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Park Service, Wells helping downtown get a playground

Downtown DC is in desperate need of a playground, and with the help of the National Park Service and Councilmember Tommy Wells, the District may just be able to get one.

Photo by xcode on Flickr.

Peter May from the National Park Service told residents that NPS may be able to turn over some of the vacant park space near Mount Vernon Square to the District to house a play area.

Still, it will be a long road—a transfer would likely take a year, and money must be found to actually build and maintain a playground. If you are interested in participating in this effort, please come to a meeting this Wednesday.

For the past year, Downtown DC Kids has headed up efforts to create a safe outdoor play space downtown. It quickly became clear that identifying a parcel of land was our number one challenge. We raised this issue last fall at the community panel that Eleanor Holmes Norton held with the National Park Service, and I requested NPS cooperation.

After the meeting, Peter May, Associate Regional Director for Lands, Resources, and Planning with the National Capital Region of NPS, approached us with his business card offering to join us on a walking tour to look at the property. We had already been talking with Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the DC Council's commitee overseeing parks, and organized a group tour to see how NPS and the District could work together to build the much-needed playground.

The early December walking tour was an amazing show of cooperation on all fronts. Besides downtown playground advocates, May, and Wells, we had Bob Vogel, Superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks; Steve Lorenzetti, Deputy Director of National Mall and Memorial Parks; Daniel Connor, Deputy Director, DC Council Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning; and, members of the Washington Interfaith Network.

As a group, we spent over two hours walking around the neighborhood identifying potential sites for playgrounds and figuring out how to work together to make them happen. Almost all of the sites visited will require participation by both DC and federal officials, and in this meeting, we saw that such cooperation is possible.

Our walking tour included the four small pocket parks surrounding Carnegie Library; Milian Park, on the northeast corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 5th Street; Franklin Square, between 13th, 14th, I and K; and Pershing Park, on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th.

Mt. Vernon Square pocket parks are best immediate opportunity

NPS officials felt that the 4 pocket parks surrounding Carnegie Library ought to have already been transferred to the District along with Mt. Vernon Square. Peter May said that the NPS would be willing to turn the land over to the DC government to accommodate play areas in those currently-empty spaces.

Mount Vernon Square and its associated pocket parks. Image from Google Maps.

The small parks have a lot of potential for varied use and would be a great way to enliven the overall space. They could become an attraction and leave the open lawn of Carnegie Library as a place to gather for picnics or other activities.

To make that happen, Mayor Gray needs to send NPS a letter requesting the land. Tommy Wells promised to ask the mayor for such a document. This will start the process of creating what will, with any luck, become a world-class play space near the Convention Center.

Why downtown needs a playground

Right now, there are absolutely no playgrounds in the downtown DC area. Since the area is only newly residential, there was little need for playgrounds years ago. As more and more children move in to the neighborhood, they need space to play where parents needn't fear they will run into the streets.

The problem affects more than just downtown DC residents. School children from the surrounding areas lack sufficient play space, too. It is ironic that the closest public elementary school to the White House, Thomson Elementary, has absolutely no outside space to play.

First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Campaign has, as one of its primary goals, to get kids outside and active. Yet, these kids have absolutely no opportunity to do so. Moreover, the children in this school are at high risk of suffering from obesity, as over 75% of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunch. It is unacceptable that these children get absolutely no opportunity to play outside.

To appreciate the severity of this problem, all you have to do is walk around the downtown area in the mid-morning on any weekday. You are sure to see some of the hundreds of toddlers and preschoolers being walked around on ropes by daycare supervisors. Much of the time, those children are not headed for any particular location, because there is nowhere for them to go. Instead, the caregivers are simply walking them around the block, strung together for safety, day in and day out.

Regulations require that the children spend this time outside, but neither the District nor the federal government (which controls most of the open space in the area) is providing a place for them to go to play. Those kids who are lucky enough to be in government daycare do have access to playgrounds, but those are fenced in and closed to the public. As a result, many children spend much of their childhoods holding onto a rope instead of learning to run and jump.

Until our parks catch up with the rest of the world-class development taking place in our capital's downtown, we will never have a truly healthy neighborhood. It will benefit all of us to reprogram our park spaces to be useful and beneficial to all.

Although the need is clear, it has proved difficult to meet because many different entities control the park space in downtown DC. Much of the property is federal land. Some is District land, some is private land, some is federal land leased to the District, and some is federal land turned over to the District which in turn leases it to private entities.

As a result, Congressional oversight, historical considerations, and the need to reserve space for future memorials all complicate considering any change to downtown green space. In short, it will take a lot of cooperation among numerous entities in order to bring play space to the neighborhood.

We are very thankful to everyone for the time and effort that they have already put into this project and that which will be necessary to fully realize our goals. Every child needs access to a playground, and we are very happy that NPS and the District government are willing to work together to meet this need.

If you are interested in helping us move forward on any of these initiatives or have other ideas for play spaces in downtown, please join us for our meeting Wednesday, March 14th, 6 pm at Calvary Baptist Church.


Add a comment »

Thomson School has a giant playground on their roof enclosure. Every lunch the children scream almost directly into my office.

by 13th and L on Mar 13, 2012 9:52 am • linkreport

Unless something has changed greatly in the past few months, there is no playground on the roof of Thomson. The noise you are hearing is the children running around the dark, interior, low-ceilinged, garage-like space below the roof. The children refer to this space as the dungeon.

by Danielle on Mar 13, 2012 10:23 am • linkreport

Why not create a playground/park on part of Penn Ave in front of the White House? I realize govt vehicles still need to drive in this area but there's enough room for a few secret service SUVs and a playground. Maybe Michelle Obama's office would be willing to spearhead this effort just like they stood up the Vermont Ave farmer's market?

by Falls Church on Mar 13, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

Stevens has a playground, but whether or not they open(ed) it up to non-students is something I don't know. Of course, it's been (short sightedly) closed for a couple of years now, so I'm not sure if anyone uses it, I seriously doubt it. Which is a waste.

by Jazzy on Mar 13, 2012 10:54 am • linkreport

Why not build one in Franklin Square? It is near enough to Thomson School so that it can be utilized by its students. The square is already larger than its demand at this time, so no childless adults will be missing the space that a playground will occupy.

by engrish_major on Mar 13, 2012 11:13 am • linkreport

I think playgrounds DT are a really good idea for both the locals with families and for tourists with young children. Many of the parks already mentioned are good candidates: Franklin Sq, Lafayette, McPherson, Mt. Vernon, and so on. They can be made to fit into a corner of the squares with some nice cast iron fences around them to blend in with the character of the squares. I've seen this in some of the squares in Manhattan.

by dc denizen on Mar 13, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

@Jazzy - Great to know about Stevens. KaBOOM! just posted information about Joint Use Agreements on Facebook this morning.

@engrish_major - We totally agree! We discussed Franklin Square during our walking tour. That will take multiple years to plan. We hope to write a post about it in an upcoming post.

by Caroline Armijo on Mar 13, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

Hi Caroline and Danielle - while sympathetic to your desire to get a playground and not wanting to derail the process, no one has contacted the Board of the Mt Vernon Square Neighborhood Association or the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District as of yet. Letters of support from our groups could help the process. I would also suggest notifying Jack Evans' staff as soon as possible since all the sites you've suggested are in his Ward. Also, you'll probably want to notify the various ANC's (esp. Rachelle Nigro) around the area and the Convention Center Neighborhood Association. Martin Moulton stepped down as President of that org, but I'm sure he can tell you who replaced him.

A fellow Board member and myself are going to try and attend the meeting tomorrow night. The other board member also represents the Condo Board of the City Vista (5th and K), which has looked into this issue and can bring some experience. We look forward to helping in any way possible.

- Sam Shipley

by Shipsa01 on Mar 13, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

Sam - Thank you for your support. We should definitely be working with all the groups that you have mentioned.
It has been quite a challenge coming up with a complete list of groups and making all of the contacts. One of the purposes of this post is to try to get a greater reach to make sure we are discussing it with all the interested parties. I'm very glad that it has reached you, as it sounds like you will be a great help on this front.

We would also love to get Jack Evan's support - we have met with his staff, but so far he has not been willing to meet with us personally. If you could help us to get him on board, we would be greatly appreciative.

I hope to meet you tomorrow night so that we can discuss in more detail. Thanks again!

by Danielle on Mar 13, 2012 12:21 pm • linkreport

I hope this isn't a park that gets built then abandoned, like the Sursum Corda playground on New York & Kirby.

But I do like the idea, and it would be great to see it integrated with the Mount Vernon Square vision, though built a bit sooner.

by OctaviusIII on Mar 13, 2012 1:22 pm • linkreport

Octavius, you mean the 'Washington, DC Open-Air, 24/7 Drug Fair' at NY and Kirby?

by Shipsa01 on Mar 13, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

We need something more creative than the traditional swings, slides, and monkey bars. Something kids can climb on but which has aesthetic appeal or educational value. In the former category is The Awakening sculpture that used to be on Hains Point. In the latter category is the "pizza playground" at the National Zoo.

I wonder if the Smithsonian Institution could ever be talked into using the grounds of any of its museums to create a space that kids can explore physically. We have two sculpture gardens on the Mall, but neither of them has a single sculpture that can be climbed on. Even the Museum of Natural History is made up of look-but-don't-touch exhibits.

We need a sculpture contest for American artists to design something that is beautiful, intriguing, educational, and requires one to interact with it by climbing on, running around, or jumping into it.

by Ward 1 Guy on Mar 13, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

There's a playground at the rec center 3 blocks away. I rarely see anyone use it during the day this time of year. I suspect that the "need" for something downtown is more than a matter of convenience. besides, in the DC area, people move to "kid friendly" neighborhoods where you never see kids outside unless its some organized activity. I used to dog sit for a colleague in Rockville (the pretend Potomac part), which even had its own park with a playground. The only people I ever saw outside were other dog walkers. This seems pretty common anytime, I go into other neighborhoods of this strata or higher. Oddly, when I go to other cities, this doesn't seem to be the case.

by Rich on Mar 13, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

I like the way you think, Ward 1 Guy. We may run into some difficulty getting anything on the actual Mall, but I think we should try it all. And, playable art is exactly the type of thing we are thinking of for some of the spaces that we have considered. I love the sculpture contest idea!

by Danielle on Mar 13, 2012 2:58 pm • linkreport

Isn't that library building landmarked? Depending on how the landmarking was written up, there might be historic preservation consideration issues (probably design-related) over and above the historic preservation considerations owing to the playground being situated in the Mt. Vernon historic district. My suggestion would be to learn what these constraints are now so that additional costs don't come about from having to re-design the playground at various points of its approval process.

by Lance on Mar 13, 2012 2:59 pm • linkreport

Have you considered that the reason you don't see kids on a play ground is that there is no playground for them to play at?

Where is this rec center? Is it downtown? For my personal example I see plenty of kids in the playgrounds in my neighborhood and down the street at the park but maybe kids in Arlington are just different than kids in DC (they aren't)

by x on Mar 13, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

@Ward1, I like the sculpture contest idea as well. But I don't like the Smithsonian aspect of your post. They should not be in the business of providing playgrounds for kids.

by HogWash on Mar 13, 2012 3:13 pm • linkreport

We are definitely interested in innovative play spaces, not necessarily the stereotypical single play structure. It is amazing how a thoughtful space can engage a small child.

But mostly we need an outdoor space that is enclosed so that parents can relax while children do their work - play!

These comments have been very helpful in moving our efforts forward. We hope that anyone who is interested can come to our meeting tomorrow night.

Also, I meant to include the link for the Joint Use Agreements in my previous comments. But I was a little distracted by my toddler at the time.

by Caroline Armijo on Mar 13, 2012 4:47 pm • linkreport

x, the rec center referred to above is probably the kennedy rec center at 7th & p nw.

by sb on Mar 13, 2012 9:44 pm • linkreport

Way to go, thanks so much for what you're doing to get this going! A fantastic play space will be such a welcome addition to this neighborhood!

by Chrissy @ on Mar 14, 2012 10:24 am • linkreport

Please let us know if you would like any help planning your new playground. Sparks At Play is DC's local representative for Landscape Structures, Inc. play equipment . We have supplied and/or installed many innovative playgrounds in an around DC such as Whittier, Janney, Murch, Powell, Bancroft, Hearst, Eaton, Shepherd, Takoma, Bruce Monroe, Burroughs, Langley, Wheatley, Brent, Watkins, Houston... And we have about 4 more in the works for DC right now.

by Sandy Fritz on Mar 14, 2012 1:55 pm • linkreport

SInce 1990, there has been a toddlers playground at Walt Whitman Park on E St. between 19th and 20th Streets NW that has been used by the day care centers near the White House. It was originally planned and developed by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board Small Savers Child Development Center in cooperation with the National Park Service.

by A. Loikow on Mar 14, 2012 2:47 pm • linkreport

Put it on the National Mall - where people might actually use it.

by FJay on Mar 14, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

I believe the Rec Center being referred to is Stead Rec Center, located on P street, between 16th and 17th.

However, that's more a "dupont circle" park than a downtown one. I'm in Logan's circle (13th and N). There is a park at the school on 1200 S Street, NW. However, because it's affiliated with a school there are restrictions on when it can be used. As a result, the playground is always empty. I took my daughter there one Saturday but left within 15 minutes as there were no kids there, but there were a few teens smoking weed. Didn't strike me like a good spot for my 3.5 year old.

In downtown proper, there's zilch. My daughter goes to Thomson and on days when I pick her up we have to walk about 8 blocks to get to the closest "neighborhood" playground. It would be nice if there was something closer by. How about Logan's Circle itself? Now that it's no longer the center of DC's red light district, the park seems to attract plenty of dog owners. Why not turn part of that circle into a fenced in playground?

by EP Sato on Mar 26, 2012 12:12 pm • linkreport

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