Housing Complex

Parks and Wreck

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

  • Map

    The national park service and MVT CID have not done enough to make the existing parks welcoming/useful to its residents. For example, the national park at 5th and L Street NW is a place for the homeless to camp, alcohol to be consumed publicly and domestic violence to occur. People refuse to walk on the same side of the street as this park. I wonder when the adjacent property owners start uniting to get some action to improve the neighborhood and their property values. Four institutional land/property owners have sites on the same block of that park (Bozzuto, Paradigm, Edens and Gables).

    Headscratcher.

  • h st ll

    Sure, better planning is nice, but you are missing the overall point: with the tax revenues these neighborhoods generate, spending $50 million (especially 10 years down the line) is nothing to the DC government. Get the tax monies first and finding the money for parks in no problem.

  • Matt Kozey

    This article is spot on (as are Stan, Bill, and CM Wells). The next 1-5 years of our neighborhood's life will dictate whether the young professionals who were drawn to all the conveniences of the area will want to stay to raise their children. Without safe places for those kids to play, that will not happen. The 5th and Eye parcel presents the District with an opportunity to help ensure the vitality of the neighborhood for a decade by sacrificing short term tax revenue for long term, sustained growth.

    Matt Kozey
    At Large Board Member
    Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association
    @mattkozey

  • DC Resident

    Actually--having recently lived in the MVT 'hood, I think the area is over-open spaced. There's the triangle parks, the city park at 3rd and Mass, the K street wide sidewalks and plazas, and so on. The problem with the area is that it needs MORE development. The triangle parks just need to be better maintained and managed. Following DDOT roadway adjustments in coordination with the I-395 air rights project, the city park at 3rd and Mass will be larger and easier to get to and could be a great public space and neighborhood amenity (although I think some in the city have their eye to develop that as well). There's also MV Square, which could be a terrific neighborhood amenity if the city would just do something with it. Making part of the city's 5th and I parcel for additional open space would be a huge mistake. Perhaps the city should look at other, unconventional approaches, like building retaining walls along I-395 on the north side of where it passes under K street and creating parks on both sides--there's actually a lot of room there; or, relocating the police station at 5th and L and turning that triangle back into a park (obviously, with the parking problem for police vehicles there, that' not the right place for that facility).

  • Logan Res

    There's a lot of good points made here especially the ones regarding the triangle parks under NPS control. These spaces may not be suitable for childrens play areas but they most certainly should be beautifully landscaped, maintained, and have nicer lighting, water features, and trees. They are a public shame in the current condition. Why on earth wouldn't NPS want some private or city funding to spruce them up. tackling NPS would be a great thing for our council and delegate to take on.

    Also, why do parks need to be on a current lot. Why not think differently like some in Barcelona where the parks run down the center of streets. Take 13th Street from Logan Circle to the Mall (not relevant for MVT) but imagine a nice park running the length of it with bike lanes, etc. The street is a giant cavern with tall residential buildings lining it. The amount of asphalt and lanes is not needed and only encourages speeding. We should be thinking more creatively on creating better neighborhood parks and amenities.

  • maktoo

    Good call, @DC Resident! You inspired an idea - what if they build a cover over 395 down north of DOL and near Georgetown Law right at Massachusetts - that's a good 2-3 blocks of open space they could convert to a park. This would be a mighty improvement, because that's a bleak intersection. That $50 million might assist. It might also help with road integrity, as the weather would be less of a factor.

    I know that parks don't generate revenue, which is why the city did not consider them. Even 1 block of park detracts from the tax base - but it WOULD improve the neighborhood's temperature in summer, and the views/quality of life.

  • danmac

    Excellent article. From the article "But in 2005, the city transferred that parcel to the nearby Bible Way Church." It didn't just transfer the property it gave a tax exemption ending in 2023 with some proposed plan which no one in the DC government from the Mayor or the Council has been able to provide a copy of after multiple requests.
    Also from the article "But there’s precious little undeveloped land left in the neighborhood that’s not already spoken for." There are two city owned lots which are being used as parking lots one by Carmel Baptist Church and the adjacent lot by AIPAC and again neither the Mayors' office nor the CMs' office is able to provide info on whether rent is being paid.

  • JP

    The vacant lots in MVT are way too valuable to use as park space. It would be nice to maybe use a fraction of one of parcels are a small space, but that is the last remaining space near downtown and must be used for more residential buildings.

    The streetscape project on K has provided adequate green, open space to the neighborhood. What is needed to attract more residents is more retail and residential buildings to bring down the price and add to the vibrancy. The hood already has good foot traffic with a good mix of office workers and residents.

    The idea that anyone will be raising children in MVT is ridiculous. The neighborhood is bounded by New York and Mass Ave, and the cross streets are also very congested. It is simply not a safe place to have little kids running around. In addition, there aren't enough large units in the neighborhood that are attractive for parents. Am I going to raise two kids in a 1000 square ft 2 bedroom condo? Even if you do want to raise kids in a tiny condo, the National Mall is 5 blocks away and is a pretty decent size place to play on.

    The families can move north of NY Ave if they are looking for more space to live and play.

  • http://www.gwu.edu LoyalColonial

    Duh, Mount Vernon Square!

  • DC Resident

    Logan Res--I had a similar idea for 14th street as your idea for 13th street. Shut the whole thing down for auto traffic between Penn Ave and Columbia Heights and create a ped/bike shopping, recreation, arts mall, like La Rambla in Barcelona--perhaps with the streetcar line running up and down. There's only a very few parking garages along the way, access could easily be made to them. (Of course--traffic improvements would probably need to be made on 12th, 13th, 15th, and 16th.)

  • Jane

    I live in the neighborhood and would love a park, although I agree that the high-traffic streets already make it very unlikely to draw a lot of young children. The park straddling Massachusetts, 5th and I is usually filthy and a terrible place to relax. A few shady places where you could sit with a book would be nice.

  • drez

    The city is always looking for more dollar signs, not more playground signs. Putting the parks in after the largest and choicest parcels have been turned into offices or condos is a fantasy.
    They would need have gone in first. But 10 years ago no one thought they'd be needed.

  • tntdc

    Soviet housing blocks.

    Human file cabinets.

    Vertical Gated Communities.

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