Greater Greater Washington

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Bicycling


The Metropolitan Branch Trail could learn a thing or two from Chicago's new bike trail

Chicago's new 606 trail is already very popular for biking, running, and walking, in large part because it's full of attractive landscaping and user-friendly amenities. DC would be smart to take some ideas from the 606 for upcoming changes to the Metropolitan Branch Trail.


All photos by the author.

Chicago opened the 606 in June. Also known as the Bloomingdale Trail, it stretches 2.7 miles, behind homes and under the 'L' — Chicago's Metro — through four of the city's neighborhoods.


Sapling trees and shrubs line the 606, with benches and water fountains available at major street crossings. That might explain why, even in near 90-degree heat on a recent Sunday, there was a steady stream of cyclists, runners and pedestrians using it.


Among the trail's eye-catching features are arches over one bridge and a fake railroad truss over another.


The fake railroad truss that runs over 606.


Benches on a bridge along the 606.

One thing people who I talked to complained about is the 606's lack of shade. However, they all acknowledged that it will correct itself as the saplings grow up.


The future 606 in 2011. What a difference a few years make!

Like the MBT did for near northeast Washington, the 606 has created a new off-street transportation corridor in Chicago's cycling and trail network where none existed before. But the 606 is also much more: it's a public space with grassy knolls where residents can put down a towel and relax and shaded glades with benches to sit on.

The MBT could steal an idea or two

The NoMa Business Improvement District has some plans to improve the MBT. These include a small park just south of where it passes under New York Avenue, new gardens and neighborhood connection and safety improvements.

Using the 606 gave me a few ideas on how to make the MBT both more pleasant and inviting.

Benches on the bridge where the MBT crosses Florida Avenue NE could create a new vista of the never-ending traffic drama around the so-called Dave Thomas Circle.

Water fountains could go in at key intersections, like at R Street and the entrance to the bridge to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station that opened in December.

Landscaping on MBT could also get better. While young trees line part of the route, there's room for more, especially to the stretch between R Street and Rhode Island Avenue.

In addition, regular maintenance of the existing landscaping—like cutting the grass—would do a lot to improve the aesthetics. And a better-looking trail would likely invite more users, which is important since one of the preliminary findings that the BID shared with the public was that people would feel safer on the MBT if more people used it overall.


The uncut grass along stretches of the MBT create a wild prairie aesthetic.

The MBT is set to get longer in the next few years, with the addition of a section that connects Brookland to Silver Spring. Taking a few cues from Chicago's 606 might make both the addition and the existing trail an even better public space for the District.

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Roads


Petworth residents say changes to a dangerous traffic circle should go further

Many people in Petworth lament how dangerous it is to cross the street and get to Grant Circle, one of their neighborhood parks. DDOT has an initial plan for addressing the problem, but pedestrian advocates say the real way to make the circle safer is to make the streets narrower and add more crosswalks.


Photo of Grant Circle by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

Like a lot of circles in DC, Grant Circle has a design that's invites people to use the interior space as a park but, more recently, has made moving traffic between its several intersections a major priority.

Drivers tend to speed through Grant Circle, partly because it has two wide lanes surrounding it that encourage passing. With drivers entering from the eight different intersections around the circle, and sometimes speeding to pass each other, it can be a harrowing place for people on foot or riding bikes.


Streetview of Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Every few months, a new thread starts up on the Petworth neighborhood listservs about near misses or actual crashes around Grant Circle like one last week, when someone drove their car into the circle.

"Grant Circle is an absolute mess for pedestrians," wrote one resident recently. "When I drive, I often hesitate to stop for pedestrians because I know cars will zoom around me and make it much more dangerous for the people that are crossing. When I do stop I often go between both lanes to try to ensure the pedestrian safety which is obviously not the best thing to do."

While well-intentioned, that second solution obviously isn't a safe alternative to Grant Circle's hazards.

"The design of the circle is so wide and big that instead of helping to slow down cars, it makes them to speed up," added another. "If so many of us have already had nearly misses, some tragedy will end up happening."

Plans to calm Grant Circle's traffic have fallen short of a bigger vision

After hearing from community members and ANC commissioners, DDOT released initial plans to both add new striping to the streets around Grant Circle and to narrow their lanes. Both should calm traffic as it enters the circle.


DDOT's immediate plans to add striping to Grant Circle to narrow lanes and calm traffic as it enters the circle. Image courtesy of DDOT.

This is a step in a process that started in 2009, when DDOT completed its Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan's goals were to make it safe and comfortable to walk anywhere in the city, both through city-wide policy solutions and targeted changes to certain streets' designs.

The Master Plan placed a heavy focus on L'Enfant's radial avenues, which is where the majority of today's crashes involving pedestrians happen. It plan designated "priority corridors" in each ward, which were places that saw a lot of pedestrians, had a dangerous design, and had a lot of crashes involving pedestrians as a "priority corridor."

New Hampshire Avenue, including Grant Circle, is Ward 4's priority corridor, and it was slated to get bumpouts along New Hampshire and a new design to calm traffic around the circle. These plans represent a more complete vision to calm traffic than the initial striping DDOT is proposing, though new ideas in traffic engineering could help even more.

Grant Circle's two-lane design is needlessly dangerous

Every street intersecting Grant Circle is one lane in each direction, except for New Hampshire Avenue south of Grant Circle. There, New Hampshire has two lanes in each direction until it turns into Sherman Avenue, which has one lane in each direction.

If New Hampshire has one lane in each direction north of the circle and again a few blocks south, does it really need two lanes in the first place?

The two lane design means that parents with kids, dog owners with dogs, elderly people and those with disabilities, and anyone else trying to get to the park have to contend with serious traffic, which enters the circle from eight different points, to do so. And while relatively few cars use the passing lane, those that do tend to speed and pose an extra risk to people walking.


Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Let's consider some possibiltiies

All Walks DC, an organization I'm a part of, has a few thoughts for how Grant Circle could be made safer to walk and bike to and through.

When you look at Grant Circle's interior paths, you can see where the original designer intended for people to be able to cross into and through the circle (though for some reason it leaves out paths to 5th Street NW). But out of the 12 places that those interior paths intersect Grant Circle, only 5 have crosswalks today. Some streets, such as Varnum on the East, don't have any crosswalks at all, meaning that all the neighbors on that street have to walk a block south to use a marked crosswalk.

One simple fix would be to to add the crosswalks that are obviously missing.


DDOT's 2009 plans for Grant Circle include a raised brick inner lane to calm traffic. Image from DDOT.

Narrowing Grant Circle to one lane would make crossing on foot much safer. DDOT's 2009 plan includes a proposal to make the inner lane raised brick, which is a half step in this direction. But while this would discourage speeding and passing, it would likely be expensive, and there are probably better uses for that space.

For a lot less money, DDOT could bring down speeds and make Grant Circle more pedestrian and bike-friendly by allowing parking in the inner lane and building bumpouts at all the crosswalks.


Bumpout on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Image from Google Maps.

DDOT could also car lanes by creating a protected bikeway, which the Move DC plan calls for, along the outside of the circle.

Finally, it's worth considering using lanes to increase park space, which has happened in New York City. Extending Grant Circle outwards would be more complicated due to coordination with the National Park Service, but would add about a half acre to the area of the park.

Calming traffic around Grant Circle is an important part of kicking off DC's Vision Zero efforts, as it would be an example of a community-supported project to make a street with known dangers safer for people walking. Several residents have already noted dangers around Grant Circle on DDOT's Vision Zero map, which you can view and add to here.

If you live nearby and would like to sign a petition for a safer Grant Circle, click here.

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Public Spaces


The secret park by the White House could be great, if people knew about it

Pershing Park is one of DC's most unique and potentially pleasant public spaces. Unfortunately, few people have ever enjoyed it because the park's best elements are hidden behind an uninviting raised embankment.


Pershing Park as seen from Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by Google.

It's nice on the inside

I like Pershing Park, at Pennsylvania and 15th Street NW. I wish it worked better.

The inside of the park is a terraced wetland garden that, when it's in good condition, is absolutely lovely.


The pleasant interior. Photo by pcouture on Flickr.

There are ample shady seats, a duck pond to dip your feet in, and climbable concrete terraces that make the park feel like an adult-size jungle gym.

It's fun, and pretty, and unlike anything else in DC.

Or at least, it was fun and pretty a few years ago. The park has fallen into disrepair lately. The pond is dry. Orange cones litter the open plaza. It's abandoned and depressing.

Part of Pershing Park's problems are simply neglect. Better maintenance could fix the pond and the concrete.

But there's one big problem, and it may well be unfixable.

People can't see it

Most people don't know the park is there. You can't see it from the street. From three sides, the only thing visible is a grassy embankment straight out of a suburban McDonalds parking lot. The fourth side is literally a parking lot.


Pershing Park from above. Image from Google.

Good urban parks draw pedestrians in from the surrounding sidewalk. When you're standing outside Dupont Circle, you can see and hear interesting things happening inside the park there. The activity and people inside Dupont make you want to enter it yourself.

Pershing Park is the absolute opposite. It's plain and boring from the sidewalk. There are interesting things there, but you can't see them so they don't draw you in.

Most people just ignore it; the park blends into the background and they don't give it a second thought.

Those who do look closely see a bunker, a hostile sloping hill with few entry points. From busy Pennsylvania Avenue, Pershing Park more closely resembles an 18th Century military stockade than an inviting civic space.

Until that problem is solved, Pershing will never be a good park, no matter how pleasant it is on the inside. Until that's solved, Pershing will always be an afterthought.

Let's fix it

What to do with Pershing Park is increasingly becoming a hot-button issue. One group wants to redevelop it as a national World War I memorial. Kriston Capps at CityLab takes a preservationist bent and says we should restore it.

Either way, the park is falling apart and needs work.

Would it be possible to save the pleasant interior and radically change the bunker exterior? Maybe, maybe not. The park occupies sloping terrain that any design will have to work around. Unfortunately, there's no way to avoid a retaining wall somewhere. At least not if we want to keep the terraces.

But retaining walls don't have to be so plain or uninviting. There are better examples elsewhere in the city.

It would be a shame to lose such a unique space. If designers can find a way to restore Pershing Park's terraces and pond while altering the park's exterior to be more inviting, that would be an ideal solution.

But if not, tear the sucker out. A downtown park that nobody uses isn't a useful downtown park.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Public Spaces


Can a park bridging the Anacostia bring investment without displacing residents?

If the plan to build a park over the old 11th Street Bridge comes to fruition, there's no question it will change Anacostia. For now, the people behind the park are working hard to ensure that the people who are there now will be able to stick around to enjoy it.


A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park from the Navy Yard. Image from OMA+OLIN.

The 11th Street Bridge park is a proposal to build a spectacular public space on remaining parts of a disused bridge over the Anacostia River. Having just selected a design this spring, its director Scott Kratz and his team are developing the design, raising money, and running engineering tests. Despite reports that they don't have money, the project is going according to plan.

While waiting to begin construction, Kratz and his team have started to address a big worry many have voiced about the project: the risk that it will spur gentrification east of the Anacostia River, specifically in the HIstoric Anacostia neighborhood.


Image from the 11th Street Bridge Park.

This Saturday, a group of real estate experts, planners, and community leaders will present a preliminary plan meant to ensure that the Bridge Park benefits all residents, not just those who can afford to buy in a hot market. Called the Equitable Development Task Force, the group will hold meetings on each side of the river. At both meetings, they'll present a plan and then look to the experience of residents to refine their objectives and methods.

I spoke with Scott Kratz, the 11th Street Bridge Park's director last week. He said that technical problems like designing and building the park seem simple compared to the challenge of making sure it adds social landscape without displacement and disaffection.

Could the park be a bridge to gentrification?

Back when the idea of reusing an old highway bridge as a park was just talk, over on the west side of Manhattan, real estate prices were doubling and tripling around the High Line, a park built on an abandoned railway viaduct. In just a few years, the Meatpacking District went from slaughterhouses and sex work to a high end retail district with equally high-end apartment buildings.

Many writers have compared the Bridge Park to the High Line, and while there are some key differences, they share a cultural cachet: they're both infrastructure-reuse projects by fashionable design firms in distinctive locations with attractive, historic neighborhoods nearby.

Capitol Hill and Historic Anacostia already have many qualities that make a neighborhood desirable. With a signature project, the market could heat up. Kratz laments that already, two years too early, real estate listings for locations miles away are hyping the unbuilt park as an amenity.

With wealthier residents often come resources, government attention, and more retail. At the same time, the consequences of displacement are serious.

Residences east of the River are overwhelmingly rental, so they can turn over faster, without wealth accruing for renting residents the way it does with homeowners. Unemployment is high. A disproportionate number of residents suffer from diseases associated with poverty, sedentary lifestyles, and stress. Their lives will not get easier if they have to move farther from the city's core, where both mobility and access to social networks is harder.

The problem, with most incidences of gentrification, Kratz says, is that markets are way faster than governments or non-profits. Attempts to freeze rents or rush in new construction always happens too late. Social organizations are left trying to fix problems that are arising faster than they can hope to address them.


The winning design proposal.

Or is it a bridge to opportunity?

Unlike a lot of projects, the Bridge Park is well-positioned to be proactive about confronting these problems and ensuring that the project benefits as many people as possible. Officials know more or less when the project will come online, 2017 or 2018, and they know exactly what area it will affect.

Originally, Bridge Park staff focused exclusively on keeping the existing housing affordable. But after meeting with residents from east of the Anacostia River, they realized that that was too narrow a focus.

Now, they've widened the goals to doing a small part in helping nearby communties grow wealthier and more socially connected. The staff want to use the 11th Street Bridge Park to catalyze the amount of affordable housing in the area, increase employment, and promote locally own businesses that keep wealth in the community.

These are huge goals, especially for an organization that exists mostly just to build a park. To meet them, the Bridge Park team is considering possibilities on two levels: measures it can actually take, and ways it can influence things through publicity and connections.

To take action, the Bridge Park needs help from the community

Kratz realizes that neither he nor the Equitable Development Task Force can figure out how to solve a problem like displacement. So, first the Bridge Park team reached out to organizations who have been grappling with these issues in nearby communities organizations for years. Then, they looked at similar projects outside the region, to see if there were any specific lessons for signature parks in mixed-income areas.

The Task Force won't release the full panel until tomorrows's meeting, but Kratz provided some example approaches. Conceptually, they realized they could work at two scales: what the Bridge Park can directly control and what it can only the influence through its publicity and connections.

Kratz concedes the Bridge Park can't control all that much when it comes to affordable housing, But he also says the hope is that his team can unite area political leadership, which could then shape development through community land trusts that assemble equity for below-market housing, renovation assistance to homeowners, and political pressure for public investment.

One example of this kind development the task force will highlight is the extensive affordable housing program spurred by the Atlanta BeltLine.

Kratz says the Bridge Park can work directly on workforce development. The park is effectively a giant green roof that can serve as a training ground for employment in sustainable infrastructure. Related interventions might be the wellness and urban agriculture goals of the park, which could reduce job-impeding health problems.

Finally, the task force has suggestions for fostering local businesses. One is to model the Bridge Park's cafe after Union Market, a space that serves as an incubator for restaurants. The Bridge Park's visibility could launch a small business to commercial self-sustainance without the large capital investments required to start a restaurant.

Kratz notes that these ideas are only small parts of a solution. But, he emphasized that the Bridge Park's ambitions were most likely to succeed when they built on the work community groups were already doing on both sides of the Anacostia.

To be sure, the Bridge Park staff have met with existing organizations and asked how the project can fit into their existing strategies. The staff has also attended community meetings to hear residents' concerns and needs and to learn about how residents live and what they value. The Equitable Development Task Force used this first round of feedback to write this round of ideas and they're now looking for a second round of feedback.

Real estate advisors, landscape architects, and ordinary citizens have their own kind of expertise. Understanding the extent of each and building on it, I think, can be the beginning of a successful, community-led growth into a bigger, broader community. If it works, it can be an example to follow when other signature public projects risk large-scale disruption.

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Public Spaces


NoMa is lighting up its underpasses. Next up: L Street

The L Street underpass in NoMa is about to get a whole lot brighter. A new art installation called "Lightweave" will go into the space, continuing the neighborhood's plans to brighten and activate the four underpasses at its heart.


Image from NoMa Parks Foundation.

The installation includes lights that drop from the ceiling in a discontinuous, undulating manner somewhat similar to clouds, images on NoMa's Flickr page show.

"The jury made its decision to select 'Lightweave' based on excellence and innovation of its design but also its remarkable complementarity with the L Street plaza, planned for the west side of the underpass," said Charles Wilkes, chairman of the NoMa Parks Foundation, in a statement.

The L Street plans are the second in NoMa's efforts to activate and brighten the underpasses on K, L and M Streets, and Florida Avenue NE where they pass under the Amtrak tracks. Construction at L Street should begin late this year.

The foundation announced plans in April for a series vaults made up of lightsaber-like LED lights for the M Street underpass. The installation is called "Rain" and was designed by Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO architects.

One thing the conceptual plans for L Street do not include is seating or gathering spaces for residents and visitors, an issue that ANC commissioner Tony Goodman raised in relation to the M Street underpass at a community meeting on Rain in April.

San Francisco-based Future Cities Lab is the designer of Lightweave.

NoMa will hold a community meeting on the L Street underpass plans on July 13.

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Public Spaces


Fairfax trades a parking lot for a new park

Old Town Square in Fairfax used to be a park that nobody used because it was wedged between two parking lots in the middle of the city's small, historic core. Now it's bigger and more inviting, and it's helping Fairfax embrace its urban roots.


Looking towards University Drive and North Street. All photos by the author.

In its former life, the park was called Kitty Pozer Garden, and it sat next to a city-owned gravel parking lot with space for about 25 cars. A lot of that parking lot is now part of the new park.

The extra space allowed the city to install a splash pad where people can cool off in a fountain during the summer. The fountain has a waterfall feature, and there's seating all around as well as a new clock.

The Old Town Square site is sloped toward the intersection of University Drive and North Street, and in the future it will play host to public performances and other community events.


View of the park from across the street. Photo by author.

The new development and historic buildings around it help frame the park. Old Town Hall, which the city now uses for events, is next door, and both the City Fairfax Regional Library and some mixed-use buildings the city built in 2008 (which also replaced some surface parking) are across the street.


Photo by the author.

Like its neighbor Falls Church, the City of Fairfax doesn't have room to grow outwardly since it's an enclave within the much larger Fairfax County. The solution is to become more dense, and parks help ensure efforts to do so include green space.


New bike racks in the park. The remaining parking on the site is in the background. Photo by the author.

In a way, Fairfax is recreating the small, walkable core that it had before shifting its focus to move lots of cars along Chain Bridge Road and Main Street. Old Town Square, a project that was years in the making, will help bring people back into the heart of Fairfax.

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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

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Public Spaces


NoMa's underpass project could spur bike lanes and gathering space

The planned art installation "Rain" will brighten the otherwise-drab M Street underpass next to the NoMa Metro station. Hopefully it will lead to more development the neighborhood needs, like better bike lanes and places for people to gather.


The M Street underpass in its existing state looking west. Photo by the author.

"These are already spaces where people sit, they wait for buses and they talk to neighbors," said Tony Goodman, the ANC commissioner for the district that includes NoMa. "I hope to see seating and gathering spaces. It really is essential that we have more gathering spaces."

At the April 27th community meeting where Goodman commented, community leaders noted that while Rain brightens the transitory space, it doesn't include any ground-level improvements to the underpass. This is largely due to the limited scope of the project, which does not include the sidewalk or walls.


Image from NoMa BID.

NoMa has engaged landscape architect Michael Vergason to help address this shortcoming and to work on other park projects throughout the neighborhood. He identifies the northeast and southeast corners of the underpass, the latter adjacent to the Metro entrance, as possible gathering spaces.

"We will work on and think about how the ground plane can extend in and, perhaps, something of the quality of the overhead can extend out," Vergason said at the meeting.

He declined to comment on a timeline, saying that some elements of gathering spaces may go in alongside Rain and some may go in incrementally over time.

The M Street bike lane could get longer

It'd be great for M Street's protected bikeway to continue through the underpass. However, the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) controls the road and the sidewalk.

Robin Eve-Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID), said that DDOT is working on plans to continue the bike lane through the tunnel on the southern sidewalk. The project would also likely include moving the Capital Bikeshare station to the south side of the underpass from the north side.

These plans would turn the southern sidewalk into a de facto space for bikes and the northern one into a space for pedestrians.

A bike lane through the underpass could eventually be part of an extended lane along M Street NE, connecting the Metropolitan Branch Trail and 1st Street NE to the 6th Street NE protected bikeway and Union Market.

Rain could be live this fall

The NoMa Parks Foundation and design team Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO architects hope to complete and share a prototype of Rain with the public by this summer. Installation could start this fall.

Andrew Thurlow, a partner at Thurlow Small and a lead designer on the project, said the central tenets of Rain are to improve safety and brighten the space while also knitting together the neighborhood on both sides of the underpass.

"How can lighting act as a condition to start to begin to bridge these two scales of these neighborhoods?" he said. "This particular portal, this tunnel space, could act as that connective tissue… you can start bridging neighborhoods in this way."

The LED lights that are "a little similar to George Lucas' lightsabers" in Star Wars will hang from a series of vaults on ceiling of the underpass, said Thurlow. The lights will react to the activity in the underpass in four distinct phases. For example, at night, it will cascade from the edges of the space to the center and back out again, like a pedestrian passing through the tunnel.


Cross section of Rain in the M Street underpass. Photo from NoMa BID.

The M Street underpass is just the beginning of the $50 million investment that the District is making in parks in NoMa. The neighborhood is investing about $2 million in M Street and similar projects for the underpasses on K and L Streets, and Florida Avenue NE.

"I think we have a fabulous design," said Eve-Jasper of the M Street project. "We have a great design team and we think L Street will be right behind it."

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