Housing Complex

The Washington Canoe Club and National Park Service Inertia

The Canoe Club's boathouse has been closed since 2010. Park Service study area outlined in white

Last night, National Park Service brass and consultants stood in a Washington Harbour office suite to face some of the most crotchety neighbors in the city: All the various constituencies behind the Georgetown waterfront, from the boat clubs to the universities to the people who'd rather see nothing there at all.

Of course, they have a right to some irritation. The Park Service is re-starting a planning process for the chunk of shoreline from 34th Street to 1,200 feet north of the Key Bridge—but almost nothing has happened since they did the first planning process 24 years ago. In the mid-2000s, an expensively-lobbied bid by Georgetown University shriveled in the face of opposition from those who objected both to the size of their proposed boathouse, and the idea of devoting public land to essentially private purposes.

Few people are more aggrieved, though, than the members of the Washington Canoe Club: They can't even use the facilities that are there now.

The northernmost structure in the existing waterfront zone is a rickety old canoe shed, built in 1904 out of yellow pine by a group that would grow through the century into one of the most prolific producers of Olympic rowers in the country. The canoe club continued to operate when the Park Service bought the land in 1938. But in 2007, the agency discovered that it actually owned the building as well, and told the canoe club it had to leave.

Which is quite an annoyance for the paddlers who now have no place to put their boats.

"It was a big hurry, with no real reason," says Canoe Club member Don Shannon. "The damn Park Service is moving fast, and then they have nothing to do."

The problem is, even well-intentioned bureaucrats are confined by procedure. C&O Canal National Historic Site superintendent Kevin Brandt says that structural engineers found the boathouse to be grossly in violation of all sorts of building codes, and it had to be closed for safety reasons (and, presumably, to avoid getting sued). It took canoe club members until 2010 to get all their stuff out. The building has been padlocked ever since, and the Park Service has no imminent plans to do anything with it, since that would require lots of processes having to do with the fact that the building is designated as historic by both D.C. and the federal government. Not to mention money, which the agency doesn't really have.

"I certainly don't want to own it," Brandt says.

Of course, a more entrepreneurial organization less tied down with red tape would probably have found a way to restore the land to productive use in at least an interim capacity. That's not how the Park Service works, generally, but the situation is even worse in D.C.

Why? Take a look at concession contracting, an obsession of mine. Guest Services International has an omnibus contract to operate food sales and equipment rentals in virtually all of the National Park Service's D.C. lands (they operate Thompson's Boathouse downriver, but not Jack's Boathouse under the Key Bridge). According to Brandt, big national parks like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon have their own staff manage their own concessions. But D.C.'s many little parks are all managed by one guy in the central office, which has a lot of other things to worry about.

That becomes a problem when a gigantic contract expires, as GSI's did last year. Back in 1998, Congress mandated the reform of Park Service concessions, and the agency has been working through its many long-term contracts ever since. The District's is just at the bottom of the list. "The people in our national office are not available to make the new contract, or whatever," as Brandt put it. So it just gets extended, year after year.

It's good to see the Park Service move forward on thinking about what to do with its waterfront. Of course, though, there's no timeline for action. "We don't know where we're going to be after Friday," says Peter May, associate regional director for lands, resources and planning. He's only half joking.

...