DC’s most useless park is a parking lot in disguise
Capping an underground parking garage with a public park is such a nice idea. It’s a shame DC’s most prominent example is such a terrible park.
Spirit of Justice Park. Image from Google.
The South Capitol parking crater is undeniably one of DC’s most inappropriately underused plots of land. It’s 6 complete blocks of parking lots, all in a cluster mere steps from the US Capitol.
By all rights these blocks should be active and vital parts of downtown DC. Instead, they’re under the jurisdiction of the Architect of the Capitol, and thus off-limits to the normal rules of city building. In the vacuum of capitol complex land management, vast parking lots for Congresspeople and their staffs are a higher priority than housing, amenities, or attractive streetscapes.
So it’s nice that federal planners at least tried to spruce up this neighborhood-sized sea of asphalt with Spirit of Justice Park, a cap atop a two-block section of parking that’s covered with green space.
Unfortunately, it’s a lousy park.
The biggest problem is that rather than sink the parking below grade, the park is raised a level above the sidewalk. As a result, many people only see an imposing wall, and have no idea the park behind it even exists.
The sidewalk in front of the park. Image from Google.
People who actually want to enter and use the park must find one of only four entrances over the entire two-block area. Of the four entrances, two face the congressional office buildings and one faces the street between the two park blocks (though you can’t walk between them directly), leaving only a single entrance on the south side facing away from the capitol complex towards the public city.
Meanwhile, there are no visible entrances facing east nor west.
Entrances to Spirit of Justice Park. Image originally from Google.
That’s not the only problem. With a parking garage directly beneath the grass, the park’s soil is too shallow to support trees large enough to provide shade or protection against wind. The park is uncomfortably hot in the summer, and cold in winter.
Finally, management apparently only cares about capitol complex workers, because the fountains at the center of each block are switched off over the weekend.
Small trees and a dry fountain hidden behind a wall. No people.
The overall message is that the public is barely tolerated in this park, not really welcome, and certainly not a priority. As a result, the public mostly stays away.
A park that’s not used is a useless park. We can do better.
Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren’t particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.
The idea could work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.
A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.
Other Dan is completely right. Just to throw my support behind his sensible arguments:
It’s not a pleasant place to be. Good urban parks need active streetscapes around them, with plenty of retail. The old Silver Spring turf worked well because it was at a location people wanted to hang out in. The transit center location on other other hand is surrounded by a parking garage, huge landscaped setbacks, blank walls, and loud, high-traffic highways next to which nobody wants to spend time. The edge conditions are awful. If you just built a park there the result would not be Dupont Circle. It would be this – dreary and dangerous.
There are already parks directly across the street in two directions. One north at 2nd and Colesville, and the other east on the Wayne Avenue side of the Discovery Building. Granted the Discovery park is privately owned and is often fenced off, but getting Discovery to open it up more would be a vastly better and cheaper outcome than taking land next to the transit center. In any event, the other one is open all the time.
Developing the site would actually produce a better park. Since parks should be in pleasant and active locations, good ones should be lined with pleasant buildings. The only way to line this site with pleasant buildings is to construct some pleasant buildings, and put a square in the middle. That’s a fine idea. Incidentally, that’s already the plan.
A park would increase car traffic. Yes, it’s true. The best way to decrease car traffic is to put as much development as close to major transit stations as possible. Displacing the planned development adjacent to the transit center with a park would mean that development happens somewhere else, almost certainly somewhere less transit accessible and by extension more car-dependent.
Buying this valuable land and turning it into a park has absolutely no upside. It would be expensive and it would be a bad park and it would screw over the transportation network. Please, Montgomery County, waste no more time on this terrible, terrible idea.
PS: At Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, Richard Layman has an extensive discussion of Silver Spring park issues.
Support “The Diagonal” redesign option for Franklin Park
DC and the National Park Service (NPS) want feedback on their latest proposals to redesign Franklin Park. Of the 3 options on the table, the one titled “The Diagonal” is by far the best.
“The Diagonal” redesign option for Franklin Square. Image from National Park Service.
This proposal would introduce new paths leading diagonally from the corners of the park into its center. The center itself would feature a larger and better central fountain. Right now the center is poorly used, partly because access to it is circuitous, and the existing fountain is underwhelming (when people notice it at all).
Alone, these are big improvements. But this proposal also makes another strong change: It adds plaza space to the southwest corner of the park, along 14th and Eye Streets.
This proposal rightly accepts the reality of how that small part of Franklin Park is used, and modifies it accordingly.
The southwest corner is effectively a plaza already. With so many people using the bus stops on Eye Street, and entering the park from McPherson Metro station, the intended grass lawn there is more of a dirt patch than an actual lawn. Insisting it remain a lawn would be unrealistic, an eyesore, and would deprive the park’s users of what they really need. This proposal rightly accepts the reality of how that small part of Franklin Park is used, and modifies it accordingly.
Move the statue to 14th/Eye instead of K
Finally, The Diagonal plan moves the existing Commodore Barry statue from the 14th Street side to a more prominent location along K Street. This is a good change, but it would be even better to put the statue directly at the corner of 14th and Eye, to give the new southwest corner plaza a focal point.
I suggested these sort of changes in September. It’s encouraging to see them carried forward. They’re neither radical nor excessive. They retain the park’s existing strengths while tweaking its most important nodes.
The other options
Except for the welcome addition of a playground that’s common to all 3 redesign options, the other 2 alternatives are more conservative.
The option titled “The Center” would focus on cleaning up the existing park elements without making major changes. It would add a small plaza space along K Street, but nothing in the busy southwest portion of the square.
The other option, titled “The Edge”, adds a plaza and 2 small buildings along Eye Street, and makes some improvements to the central fountain. This would be better than the do-almost-nothing “Center” concept, but isn’t as strong as “The Diagonal.”
Send in comments
It’s not every day we get the chance to redesign one of downtown’s main public spaces. It’s important to get this right.
Know what you’re watching: Map of Sochi’s Olympic Village
Sochi’s main Olympic Village is 20 miles southeast from downtown Sochi, near the city’s airport. It’s home to the athlete residences, stadiums for the indoor sports, a theme park, and a huge rail station. The venues for mountain sports are 35 miles inland, near Krasnaya Polyana.
Satellite view of Sochi’s Olympic Village. Original image from Google.
Today is Park(ing) Day, and all across the US city-dwellers are claiming car parking spaces and temporarily converting them to parks for people.
Instead of using all our street space to store cars, why not use some of it to make our cities nicer places to live? On Park(ing) Day, groups find an on-street parking space, pay the meter to claim it legally, and instead of parking a car, they park seats, tables, plants, or whatever.
DC and the National Park Service are partnering to redesign Franklin Square, the largest of the parks lining K Street in downtown DC. As they draw up plans, here are 4 ideas that will help transform Franklin from one of DC’s most underused parks into one of America’s best public spaces.
Franklin Square today.
Work with the city’s edges
Most of downtown DC’s existing squares pay little attention to what’s around them. They’re laid out symmetrically, with paths emanating outward from a central statue through grass and trees to the street. Each side is close to identical, regardless of what’s across the street. That works well for small spaces like Dupont Circle or McPherson Square, but not for larger ones like Franklin Square.
Larger squares need multiple sub-areas, each with distinct attributes that reflect what’s around them. Franklin Square is big enough that it shouldn’t be symmetrical. The more active 14th Street side should be more welcoming to large numbers of people, and should have more hardscaping and mixed-use. Conversely, the less active 13th Street side should be quieter and more park like.
One big reason the 14th Street side is more active is the entrance to McPherson Square Metro station at 14th and I Streets. That’s a big opportunity. Rather than treating that as just another corner, no different from the other 3, the new design for Franklin Square should focus acutely on the Metro station. That corner should be the most intense part of the park, and should function as its unofficial center.
New York’s Union Square is a great example of what that might look like, with its hardscaped plaza surrounding a subway entrance, and quieter park area behind.
But the Metro station isn’t the only big transit component to Franklin Square. It’s also a major transfer point for several of DC’s busiest bus routes. The southern edge of Franklin Square, along I Street, is essentially one long transit station, serving hundreds if not thousands of passengers per day.
But Franklin Square’s current layout treats I Street the same as all the others. Landscaping curves away from the sidewalk, and benches face inwards towards the center of the park. As a result, every day tons of bus passengers stand in the grass facing I Street, while most of the benches sit empty, facing the wrong way. Except the grass is actually dirt, because too many people stand in it for grass to grow.
By ignoring bus passengers, Franklin Square’s current layout makes it a worse park, and a worse transit stop. Embracing I Street with better transit amenities would make the whole park better for everyone.
And don’t forget that the northern edge, along K Street, will eventually have streetcar service.
More stuff is better, but make it visible
Franklin Square’s existing layout should teach us one thing, at least: That it’s not always enough to simply plop some green space in the center of the city and hope for the best. If designers phone it in and just build a big grass lawn, the result won’t be any better than what’s there now.
The best parks are surrounded by extremely busy sidewalks, from which pedestrians naturally spill over and hang out. Except for the corner with the Metro station, Franklin Square is surrounded by moderately busy sidewalks, but not extremely busy ones. That means the park needs amenities to draw people.
The existing fountain at Franklin Square fails to draw many users because it’s nothing but a squat ledge set in a sunken plaza. It’s impossible to see until you’re right on top of it. If designers want people along the park’s edges to enter and move towards the middle, there need to be highly-visible, interesting-looking things in the middle. That means they need to be taller than 2 feet.
Finally, the park does need a large central landmark. It may make sense to put such a thing at the southwest corner near McPherson Metro rather than the center, but regardless of its location within Franklin Square, there should be some single defining icon, to act as gathering place and landmark. A more grand fountain, or an archway, or a clock tower, or something.
Consider what’s missing from downtown
Since Franklin Square is so much larger than McPherson or Farragut, it can fit things the others can’t. It’s worth asking what amenities are missing from downtown DC that
Franklin Square might accommodate. Downtown doesn’t have any ponds, like Boston’s Public Garden. Nor does downtown DC have a concert shell. Surely there are others.
Franklin Square won’t be able to fit every possible idea, and some that it can fit may not be the best uses for Franklin’s particular needs anyway. But redesigning such an important square isn’t an opportunity that comes along every day, so while we have this chance it’s worth exploring all the options.
Eisenhower Memorial will be a nice park. Is that enough?
If you like the FDR and MLK Memorials then you’ll probably like the Eisenhower Memorial. The latest designs follow the now-familiar model for new federal memorials, with an informal stone centerpiece amid a pleasant park.
Eisenhower Memorial site plan. All images from NCPC.
Earlier this month, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released the latest Eisenhower plans, in preparation for a September 12 review meeting.
The proposed design will re-conceive the mess of turn lanes and parking lots where Maryland Avenue SW meets Independence Avenue as a lovely city square. From that perspective, the design is a great victory for DC.
Since the buildings around the memorial are generally uninteresting and devoid of activity, architect Frank Gehry has included several elements that will make the square function as a better and more interesting urban room.
Tapestries form the border of an urban room (left), while an amenity-filled promenade helps draw people to the site (right).
Tall tapestries, covered with graphics, will surround and help frame the square, and will hide the eyesore buildings behind. Along the back edge, an activity-filled promenade will add an element of mixed-use, helping to draw more people. The promenade will include a sidewalk cafe, an art exhibition area, and a visitor center.
The memorial itself, at the center of the new square, will consist of stone blocks and metal statues arranged in a casual, informal plan. Like the FDR Memorial, it will be more introspective than monumental.
The informal stone concept used at FDR and MLK has become popular because it works. Just about everyone likes it, and it doesn’t offend anybody. The same will likely be true for Eisenhower.
But I do wonder how many more similar memorials we can build before the idea becomes a cliche. Ironically, a classical alternative would be more daring.