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