Picturing Potomac Yard Park

The city of Alexandria has an opportunity to build an innovative, world-class park at Potomac Yard, but it is not at all clear that it will seize the opportunity.

Despite the importance of good design of public spaces in bringing a community together and fostering civic pride, Alexandria has not generally placed a high priority on park design or, for that matter, landscape design in general.

To design a truly exemplary, 21st-century park at Potomac Yard, we will need to leave behind any preconceived notions of what a park should be and stretch our imaginations to consider the many possibilities of what it could be.

An important first step in this process will occur at a community meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Mount Vernon Community School. Jennifer Guthrie, a partner with the internationally known landscape design firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol of Seattle, will give a talk on how to think about what we might like to see at the new 27-acre park.

To stimulate our thinking, Guthrie will show some examples of innovative designs from around the world, including her firm's designs for the Lurie Garden at the new Millennium Park in Chicago, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in London and the Seattle Civic Center.

To be sure, the design of this new linear park, which will be located between the railroad tracks on the eastern portion of the site and a new four-lane parkway, will be a challenge. The parkway, to be called Potomac Avenue, could present a problem, particularly if it is allowed to become a high-speed alternative to Route 1.

The Potomac Yard plan approved by the City Council envisions Potomac Avenue serving the needs of the new development itself, not those of commuters. In addition, the plan has a major pedestrian-oriented focus.

People will be less likely to walk to a park with a daunting barrier to entry. Potomac Avenue must be engineered in a way that balances the needs of pedestrians and motorists, and complements the design of the park. Roundabouts have been proven to be effective in such situations -- far more so than traffic signals.

The design guidelines approved by the City Council call for Potomac Yard Park to become a signature park for Alexandria and for the region. The park -- projected to be about 70 percent passive use and 30 percent active recreation -- is envisioned as "an informal park with naturalized plantings." Even the sports fields and courts that are planned are intended to be organized "in an informal manner, allowing the pastoral design of the park to read through to the sport's boundaries." These are obvious echoes of the naturalized parks designed by the great Frederick Law Olmsted in the 19th century.

What kind of park would Olmsted design today? Because we live in environments that are more densely built than ever, he would want to find ways to reconnect people to nature. Water would undoubtedly be a major element in his plan, as it is in so many of the innovative designs for public places around the world today.

The Potomac Yard plan calls for the building of ponds to store excess storm water. Yet perhaps this conventional, banal and often problematic solution to storm-water management could be re-imagined. Perhaps the canal that once existed on the site could be partially re-created to replace the ponds and serve as a promenade. Storm water also could be recirculated in any number of ways to create fountains, reflecting pools, waterfalls and even small wading areas. Children in particular love to cavort in water, even if it's only an inch or two deep.

But Olmsted also would mix nature with urbanity. He would want to create places where people could walk, where they could go to see and be seen and to meet others informally, as well as in formal ways such as softball games. In short, he would look for ways to bring the community together. He also might think of other ways to engage the community in the park's life and encourage a sense of ownership, such as by creating agricultural or aquatic gardens. In the hardscape, or structural, elements, he might want to evoke the rich historical and cultural past of the area, particularly the major railroad switching yards that existed here until the 1980s.

These are just some of the elements that we can think about as we begin the process of designing Potomac Yard Park. It will not be easy, but the rewards could be great, particularly in terms of community unity and civic pride.

Bill Hendrickson

Chairman

Potomac Yard Design Advisory Committee

Alexandria