Canal Park, Washington’s newest park, opened in November within Southeast Washington’s Capitol Riverfront, an area previously referred to as the Southeast Federal Center. Multi-functional and culturally historic, Canal Park is probably among the nation’s most unique and environmentally sustainable urban parks, one worth a visit even if you live in Maryland or Virginia.
Canal Park, like any good city park, also will be an economic catalyst greatly enhancing the value of Capitol Riverfront’s existing and future real estate development. Within easy walking distance of the park are thousands of federal and other workers, as well as D.C. residents. Governmental, commercial and residential buildings — including a hotel — surround and overlook the park. Many more such buildings are being planned for sites on nearby blocks.
The park’s location is ideal. Its southwestern corner at M and Second Streets SE is only half a block from the Navy Yard Metro station and only a few blocks from the Anacostia riverfront and Nationals Ballpark.
Yet this accessible park is not just another landscape to look at, drive around, walk across and mow. It is intended to be animated 52 weeks a year. Designed by Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm OLIN and Washington-based STUDIOS Architecture, it breaks new ground on historic old ground.
Canal Park’s name is historically apt. L’Enfant’s 1792 plan for the capital included this piece of land, which in 1815 became part of the newly opened Washington City Canal connecting the Potomac River and Eastern Branch, now the Anacostia River. By the 1850s, the canal had fallen into disuse. The Tiber Creek portion of the canal was paved over in the 1870s and the rest of the canal in the early 1900s, after which the southeast canal segment became Canal Street.
A century later, as Capitol Riverfront’s transformation gained momentum, Canal Street served as a D.C. school bus parking lot. In 2012, after an eight-year design and development effort, Canal Street and the bus parking lot became today’s innovative Canal Park.
Canal Park is unusual in a number of ways, starting with its oblong proportions. Extending northward along Second Street for nearly 1,000 feet, the park proper is only slightly more than 100 feet wide. K and L streets cross the long, narrow park, creating three slender park blocks containing less than three acres. Yet the perceived area of the park seems larger.
The park’s abstract architecture is likewise unusual. On the east side of the south block is a slender, 9,000 square-foot concrete, masonry, wood and glass building. It houses Park Tavern, a full-service, 65-seat restaurant and bar — at last, a place to dine, plus restrooms, in a D.C. park. On its roof, accessible via broad outdoor stairs, are walkways, terraces and two rectangular pavilions.
This is a park with a mezzanine. And the mezzanine overlooks a pond-shaped, 10,000-square-foot ice skating surface that occupies much of the south block. Skate rentals are available in the restaurant building. The skating pathway loops around a vegetated island at each end of the pond-shaped surface, and ice skating is already a big hit. Outdoor restaurant seating abuts the ice surface, which in warm seasons becomes a plaza with an array of playful water fountains.
A total of five rectangular pavilions stand in the park, including the two atop the mezzanine. Three of the pavilions are clad on all sides, top to bottom, with horizontal strips of wood. Used for storage and mechanical equipment, the wood-clad pavilions are meant to recall the canal’s 19th-century floating barges, although the visual metaphoric reference is not obvious.
The other two pavilions are pure cubes clad in translucent, milky-white acrylic. The pavilion dubbed the “light cube” at the mezzanine’s far south end is used to project nighttime images, light shows and videos. The white storage cube at the far north end of the park serves as a visual anchor. Thus, the three-block-long ensemble is a kind of abstract, horizontal bas relief.
Paved walkways, small plazas, grassed areas, and indigenous plants and trees constitute the park landscape, much of which looks dead in winter. Vegetation will be better appreciated in spring. And Canal Park may win the prize for the most seating per acre with its artfully designed wooden benches deployed throughout the interior and around the perimeter of the park.
Less visible are Canal Park’s state-of-the-art sustainability tactics that earn points for LEED gold certification. For example, park architecture makes use of sustainably harvested wood, vegetated roofs and natural ventilation.
Reminiscent of the original canal, a row of rectangular rain gardens and water basins lines the eastern edge of the park’s center and north blocks. Rain gardens will collect, briefly retain and naturally filter rainfall.
The main stormwater system is underground, where cisterns will hold up to 80,000 gallons of runoff collected from the park as well as adjacent city blocks. As much as 1.5 million gallons of stormwater will be recycled annually to meet almost all the park’s water needs for irrigation, toilets, fountains and making ice. Also underground are 28 heat-exchanging, geothermal wells that will contribute to reducing the park’s energy consumption by nearly 40 percent.
In addition to ice skating and dining, the park will host numerous programmed events: concerts and other performances; holiday and seasonal festivals; farmers markets; and art exhibits. The Canal Park Development Association, the official park developer, and the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District will jointly manage the park and the park’s scheduled activities.
Although owned by the city, Canal Park is the result of an extensive public-private collaboration among diverse stakeholders who conceived, financed and built the park. Funding came not only from the District and federal governments, but also from developers actively investing in Capitol Riverfront real estate.
Large new development projects proposed or already underway in metropolitan Washington include areas planned for urban-style parks. Local governments, developers and citizens who are stakeholders in these projects would do well to check out Canal Park and learn from, if not emulate, its many creative ideas.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. His cartoon may be seen at www.washingtonpost.com/realestate.