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When city officials began planning the neighborhood that’s now NoMa in the 1990s, their goal was simple: turn a wasteland into a productive area. Planners never gave much thought to making it a proper neighborhood, instead conceiving of it as more of an office park that would take advantage of the proximity to Union Station and the Capitol.
Two decades later, NoMa is mostly a success. Elegant office buildings fill each block, and commercial tenants pay top dollar for a once-unthinkable NoMa address.
But there’s one thing missing: parks. As the neighborhood becomes, well, a neighborhood, adding residential density and cultural events, it’s increasingly apparent that planners erred by trying to pack in office buildings without considering quality of life. So in May, the city tossed $50 million NoMa’s way to retrofit the neighborhood with parks. About half will go to acquiring land for green space, making it a much more expensive process than it would have been before the neighborhood filled out; the spaces available for new parks are now extremely limited.
Lesson learned: If you’re building a new neighborhood essentially from scratch, put the parks in early.
Or so you’d think. Bafflingly, just west of NoMa, the same process seems to be repeating itself, this time in Mount Vernon Triangle, the area bounded by New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey avenues NW.
The parallels are almost too obvious. Here’s another neighborhood that’s being built anew—in this case, from a patchwork of surface parking lots. Like NoMa, it has a prime location but a rough past; it used to be known for rampant prostitution and drug dealing. It was even once called NoMa, before that moniker made its way east of North Capitol Street.
And yet as the cranes keep adding new buildings to the few remaining open lots in Mount Vernon Triangle, the lessons of NoMa seem all but ignored. Responses from developers are due July 19 for a solicitation for plans to build on the only remaining surplus city property in the neighborhood. And no provisions are being made for parks.
Technically, Mount Vernon Triangle already has six parks. But five of them are small, noisy, triangular patches wedged between busy streets. The sixth—the only District-owned one; the triangle parks are controlled by the National Park Service—is a full acre, but it’s hemmed in by wide, high-speed sections of Massachusetts and H Street that are prohibitive to pedestrians, and it generally resembles a Hooverville of homeless occupants.
“That part of Massachusetts Avenue is basically an on-ramp to I-395,” says Stan Burgess, who sits on the board of the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District. “A kid coming out of the Sonata [residential building across the street] would have to cross eight lanes of traffic to get there. That is never going to be a park.”
“It almost feels like a traffic island,” says Bill McLeod, who until last month served as executive director of the CID. “Which is why we want to have one more park.”
In 2003, the D.C. Office of Planning, Mount Vernon Triangle Alliance, and National Capital Revitalization Corporation released a 40-page “Mount Vernon Triangle Action Agenda” stressing the importance of public space and calling for an “urban park for passive pursuits, including strolling, reading, and sitting,” on land on K Street. But in 2005, the city transferred that parcel to the nearby Bible Way Church.
Which leaves the 20,641-square-foot city-owned lot at 5th and I streets NW as the top candidate for a park. In 2008, the District awarded the Donohoe Companies the right to develop the property, but the firm had trouble moving the project forward. The city dropped Donahoe in February and issued a new request for interested developers in April. The city hopes to announce shortlisted development teams late this summer and select the winner in the fall.
The city’s request lists 15 evaluation criteria for proposals, leading with “maximizing the economic value to the District.” Parks and public space are not among them, despite a unanimous vote from the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission in favor of including a park in the plans for the lot.
The city could still prioritize parks when it solicits final proposals from shortlisted candidates. Chanda Washington, spokeswoman for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, says officials will likely wait until responses come in before making any decisions.
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells is frustrated by the poor planning in the area, particularly the long stretch of big residential buildings on Massachusetts Avenue, which he refers to as “the mediocre mile.”
“I think that the initial planning done while the city was desperate for downtown planning, they missed it on parks,” says Wells. “So I think 5th and I may be an option. It’s not the only option.” It may make more sense, he suggests, to generate maximum revenue on that valuable parcel—the city assessed it this year at nearly $18 million—and buy a cheaper one elsewhere to convert into a park. But there’s precious little undeveloped land left in the neighborhood that’s not already spoken for.
Putting some kind of park at 5th and I may be the most feasible option. Burgess suggests that a mixed-use retail/residential building could still be built on part of the lot along 5th Street, next to a small park on the eastern half of the lot, possibly with a dog park, playground, or outdoor seating for an adjacent cafe. It doesn’t need to be big and glamorous, just a gathering spot away from high-speed car traffic that would make Mount Vernon Triangle feel like a neighborhood. There are other potential options, but they present challenges. The city could theoretically work with the National Park Service to make the triangle parks more user-friendly, but the Park Service is notoriously inflexible on what’s allowed in parks. It could also work to make the city-owned park more accessible, though that would likely mean restricting the flow of cars near the freeway entrance.
Currently, much of downtown D.C. lacks the nighttime and weekend population to foster 24/7 safety and vibrancy. The mostly residential Mount Vernon Triangle is helping change that. But it’ll be a much more attractive—and ultimately valuable—neighborhood if it feels welcoming. (Look at Capitol Riverfront, where Wells says “there’s no doubt in my mind” that the carefully planned parks will pay for themselves by enhancing the area’s appeal.) Adding a park that’s designed to attract people, even a small one, will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.
After all, if the city doesn’t do it now, it might find itself begging for $50 million to correct its mistake 10 or 20 years down the line.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery