pierce, the two parent playground advocates, say they have a bet going how long it will take the city to finish the huge play space at Franklin Park. They both think by the time it opens, their kids won't want to climb or run on it—they'll want to sit on park benches nearby and kiss their boyfriends there.

But both agree they will keep pushing for publicly accessible, large or small play spaces as much as they can in the meantime.

"It will make the city a better place to live," says Martin. "Not just for parents like me, but for everyone."

A version of this post originally appeared on ElevationDC

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