Under a blue sky, about 200 people attended the ribbon-cutting, including a group of schoolchildren who wasted little time testing out the new rustic-looking play area on its eastern side.
The $21 million renovation — all of which was paid for by the city, Bowser said — involved the removal of dozens of mature trees, the retooling of its central plaza and fountain, and a pledge by city and federal parks officials to manage the public square to ensure it won’t become a homeless encampment.
Their first test came as Bowser’s speech was interrupted by a homeless woman who started screaming “All Lives Matter” before city workers coaxed her away.
National Park Service superintendent Jeffrey Reinbold said the Park Police have enforcement powers, but he hoped that efforts to help homeless people get services would make law enforcement unnecessary.
Neil Albert, president of the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), told reporters that the BID — which will oversee much of the day-to-day management of the premises — has extensive experience directing homeless people away from public spaces to appropriate shelters and services.
“We have moved people from encampments to safer places, and we do that on a daily basis,” Albert said.
Though the budget — initially estimated at $13.9 million — relied on District funds, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) helped obtain legislation that allowed the National Park Service and the District to collaborate on the renovation.
Fences went up around the five-acre park in June 2020 and dozens of mature trees came down in what was expected to be a year-long construction project. New plantings went in — including young sycamore, sweet tea and Ginkgo biloba trees — to diversify the arbor by both age and species, said David A. Rubin, a principal in Land Collective, which collaborated on the landscape design.
Studios Architecture, a D.C. firm, designed the overhaul with the aim of making the square more than an urban afterthought.
The last time Franklin Square had a makeover was in 1935, as part of a Depression-era work project, when a Beaux-Arts fountain was installed. The square is surrounded by businesses such as the Hamilton Hotel, The Washington Post and Planet Word, a museum dedicated to language that opened in a landmark school building in 2020. A statue of Commodore John Barry presides over its western border.
The newly renovated park includes the a quatrefoil-shaped fountain on a flagstone-covered plaza that was raised about 1½ feet order to allow the square to be regraded and made compliant for people with disabilities, Rubin said. The square also includes a pavilion with exhibit space, and it’s designed to absorb runoff from rainstorms to protect the city’s waterways.
But, hours before Friday’s ribbon-cutting, workers were still laying grass in some areas, a sign that there is still more to do before the park is complete — including finishing the planned cafe, which is not expected to open until the spring.
Rubin said the square’s renovation was built around the theme of its history as a natural spring that had once been sacred to Indigenous people. A well on the square later provided water to the White House, which is about four blocks away.
“We wanted people to understand that this park is here because of water,” Rubin said.
Bowser toured the square and posed with schoolchildren from nearby Thomson Elementary School before taking questions, which focused on the city’s homeless population and how Franklin Square would be different from other public spaces where encampments have sprung up.
“Camping is not permitted in the District of Columbia,” Bowser said. “Listen — anybody who’s going to suggest that dealing with encampments and homelessness is a simple solution is unfamiliar with human behavior and the very intense needs of individuals who choose to live on the street.”
Bowser said the city provides shelter, and would continue to use a coalition of groups and city services to help homeless people find appropriate ways off the street.
“We stand firm in our belief that sleeping in tents is not safe for the people who are unhoused or for the community,” she said. “More than that, we have a duty to ensure that all the parks can be used by all the people.”