Housing Complex

No Parking: Why does the federal government still control D.C.’s circles and triangles?

(Darrow Montgomery)

(Darrow Montgomery)

On a wall above the copy machine in a room right off the main lobby of the National Park Service headquarters for the National Capital Region near Hains Point is something called Map A: The familiar District diamond, printed on yellowing paper, with all the Park Service-owned land colored in dark green. Besides the big swaths, there are dozens of green dots, representing triangle parks and traffic circles scattered around the city—remnants of open space created by D.C.’s distinctive diagonal boulevards.

Coming here and studying the map in person is pretty much the only way to see all the land the Park Service owns around D.C. Commercial maps don’t distinguish between city and federal green space, and the agency’s tourist brochures only stretch up to N Street. There is an electronic version, but as NPS spokesman Bill Line told me when I visited the headquarters looking for a complete map, it was “not for distribution to John and Jane Q. Public.”

With no way to track exactly what land belongs to which government entity, I asked Line if I could take a photo of the wall map to refer back to later. “Why?” he wanted to know. “Just because,” I answered—but if I wanted to post it online, would that be a problem?

Apparently, it would be a problem. If Line’s copy of the A Map was available for public consumption, he said, people would call him asking for copies, and he just didn’t have the resources to provide them. But I could look at it and take notes, he said, as if the map were a highly classified document. And because he allowed that, Line warned, “You can’t say I denied access!”

What about the average citizen? I asked. How is a neighbor supposed to know who owns the park across the street? There should be signs posted on federal land, Line answered. And if there aren’t, Line said, citizens should learn something about their city, and know to call the Park Service and ask. Or they could come down to his office and see the A Map whenever they need. (So long as it’s during normal business hours.)

Ultimately, it turns out that there are at least a few printed maps of all the Park Service property in D.C.—asked separately, another official cheerfully provided one. But they’re not widely available, and the agency’s liaison to the public suggests that access to information is simply not a priority.

Which raises the question: If the federal government can’t be bothered to tell people what land it owns, what business does it have still owning it?

When Pierre Charles L’Enfant laid out the original plan for the federal city, he designated 15 open spaces for each of the states existing at that time to improve. On top of those, he sketched out the starkly geometrical National Mall, and later came the more naturally contoured Rock Creek Park—large, contiguous spaces that are easy for one agency to keep track of.

L’Enfant’s design for diagonal avenues, however, also left dozens of smaller parks where streets crossed, intended as breathing spaces and pockets for monuments. For most of the city’s history, they weren’t treated as such; without funding to improve them, they served as trash dumps, informal marketplaces, and squatter camps.

Today, the Park Service owns 6,776 acres of the District. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation has another 841 acres, making D.C. the nation’s second greenest high-density city, just barely behind New York. The Park Service’s land is broken up into 637 separate “reservations,” 425 of which are smaller than one acre. While some have monuments and playground equipment, most are blank and empty, visited weekly by maintenance crews—and otherwise ignored by the feds, who don’t even have the money needed to keep the Mall in decent shape.

That comparative neglect, however, isn’t just a money thing (in fact, according to the Trust for Public Land, the Park Service and D.C. government combined spend more on parks per District resident than any city in the country). Steve Coleman, director of the non-profit Washington Parks and People, says it’s more of an attitude problem—while the Park Service has innovative and dynamic partnerships with citizen groups in cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, perhaps because of D.C.’s lack of representation in Congress, it’s nowhere near as friendly here.

“The National Park Service has been quite suspicious of community park partnerships,” says Coleman. “Somewhere along the line, some people decided it reflected poorly on the agency if they needed help from the community, if the federal government couldn’t do it by itself.”

The NPS is often better at working with large, established organizations—it has a formal partnership with the Downtown Business Improvement District, for example, which supplements trash pickup on some of the 33 parks within its boundaries. Even there, improvements can take years—the Park Service submitted plans for a pocket park at 6th and I Street back in 2004, and is still working to get final approval from the Commission on Fine Arts.

But smaller citizen groups have a harder time. Robin Diener, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, says the Park Service won’t let her organization do any volunteer work in the busy park. Years after DCCA first asked to paint the park’s benches, she says, the Park Service brought in volunteers from Fannie Mae to do the work instead.

“The past history of working with the Park Service has been miserable. It’s kind of a lost cause,” she says. “They won’t let us plant. They won’t let us paint the benches. I guess there’s just a great big disconnect.”

There is a more proactive plan for all the park land in D.C.—CapitalSpace, approved by the National Capital Planning Commission in April, has six Big Ideas for improving parks belonging to both the city and the federal government. (The plan notes that the confusing jurisdiction has caused problems for years, which still persist.) One of the ideas focuses on small parks, and the stated goals sound good: Work with neighbors to make improvements and stage activities, activating spaces that have long sat like black holes in the cityscape.

The mechanism for doing so, however, makes less sense.

Many of the small parks, owned by various agencies, are clustered in groups. Because NPS land has more rules—no food vendors, campfires, or off-leash dogs, to name a few—the CapitalSpace plan encourages the agencies to coordinate complimentary uses for their respective parks: A community cookout on District land, for example, and more trash cans on a nearby federal “reservation.” Officials are now trying to coordinate between the various agencies to make some of that happen.

There’s a much easier solution, though, that doesn’t involve pained coordination and arbitrary restrictions: Give the small federal parks back to the District.

This isn’t the bureaucracy of the Marion Barry years, after all. There’s now a District Department of the Environment, an active urban forestry program, and a well-run Department of Parks and Recreation that’s been revamping city parks at record speed.

The CapitalSpace plan, by contrast, has a lot of moving pieces, and no timeline for implementation. Pushing it forward with a steering committee that meets quarterly is a glacial process.

Beyond the administrative quagmire, there’s the question of sovereignty: Why, under Home Rule, should the District’s urban fabric be punctured by hundreds of scraps of land over which it has no control?

Cary Silverman, president of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association, has fought for years to improve some of the pocket parks in his neighborhood. The federal spaces move much more slowly than city parks, he says, because of the layers of bureaucracy—and there isn’t much District residents can do about it. In 2008, Silverman ran against Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans with a “home rule for our parks” plank.

“Right now, we can’t have any true accountability for how the parks are managed, because we don’t elect anyone,” Silverman says. “If the Park Service is doing a good job, it’s only by the grace of God. They don’t have to be.”

Land transfers already happen once in a while. The Park Service ceded some land when the District won Home Rule in 1973. At the moment, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is pushing a bill to transfer six federal plots, some of which have District buildings on them, like the Southwest Library, and Meyer Elementary School. One parcel is a traffic island at Florida and North Capitol Streets; while nothing is happening there at the moment, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development has a plan for the area on the shelf, but can’t move forward until the land becomes available.

But it’s difficult to get the Park Service to give up any of its real estate.

“Obviously the National Park Service is very interested in protecting their green spaces,” says DMPED spokesman Jose Sousa. “They don’t want to see any chipping away at their mission and all the space that they control.”

When pressed for a reason why the federal government should still own hundreds of pieces of the District, spokesman Bill Line argues the NPS is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the original L’Enfant Plan, and preserving federal lands for future generations.

“It’s because of the history of what we’ve had here, going back 200 years,” he says. “The history is the history, the facts are the facts.”

Facts change, though. District residents pay local taxes, elect local officials, and to put up with enough interference from the federal government already. Is managing our own parks really too much to ask?

UPDATE, Friday, 6:45 a.m. – I have recently been alerted to the existence of a Google-mappable dataset of NPS land through D.C.'s Office of the Chief Technology Officer. Check it out!

Sorry Bill. (Lydia DePillis)

Sorry Bill. (Lydia DePillis)

  • Reid

    Where does Line get the idea that the NPS is the protector of the L'Enfant Plan? That's the NCPC's role.

  • Skipper

    The question of sovereignty is irrelevant since the District is a federal entity, with the feds having ultimate sovereignty over the city; they've merely allowed the city to run most of its affairs under Home Rule, but can easily withdraw that authorization, as they did in the mid-90s with the Control Board.

    Ultimately, NPS sucks at managing parks within DC. The Mall has had the same tour bus company for decades b/c NPS doesn't know how to renegotiate the contract. It has minimal food options b/c NPS doesn't know how to set up new contracts with new vendors and new ideas. And it doesn't know how to deal with residents who want to adopt federal reservations b/c it doesn't view itself as needing to provide any sort of customer service.

    Rather than wasting time on browbeating Obama to put the DC taxation without representation license plates on the presidential limos, perhaps Almost Mayor Gray can focus his energies on more substantive and meaningful issues like this one which directly impact residents' quality of life.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    two observations:

    1) bill line has a hyperinflated sense of self worth, or at least of the value of his organization vis-a-vis DC. my god, man, just let us make things work!

    2) there is something happening on the parcel at florida and north capitol—it's a spot for many of the folk in the neighborhood to hang out all day. sure, some people probably don't like the trash they leave behind (i know i don't), but it's one of the most actively used little triangles around.

  • noodlez




  • Smoke_Jaguar4

    The maps should be releasable under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Here is NPS' FOIA link: http://www.nps.gov/foia.htm

  • Dan Gamber

    My street many years ago "adopted" the reservation at the corner of New Hampshire, 16th & U NW. We pick up trash, water when necessary, and weed now and then.

    The reservations is NEVER visited on a weekly basic by any government employee or contractor, unless you mean whoever empties the litter containers. Annual, yes. That is a rush job with weed wackers and rakes.

  • Bilsko

    Wikipedia, as it turns out, has a decent list of NPS administered properties in DC:

    Not in map format, but somewhat usefule.
    Interesting to see that both Union Station (in a temporary incarnation as the National Visitor's Center) and the Kennedy Center both used to be overseen/administered by the NPS.

  • DCexpat

    NPS parcel info is available vie the DC OCTO Data Catalog as a Google Earth layer, digitized from that same Map A. I put the link in a previous post which isn't passing moderation.

    But I'm confused, I believe many pocket parks in DC were owned by DC until the late 80's, when they were federalized as part of the war on drugs and since they were drug markets / user areas and the worst sort of blight. This was done so the Park Police could enforce laws there and relieve the burden on MPD. It also made crimes on those parcels federal, not local (circuit court not superior court, I believe). While this just pushed the activity deeper into the neighborhoods it was generally viewed as a good thing.

    Am I wrong? Did I dream that?

  • Stan

    I walk the Mall every morning. The Capitol grounds are well maintained, as is the Botanical Garden. These are under the supervision on the Architect of the Capitol. The Smithsonian properties are well cared for, as are those of the National Gallery of Art. The narrow confines around the three main monuments (Washington, WW II Memorial, Lincoln) are looked after. The rest are a wreck. Today I walked back through Constitution Gardens. It sits right across Constitution Ave from the Interior Dept headquarters. No one notices. It is an embarrassing mess. Then I walked up 17th, cut through Lafayette Square, mildly maintained but run down, cut over to I Street and passed by Farragut, McPherson and Franklin Squares, all borderline decrepit. During a recent vacation in Paris I visited many of the urban parks. The French would be embarrassed to have ours.

  • Contrarian

    And toss on top of it that many of the streetlights on the NPS federal reservations are maintained by NPS not DDOT just adds to more confusion...

  • old man
  • DCexpat

    old man, can you translate that to a 1 sentence summary? ;)

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    wow, it's as if you've read various blog entries I've written saying the same thing...

    Cy Paumier will be doing a presentation next month at NBM on this issue. He is the author of _Creating a Vibrant City Center_.


    He has a mini version of his book focused on the topic of the session which is how to make the top 10-12 public spaces in DC truly great.

    I have asked him to see if a pdf version of the report can be distributed in advance of his presentation, which he promises will be good.

    You need to talk to him.

  • old man

    The website references federal legislation that either transferred or provided a mechanism for transfer of several small, midsized, and large NPS parcels in 2006. It was essentially a wish list by the Williams Administration for NPS parcels that would either expedite or enhance several economic development projects. The federal legislation mentioned by the author of this article represents the second iteration of NPS parcels being transferred to the District. There has been a sustained effort over the past half decade by the city, Congress, and the executive branch to execute these transfers to enhance economic development efforts in Washington, DC.

  • Trulee Pist

    From personal experience, I can tell you that if you call DC Parks and Recreation to ask whether a particular reservation is (a.) owned by DPS, (b.) owned by DPS but administered by DC P&R; or (c.) owned by DC P&R, the answer you will get will be: "The information I have in my computer is only accurate as of 2002."

    Land transfers since then (for example, transfers under Public Law 109-396, passed in 2006) are not available to DC P&R personnel.

  • Smoke_Jaguar4

    I did a little poking around the DC.gov website. Here is a google map version of NPS Map A. Plug this search term into the search box at maps.google.com :


    More info on this file at:

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Richard -

    Naturally, I always learn from your posts! And thanks for the heads up on that lecture--I'll put it on the calendar.

    @Smoke_Jaguar4 -

    I found that too, but for some reason my computer can't open the file. Any advice?

  • Query

    DPR does indeed have jurdisdiction transfer records current as of 2010. Depends on who you manage to reach at DPR on any given day.....

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com Will Atwood Mitchell

    Lydia: Smoke_Jaguar4's link works if you copy and paste the URL directly into the Google Maps search box. It looks like good data.

  • Lydia DePillis

    Wow magic! Sure wish Bill Line had told me about this.

  • DC native

    Informative piece and nice reminder of the beautiful parks we have to enjoy in DC. However, we can't afford a discussion of taking over maintenance of federal parks within our borders. I want more money from the Feds, not less. We are in a fiscal crisis and the last thing we need to is volunteer to own stuff that has operating/maintenance costs rather than focus on job creation and education. Partnerships with communities is a much more logical goal.

  • shambhavi

    a request please!

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  • http://www.myparkingsign.com/ No Parking Signs

    Thank you for sharing such an informative article. National Park Service should ease its rules and regulations to become friendly with citizen groups like other cities.

  • Me

    If you think the Feds are bad at managing parkland, you need to know that DC Parks and Recreation would be in charge if the land belonged to the DIstrict. DPR is simply underfunded. They are good a building playgrounds but nothing more. They couldn't manage all of the fed parks. Also, if it has a statue, it is Federally owned. If it is Fort something or other, It is also NPS. If it is a square or a circle, it is probably NPS. If it is a triangle, it may be a District park.

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