President John Quincy Adams broke ground on the 185-mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1828, spading the first shovel of dirt just across the District line. It faced political hurdles and took more than 30 years to complete but eventually was hailed as an industrial and engineering feat — a transportation link between mountainous western Maryland and Georgetown.
The canal ceased being used for transport in the 1920s, becoming a national park, scenic running path and backdoor entrance to one of Washington’s wealthiest areas. For all its rustic beauty, the slender park is mainly used as a pass-through, not a place to spend sedentary time. And that’s what Georgetown boosters are hoping to change.
Georgetown Heritage, a nonprofit organization formed to rethink the one-mile, nine-acre portion of the canal in Georgetown, has hired the architect of Manhattan’s High Line in hopes of creating an equally buzzy, reimagined urban park along the now-staid industrial strip of land. It’s part of a broader plan to once again make the historic neighborhood a leading destination in the city amid competition from other booming neighborhoods.
“The canal shows how the country has changed over the last 200 years,” said Alison Greenberg, executive director of Georgetown Heritage. “There’s so much potential to build this space into something that’s beautiful and accommodating.”
James Corner, whose landscape architecture firm has been hired for the project, drew similarities between the 1.45-mile High Line, a linear industrial space built along a defunct railroad line, and Georgetown’s portion of the canal. In both projects, he said, honoring aspects of the original design is critical.
“It is a little like the High Line in New York in that it’s an overlooked place,” said Corner, founder of James Corner Field Operations, which designed the High Line in the Chelsea neighborhood. “The whole idea of the High Line is to amplify what is already there.”
Corner and Georgetown Heritage plan to solicit community feedback before designs are rendered. He said there’s potential for different park spaces, including using five existing plazas along the Georgetown portion for outdoor markets, art spaces and picnics. He hopes to honor the historic vestiges of the canal, building an education center and a replica of a historic boat that will travel the canal for tours.
Funding would come from local, federal and private sources.
The National Park Service, which oversees the canal and adjacent land, is restoring patches of the canal, refilling it with water and repairing damaged locks. The District has allocated $3 million, which will be used to construct the replica boat and fund a master plan of the project.
The Georgetown Business Improvement District is kicking in $300,000 annually over several years, and Georgetown Heritage is applying for grants and raising private funds. Organizers haven’t estimated the total cost of the project.
The formal launch is Wednesday, when the design team and project leaders will meet with the public. From then, Greenberg said, it will take 18 months to finish the tour boat and open the education center, both of which are fully funded. Construction of the park space would follow and be completed in segments.
“I would want every schoolchild in D.C. to experience the canal at least once while they are in school,” she said.
The revamped canal was pitched as part of the Georgetown 2028 plan, released in 2014 to compete with other flourishing neighborhoods in the city. Once the District’s go-to area for tourists and residents seeking high-end dining and entertainment, Georgetown has lost ground to neighborhoods such as Shaw, Petworth and Navy Yard.
A gondola connecting Georgetown and Rosslyn also was pitched in the 15-year Georgetown 2028 plan but faced setbacks after Arlington County said earlier this year that other transportation projects were a higher priority. If ever completed, the gondola would drop riders near an entrance to the C&O Canal close to the Georgetown Waterfront.
Joe Sternlieb, president of the Georgetown BID, said he hopes a revitalized canal would draw more crowds to the neighborhood, although he doesn’t want it to mimic the High Line.
“It’s a unique place, and we want to keep it a unique place,” he said. “I don’t want it to become the High Line. I want it to become the best part of the C&O Canal possible.”
The High Line has been criticized as being a playground for affluent newcomers and tourists and not serving longtime, lower-income residents who live nearby. Greenberg and Corner said Georgetown Heritage and the architects will seek feedback from all parts of the city during the design process.
“I think a lot of cities everywhere are beginning to reinvest in public open space, and they sort of recognize the importance of open space and the value that it adds to life in the city,” Corner said. “It is great that the C&O Canal is being given this attention, and we really look forward to bringing it back to life.”