On a recent afternoon, a pair of Washington city planners and trio of landscape designers visit Franklin Park, the scuffed oasis that occupies an entire city block between K, I, 13th and 14th streets NW. At this hour, the lunching office workers who temporarily spike the park population are retreating to their cubicles, leaving the park to homeless people, the other main denizens of Franklin.
The planners take the long way in, treading the cracked elliptical pathways, rather than following the dirt trails cut by commuters. They arrive at the crumbling central fountain where eight of the 24 jets are drooling, and the rest are dry. A tall willow oak has rat tunnels bored into its base.
“Just a boatload of deferred maintenance,” says Thor Nelson, an urban designer with the District’s Office of Planning.
But Nelson and his colleagues look past the deficiencies of this once-majestic retreat originally conceived as a Victorian garden grove. At nearly five acres, Franklin stands as one of the largest of the downtown rectangles, triangles and circles that have remained open space since they were mapped by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791. The land was prized for springs that supplied water to the White House from the days of Andrew Jackson to those of William McKinley. Construction around the park reduced the flow, and the springs were capped and abandoned for fear of sabotage before the Spanish-American War. The park’s glory has faded since its last major makeover, a Depression-era public works project in 1936.
During their visit, the planners focus on what they call Franklin’s “good bones,” upon which the past might be redeemed and the future built. Unlike most downtown patches of green in Washington and other cities, Franklin slopes and rolls.
“I love the topography,” said Skip Graffam, a partner with OLIN, the Philadelphia landscape architecture firm recently hired to plan a revival of the park. (Sometimes called Franklin Square, the park is officially named Franklin Park.)
Franklin has grander trees than the smaller McPherson and Farragut squares nearby. In that respect, Nelson observes, Franklin has a 60-year head start on brand-new parks planted with mere saplings. It’s a priceless amenity in a city of sweltering summers and glorious autumns.
The planners chat on, but what they see most of all in Franklin is a laboratory that could help the District join a renaissance of park development that is sweeping the country. A neo-city-beautiful movement is afoot, as sprawl-weary retirees, commuters and young people rediscover the appeal of urban living and big-city mayors compete to show whose downtown is hippest, greenest and most active.
Washington is adding residents at a rate of 1,000 per month, according to U.S. Census estimates. The growth creates pressure not just on parks but also on playgrounds and athletic fields. Within a half-mile of Franklin Park, the residential population has increased 32 percent, to 14,432 people, since 2000.
The District (with federal and private partners) has attempted to respond by creating more parks, such as the Georgetown Waterfront Park, as well as Canal Park and the Yards Park near Nationals Park. But Washington has not yet cracked the code of reanimating that most archetypal of urban open spaces, the simple old city park. That’s where Franklin Park comes in. The city and the National Park Service (which owns Franklin and most green acres in Washington) have budgeted $1 million through 2014 to plan and design a revitalized Franklin, with prodding from surrounding businesses via the Downtown Business Improvement District. A budget of millions more — to be determined — would be needed for work to begin.
The mission, according to city planning documents, is to create “one of our nation’s premier urban parks,” an “active, flexible, sustainable and historic” place that would attract users of all ages and would be a destination at all hours. The first meeting to solicit ideas from the public is scheduled for Oct. 2. If the effort succeeds, planners will use it as a template to restore and animate other urban nooks controlled by the park service.
Serious questions remain, though: Can the park service set aside its famously stuffy instincts — No playgrounds! No commerce! — to nurture more life in Franklin? The park service’s cultural historians made the case in 2005 in an 85-page document that Franklin is a significant historic landscape. If so, how much can it — should it — be changed to suit contemporary appetites for activity and entertainment?
And, not least: Who will pay?
Back in the park, beneath the soaring oak with the ratty base, Nelson envisions a brighter future.
“If we created a central gathering place that could be identified as D.C.’s town square, that to me would be the ultimate sign of success,” he says.
Then a panhandler steps up and asks him for money.
From his office on U Street NW, Jesús Aguirre oversees a besieged empire of about 900 acres of parks and play areas as the city’s director of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
What “keeps me up at night,” he says, is managing the competing demands for access to open space. The city recently approved $50 million to buy land for new parks in the fast-growing but nearly parkless NoMa neighborhood north of downtown. As it stands, Aguirre’s domain represents about 10 percent of the parkland in the city. Much of the rest is controlled by the park service. The biggest federal parks include Rock Creek Park, the Mall, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, Anacostia Park and Fort Dupont Park. Numerous smaller parcels also belong to the park service. Downtown contains nearly three dozen federal greenswards.
This is the city-federal context within which decisions about Franklin Park will be made. It will never be a soccer field or a splash park. But where once there was a tendency to think of parks in splendid isolation, modern theories of park planning insist on sharpening a park’s relevance to neighborhood and citywide needs.
Bob Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, embodies a new attitude: “Having a place to eat and a place to play and a place to sit, and active ongoing programming are key components to a successful urban park. ... We’re looking again at our urban parks and [asking] what they can be and what they should be.”
One of the city’s high-profile new parks, Georgetown Waterfront Park, is on park service land. The new parks reflect trends that may inform the Franklin plan. Waterfront, Yards and Canal (an OLIN project) boast interactive fountains and self-consciously designed spaces for different users and activities. Canal has a restaurant and a rain garden to recycle water. Public-private partnerships maintain the parks.
But as new landscapes ingeniously carved out of dead lots, the new parks also have an artificial feel, like a curated exhibition of “parks.”
Contrast those spaces with Franklin’s natural grassy slope, where more than 50 people who look to be in their 20s and 30s are sweating through a recent evening hour of rigorous aerobics and core-crunching exercises led by a peppy coach wearing a wireless microphone. These “Workout Wednesdays” arranged by the Downtown BID are a hint of the kind of programmed activities — concerts, theater, art — that planners would like to see more of in Franklin Park.
In its winning proposal to the city, OLIN vowed to “create a place of 24/7 social engagement.” The document is purposefully scant on details. Planners say they won’t know exactly how Franklin Park will be transformed until after they hear from the public. However, they say they are drawing lessons from Madison Square Park and Union Square Park in New York. Those spaces have cafes, entertainment, WiFi, playgrounds, dog runs and nonprofit groups to help maintain them. No particular element from those parks will necessarily appear in Franklin, but they are reference points.
Downtown lacks a playground, and planners are taking seriously the call from residents for a children’s play area in Franklin. Some advocates urge that children be accommodated by playable art, or playable landscapes, rather than fenced climbing equipment; and that food service be limited to temporary tables, rather than permanent structures. The goal is to appeal to users beyond office workers and homeless people, while keeping the landscape as intact as possible.
Making a park widely beloved is a survival strategy. Park lovers become volunteers, or dues-paying members of a conservancy or friends-of group, which are among the models the planners will consider to make Franklin self-sustaining. The design team also will propose ways to generate revenue from activities or concessions. Downtown businesses will be asked to pitch in and will have a voice in the direction of the park.
Franklin is lucky that a century ago it came under the care of a fastidious landscape architect named George Burnap. He wrote that it was a “horrid habit” to place big statues of dead heroes in the center of parks. (He also hated playgrounds in parks.) Burnap applauded the location of the statue of Commodore John Barry — Who? A founder of the Navy! — on the side near 14th Street. So, unlike McPherson and Farragut, Franklin has its ample middle free for the fountain and activities. Burnap also designed park bathrooms, now gone but likely to make a comeback.
Historic elements will be preserved, Vogel says. “The message has been that historic preservation and having an active, fun, vibrant place are in conflict. I don’t think that is the way it has to be.”
Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, says that if Franklin has fallen into disuse, the landscape is not to blame. “It is precious green space, and if you maintain it, and you program it, they will come.”
The challenge will be finding the proper balance between active and passive, constructed and open, trendy and eternal.
“Franklin Park has enormous potential,” says Steve Coleman, executive director of Washington Parks & People. “It needs music. It cries out for pageantry and storytelling and things that are surprising and tender that reach the spirit and the soul of what parks can be.”
David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@ washpost.com.