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Public Spaces

Could Longfellow Triangle be more of a real park?

Longfellow Triangle is one of many lightly used, leftover spaces on the L'Enfant grid. With some creative thinking, the city could turn it into a more useful and enjoyable public space.

Photo by cliff1066 on Flickr.

The triangle is bounded by Connecticut Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue, 18th Street, and M Street. While it would make sense to have a circle there, one never developed, likely because Rhode Island Avenue ends at the intersections rather than continuing through. The triangle's mirror image on the grid, where Massachusetts Avenue meets Vermont Avenue, is Thomas Circle.

Currently, Longfellow Triangle is too small to be a useful park, and too isolated by traffic to be a good plaza. Putting a circle there now is impossible, but with a little bit of street reconfiguration it would be possible to make it a bigger and better triangle park.

This is a map of the existing conditions at Longfellow Triangle:

Existing conditions.

Look at how wide the streets are that surround the triangle. Connecticut Avenue is 6 lanes, not counting its generous median. 18th Street is 4 lanes. M Street is 5. All of them have on-street parking, although the parking lanes are used as through lanes at peak periods.

If the city repurposed the parking lanes on each surrounding block and used that width to add to the triangle, the park space could be dramatically enlarged with little reduction in street capacity. On Connecticut Avenue the median could be repurposed as well, or it could substitute for one of the parking lanes.

These images show how that might work. In the left image, parking lanes and the Connecticut Avenue median are identified in red and orange. In the right image, the orange spaces are shifted towards the triangle, and the travel lanes are correspondingly shifted outward.

Shifting the parking lanes towards the triangle would increase usable park space.

The end result would be a considerably larger triangle, one with enough space to begin to take on some of the functions of a true city park. Instead of containing just a row of benches and some shrubs, the space would be large enough for tables, flower beds, and possibly a small lawn. Today's underused leftover could become tomorrow's Dupont Circle or Farragut Square.

The down side is that around 30 on-street parking spaces would be lost, and peak period street capacity would drop slightly. This seems a very reasonable price to pay for a greatly enhanced public space.

Other potential complications include the final placement of DDOT's proposed M Street cycle track and the National Park Service, which is notoriously hard to work with. Neither of these hurdles appears to be a deal breaker, however. The cycle track will only take up a few feet, and if NPS reconfigured Thomas Circle in 2005 they might be willing to reconfigure Longfellow Triangle now.

Obviously this idea would require a considerable amount of additional study before it could be deemed practical. But if it is practical, the upside for urban livability might be tremendous.

Final result: An enlarged park.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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'If the city repurposed the parking lanes on each surrounding block and used that width to add to the triangle, the park space could be dramatically enlarged with little reduction in street capacity.'

I'm pretty sure that at least some of those lanes serve double duty as rush hour lanes. I know I sometimes come up 18th during evening rush, and a bottle neck develops there after that extra lane reverts to parking use. I don't see DDOT wanting to exacerbate an existing problem ...

by Lance on Aug 31, 2011 10:49 am • linkreport

Take a horrible traffic intersection and make it worse all to make a statue in the middle of traffic into a park that will be too noisy and smoggy to be a pleasure.

Turning Thomas Circle into a usable park or making Scott Circle less of an obstacle for pedestrians would be better ideas.

by Rich on Aug 31, 2011 10:52 am • linkreport

Can someone tell the anti-car zealots that their real mission is to remove free parking, not paid street parking. They keep messing that up. Thanks.

by charlie on Aug 31, 2011 11:18 am • linkreport

I don't see this as a priority. This is a utopian nice to have if most of our other downtown parks were already programmed. Making this park marginally larger and spending millions to redesign, landscape, redo stonework and add tables, etc is not where precious funds need to be directed.

Franklin Park, Mount Vernon Square, Chinatown Park and Thomas Circle are presently much more awful yet have vastly more potential to be vibrant than this Longfellow Triangle. They need to be the focus.

by Jason on Aug 31, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

Why not just close 18th street and make the triangle an extension of the sidewalk/pedestrian area ?
Why not commission another beautiful neo-Classical sculpture to complement this already nice figurative sculpture? How about another philosopher - we could have a park dedicated to these folks instead of just military and legal heroes.
We do not have NEARLY enough good public sculptures in DC and they stopped commissioning the good ones by the 1950's and went over to trashy modernist schlock and welded steel atrocities. Yes- I agree- this could be a better park. Enlarge it !!!

by w on Aug 31, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport

Funny, I was actually thinking about this today as I walked past Longfellow park on my way to work. The statue itself is beautiful and it's a shame it's not more prominently used.

It would be nice to add more space to the park, but that kind of move would definitely come at a cost to car and bus commuters. This intersection regularly backs up at 18th Street (as noted above) and CT Ave also gets a fair share of gridlock due to people turning east or west.

That said, it seems to me there are two other existing obstacles to broader enjoyment of this park:

1. It's not really designed to be all that welcoming. Yes there are benches, but you only get to them by climbing stairs and navigating the elevated planter beds. If the park were re-graded to make it all street level, small lawn areas installed to be more inviting, and some of the the benches replaced with tables/stools, it could be a much nicer spot for surrounding office workers to enjoy lunch outside.

2. Many homeless and/or mentally ill people camp out in this park. That's a big turn off for non-homeless people given the park's small size. I don't know what can be done about this issue.

by Anon2 on Aug 31, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

I work near this park and while I wouldn't argue against improving it, per se, I question whether it would be a good use of city funds to do so. When I go there -- during lunch and immediately after work -- there are often many other people using the space. There's lots of seating (not just on benches, but on the low-slung walls) and ample shade on hot days.

Also, I've never seen many (maybe any) homeless folks camping out here and I'm there nearly every day. I also ride by it in the early morning on my commute and never really see folks there, but perhaps they are early risers.

In the grand scheme of things, there are many other parks that could use much more sprucing up. Gaining a couple of hundred square feet (after what would probably be a long fallow period of construction) aren't worth it.

by Elle on Aug 31, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

interesting idea. Best to bring it up with the Golden Triangle BID as they are in the position of being able to bring about such changes, which could be piloted without substantive reconstruction.

Parks and public space plans/programs ought to be done for all BID districts such as where this one is, and a coordinated program capturing the variety of spaces makes sense.

Given that the BID is engaged in a median greening program, they'd likely be interested in this idea.

(I thought I blogged about this but I didn't.)

by Richard Layman on Aug 31, 2011 1:56 pm • linkreport

the 1400 Block is slightly smaller than the 1700 Block downtown, so 14th Street intersects with M, Mass, and Vermont at Thomas Circle. 18th Street is slightly off of the intersection of M, Conn and Rhode Island, so there was not a circle.

by Rick on Aug 31, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport

I work across the street from this park (in fact I can see it out of our office windows. I have conflicting opinions on what to do about its pitiful present condition.

I take Metro to work, and I carpool in the evening 1 or two days a week, and 18th Street does develop a bottleneck as it crosses M Street. This is mainly because the left hand parking lane does not revert to a through lane during peak periods, and 4 lanes go down to 3. At 6:30 (still well within rush hour), the right hand lane turns back into a parking lane, making 18th Street into a 2-lane street, and further exacerbating the traffic situation. At this point, it becomes even more dangerous for bikers on 18th (which are numerous) as cars jockey for position and bikers try to squeeze between. Add a large number of commuter and local buses to the mix, and permanently closing two lanes of traffic on 18th becomes disastrous.

That said, I think the park as it is now is unacceptable. I rarely make use of it because it is inhospitable during the day. Most of the shade trees don't cover the benches, there is nothing to drown out or block the traffic noise, no fountain to engage park-users, no nothing. I don't think that the solution is to make it *bigger*, however. I believe it should be turned into a type of "secret garden" landscape. The edges should be lined with tall evergreen bushes (maybe with a taller brick wall), while inside lush ground landscaping, a water feature or two, and nice benches should provide a relaxing oasis in the middle of the Golden Triangle. I would use the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden between the Hirshhorn and Arts & Industries Building on the Mall as my inspiration. It is one of my favorite respites in an otherwise largely barren landscape.

by Eric on Aug 31, 2011 2:26 pm • linkreport

The beauty of this park currently is that it is a small green space on the axis between Farragut square and DuPont circle. I work nearby to this park and on most nice days it is in use pretty heavily from 11 am to 2 pm by people sitting and eating their lunch. Could it use some sprucing up, I guess, but is it failing in its current use. Not at all.

Furthermore, the plan to narrow streets to enlarge this park is laughable. Every evening, the M and 18th street intersection is a nightmare. In inclement weather, or during earthquake induced evacuations, this becomes a major gridlock zone. All of the streets that meet here are pretty major arteries downtown, if you constrict any of them you'll just make surface traffic worse.

But getting back to my main point, what is the point of enlarging the park? Is it to allow more people to use it, make it more beautiful, or to make it "better" by some ineffable benchmark? This park works as it is, if it ain't broke don't fix it.

by Spencer on Aug 31, 2011 4:41 pm • linkreport

To address the comments that people have made that this park doesn't "block out the traffic" or that it is missing the grand feature of a fountain, might I remind people that Dupont Circle is merely three blocks away, which, while a busy traffic circle manages to do all of those things. In addition, Farragut Square is also two block away, which serves the needs of providing a large grassy area with shade trees and places for people to sit and eat food from the food trucks.

Not all parks need to be all things to all people. I've always liked this park because it has a very distinctive character: a small nature respite in the middle of an urban corridor.

by Spencer on Aug 31, 2011 4:45 pm • linkreport

While I wouldn't oppose some of these ideas to spruce up Longfellow, I think the effort and money required would be better spent decking over the depressed sections of Connecticut Ave adjacent to Dupont Circle, which I believe you have addressed before. The net result would be more park space, in the same general vicinity.

by ZZinDC on Aug 31, 2011 5:02 pm • linkreport

I think this park is just fine. It is used by a lot of people during the business day, especially for eating your lunch or catching a break with a coworker. In fact it is like a little urban oasis and honestly despite its size has a more park-like feel than a lot of the bigger parks. I would hardly call it "leftover" space. More like a niche for office workers to get out in the sun during lunch.

by eagles on Aug 31, 2011 6:02 pm • linkreport

I thought the plan was to remove the park completely and replace it with a Metro stop when (and if) they separate the Blue Line?

by Shipsa01 on Sep 1, 2011 12:15 pm • linkreport

Thanks for your comments Spencer. I agree. Not enough thought is given to the original design of things in DC, especially not on blogs!

by Jazzy on Sep 1, 2011 3:43 pm • linkreport

Dropping in late here, but mildly amusing story:

That park is the emergency gathering point for my building - so when there's a fire alarm, that's where we all go. Just fine.

But when we had that earthquake recently, and all the buildings in the area evacuated, we rapidly discovered that the park was the emergency gathering point for pretty much everyone in the neighborhood.

So a bunch of us packed it in and went for frozen yogurt.

(and when the weather is nice, there are plenty of people sitting there)

(But that intersection is a mess - really ought to have been made a traffic circle. I cycle in along RI Ave, across to M St. and it sometimes takes three light cycles to get across CT Ave.)

by Tom on Sep 8, 2011 3:57 pm • linkreport

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