First New City Park in Years Will Recall Canal's Heyday

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Washington is getting its first new public park in more than 20 years on a stretch of land that is a weed-choked parking lot for buses.

Before it became a neglected lot, the land along Canal Street in Southeast Washington was a canal where boats skimmed the water and Victorian-era Washingtonians ice-skated.

The park, scheduled to open in the spring of 2008, will stretch along a three-block site where the canal flowed between the Anacostia River and the Mall. The park will pay homage to the glory days of the waterway -- before it became a sewer canal. It eventually was paved over after it became obsolete and many people had died in its fetid water.

The National Capital Planning Commission commented favorably on the design. The park, bounded by Canal, Second, I and M streets SE, will be a short distance from the baseball stadium that is scheduled to open in spring 2008.

The $6 million Canal Park project marks the first public park built under the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, a partnership between the federal and District governments.

The park will have plenty of open space, with a garden element but no memorials, monuments or statues. A hardwood boardwalk will span the three blocks.

"It's going to be like nothing in Washington," said Christine Saum, director of the planning commission's Urban Design and Plan Review Division.

One block of the park will have lawns and a shallow amphitheater that can be used for events such as concerts and poetry readings.

Another block will have horizontal jets of water that move over a dark stone surface, as well as an aquatic garden and horticultural displays that hark back to the land's history as a rice marsh, according to designers.

A thin scrim of water -- shallow enough to walk through with only wetting shoe soles -- will stretch along the third block of the park, echoing the canal, according to design plans.

The scrim is a signature feature of Seattle-based landscape design firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd., which won the park contract. It will be similar to one the firm created at the Seattle Opera and another that is planned for the atrium of the old Patent Office Building, which recently reopened as the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Canal Park feature will be something visitors can "splash around in barefoot," said Ellyn P. Goldkind, the architect and urban designer working on the project for the Urban Design and Plan Review Division.

Another feature that makes the project unique is that its design allows for on-site collection, treatment and reuse of storm water runoff.

The planning commission liked the design but suggested a few changes. "The response was very positive. There were some concerns expressed with the complexity of the park and the maintenance required. There is a lot of grass," Goldkind said. "But the general reception was really good."

The park will serve residents of a quickly growing area and a swelling population of workers from office complexes in the M Street corridor, Goldkind said.

Last month, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts also reviewed the park. Commission secretary Thomas Luebke said the plans were well received. But the commission worried that "its complexity would make ongoing future maintenance a critical part of the park's success, particularly regarding constant public use of the large lawns," Luebke said in a letter to the park's developers.

The commission suggested simpler details that "would make the project less garden-like and more park-like," Luebke said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company