Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has a bill for Congress that she said members on both sides of the aisle can get behind: improving the historic Franklin Square park in downtown D.C.
Renovations to the park, which is controlled by the National Park Service, won’t cost the federal government a dollar. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s office has already set aside $13.9 million in local funds to build new facilities — including a cafe, public restrooms and a playground — and D.C.’s Downtown Business Improvement District has reserved $750,000 annually to operate and maintain the renovated park.
But before the city can invest in the federally owned park, it needs approval from Congress to enter into a cooperative management agreement with the Park Service.
“I ought to be able to get this done,” said Norton. “How often does a local jurisdiction throw money at the federal government to renovate a federal property?”
As the National Park Service’s budget has shrunk, the District has decided to step in and “is willing to do what the Park Service cannot,” Norton said. States and counties can legally enter cooperative management agreements with the National Park Service on their own, but as is often the case, the District is in a unique position that requires it to seek approval from Congress before doing so, Norton said.
Beverly Perry, senior adviser to Bowser, said the mayor’s office is working with Norton’s staff and that Bowser fully supports the delegate’s bill.
In March, Bowser sent a letter to President Trump requesting that the District be given control of federally owned properties — the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium site, Franklin Square downtown and the city’s three golf courses — so it can make major upgrades to the sites.
Since then, the mayor’s staff has spoken frequently with the Trump administration, including a meeting in May with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose department includes the National Park Service.
Zinke sounded optimistic about working with the city and the Park Service to “enhance the parks in the city,” Perry said.
“I would say that there is total agreement between Bowser’s administration, the Trump administration and the career people in the Park Service that this is the way to move forward,” she said.
Norton introduced the District of Columbia National Park Service Improvement Act on Tuesday. Franklin Square, the nearly five-acre park that fills a whole city block between 13th and 14th streets off K Street, stands out because it is so poorly maintained, she said. “Frankly, it is an embarrassment to the city,” Norton said.
Plans for the renovations — which would be conducted through a partnership between the National Park Service, the city and the Downtown BID — include reconstructing the broken sidewalks, building a new fountain and programs in the park including yoga and movie-screenings, said Ellen Jones, the Downtown BID’s director of infrastructure.
“There’s life in the park now, but we want the activity that’s there on a sunny Friday afternoon to be present more often than not,” Jones said. “Franklin Park should be a vibrant urban experience.”
Nick Poliskey, who stretched in the park’s west end following a company exercise boot camp Wednesday afternoon, said he would “absolutely” spend more time in Franklin Park if it were renovated. Poliskey, 36, who lives in Ashburn and works at the nearby Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., said he didn’t realize the federal government controlled the park.
He and his colleague James Oswald, 34, both said the park has improved significantly since they started working on K Street, in 2003 and 2005, respectively.
“That was a homeless shelter,” said Oswald, pointing toward the historic Franklin School building. “The park was usually full of garbage. One of our co-workers got attacked with a knife.”
But in recent years, he said, the park has started to feel safer — and at least a little cleaner despite a significant population of homeless people. In January, Bowser chose a team led by Ann Friedman, a philanthropist and former reading instructor, to turn the now-vacant Franklin School building along the park’s east border into a $50 million museum called Planet Word, which will be dedicated to language and plans to open in 2019.
The food trucks that arrive on 13th street during lunchtime have also been a welcome addition in recent years, Oswald said.
“We have taco food trucks, so at least that’s something,” he said.
Even as the food trucks have drawn working professionals to the park, homelessness remains an issue, said Sholeh Kia, the general manager of the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel.
“It’s an unfortunate situation. We want to take care of them, but they approach the hotel and interrupt the guests,” said Kia.
The Hamilton Crowne Plaza pays taxes to be a part of the downtown BID and support the renovation of the park, said Kia, who added that she hopes upgrades to the park will come with a decline in the number of its homeless residents.