Greater Greater Washington

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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.

Bicycling


What's the best way to protect a bikeway? How about a bikeshare station?

How's this for a natural idea: Locate bikeshare stations between a street's protected bikeway and car lanes.

That's exactly the arrangement in Crystal City, where the Capital Bikeshare station at 23rd and Eads helps to form part of the bikeway's protective barrier.


23rd and Eads. Photo by Euan Fisk on Flickr.

DC has at least one example, on 6th Street NE next to Union Market. You can also find this arrangement in New York, Paris, and a ton of other cities.

It's just a nifty, straightforward idea that's too sensible not to use.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Roads


When temporary becomes permanent: Why reopening the SE Freeway is risky

Studies are underway to replace the closed piece of the Southeast Freeway, between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle, with some combination of roads, parks, and buildings. But meanwhile, DC transportation officials plan to reopen the freeway. That's a terrible idea.


Image from Google Street View.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven has explained some of the many policy reasons this is bad. It'll encourage more traffic in an area where DC has long-term plans for less. It'll cost money only to undo later. It'll foster cut-through traffic in the neighborhood, and entice people to drive through DC who don't today.

Meanwhile, DDOT's Ravindra Ganvir tells Aaron Wiener that the city needs to reopen the freeway because the closure was always intended to be temporary.

Will the city be able to open a freeway segment and then close it again soon after?

In an ideal world, officials would analyze a situation with public input, make the best decision given the facts, and then implement it without regard for the politics. In reality, people are often resistant to change. In many public projects, a large number of people might benefit a little, but if a smaller group loses out in a big way, they'll fight hard not to give up an advantage.

That means that a temporary project can really change a political dynamic. Open up a road that you just want to get rid of later, and it'll create a constituency of people who will then fiercely resist the later effort to remove it. Create a pilot project you think you might want to extend permanently, and you create a constituency to extend that for good.

Smart officials can use this effect to help move toward long run goals. Officials who ignore it set themselves up for failure later on.

When nature wipes out roads, cities decide they didn't need them anyway

For years in the 1980s, San Francisco leaders hoped remove the Embarcadero Freeway, which cut off the city from its waterfront. But voters rejected a plan to do that in 1986. Just three years later, however, Mother Nature cast a more decisive vote: the freeway fell down in the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Drivers adjusted to new patterns excluding the freeway, and discovered that traffic without it wasn't so bad after all. San Francisco then replaced the freeway with a surface boulevard in 1991.

New York also had a waterfront elevated highway, the West Side Highway, which gradually deteriorated from lack of maintenance. Some portions had to be closed after a collapse in 1973, but proposals to replace it with a new elevated, underground, or even underwater (in the Hudson) freeway never made it off the ground (or under it). Today, it's a boulevard that offers a less forbidding connection between the neighborhood and the waterfront.

DC has its own version of this same effect. Klingle Road was one of the many roads in Rock Creek's ravines that functioned as virtual freeways (like Rock Creek Parkway, Broad Branch, and so on). But it washed out in 1991 and DC never rebuilt it. Drivers adjusted.

In 2008, the DC Council formally decided to build a walking and biking trail there instead, and now, six years later, well, they're about 65% done designing it.

Pilots can be hard to change later

Pilot projects are a great way for an agency to try things and see if they work. Temporary curbs at 15th and W Streets, and Florida and New Hampshire Avenues NW, for example, made a very dangerous intersection a little safer for the six years until DDOT could move forward with the permanent design (slated for 2015).

But if an agency does a pilot when it has every intention of doing something different later, it can be hard to change course. The best example of this effect is visitor parking passes. Before 2008, residential permit parking zones were only for residents, plus a 2-hour grace period for others. If you had a visitor, you could get a 2-week pass from the local police station.

Starting in 2008, pilot visitor passes started in lower-density areas of the city like wards 3 and 4. Legislation also forced DDOT to roll out passes in some areas trying new "performance parking," like the ballpark area and Columbia Heights.

Jim Graham realized visitor passes were popular, and so pushed legislation to expand them to all of Ward 1. Then they expanded to Ward 5, more parts of Ward 6, and now are in effect everywhere except for Ward 2, whose neighborhoods near downtown fear more people will just sell or give their passes to people who commute.

The visitor passes are not very sophisticated: they are simple placards you can place in a window. And, in fact, they work just fine in places where parking is fairly plentiful anyway. But where parking is scarce, each placard helps a visitor, but it also adds to the parking crunch. That's especially true when people give their placards to someone who's not really a visitor, particularly someone who plans to use it to commute to offices or a school and park in the nearby residential area.

DDOT officials have been aware of this potential problem all along, and continually insisted they were working on a better system. However, year after year, they never quite got that better system done, and meanwhile, the program grew and grew.

It's going to be very difficult now to replace this entitlement with a different system, even if it's one that works better for residents as a whole. That's because any new system will take something away from someone, and those people will ferociously resist the change. Everyone else might find it a little bit easier to park, but that benefit is too diffuse to really motivate action.

But six years ago, when there were no passes, a better pass system would have been easy. It would have given residents something useful without taking anything away.

It's too late for visitor passes, and we'll just have to see whether DDOT is ever able to win support for a better plan. Right now, they're trying a very small incremental step: requiring people to actually ask for the passes. Even that is running into some political resistance.

But it's not too late for the Southeast Freeway. There, the road is still closed. The area ANC commissioner and many residents do recognize the danger. The smart move would be to keep it temporarily closed until DC has a final plan for the boulevard. The boulevard plan would then give something to residents and through drivers alike.

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