Franklin Park looks like almost every other green space in downtown Washington: There are patches of grass, benches and a few meandering paths.
Possibly its most defining feature? “It’s the only one without a guy on a horse in the middle,” said Ellen Jones of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District. Instead of a statue, that center spot is occupied by a humdrum fountain with water-pressure problems.
That’s a pretty sad description of a park that should be the District’s go-to spot for a dose of nature. Surrounded by 13th, 14th, I and K streets NW, it sits amid the city’s bustling office corridor. At nearly 5 acres, Franklin is double the size of nearby Farragut and McPherson squares. It has grand, old trees and an interesting history. (It once supplied water to the White House.)
It also has an owner — the National Park Service — that some say is better equipped at handling the wilds of Yosemite than urban parks.
But that perception may soon change. The federal agency has teamed up with DowntownDC and the District government to transform Franklin Park into a lively town square worthy of the nation’s capital — rather than a place to march through on a daily commute.
“We’re trying to create a destination,” said Park Service planner Eliza Voigt, who agrees that Franklin Park isn’t fulfilling its potential. “In general, there’s no reason to go in there.”
The Park Service aims to conjure up a bunch of reasons to entice visitors by 2016, its centennial. That’s when the park’s renovations are slated to be completed.
“We’re hoping we’ll have good things to say about urban parks and have a template for other partnerships,” Voigt said, hinting that more of the city’s neglected green spaces might be headed toward face-lifts, too.
Precisely how the alliance will work and what the Franklin Park renovations will entail are both still up in the air.
For now, the city has shelled out $300,000 for preliminary planning and hired two firms to start the work, while the Park Service is paying for the environmental assessment. The next significant step will be the project’s first open house, set for Oct. 2, when the public can chime in with ideas, too.
Jones and other DowntownDC staffers will share suggestions based on visits they’ve made to parks around the country. New York’s Bryant Park, Director Park in Portland, Ore., and others demonstrate the benefits of regular maintenance, programming and even simple additions such as tables and chairs, she said.
“Franklin Park has benches that seat three abreast and don’t face each other,” she said. That setup discourages employees in nearby offices from, say, moving a meeting outside. But foldable furniture that can accommodate large groups might entice workers to hold alfresco strategy sessions.
Those seats could also come in handy for concerts in the park or other events that invite people to linger on evenings and weekends.
It’ll be a while before park users see the fruits of those or any other proposals. The planning process will last at least a year, and then financing for the makeover and ongoing maintenance will need to be sorted out, Jones said.
Ready for Action
In the meantime, DowntownDC is trying to stir up excitement for Franklin Park in its current state. The food trucks that line the square attract a sizable lunch crowd of office workers queuing up for dumplings, tacos and curry, so one plan is to lend out picnic blankets to build on that buzz. Another strategy is programming Workout Wednesdays — free outdoor, after-work fitness classes.
About 40 people showed up for the debut July 10, including Rachel Coleman, a 29-year-old who lives in Kingman Park.
“I love mixed-use spaces,” she said. “And otherwise, what else would go on here at 5:30?”
Crowds have returned each week, giving more reason to consider the state of the park. “I wouldn’t change anything,” Columbia, Md., resident Louise Ford, 47, said during a workout in August.
But most other exercisers said they wished they weren’t doing their pushups in dusty patches with views of cracked footpaths. Tish King, who lives in Logan Circle, approves of sprucing up the landscaping and adding features; she’d love a community garden. She just wants officials to make sure the makeover doesn’t displace the homeless population that frequents the park.
Between 10 and 14 percent of the area’s homeless spend daytime hours in Franklin Park, according to David Kamperin, DowntownDC’s director of public space management. But he doesn’t envision any of these plans pushing them out: “The park is for everybody’s enjoyment.”
The Green Test
As D.C. changes, the parks will have to evolve, too. With the residential growth of the past decade, downtown isn’t reserved for just office workers anymore. And once people start occupying the apartments and condos at the massive City Center development two blocks away this fall, Franklin Park should be their natural neighborhood hangout.
“The ultimate measure of livability is the parks,” said Patricia Zingsheim, associate director of revitalization and design at the District’s Office of Planning, which tries to ensure that every resident has access to green space. And while D.C. has the Mall, Rock Creek Park and a string of parks along the Anacostia River, access is not as simple as it sounds.
“The city was laid out with a robust park system, but it wasn’t equitably distributed,” said Office of Planning urban designer Thor Nelson. Neighborhoods clustered around downtown are booming, but, he said, “Where we’re seeing the most growth, there are limited park resources.”
And what is there now isn’t all that enticing. “They look like lawns rather than parks,” Nelson said. “They seem to blend in without becoming places.”
Now that the city, the National Park Service and the community all agree that some grass and a few benches don’t cut it, it’s time to figure out what will.
The public can suggest ideas for Franklin Park at an open house from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 2 at the Four Points by Sheraton, 1201 K St. NW (parkplanning.nps.gov/franklinpark).
Working It Out
Through Sept. 25, Workout Wednesdays participants can try a new fitness routine each week. Classes led by Crunch trainers are at 5:30 p.m. in Franklin Park. Sign up on Facebook or follow @downtowndcbid on Twitter to learn more.
Ellen Jones, director of infrastructure and sustainability for the DowntownDC Business Improvement District, has a few ideas for sprucing up Franklin Park:
Better walkways: Cracked paths require maintenance, and dusty tracks that commuters have cut through the grass indicate that the layout needs a revision.
Flexible seating: Tables and chairs would give people more options for using the space. That requires a place to store the furniture and staff to take it out each day.
Restrooms: Several New York City parks have these facilities, and they can be made nicer with cut flowers and piped-in classical music, Jones says.
Technology: Working water fountains and better lighting are necessities, Jones says. Adding free Wi-Fi would be a bonus.