Back when John Quincy Adams was in the White House, residents of the District would eagerly wait for winter so they could lace up their skates and glide on the frozen waters of the now-defunct Washington City Canal.
“There’s no photographic evidence of that, but we think it’s likely,” says Chris VanArsdale, executive director of the Canal Park Development Association. So when he and his team were figuring out which attractions to put in a newly carved-out parcel of green space near the Anacostia River — on the site of the start of the canal — they decided on an ice rink as a nod to history.
When the rink officially debuts Friday in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, however, it’s going to feel anything but retro.
The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden rink had a monopoly on outdoor skating in the District. But once yet another rink opens this month in Georgetown’s Washington Harbour complex, the city will be up to three outdoor facilities (plus the indoor Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast, which has limited public skating hours).
Add to that a recent boom in suburban rinks — Rockville Town Square’s opened with great fanfare (and Maryland skating star Kimmie Meissner) last year, and Silver Spring’s rink is going into its third season — and there’s no question ice is hot in Washington.
“We’re surpassing New York in rink square footage per capita,” says Lance Curran, a partner in Tri-State Ice Management, which runs the Silver Spring, Rockville, Pentagon Row and Glen Burnie rinks. He says property owners are trying to bring more traffic into their businesses during a slow time of year, and patrons are finding it’s a way to get entertainment and exercise for the whole family even in chilly weather: The low-impact activity strengthens the lower body, improves balance and raises heart rates enough to justify that mug of hot chocolate.
That’s why Tom Hillgrove, president of Rink Management Services, which is behind both the Washington Harbour and Canal Park rinks, is confident about their success. “There are a lot of families, and they need something to do,” he says.
He won’t hear any argument from Danielle Pierce, a 35-year-old mom who helped start the group Downtown DC Kids to advocate for play spaces for children. One of her favorite places to take her 5-year-old daughter last winter was the National Gallery Sculpture Garden rink, where they attended a parent-child skating class.
“For us, it’s been wonderful. There aren’t a lot of athletic options here,” Pierce says. “And we don’t want to have to go to the suburbs for everything.”
The only problem with the location on the Mall? “It definitely gets busy. There are always long lines,” Pierce says. (The National Gallery Sculpture Garden rink welcomed 55,000 visitors last year.)
So the new rinks should help alleviate the crowds while offering different experiences for city skaters.
The Canal Park rink has opted for an unusual design: The ice is laid out in “skating paths,” broken up by two islands, for folks tired of going in circles. The visuals will get a boost from a light cube, set above the rink, that can project videos and images. By getting people onto the rink and into the adjoining Park Tavern at night, the hope is that the developing neighborhood near the Navy Yard will feel welcoming even after dark. “One of the best ways to activate a space in the wintertime is with ice skating,” VanArsdale says.
Georgetown’s waterfront doesn’t have a problem attracting visitors during the summer, but the winter is a different story. “This is an underused area. We want to make it not only a destination for the people who live and work there, but for everyone,” says Julie Chase, spokeswoman for MRP Realty, which owns Washington Harbour.
At 11,800 square feet, the rink will be the largest in the area, and it will offer more than just an iconic view of the Potomac River and the Kennedy Center. Programming is set to include visits with Capitals players and broomball, a goofy hockey-inspired game played on the ice in sneakers.
One of the first events on the calendar is “turkey bowling” the night before Thanksgiving. “We get big plastic pins, set them up and throw frozen turkeys,” Hillgrove explains. (The turkeys go home with employees.)
Canal Park’s specialty will be a class called Icersize, an aerobic workout performed on skates. But both locations will have many of the same themed events, including sessions with people dressed up as cartoon characters for the kids and “Rock N Skate” nights with a DJ taking requests. And, of course, they will offer lessons.
“If people are properly introduced, they’ll continue to do it and keep coming back,” Hillgrove says. “You can take everybody, of different ages and abilities, and the 7-year-old can have just as good a time as the teenagers and adults.”
That’s why he suggests making skating a part of your Thanksgiving plans. At the Washington Harbour rink, visitors who bring a nonperishable food item that day will get a free skate rental — as well as a chance to burn off some of those mashed potatoes.
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Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.
Read past columns by Hallett and Lenny Bernstein.