Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

Better management can transform downtown parks into gems

It takes more than a tuft of grass to make a good urban park. Some of the best downtown parks in America have non-profit management organizations that produce spectacular results. It's time for DC to join them.

Photo by thisistami on Flickr.

DC is unusual in that the vast majority of the city's parkland is under National Park Service (NPS) control. While this arrangement spreads the cost of local parks across all American taxpayers, it also shackles the parks to restrictive and sometimes uncompromising NPS regulations that have hampered events, food sales, bikesharing, and change in general.

NPS regulations are great for preserving Yellowstone, but not so great for making city squares lively.

Other cities have found that municipal control of parks can be just as disappointing. In the case of New York's Bryant Park, for example, it wasn't until the city turned the park's management over to Bryant Park Corporation, a non-profit, that it went from being a dilapidated den of crime and drug needles to a vibrant space where residents feel welcome.

Bryant Park, New York. Photo by brianac37 on Flickr.

Because BPC isn't part of a municipal government, it's been able to bypass onerous procurement rules. Its full time management staff host events like fashion shows and holiday markets year round. It also cleans the park everyday, works with food vendors, and maintains a temporary ice rink, outdoor ping-pong tables, chess sets, and porch chairs.

Bryant Park's full time staff is something a lot of conventional parks just don't have. At a park panel at the 2010 ASLA conference, Jerome Barth of the Bryant Park Corporation noted that its staff can repair benches the day they break and rearrange movable park furniture as crowds change throughout the day. Imagine DC's parks getting that kind of attention to detail!

Bryant Park, New York. Photo by Mat McDermott on Flickr.

The District could do the same with a lot of the downtown parks that NPS currently controls. The result would be parks that were both more attractive and more useful, and land near these public gems would surely go up in value.

There is already some political support for making the shift. While campaigning, Muriel Bowser told the told the Committee of 100 that if elected, she'd improve downtown parks:

I would work with federal officials to transfer jurisdiction of the many park spaces currently managed by the National Park Service so they have better amenities and programming for residents and visitors to enjoy. Freedom Plaza in particular is an area particularly well suited to the creation of a central park, though I would not limit my focus to this one location.
In its recent environmental assessment for renovating downtown's Franklin park, NPS contemplates a new management system where private partners could explore ways to generate revenue and share responsibility for park maintenance. The private partner would be held to NPS standards for maintenance and preservation, and NPS staff would be free to attend to other nearby land like the National Mall and its surrounding memorial parks.

In DC, good candidates include Franklin Park, Mt. Vernon Square, Farragut Square, Dupont Circle, and Freedom Plaza. Georgetown Waterfront Park, Meridian Hill Park, and the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park are other good candidates outside downtown. Whether the District created a single partner for each park, or one to manage them all, would depend on exactly what each park needs.

Funding sources for parks organizations can vary, from government appropriations, to a special assessment or share of recordation taxes on surrounding property, to vendor fees. Whatever the funding source, the rise in land value would help the District's bottom line.

Other cities have successfully managed parks this way. Aside from Bryant Park, New York uses similar non-profit groups for the High Line (Friends of the High Line) and Madison Square Park (Madison Square Park Conservancy). A local BID-type organization, Union Square Partnership, maintains Union Square.

In Philadelphia, the non-profit Historic Philadelphia Inc. operates Franklin Square, which contains a carousel, a miniature golf course for kids, food concessions, a playground, bathrooms, and a holiday light display.

Non-profits provide the bulk of these parks' operating revenue, and they maintain them as high-quality, attractive public spaces that are open and free to the public.

Union Square, New York. Photo by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr.

Washington deserves top-notch urban parks. We already have an abundance of parkland, and if it were free of so many management constraints, our parks could reach their full potential.

Bikes in the snow in the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

Photo by nevermindtheend.

The National Mall. Photo by Payton Chung.

Photo by Clif Burns.

Yards Park. Photo by Rob Cannon.

Rosslyn. Photo by Brian Allen.

Union Station. Photo by Mark Andre.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Cities worldwide are building beautiful, landmark pedestrian and bicycle bridges. Could Georgetown be next?

A new bicycle and pedestrian bridge may one day connect Georgetown with Roosevelt Island. Some recent bridges like this in other cities have become iconic landmarks. Could DC do the same and compensate for its freqently lackluster bridge designs? Here are a few of the world's great pedestrian bridges.

London's Millennium Bridge. Photo by Dominik Morbitzer on Flickr.

Such a bridge was part of Georgetown's recent 15-year action plan and made it into DC's MoveDC citywide transportation plan last year.

Where the bridge could go. Image from the Georgetown BID.

Many cities have built new bridges as opportunities to showcase distinctive design while adding vital pedestrian links. The London Borough of Wandsworth is sponsoring a design competition right now for a new footbridge across the Thames.

Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava designed the glass-floored Sundial Bridge across the Sacramento River in Redding, California.

The Sundial Bridge in Redding, California. Photo by David W Oliver on Flickr.

Photo by dwhartwig on Flickr.

London's Millennium Bridge opened in 2000 to bridge the Thames between the Tate Modern to St. Paul's Cathedral. The bridge is tall enough to allow river navigation, but short enough not to obstruct the historically protected view corridor of the cathedral.

Photo by Duen Ee Chan on Flickr.

Photo by andre.m(eye)r.vitali on Flickr.

The Simone de Beauvoir Footbridge has been undulating across the Seine in Paris since 2006.

Photo by Tim Brown Architecture on Flickr.

Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz on Flickr.

The crescent Gateshead Millennium Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, tilts back to allow ships to pass.

Photo by Ian Britton on Flickr.

Photo by Martin Sotirov on Flickr.

The Henderson Waves bridge soars 120 feet over a valley in the Southern Ridges park of Singapore. The bridge deck provides shade and seating areas to view the park valley.

Photo by edwin.11 on Flickr.

Photo by Steel Wool on Flickr.

Although it spans a relatively short distance, Sarajevo's Festina Lente Bridge features a playful loop that shades a seating area midway across the bridge.

Photo by the author.

Could one of these bridges come to DC?

Such a connection would provide many advantages. Although the island is inside the boundaries of the District of Columbia, visitors can only access it from Virginia. Visiting the island requires a half-mile walk or bike ride from Rosslyn down the Mount Vernon Trail. There's a small parking lot on the Virginia shore, but it fills up quickly on warm weekends, and drivers can only reach it from the northbound GW Parkway.

A bridge from Georgetown would give District residents and visitors easier access to this wooded and marshy parkland, which serves as a stark contrast to the dense urbanization of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.

The view from Georgetown Waterfront Park. Image by the author.

Georgetown Waterfront Park (left) and Roosevelt Island (right) as viewed from the Key Bridge. Image by the author.

There isn't money for the bridge today. MoveDC lists the bridge as a second-tier priority, meaning it is not within DC's six-year capital plan. DDOT planner Colleen Hawkinson said external factors, such as outside funding or public support, could shift the bridge's priority.

Even if funding arises, multiple federal agencies will have to act. The National Park Service controls the island and would have to agree to any changes. MoveDC classifies the bridge as a bicycle transportation project, but the National Park Service, which controls the island, prohibits cycling there. The National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission on Fine Arts, which are providing advice on the Frederick Douglass Bridge replacement, would play a strong role in reviewing designs.

Any project will require an environmental analysis which could take years (one for a proposed boathouse on Park Service land on the Arlington shore of the Potomac is dragging on into its third year, for example). If the bridge does come to fruition, it will be years away, but it would be a major asset to help people enjoy and appreciate the Potomac River.

Events roundup: Fare hikes and transit updates

Fares may rise on Virginia rail, and changes are coming to the Blue Line corridor in Prince George's County and the GW Parkway. Learn about federal transit funding and make sure to save the date for the Greater Greater Washington birthday party!

Photo by Jim Larrison on Flickr

Virginia railway fare hike: The Virginia Railroad Express, Virginia's only commuter railroad, plans to raise its fares. If you didn't have a chance to weigh in last week, you have three more chances this week:

  • Tuesday, February 24, 7-8 pm at the Burke Centre Conservancy, 9837 Burke Pond Lane
  • Wednesday, February 25, 12-1 pm at the Crystal City Marriott, 1999 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington
  • Thursday, February 25, 7-8 pm at Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center Street in Manassas
After the jump: Blue line corridor, GGW birthday bash, the GW Parkway and more.

Blue Line corridor: Do you live along the Blue Line in Maryland? Prince George's County is planning to improve pedestrian safety, foster transit-oriented development, and more along its Blue Line corridor. Join the planning department for an update on the project this Thursday, February 26, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Omega Room of St Margaret's Catholic Church at 410 Addison Road South in Seat Pleasant.

GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is turning seven and we want you to help us celebrate! Join us for cake and merriment on Wednesday, March 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Lost and Found at 1240 9th Street NW. See you there!

GW Parkway transit assessment: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle beween Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches of the area on Tuesday, March 3, from 5 to 8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's Build America Investment Initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at

Even more development may come to North Capitol Street. Will transportation be ready?

A whole new mixed-use neighborhood may soon arise on a portion of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the large 272-acre estate off North Capitol Street. Will the new neighborhood become an isolated suburban island, or integrate into the urban fabric of the city?

The Armed Forces Retirement Home-Washington. Image from AFRH.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home, also known as the Old Soldiers' Home, has been serving resident retired and disabled veterans since 1851. Abraham Lincoln spent much of the Civil War there and wrote the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in the historic Anderson Cottage.

The home operates as an independent federal agency with its own trust fund, and in 2002 Congress authorized leasing some of the land to raise funds to keep the home afloat. A 2008 Master Plan proposed carving out 80 acres on the southeast corner, along North Capitol Street and Irving Street, for the development.

Possible layout of future buildings, from the 2008 master plan.

The General Services Administration will soon start soliciting developers for the project, which will have to go through substantial federal and local review.

What will happen to North Capitol and Irving?

This isn't the first time the home has shrunk. This 1948 map shows the home's land extending all the way to Michigan Avenue, encompassing what's now the Washington Hospital Center, the VA Medical Center, National Rehabilitation Hospital, and Children's National Medical Center.

National Geographic 1948 map, detail around the AFRH. Click for an interactive version where you can fade between old and new.

That part of the land was a dairy farm and orchards until the hospitals replaced them. North Capitol Street used to end at Michigan Avenue, but was extended all the way through the estate. Between the hospitals and the Soldiers' Home appeared a new-freeway-like road, Irving Street.

Where Irving and North Capitol meet is a large suburban-style cloverleaf interchange. It's the only full cloverleaf in DC and a relic of a time when people assumed that freeways would cut through most District neighborhoods.

In 2009, the year after the Armed Forces Retirement Home finished its Master Plan, the National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning came out with their own study of the cloverleaf. They considered ways to replace it with an intersection more appropriate to DC, such as a circle.

The four options from the OP/NCPC study. Left to right, top to bottom: The current North Capitol interchange, the "parkway/memorial," the "circle," the "four corners."

It would be an enormous lost opportunity for this development to go forward without a decision on how to change the intersection. If AFRH builds around a cloverleaf, the new neighborhood will turn its back on the interchange and create a permanent, impenetrable wall.

On the other hand, if there's at least a plan for the cloverleaf area, the architects could design internal roads and pathways to connect to future buildings between AFRH's property and the intersection.

While a walkable circle or other design would only serve AFRH at first, it would open up opportunities for future changes at the VA hospital site, development on Catholic University's land east of North Capitol, which the home sold to the university in 2002.

How can people get here?

Today, the easiest way to reach this area is by car. The 80 bus travels on North Capitol, but most of the existing developments (like the hospitals and the Park Place condominiums southeast of the cloverleaf) turn their backs on those streets. The proposed McMillan Sand Filtration site will engage North Capitol somewhat, but still has a large landscaped setback (in large part, to please neighbors) and buildings front onto interior streets.

The same goes for the conceptual design in the AFRH plan

Possible future roads. Image from the 2008 master plan.

These buildings primarily turn their backs on North Capitol and Irving and face a new street. There is a grid of streets, and if North Capitol and Irving stop being near-freeways, more of the streets that radiate from the historic Pasture could intersect urban boulevards.

If that doesn't happen, will buses have to wind through this area to be at all appealing for residents and workers? Transit works best when the densest uses cluster along a linear corridor rather than in self-contained office parks and cul-de-sac neighborhoods.

DC doesn't have room for massive amounts of new traffic. This project contemplates 4.3 million square feet, twice what's being proposed at McMillan and more than what will come to the Walter Reed site along Georgia Avenue. There has to be good-quality, desirable transit from all directions.

Already, many feel that the transit plans for McMillan are still a weak point. If another three McMillans of development are coming in this area, it's time for the District to get working on the transit that can go here. In the best case, the Yellow Line could branch off Green and run here; barring that, this should get high-quality light rail or bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes and frequent service.

A circle or other urban intersection at North Capitol and Irving can be a centerpiece of that, if DC and the federal government can agree on what to build. If so, the AFRH development can focus around the intersection instead of standing away from it.

Will governments be ready?

This project is still years away, and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will be involved as it moves forward. Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT said:

We have had initial discussions with AFRH representatives as they prepared for their solicitation. They are still at a very preliminary stage. ... We will be working with them on a comprehensive transportation report (CTR) similar to how we work with developers on large and small projects. ... With major development projects like AFRH, this process can often take years and multiple iterations. With McMillan, we probably had discussions over about 2-3 years as their designs and program evolved.
As for the cloverleaf, nothing has yet come of the study. NCPC spokesperson Stephen Staudigl said that "the buildings could be built in a way that could connect to any future traffic circle redevelopment," but added, "While NCPC remains interested in replacement of the North Capitol Street Cloverleaf, we have not done any work on the project since completion of the study."

GSA spokesperson Kamara Jones was unwilling to be quoted on the record.

Zimbabwe said DDOT is working on starting a study of the general cross-town transportation issues between Brookland and Columbia Heights through this area, including but not limited to the cloverleaf. DDOT is "starting the consultant selection process," so it's still in the early stages as well.

Reconfiguration of the cloverleaf would be a pretty expensive undertaking, and something that is not currently in our capital program.​ The whole of area around the hospital center and in this broader east-west corridor is a real challenge in terms of providing multi-modal options, and there will likely need to be quite a bit of investment needed. As the timing of the various development projects becomes a bit more defined, I think each of these things will interact and we'll be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity.
Residents will have to watch this project closely as it moves along to ensure that DC plans and budgets for the transportation necessary to make it successful. The other option is to get behind the curve or let a bad and un-urban design, like today's cloverleaf, become even further entrenched.

New security at Fort Myer blocks a major bicycle connection

Fort Myer is tightening security starting this week, which will severely restrict or eliminate the chance for people on bikes to traverse the base. It's now even more urgent to build new bicycle links that get people through and around this area.

Photo by Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall on Flickr.

The base, Joint Base Fort Myer/Henderson Hall, wraps around the west side of Arlington Cemetery. It has long been open to people commuting by bike, and it represents one of the few ways past major barriers like I-395, Washington Boulevard, Arlington Cemetery, and the Pentagon.

Some details are still sketchy, but it appears that the base will limit those without a Department of Defense or military badge to entering through the Hatfield Gate on 2nd Street South, and those who can enter will be subject to much more intense scrutiny.

It may be possible to get a "visitor's pass" by submitting to fingerprinting and an ID check, but those passes will only work for 30 days. According to one account on the Washington Area Bike Forum, "there is ongoing debate about whether Ft. Myer will allow ANY pass-through traffic at all."

People use the base as a bike route

People on bikes frequently use Ft. Myer for two important routes. The first is traveling between central Arlington and Pentagon City or Crystal City. I-395 and Washington Blvd block most travel between these areas.

The only reasonable alternative to cutting through Ft. Myer via the 2nd Street Gate and Southgate Road gate is to ride on Columbia Pike. But the section of Columbia Pike around Washington Blvd has no bike lanes, substandard sidewalks, no available parallel routes, major construction, high-speed traffic, and a long slow hill to climb no matter the direction you are traveling.

The next closest legal routes are to go north around Arlington National Cemetery or south to Four Mile Run.

Blue line: The route cyclists could take before the closure.
Red line: The route they must take now.
Green: The possible route with future connections.
Maps by the author on Google Maps base map.

Fort Myer is also important to traveling between DC (using the Memorial Bridge) and central Arlington. Many people currently go through Fort Myer using the 2nd Street and Marshal Drive gates.

The trail on the south side of Arlington Boulevard has a new section which helped provide an alternative, but it is still inferior to riding through the base. There are several major hills between Iwo Jima and the start of the trail, the north side trail west of Pershing Drive is in bad condition.

Blue line: The route cyclists could take before the closure.
Red line: The route they must take now.
Green: The possible route with future connections.

Arlington is working on better alternatives

There are plans to build far superior alternate routes, but they are years away, have faced major delays, and are struggling against organized opposition.

The Washington Boulevard Trail would connect the current trail stub beneath Route 50 along Washington Boulevard and up into Towers Park and South Rolfe Street. While this wouldn't fully solve the problem for people trying to bike to and from Pentagon City, it would eliminate one scary and dangerous part, the long slow climb up Columbia Pike to Courthouse Road.

The Washington Boulevard Trail is facing continued opposition from neighbors concerned about losing trees. The county has re-routed the trail once already to lessen the number of trees it would affect, going so far as to get a new easement from the Navy to avoid several trees.

The county will also follow it's extremely progressive tree replacement formula, planting many more trees than are cut down, and it has committed to concentrating them in the area of the project. Nonetheless, opponents are calling for a second re-route, placing the trail immediately adjacent to Washington Boulevard and requiring an additional easement from VDOT which is unlikely to happen.

The Hoffman-Boston connector would create a new road, accessible to bicyclists, pedestrians, and emergency vehicles, near Hoffman-Boston Elementary School. The Army Navy Country Club granted Arlington an easement to connect the Arlington View neighborhood off Columbia Pike with the country club's access road beneath I-395.

When coupled with the Washington Boulevard trail, this would provide a safe, low-stress alternative to get from central Arlington to Pentagon City. The county's current capital plan has the connector slated for construction in 2023.

The Arlington Boulevard Trail: Arlington has had a project on the books for years to upgrade the Arlington Boulevard Trail from Pershing Drive west to where it currently wraps around to connect to Washington Boulevard. At one time it was slated for construction in 2013, but at this point it doesn't even have a web page.

Improving this stretch would help those cyclists trying to reach DC via Memorial Bridge, but to really make this connection great, Arlington and VDOT need to work together to fully complete the Arlington Boulevard Trail as envisioned by WABA, including a new connection to the Roosevelt Bridge.

Arlington has little influence over most of the land in this area

The security change at Fort Myer highlights a common issue for Arlington when planning cycling infrastructure: Major portions are outside of the county's control. The National Park Service controls the Mt. Vernon Trail as well as all of Arlington's access to the Potomac riverfront. The Pentagon controls access to the trail near the 9-11 Memorial as well as the bridge to LBJ Grove.

The W&OD trail is controlled by the Northern Virginia Parks Association and while Arlington "owns" the Custis Trail, it is located within VDOT's right-of-way. While Arlington needs to continue working collaboratively with these partners, it also needs to take control of its own cycling destiny by building alternative infrastructure.

Meet the "eruv," a creative way to mesh ancient religion with today's urban and suburban spaces

We discuss all kinds of transportation challenges here at Greater Greater Washington. But observant Jews face a unique barrier: on the Sabbath and other holy days, they can't drive cars or ride the bus. Symbolic structures called "eruvim" are examples of how a community adapts to the surrounding built environment.

Jewish law prohibits doing "work" during a total of 1,500 hours each year. That includes driving and also carrying many objects outside one's home. However, an eruv (plural "eruvim") creates a symbolic private space, inside which it's religiously permissible to do things like carry house keys and books, push strollers, and walk with canes.

To qualify as an eruv, there needs to be an unbroken boundary surrounding an area, but it can be as thin as a piece of string. They're typically cobbled together along existing buildings, fences, and telephone and power lines.

Eruvim around the Washington region

There are nearly a dozen public eruvim in greater Washington, and many more private ones enclose lots with single- and multi-family residences. Much of DC is inside two eruvim, and eruvim wrap around approximately 40 square miles in Montgomery County. There's also an eruv enclosing the University of Maryland's College Park campus.

2012 eruv boundary map from WAMU. Click for an interactive version.

As cities and populations have changed, so have eruvim

Urban eruvim originated in Medieval Europe; Walled cities formed the perfect enclosure, but as cities burst their seams and sprawled into the countryside in the 18th and 19th centuries, the physical boundaries came down.

Observant Jews searched for solutions to keep the Sabbath during changing times. In the 1860s, German rabbis cleverly used telegraph poles and wires, a new kind of communication infrastructure, to creat eruvim boundaries.

String connects a telephone pole to a Beltway sound wall to form part of the Woodside eruv in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

The first American eruv appeared in St. Louis in the 1890s. Others, in New York City, followed in the next decade. Rabbis used a segment of the Third Avenue El to create the western boundary of the Lower East Side's first eruv; seawalls along the East River bordered it on the east, and poles and wires formed its northern and southern borders.

The Third Avenue El tracks formed the western boundary for Manhattan's first eruv. Postcard photo by the author.

Eruvim later came to Queens and Brooklyn in New York, but they were limited to large cities until the Cold War. By the mid-1970s, though, as Orthodox Jews moved into ranches, ramblers, and split-level homes in inner-ring suburbs and outlying residential subdivisions, they had exploded into less dense areas. There are now more than 200 public eruvim in the United States and Canada.

Orthodox Jews have also adapted the built environment to their religion

With synagogues and housing going up in areas that are less dense, with fewer sidewalks, more freeways, and the shopping malls that are signatures of sprawl, today's observant Jews face new obstacles in building eruvim.

Desire line inside a suburban Atlanta, Ga., eruv. Photo by the author.

From Montgomery County's Kemp Mill to Atlanta's Toco Hill, where neighbors call observant Jews "the walkers," Jewish families make their way to synagogue on Friday nights and Saturdays. They use sidewalks where they exist, and they hug road shoulders where they don't. Both cases are a reminder of the need for sidewalks and a focus on pedestrian safety.

Walking to synagogue in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

In fact, planners in Atlanta have used pictures of "desire lines," worn into the grass alongside roads where there are no sidewalks to recommend more connectivity in their communities; in some cases, they attribute those lines to Orthodox Jews walking on the Sabbath.

As planners continue to retrofit Washington's suburbs, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to look up at the wires overhead and ponder some of the ways historically urban people have adapted to suburban sprawl. Sometimes the solutions are as simple as some string and imagination.

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