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Snow


How would you grade the region's snow response?

The Kojo Nnamdi Show is asking how you would rate your government's response to the snowtorm, your neighbors', and your own. At 12:40, I'll be on the show to discuss this, and I asked our contributors for their ratings.


Photo by Clif Burns on Flickr.

Joe Fox gave a succinct set of ratings:

  • PEPCO/Dominion/BGE: A+. Don't forget what a disaster the last few real storms have been. Teaming up w/ plow trains & tree trimming crews meant that what problems that did pop up were fixed, and fast.
  • WMATA communication: A. They were ahead of the needs, and explained what they were doing and why.
  • MNCPPC [Montgomery and Prince George's parks agency]: A. Many of the county park roads were cleared, with bonus points for sanctioning sledding hills this year.
  • DC Government: B. Execution was good, but farther from downtown was rough. Bowser had some head scratcher remarks on cars vs. peds, as well as why no travel ban that were a bit hard to comprehend.
  • WMATA execution: C. Is it still a surprise that when OPM gives a three hour delay, that rush hour will happen three hours later, and to set up service accordingly? Even with trains every 8+ minutes, still no 8 car trains...
  • Citizens: C. These storms bring out the crazies, I noticed a lot more anger this time than in 2010. But sidewalks on private property were cleared faster than before.
  • Montgomery, Prince George's, and VDOT (handling VA counties): D+. They did what they could, but were woefully overmatched. Clumsy declarations of victory and broken data trackers brought up comparisons with PEPCO of days gone by.
  • National Park Service: F. [See below.]
Contributors' views varied, but overall, there was a good amount of consensus. Here are some key points and ratings, broken down by agency.

The National Park Service

The Park Service controls a lot of downtown parks and major trails around the region, but does very little on snow clearance. Contributors unanimously agreed it flunked the storm.

  • David Cranor: "The Park Service deserves a very low grade. The Mount Vernon Trail is one of the only ones that was not plowed (thought I don't know about the Rock Creek Park Trail). Sidewalks along NPS property were untouched. I realize they're budget limited, but something needs to be done."
  • Neil Flanagan wrote back on Monday: "On my walk to work, through downtown to Georgetown, most government sidewalks were walkable (if not clear), with the exception of NPS."

Photo by Bill Couch on Flickr.

WMATA

  • Kristy Cartier: WMATA gets an "A" for communication.
  • Abigail Zenner: I agree with Kristy about WMATA. Our ANC has battled with WMATA about better explanation on bus route changes. I was irritated they went to severe snow routes Friday morning, hours before the storm was due. BUT, they were very clear about when and where service would be restored and it was exactly as they said, at least in Glover Park.
  • Dan Malouff: WMATA I think was OK but a bit too gun-shy on closing everything early, and hasn't clearly communicated some stuff about reopening. For example, it's understandable that some buses have to go on detour, but Metro seems to have no system in place to let riders know if their bus is detouring or not.
  • Mathew Friedman: I rode the G2 to work Thursday morning for the first time since last Wednesday. It doesn't run from the "moderate" snow plan on up. Neither does the G8, which is a major route running down Rhode Island Avenue. From my neck of the woods, those are the only 2 bus lines that run downtown and for a full week, neither was running. I can at least walk 5 blocks to Shaw Metro if I need to, but for folks further out, that's not an option. I would think that taking so long to bring these bus routes and many others back online must leave a lot of people stranded.

    Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.
    • Steven Yates: WMATA's response was...mixed. Trying to shelter the trains was maybe a good theory, but the execution was obviously not great. Would it have been better to run the trains underground on Saturday instead? I'm inclined to say no, just because you probably don't want to be encouraging people to be out and about. The running of trains for free on Monday was certainly a nice gesture.
    • Travis Maiers: Metro is still operating at reduced service levels. They are apparently still short railcars due to the blizzard. I give them high marks for communicating their storm plan and being realistic on when service could be resumed, but I feel by now, 5 days later, they should be back at full service. Their plan to shut down the system for safety and to store railcars underground was prudent, but I'm not sure it was executed as well as it could have been.
    • Svet Neov: I think WMATA did pretty well, since almost everything was running on Tuesday. At my stop (Grosvenor) they did a great job cleaning the sidewalks—those were done wayyy before the parking lot was.
    DC
    • Abigail Zenner: I thought they did a great job all things considered. Even northern cities have trouble with storms of this size. I grade them a B+ or A-. The poor rhetoric notwithstanding, DC did well.

      I thought that many District agencies did a good job communicating on social media and through emails to ANCs. My ANC colleagues would then send information to our lists.

      [The Department of General Services] promised to clear areas around DCPS schools by midnight Monday and Tuesday morning, the sidewalks all the way around Stoddert Elementary was cleared including curb cuts and bus stops. I have never seen these walks cleared so fast. I did also tweet at DCPS, Stoddert, DPR, and DGS.


    Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.
    • Steve Seelig: From a cycling perspective in DC, it was great. I rode from Friendship to downtown on both Monday and Tuesday, and because only part of the roadways were plowed, there was plenty of room in the curb lanes to ride where a car could not fit.

      As for biking infrastucture plowing: an A+ for the Capital Crescent Trail -plowed from Bethesda to Georgetown. An F for NPS on any of its trails. DDOT gets a C+ for just getting to the L Street, M Street and 15th Street bike lanes.

    • Justin Lini: In DC's Ward 7, snow removal was a bit inconsistent. Parkside and a number of other communities saw plows nearly every day of the storm. In some cases, even blocks with public housing were cleared during the storm. However, some of my neighbors in other communities didn't see any attention at all until Monday.

      The Mayor's office also did daily briefings by teleconference with the ANCs. These were useful because they communicated DC government's plans so we could set expectations, but they also keyed us in on potential trouble. They also assigned us extra staff liaisons that could help resolve issues with trouble spots.

      We were able to get an important pedestrian bridge cleared by Monday evening. In the past this bridge was never consistently cleared even in routine snow events. I don't know if the other ANCs used their liaisons, but I found mine to be a good partner. I don't know if previous administrations employed this measure, but I thought it was very effective.

      Uncleared sidewalks are a huge problem in the ward. As of Tuesday many property owners, especially large apartment buildings and retail areas, did not clear sidewalks along some high volume corridors like Minnesota Ave NE. In some cases contractors had blocked sidewalks or intentionally used them to store piles of snow. Many crosswalks are also plowed over. The decision not to enforce sidewalk clearing laws on these properties until late was a big mistake that shouldn't be repeated.


    Mayfair Mansions, Ward 7, on Tuesday. Photo by Justin Lini.
    • Steven Yates: I can't really speak for other jurisdictions, but in my time here, I've been mostly impressed with how well DC handles large amounts of snow, given that these sorts of storms don't happen that often (oddly, smaller amounts of snow they seem to do less well with). This storm has been no exception. The street I live in (which is by no means a major street) was at least passable a few hours after the snow ended.
    Alexandria & Arlington

    • Ned Russell: Alexandria streets were far worse [than in DC] both for cars and pedestrians, not to mention the DASH bus service did not run even on a limited schedule to serve rush hour on Tuesday. Sidewalks across the station that peds need to use to access Braddock Road were not cleared until this morning.
    • Svet Neov: The only complaints, other than slow sidewalk cleanup, I've heard is dead end or small streets in Arlington which didn't get plowed until [Tuesday] night.

    King Street Metro. Photo by Justin Henry.

    Montgomery, Prince George's, and Fairfax

    • Ben Ross: "I grade MoCo an A- on street clearing but an F on sidewalks. Our businesses, at least in Bethesda, did very well on sidewalks, much better than in past big snowstorms. [But] 27 hours after it has finished opening the roads to cars, the county has announced, it will begin accepting complaints about unshoveled sidewalks.begin accepting complaints about unshoveled sidewalks 27 hours after it finishes opening roads to cars. Ike Leggett announced "common sense" enforcement of the snow shoveling law. In my mind, common sense means that if you have shoveled out your driveway, you should have shoveled the sidewalk.
    • Kristy Cartier: In Fairfax County, the roads had at least one lane Tuesday so I'd give them a B+ (only because there are disappearing lanes). For sidewalks, I would give a D. One person was walking on Rte. 50 near Rte. 28 and two people were standing on Reston Pkwy Wednesday morning waiting for the bus. I hope that the addition of the Silver Line stations improves Fairfax County's response to clearing at least some of the sidewalks.
    • Matt Johnson: I didn't have any trouble [Wednesday] morning. But [in the] afternoon, I had to go to an appointment in the city, and drove to Glenmont. On my way from Glenmont to the ICC, I discovered that the 3 northbound lanes are essentially functioning as 1. The curb lane never appeared, except for the dashes periodically peeking out from the edge of the snow. The center lane would run for a few blocks and then suddenly, without warning, disappear, forcing drivers to swerve into the left lane, the only one left.

      In addition, pedestrians were walking in the lane, since the sidewalks were impassible, and unaccessible from the buses that run on Georgia. On the day after the storm, this might be acceptable. But several days later, on one of the region's most important radial corridors, this is quite intolerable.

    • Joe Fox: I've noticed that roads maintained by both state agencies (MD SHA and VDOT) fared the worst, by far. I've posted several tweets about Colesville Road this morning, which, despite having the ability to reverse lanes, has gone from 3 lanes to one the last two days, wreaking havoc in the neighborhoods, and with a slew of bus lines.

      To me, the fact that county/local roads/sidewalks/paths seemed to fare a lot better brings to mind the argument that counties (Montgomery, Fairfax), should follow the lead of the independent cities in their respective states and take control over their transportation infrastructure (save for perhaps interstate highways and maybe toll roads) from the state agencies, who are simply not equipped to handle local issues like intersection design, traffic signals, and snow clearing.


    Photo by Aimee Custis.

    Overall

    • Svet Neov: Given the amount of snowfall I would give the region a B. I flew home on Monday morning after being stuck in Texas and used almost every mode of transportation in several places around the area. The airports were back up and running on Monday (as normal as possible). I flew into BWI which seemed to have no problems.
    • Ned Russell: After reading the discussion and thinking about all the things that go into snow response, I give the region a B-. But there are a lot of things that could have been done better.
    • Canaan Merchant: I'd give it a B-. For what we can expect of the region I think they did well. But to get an A they're going to have actually acknowledge that people like to use sidewalks, bike facilities and transit and work towards that as well.
    What grades would you give? Fill out the Kojo show's poll and post your thoughts in the comments. And listen in at 12:40 to hear me and Petula Dvorak discuss the issue.

    If you're reading this before 12:40, it's also worth tuning in to Kojo for a segment on whether high traffic fines change behavior (they don't), including Gabe Klein as one of the guests.

  • Public Spaces


    The National Park Service turns 100 this year

    2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which oversees lots of outdoor space in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. All year, there will be special events throughout our region to celebrate.


    The Korean War Memorial. All images from the NPS.

    The NPS is celebrating its milestone birthday with events and fee-free days all across the country. During National Park Week, which is April 16th-24th, admission to all NPS sites will be free.

    In May, an exhibit celebrating biodiversity in the US will come to the DC, with an accompanying festival on the National Mall. There are battlefield and garden tours scheduled in Virginia throughout the spring, and a few chances to learn about Maryland's roads and trails are coming up soon.

    Since its establishment in 1916, 44 years after Congress designated Yellowstone National Park as the country's first national park, the NPS has come to oversee 400 unique places, ranging from national parks and monuments to battlefields and parkways.

    The DC region has a unique relationship with the NPS. In the city alone, NPS manages 23 places, notably Rock Creek Park, National Mall, and its surrounding monuments. These parks represent a significant portion of our green space, generating more than $600 million in economic activity, supporting physical and mental health, and providing cultural resources.


    The National Mall and its monuments are among the most popular places in the NPS system.

    Of course, the NPS' involvement in local land use decisions does have its downsides. NPS controls the open space within DC's L'Enfant City, subjecting urban parks to the same planning and permitting process as Yosemite National Park. In 2014, its representative to the DC Zoning Commission successfully led the push to keep the 1910 Height Act intact.

    Maryland and Virginia have an additional 37 sites combined, including the George Washington Parkway, Mt. Vernon Trail, or Great Falls Park.


    Great Falls Park on the Potomac River in both Maryland and Virginia

    NPS sites generate nearly $250 million and $1 billion in economic activity in Maryland and Virginia, respectively.


    Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, a Civil War battlefield.

    What are your favorite NPS parks in the region, and why? Tell us in the comments!

    Bicycling


    The Mount Vernon Trail is getting some TLC near National airport

    Changes are coming to the part of the Mount Vernon Trail that runs alongside Washington National airport. While trail users will have to use a temporary path for during construction, the MVT will be safer and straighter in the future.


    The Mount Vernon Trail detour under the Route 233 bridge. All photos by the author.

    There are three major things happening to the trail: it's moving away from the George Washington Parkway where it passes under the Route 233 bridge, it's getting a new barrier wall under the Metro bridge that carries the Yellow and Blue lines into the airport, and it's moving around a large tree that forces a quick S curve.

    "The goal of the project is to improve visitor safety while ensuring we protect the natural resources along the trail," says Aaron LaRocca, chief of staff for the GW Parkway at the NPS, on the planned work that is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2016.

    The trail work is part of a larger effort to rebuild some of the entrances to National airport.

    Trail users should expect detours

    People on foot and bike will have to detour onto temporary mulch pathways during construction. The detour under the Route 233 bridge opened this week and will be used for two to three weeks, says LaRocca.


    Overview of work planned to the Mount Vernon Trail. Image from the FHA.

    Cycling over the mulch is challenging, with many riders dismounting and walking their bike through the detour during the morning commute on Wednesday. The temporary path is also narrower than the MVT, which could create a chokepoint for cyclists and pedestrians during busy times.

    "When considering construction projects, the park strives to minimize impacts to the visitors," says LaRocca. "Unfortunately, there is little space for wider detours because the area is congested with car and trail traffic. [GW Parkway] doesn't use grass or paved detours because they create long term impacts for a short-term closure. In the past, mulch detours were used successfully along the MVT."


    Trail users are warned of the detour well ahead of the split.

    The detour around the Metro bridge will likely be the most onerous of the three for cyclists. Trail users will have to climb a mulch path up to the exit road from National airport to the GW Parkway.


    Looking down the hill from the National airport exit road towards the MVT.

    Trail users will then have to cross the road where cyclists will have to hop the curb on both sides of the street.


    MVT Metro bridge detour crossing the National airport exit road.

    They will then have to descend a narrow sidewalk back to the MVT.


    The sidewalk MVT users will have to use to return to the trail.

    The detour around the Metro bridge will be used for three months, says LaRocca. The agency has not determined when the detour will begin, he adds.

    The detour to straighten the Mount Vernon Trail past the large tree at the southern end of the project area will only be used for two days, says LaRocca.


    The southern detour to straighten the Mount Vernon Trail past the large tree in the center of the image.

    This is going to make the trail better

    The Mount Vernon Trail is a popular and critical piece of the region's trail network. Despite its popularity, the facility dates to the 1970s and includes a number of blind or difficult turns—including the one around the large tree near the southern end of National airport—that can prove difficult for cyclists.

    In addition, the trail does not include the separation between cyclists and pedestrians and joggers that is common on newer trails around the world.


    The bike trail and pedestrian walkway are separated in the new Gantry Plaza State Park in New York City.

    There are lots of other ways to make the Mount Vernon Trail better. Ideas include straightening the sections just north of Daingerfield Island where the trail swings around a clump of trees and separating cyclists from pedestrians through Gravelly Point where there is a lot of congestion.

    However, all of these ideas cost money that has yet to materialize in regional or federal trail funding plans.

    It might be small, but the work the NPS is doing at the south end of National airport is great for the MVT.

    Public Spaces


    Go ahead, wade in the memorial

    Wading in the World War II memorial is emphatically not allowed. Solemnity is the officially preferred emotion. But the memorial's buoyant design inherently invokes liveliness, and strict rules violate the spirit of the war against fascism.


    Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

    Every summer when Washington heats up, tourists find a respite from the heat at the World War II memorial. Thousands dip their feet in, and a few inevitably wade towards the middle.

    Until a National Park Service ranger chastises them for disrespecting the memorial, and makes them return to dry land. Or until local media scolds them back to shore.

    The rangers and media are well-intentioned, but treating the World War II memorial with a solemnity not reflected in the design does little to inspire respect.

    The memorial doesn't have a solemn design

    Truthfully, the World War II memorial doesn't function well as a somber space. Its lively fast-moving fountains and bright, sun-filled plaza bring it to life.

    Kirk Savage puts it well in his book, Monument Wars: Washington, DC, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape:

    The World War II Memorial is decidedly not a psychological space, not a space for reflection and reckoning. The roar of the fountains, and the inscriptions trumpet their messages of determination and rectitude...This is a space not for internal reckoning but for acclimation, pure and simple.
    The central fountain doesn't inspire quiet reflection. It's an active, bustling space, full of people enjoying their day every bit as much as they contemplate America's role in World War II.

    By intent or happenstance, the design inspires people to move about, to fill what would otherwise be stark emptiness with their activity.


    Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

    Years ago when I was in the Navy, my captain had a saying: "Every sign is a failure of leadership." For example, if you need a sign saying "no smoking," it's because you didn't properly train your sailors not to smoke in that space.

    That axiom doesn't always hold outside the closed ecosystem of a ship, but I think it pertains here. If we need a sign saying "no wading," it's because the design has failed to discourage wading.

    If you need several such signs, and rangers need to constantly enforce it, I'd say that far from discouraging wading, the memorial's design implicitly encourages it.

    Contrast the WWII memorial with the one for Vietnam

    Contrast it with the Vietnam Veterans memorial, where most visitors are naturally somber, and the effect of design becomes clear.

    I'm a tour guide. When visiting the memorials with my student groups, I take a moment to warn them about appropriate behavior. But at the Vietnam memorial, my efforts are generally superfluous.

    The memorial's very design imposes it's own mores. Few of my students know more than the most cursory details of the Vietnam War, but when they descend into the memorial, with its merciless rise of row after row of names, it makes an impression on even the most jaded eighth grader.

    The space inspires a natural quiet reflection.

    The World War II Memorial very much does not. Rather, it celebrates life. And that is OK.

    Enforced solemnity violates the spirit of the war

    To me, the natural enthusiasm and activity imbued within the World War II memorial evokes the spirit of relief and jubilation of the end of the war.

    A hard fought war, to defeat what may have been the most concentrated evil political system ever to be seen on this planet, ended with tremendous sacrifice and loss, but with victory.

    It is right that we honor the sacrifices of the World War II generation with the somber Freedom Wall, and its 4048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans killed in the war. But just as that wall is only part of the memorial, so should that emotion be only part of our interaction with it.

    No one scolded the people celebrating VJ Day in Times Square at the end of the war. We need not scold tourists today. There's room for unbridled enthusiasm, for joy, for relief at the end of deep pain, just as there is a place for solemnity.

    I can't claim to speak for the myriad of reasons why millions of individual Americans fought this war. After all, I don't appreciate others characterizing my military service to suit their own ends. But ultimately World War II was about freedom, so let's celebrate that, in all the chaotic and uncontrollable ways it might manifest itself.

    Public Spaces


    People walking and biking will get a new connection from L'Enfant Plaza to the waterfront

    At the south end of the L'Enfant Promenade is a circle, Banneker Circle, atop a hill overlooking the waterfront. Unfortunately, the only way to get down to the water on foot or by bike requires a circuitous and unpleasant route. That will soon change.


    Conceptual rendering of a connection from the SW Ecodistrict Plan. Image from NCPC.

    Today, there is a narrow and cheaply-built path that cuts diagonally over to the intersection of 9th Street and Maine Avenue. People bicycling can either take that or ride along a road that feels a bit like a highway off-ramp to 9th Street. This makes people go fairly far out of the way, especially for those who want to then go north along the waterfront.


    Banneker Circle and Banneker Park. Images via NPS unless otherwise noted.

    As part of its package of amenities to get zoning approval, the Wharf project will build a new, temporary, direct pedestrian connection. The connection will consist of stairs and a new at-grade crossing of Maine, but include an ADA ramp that will work for cyclists.

    The scoping document for the environmental impact statement says,

    The temporary project also includes landscaping, improvements to pedestrian crosswalks, lighting installation, universal accessibility, and stormwater management. The purpose of the project is to provide a safe, functional, and aesthetically pleasing pedestrian connection between the overlook at Banneker Park and southwest waterfront. The project is needed to improve urban connectivity by providing greater accessibility between the waterfront, Banneker Park, the National Mall, and surrounding areas.
    There are two concepts for the project and, to me, the better of the two is a no-brainer.


    Concept 1.

    Concept 1 would try to create a direct path down the hill. This would require a switchback ramp and stairs down the hill from a point a little way from the bike/ped access to the Case Bridge, the bridge that takes I-395 over the Washington Channel.


    Concept 2.

    Concept 2 would build a curving connection directly from the Case Bridge access point along with an ADA compliant sidewalk on the east side. The west-side stairs would connect to a new signalized crossing of Maine Avenue.

    Both projects include landscaping, crosswalk improvements, lighting and stormwater management.

    Concept 2 is the better design because of the way it removes switchbacks, allowing for a more fluid connecton, and the way it connects into the Case Bridge access.

    The design should include a curb ramp from the L'Enfant Plaza roadway, as well as a bicycle-friendly transition area where the three connections meet—one with lots of room and natural curves as opposed to sharp turns.


    The path to Maine Avenue (left) and to the Case Bridge (right) have no curb ramps. Photos from Google Maps.

    Right now, there is no curb ramp to get from the roadway to either the path down to Maine Avenue or the path to the Case Bridge; a cyclist riding on the wide, very low-traffic L'Enfant Promenade instead of the sidewalk then has to get over the curb to go on either path.

    The stairs should also include a bike trough, the ramp next to steps that lets people walk their bikes up or down the stairs, and there should be signs directing users to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail and East Potomac Park via the Case Bridge. Also, the sidewalk along the south side of the circle should be widened for trail traffic from the bridge to the "new ADA compliant ramp."

    If only it would include a fix to the Case Bridge access that didn't require the ridiculous switchback that's there today.

    In the long run, the National Capital Planning Commission's Southwest Ecodistrict vision includes completely redoing 10th Street from a wide, empty promenade into a street with pedestrian activity, green plots, and festivals. That plan calls for completely redoing Banneker Park into a usable park instead of a traffic circle atop an empty hill. That redesigned park would also let people on foot and bike connect more directly to Maine Avenue and the waterfront.

    The National Park Service will host a meeting on this project on August 11th, 6-8pm at the Wharf offices, 690 Water Street, SW and they will be accepting comments on the scoping document until September 2nd.

    A version of this post was originally posted on TheWashCycle.

    Transit


    The Circulator will start on the National Mall on Sunday

    DC's Circulator bus is going to start operating on the National Mall this Sunday, June 14th.


    The Circulator and the Smithsonian Castle. Image from DDOT.

    DDOT announced the Circulator's National Mall route in December along with plans to start this spring. The new National Mall route is operating with support and funding from the National Park Service, unlike the former loop that operated from 2006 through 2011. This means the buses can travel within the interior of the Mall.

    The route will begin at Union Station and travel along Louisiana Avenue to loop the Mall via Madison Drive, West Basin Drive, Ohio Drive, Constitution Avenue, and Jefferson Drive. The route will operate through 8 pm in the summer and 7 pm in the winter on ten-minute headways.

    There has been no public bus service on the Mall since the an earlier Circulator, which ran around the outside of the Mall, and the $27 Tourmobile shut down in 2011.

    DDOT purchased a fleet of eighteen hybrid buses to meet the additional service demand. The buses feature more powerful air conditioning units, wider doors with a lower entrance for additional accessibility, and 19 USB ports for electronics charging. These new buses bring the Circulator fleet to 67 buses total.

    DDOT will host a launch event for the new route on Friday at the Lincoln Memorial. The event, featuring Mayor Muriel Bowser and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, begins at 11 am.

    Public Spaces


    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

    Public Spaces


    Palisades' humble rec center exemplifies great park planning

    In the 1930s, architects carefully planned the Palisades Recreation Center to take advantage of its location overlooking the Potomac River. 80 years later, it's still an informative model for park planning.


    The Palisades Recreation Center today, looking from the north. Photo by the author.

    Designers carefully planned the rec center, at 5200 Sherrier Place NW, to be more than just a collection of ball fields and playgrounds. They oriented buildings to take advantage of natural vistas, located baseball diamonds so their outfields double as public greens, and used unpretentious but beautiful architecture to balance the need for man-made structures with the surrounding natural beauty.

    The result is a 13-acre green space that's as much a small national park as it is community playground.

    Unlike other DC playgrounds established in the 1920s and 1930s, the Palisades rec center was designed by the National Park Service (NPS) as part of the Public Works Administration. The rec center opened to the public on September 11th, 1936. As of a 2014 study, the field house is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

    But changes began to come in 2008 with DC's first artificial turf soccer field, and continued in 2013 with a new playground. Now, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the Department of General Services are developing a plan to address the aging field house, as part of DPR's Play DC initiative.


    A site plan for the Palisades rec center from late in 1935. Though this isn't the final plan, the building, the overlook, and the baseball field are all present. All images from the National Parks Service except where noted.

    How it all happened

    Thomas Chalmers Vint, an architect and landscape architect, supervised design and construction of the project between 1934 and 1936. Vint advocated the idea of having master plans for parks, to look at them comprehensively from planning through to construction. At many parks or monuments today, Vint's influence can still be seen in fine rustic buildings, bridges, and in how developed areas blend with the environment.

    The NPS made park development plans mandatory in 1929. Under Vint's leadership, five-year plans became the standard for streamlining landscape preservation and park development.

    At Palisades, Vint played an active role in the field house's design and setting. Plans for the site prior to Vint's involvement, from 1931, show a grouping of small buildings at the northern end of the property. That plan failed to materialize, and so community members pushed for a field house in early 1934. That coincided with Vint's move to Washington to become Chief Architect of NPS' Branch of Plans in Designs.

    Planning for the new recreation center got underway in February 1935. Plans for both the playground and the building evolved, as designers tried to find a scheme that worked. They went through four different building proposals until settling on the eventual design, each plan being more informal and in harmony with nature than the one before.


    An early Palisades rec center design from February 20, 1935.


    A design from July 22, 1935.

    The final design, dated October 1, 1935, is an asymmetrical three-part red-brick structure. The result is a building that looks informal and vernacular.


    The final rec center design, approved October 4, 1935.

    The grounds

    Based on the building's asymmetry, its placement toward the southern end of the playground, and its orientation facing north-south, we know that every effort went into ensuring the field house did not overpower the natural beauty of the site. Instead, the building enhanced and was subservient to that beauty.

    The building, along with its southern facing terrace, functions as a scenic overlook to the Potomac River. Palisades is the only Washington playground to have such a feature. This was, again, a result of Vint's oversight and experience.

    While the overlook is the most notable feature of the site, others include a baseball diamond, tennis courts, a nature trail, and an outdoor picnic area. All are in places where they're unobtrusive and subordinate to nature. For example, the baseball infield and tennis courts are along the trolley right of way on the northeast border of the property, leaving less intense uses for the property interior.

    It is particularly noteworthy that the baseball diamond's home plate is at the north end of the field, both giving residents fast access to home plate, and allowing the outfield to double as a meadow when people aren't playing baseball. We know that was intentional based on plans from 1935.


    A partial site plan, dated July 17, 1935. It notes the meadow (which is the baseball field) and overlook.

    Continue the legacy

    The 1930s may be a long time ago, but we need good parks as much today as we did then. As DPR renovates Washington's aging parks, it will be important for today's generation of planners to think of these places in comprehensive terms, and not as only locations for active sports fields.

    Washington needs strong long-term planning if it's going to manage its public resources efficiently and equitably. DPR's Play DC master plan is a good overall approach in concept. But it's still prone to piecemeal planning since DPR and DGS only plan for projects that have dedicated funding. This ad hoc approach makes it hard to create master plans, and hard to prioritize long term visions.

    The Palisades Recreation Center's mid-1930s design is an example of how master planning can and should apply to Washington's recreation areas.

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