With $50 Million in Hand, NoMa Looks to Close “Parks Deficit”
What happens when a neighborhood forms in a place where no one planned for it? You end up with a shortage of neighborhood amenities—in NoMa's case, parks. The formerly desolate area was targeted for development last decade as little more than an office park, with a desirable location near Union Station but no real plans for a residential community. Fast forward 10 years, and the commercial hub has materialized just as planned, with companies like NPR relocating there recently. But something else has happened, too: Luxury apartments, commanding rents up to $4,000 a month, have started springing up, turning this office park into a real community.
So can you retrofit a neighborhood for unanticipated residential density? We're about to find out.
As part of the budget that's making its way through the D.C. Council approval process, NoMa is slated to get $50 million for the creation of new parks. According to NoMa Business Improvement District President Robin-Eve Jasper, the funds will be used to create a network of parks running "both north and south along the Metropolitan Branch Trail as well as linking the residential neighborhoods to the east and west with the commercial core."
The new funding boost follows on the heels of a $490,000 grant from the city in the fall for parks in NoMa. That grant, says Jasper, is being used for planning and design, primarily for the proposed L Street NE pedestrian plaza with with working name Swampoodle Plaza (but affectionately known as the Poodle). Jasper says that two requests for proposal will soon be released, for designs for Swampoodle Plaza and a small park at 3rd and N streets NE.
Jasper expects that the $50 million grant would be enough to build Swampoodle Plaza and several other parks in the neighborhood. Part of the money will be used to acquire rights to the land from developers and other property owners; the rest will be used for hardscape and softscape. "There’s a lot of parks that are definitely on the plans, but acquiring all the rights and cooperation is the challenge we’re gonna work on," Jasper says. "That’s a challenge we really couldn’t work on until we could demonstrate to people that we would have money to implement."
Even though the plan is for a network of small parks rather than a single large one, Jasper hopes that at least some of them will be sizable. "I’m reticent to name names before we’ve made overtures to owners, but we are specifically looking for parcels that are big enough that you can throw a ball, maybe have a soccer game," she says.
Jasper says that Mayor Vince Gray has been a "big proponent" of parks in NoMa, and that the D.C. Council Committee on Workforce and Community Affairs under Chairman Marion Barry has been supportive. City officials were receptive to the idea of funding parks in NoMa because of its dire need for public space.
"There’s no other neighborhood that’s like this in terms of a parks deficit," Jasper says. "And that’s why NoMa got the money."
The $50 million injection into parks in a relatively wealthy area of town may appear to come at the expense of other budget priorities—say, the estimated $53 million needed annually to end homelessness in the District. But according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute's Ed Lazere, that's not really a fair comparison, since the parks funding is in the capital budget and is paid for with long-term bonds, while services for the homeless would come out of the operating budget.
"Because the payments for park space are spread out over time, it’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison," says Lazere. "Ending homelessness is obviously an important priority, but making sure all parts of the city have access to park space is also important, and I’d hope that they wouldn’t compete."
Jasper expects the first shovels to hit the dirt for park construction within two to three years.
Rendering of Swampoodle Plaza from the fall courtesy of NoMa BID