Of the row of downtown squares between I and K streets NW, Franklin Square is arguably the one falling shortest of its potential (and not just because it currently hosts Washington City Paper‘s offices). Stroll through the spacious square on a sunny weekday afternoon and you’re likely to see about a hundred office workers lining up in front of the food trucks; homeless people camped out on the benches and grass; a fountain projecting an unimpressive aqueous display; and perhaps a lone yoga or tai chi practitioner. Check it out on a weekend, and it’ll be close to dead.
It’s not that there’s anything terribly wrong with the park itself. Sure, the landscaping could use some touching up, but the real issue is that there’s not a whole lot to do in the square other than walk through it.
Enter the Office of Planning. Together with a few partners, OP today announced the official launch of its Franklin Park revitalization initiative, which will start with a public presentation on Oct. 2. “Currently,” OP writes in a press release, “the park does not meet the diverse needs of neighborhood residents, workers or visitors; however, there is the potential to transform Franklin Park into one of our nation’s premier urban parks.”
How? By modeling it on New York’s Union Square and Madison Square Park, according to OP, and by adding, well, stuff.
“To realize this dramatic transformation,” the release states, “OP and its partners will investigate options for increasing recreational opportunities, adding services such as food and restrooms, increasing events and programs, restoring historic resources, incorporating sustainable and ecologically sensitive materials and practices, enhancing surrounding streetscape and transportation connections, and using a public/private partnership to oversee the long-term maintenance and management of the park.”
That all sounds great, but there’s one thing that tends to stand between the city and its ambitions for better parks: the National Park Service. The federal agency controls most of D.C.’s parks, and its tight rules make it difficult to add things like food vendors and playgrounds. Where food is sold, it’s generally by the Park Service’s concessionaire of choice, Guest Services Incorporated.
Now, the Park Service is one of the listed partners working with OP to overhaul the park. Maybe that means the city will be able to pressure the Park Service into allowing some good and diverse design elements. After all, the classic example of a revitalized park—-New York’s Bryant Park—-is so full of life precisely because it has a variety of quality food options, plus fun things like chess sets and ping-pong tables (not to mention free Wi-Fi). Hell, Madison Square Park even has a Shake Shack. These are reasons for people who don’t work immediately adjacent to the park to visit it.
The Park Service seems more open than it historically has to treating its urban parks differently from, say, Yosemite. Park Service planner Tammy Stidham says she and her colleagues are asking themselves about urban parks, “How do we approach these a little differently, within our regulations?”
As for Franklin Square, Stidham says the idea is to imagine the possibilities before figuring out what’s practical. “Typically we were looking at them from within our regulations,” she says. “This time we’re opening it wide open. What are the possibilities?”
Hopefully, the answer will be more than just greener grass.
This post has been updated to include my conversation with Stidham.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery