At the corner of 14th and K streets in Northwest, Franklin Square’s trees, many of them decades old, were being weeded out. And it was all part of a plan.
For Franklin Square to be saved, much of it has to be destroyed, and 63 trees are going down with it.
The square was fenced off in June for a long-planned year-long renovation — a $13.9 million joint project between D.C. and the National Park Service, which controls the five-acre parcel. With a pavilion, fountain, art exhibit space, children’s play area and public restrooms, officials say Franklin Square will no longer be just a place to wait for a bus but an outdoor destination like Manhattan’s Bryant Park.
But first things first: The trees must come down.
The park is not an outdoor destination now but a shell of its former self that looks nothing like billboards posted at the site picturing a sylvan wonderland.
Once an oasis of green among the glass-box office buildings and concrete islands of K Street, the park is swathed with a chain-link fence. Its paths have been torn up, the benches that lined them unceremoniously toppled onto their backs. Homeless residents who made the park home have been sent to service providers elsewhere.
Rubble lies where a fountain once stood, and the east side of the park is a macabre graveyard of tree stumps, which has developed since trees began falling late last month.
The stumps bother Paula Kaufman, who moved to D.C. in February for a job at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. A former county deputy director of planning in West Virginia — a state with a surfeit of trees — she said she envied the modern, urban park design.
Because the compact city has finite space, she said “much care should go into designing parks.” But she wished trees growing for decades could be protected much like historic buildings.
“In any city, there should always be an objective to seamlessly integrate, as much as possible, new innovation with existing places,” she said. “It’s replacing one park with an entirely new park.”
Though passersby might object to the current state of Franklin Square, its condition is part of a plan hatched years ago by the city, the Downtown Business Improvement District and even Capitol Hill.
First set aside for the public in 1819 when its natural springs supplied water to the White House, Franklin Square has had many facelifts, including after the Civil War, in 1936 and in the mid-1970s. D.C. advocated for a 21st-century version of the park as early as 2013, gaining approval from Congress in 2018 to partner with the Park Service to finish the project.
By 2014, it was clear not all existing trees would survive the makeover. A Park Service planning document from that year said an agency arborist identified 17 trees in poor condition to be “removed and replaced in kind.”
Though the document floridly praised existing trees, particularly “small clusters of evergreens” in the park’s corners that “provide a distinct accent to the overall plant palette,” 17 turned out to be an undercount. Park Service spokeswoman Katie Liming said 63 trees will be removed — 29 because of poor health, 27 to allow for restoration and seven for storm-water management.
A Park Service survey of Franklin Square “showed that there was little diversity of tree species” and its trees tended to be older, Liming said, including seven planted before 1936. The Park Service will plant 119 trees in the square, with the canopy covering 63 percent of the park.
“An ideal, healthy tree population has greater diversity of species and a more diverse age class distribution to allow for replacement as older trees die,” Liming wrote in an email. “Once completed the tree population will be diverse in age and species so as to create a strong urban canopy that will carry the park into the next 100 years.”
John Fanning, chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that includes Franklin Square, predicted the neighborhood would be happy with the results. He said the commission is in contact with the Downtown Business Improvement District as the renovation unfolds.
“When the park is complete and renovated, I think the community will be satisfied,” he said. “I think so far they’ve fulfilled a lot of the commitments they have made. But we knew the trees would be something the community is concerned about.”
The park’s trees are being replaced as the city struggles to reach a goal of having 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. Despite years of efforts, a Washington Post analysis earlier this year showed D.C. was stuck near 39 percent, partly because of its booming population and intense gentrification.
Beverly Perry, senior adviser to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), said in addition to improving the park, the overhaul will inch the city closer to its canopy goal.
“Franklin Park is nearly 100 years old in its current iteration and exhibits all of the challenging characteristics of a well-used, well-loved park,” Perry said in a statement. “When completed, the number of trees, their diversity of species and the diversity of their ages will all be increased, leaving Franklin Park more resilient as one component of a larger urban forest strategy.”
Reiko Koyama, an attorney who lives near the park, said she walks through Franklin Square daily. She was surprised to find workers chopping down large trees with chain saws, letting sun shine where there once was shade.
“It is difficult to find much shade in this city,” she said.