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To Form a More Perfect Union Station: Redesigning Columbus Plaza for Pedestrians

Union Station and Columbus Plaza. Credit: Rob Ketcherside (Flickr Feed).

Washington, D.C.’s Union Station is a major destination for tourists and commuters, with about 29 million people visiting it each year.  As a first glimpse of the city for many people traveling by rail or car, Union Station was designed as a grand entryway to the nation’s capital.  It’s classical Beaux-Arts architecture influenced other popular landmarks in Washington, D.C., such as the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.  But as public transit increases in the city, and the surrounding neighborhoods rapidly undergo redevelopment, it is clear that the 104-year-old-railroad facility needs a facelift.

We recently came across an article in The Washington Post about an 18-month reconstruction project to improve access and safety throughout Columbus Plaza in front of Union Station.  Many years in the making, the $7.8 million redesign will include new sidewalks and upgrades to the traffic signals to enhance the flow of pedestrians and vehicles throughout the plaza.  The plan also calls for eliminating a fishhook-shaped road that cuts through Columbus Plaza, restoring the plaza to its earlier appearance and allowing for easier pedestrian access to the station from the Capitol and other areas.  Additional transit improvements to the area include the very successful bicycle storage and rental facility added to the west side of the station, and laying tracks for the future H Street streetcar route that will terminate at Union Station.

As with any huge endeavor undertaken in Washington, D.C., there are many agencies and interested parties involved in this complex project, including the federal government (who owns Union Station), National Park Service (manages Columbus Plaza), city government (controls the roads), and the Architect of the Capitol (land on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue).  Other partners involved include Amtrak, Greyhound, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation.  And of course, any structural changes at all to Union Station must also take into account its historical prominence.

Because the “downtrodden appearance” of the plaza when compared to the magnificent train station often confuses the thousands of pedestrians and motorists who use it each day, locals and visitors alike are anxious to see how the reconfiguration will create a more welcoming transportation hub.  As Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, summed up, the idea is to have the space in front of Union Station “be more about a plaza and less about trying to walk across nine lines of vehicle traffic.”

Some News From Around…

  • A record-setting $20 million donation to the High Line will fund the design of the third and final segment of the wildly popular park, and also help fund the considerable operating costs borne by Friends of the High Line. (The New York Times)
  • Though Chicago’s lakefront is packed with parks, much of the rest of the city suffers from a shortage of green space. Blair Kamin digs into the statistics and uncovers some of the city’s “park deserts.” (Chicago Tribune)
  • The American Planning Association recently released its annual “Great Places in America” list, highlighting ten of the nation’s most impressive urban parks. (American Planning Association)
  • In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a shrinking population and declining enrollment in public schools has led to plans to convert empty school buildings into apartments and repurpose school grounds as community parks. (The Grand Rapids Press)
  • For 25 years, San Francisco Bay Area parks leaders have been piecing together the Bay Area Ridge Trail, which will eventually form a 550-mile ring around the entire metro area. The largest addition in four years, a 5.2 mile segment in Silicon Valley, was just completed. (Silicon Valley Mercury News)
  • An aging U.S. Bureau of Mines property in Minneapolis is being converted to a 27-acre natural area on the Mississippi River. It will remove a number of blighted buildings and provide a mainland base for the 35-acre Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. (Star Tribune)

Revitalizing D.C.’s “Forgotten River” with Parks and Trails

Urban rivers, though cities often owe them their very existence, are accustomed to neglect. The enduring image of the 1969 inferno on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, a catastrophe that helped launch the modern environmental movement, is perhaps the most striking example, though many others have suffered through less dramatic but equally devastating decay.

Washington, DC has been blessed with two rivers. The Potomac, though it suffers from pollution issues of its own (the Potomac Conservancy gave the river a D+ rating, in part because of the growing population of genetically mutated fishes),  provides the backdrop to the capitol’s most famous monuments and the springtime explosion of cherry trees. It’s also a hub of recreational activity, lined with parks and trails – one of which, the C&O Canal Trail, follows the river northwards for 184 miles.

The Potomac River looking towards the city center. Photo credit: Flickr user ktylerconk

The banks of the Potomac gained even more greenery with the recent completion of Georgetown Waterfront Park. The 9.5-acre, $24 million project, designed by renowned landscape architecture firm Wallace, Roberts, and Todd, makes the most of its cramped location under an elevated highway with dramatic lighting, a labyrinth, and an interactive fountain. Situated between two rowing centers, Thompson Boat Center and the Potomac Boat Club, it also includes a pergola and river stairs built to accommodate spectators of rowing regattas.

The recently completed Georgetown Waterfront Park. Photo credit: Flickr user NCinDC.

But there’s momentum growing across town, too.

D.C.’s other river, the Anacostia, which forms the southern tip of the city where it flows into the Potomac, has long been an afterthought. Its banks, and the neighborhoods around it, have suffered (a 2008 report by the DC Office of Planning puts median income in the area at 47% below the city’s average, and unemployment continues to far exceed that of the city as a whole).

It is in many ways the opposite of the esteemed Potomac, as captured in this Washington Post description:

“To most Washingtonians, the Anacostia is a very remote presence — that dirty glop of water under the 11th Street Bridge, the Potomac’s ugly cousin, the barrier that sets off the city’s poorer sections from Capitol Hill.”

Once forty feet deep and clear, it is now so choked with sediment and pollution that it is shallow enough to walk across in places.

But if it’s a waterway on life support, the prognosis is good. The Washington Post reports that over the past decade, Congress has appropriated $130 million for Anacostia cleanup. It is also the beneficiary of the District’s 5-cent tax on plastic bags dubbed the “Anacostia River Cleanup Initiative”. The program began in 2010, and has been a major success, dramatically cutting plastic bag litter, and raising $2.5 million for building trash-blocking grates and supporting local cleanup efforts.

Unfortunately, not every attempt to resuscitate the area has been as immediately impactful. Several high-profile efforts to revive the riverfront with parks and mixed-use development emerged just as the recession was beginning, and have since sputtered to a halt. One notable exception, though, is the Capitol Riverfront, a city-created Business Improvement District at the base of the Anacostia that in a few years has become home to over 3,000 residents, 35,000 daytime employees, and seven parks. Two are on the waterfront, including The Yards Park, a new 5.5-acre space with a popular water feature, a pedestrian bridge, and a riverfront boardwalk.

Map of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail

Extending upwards from the Capitol Riverfront is a 16-mile system of trails on either side of the river in various stages of completion, dubbed the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. The Anacostia offers something to planners and developers that is increasingly rare, which is space. (The District’s population surged past 600,000 residents in 2010, during a growth spurt not seen since the end of World War II). Compared to the built-up areas along the Potomac (where it took 40 years from planning to construction to carve out less than 10 acres for the Georgetown Waterfront Park) the Anacostia offers a nearly blank slate for big, new ideas.

The Yards Park water feature. Photo credit: Flickr user Mr. T in DC

D.C. is not exactly starved of park acreage – 19% of its land is parks, the second highest among dense cities. The area to the east of the Anacostia is particularly park-dense, but the abundance of overall space masks some deficiencies that a well-connected system of riverfront parks could help address.

Most obvious is the demand for more trails and linear parks. The roads in Rock Creek Park are closed to cars on weekends, bringing huge numbers of walkers, runners, and cyclists into the park. West Potomac Park is bursting at the seams many weeknights, as packs of cyclists and runners wind their way around a 3-mile loop. And more important than the length of the Anacostia Riverwalk is the fact that its trails will link both sides of the river and be connected by a system of bridges (6 are planned or already have pedestrian access) which will allow users to create loops of various lengths.

Further, once completed, the Riverwalk could offer far more than the sum of its parts by leveraging the value of currently disjointed and underused parks along the river. The 446-acre National Arboretum, far from a Metro stop and difficult to reach by bike or foot, could greatly benefit from waterfront pedestrian access. And adding paths to Langston Golf course could better integrate it into the park system, as we discussed in a Landscape Architecture Magazine piece. Just to the south is Congressional Cemetery, through which paths currently run, a great example of integrating public use into a park-like space.

One of the more intriguing possibilities, to mirror the rowing-centric Potomac, is that the Anacostia could offer a place for exploring the city by kayak. Portions of the Potomac are already popular amongst white-water kayakers as well as those who prefer more placid waters, and numerous cities (see Milwaukee, Houston, and Detroit) have established water trail systems that are closely integrated with riverfront parks.

And for the boldest visionaries, there is RFK Stadium, which sits in the middle of the riverfront and is maybe the most conspicuously underused space in the area. A recent article in the Washington Post invited thinkers to discuss the future of the mostly-unused, fifty year-old stadium, and four of the five contributors pondered its potential as a park (often mixed with mixed-use development), offering active amenities like rock climbing or a velodrome to complement the mostly passive recreation areas alongside the riverbanks.

With development starting from scratch in many areas, there is a unique opportunity to create and improve parks in concert with development and transit improvements. The popular Circulator bus routes recently began operating in Anacostia, and the streetcar system that is set to start running through northeast DC along H Street, which is helping to drive the revitalization of the area, may one day cross into Anacostia on the 11th Street Bridge.

Bike trails along the Anacostia. Photo credit: Flickr user TrailVoice.

Anacostia already has many acres of parkland, but amenity-rich, well-connected riverfront parks are a totally different creature in terms of development potential. There is no shortage of inspiring precedents for an overhaul of the Anacostia and its parks:

  • In Minneapolis, a $55 million in investment in parks on the previously industrial riverbanks, along with $150 million in other public improvements, leveraged $1.2 billion in private investment and the creation of thousands of jobs and new residential units.
  • Houston is putting its system of Bayou greenways (expected to cost $490 million) at the forefront of its efforts to attract a young, well-educated population, and a recent study led by John Crompton estimated an annual return of $117 million.
  • Columbus turned a 160-acre brownfield along the banks of the Scioto River into an urban outdoors destination, featuring a climbing wall, an Audubon center, access for watercraft, and trails that lead to the Scioto Mile in the downtown core. Now the nearby Brewery District is witnessing a revival in residential development.
  • Chattanooga, Tennessee was labeled as having the dirtiest air in the country in 1969, and during the 1980’s the city lost 10% of its population. Its dramatic turnaround (it was just celebrated in Outside magazine as the best city to live in, alongside the titans of outdoorsy urban meccas like Portland and Seattle) is in large part attributable to the park-centered $120 million redevelopment of its riverfront and downtown.

With a consortium of 19 agencies comprising the overarching Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, and the slowdown in real estate since the recession, it’s no surprise that development is occurring ploddingly. But as the river itself is cleaned and its channels deepen, there’s a growing sense that so too is the commitment of the city to making the Anacostia a springboard for livable urban development.

From Dumps to Destinations: Converting Landfills to Parks

A tenth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland from capped landfills.

New parks can be fashioned out of old garbage dumps. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Fresh Kills Park, New York. The soon-to-open park will be New York's largest city park at 2,200 acres, more than double the size of Central Park. Credit: Garrett Ziegler (Flickr Feed).

Balloon Park in Albuquerque, Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, McAlpine Creek Soccer Complex in Charlotte, Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs, Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, and hundreds of others, both famous and obscure, have been created from landfills. And in a few more years New York City’s 2,200-acre Fresh Kills Landfill will have settled in to become that city’s largest park.

Landfill parks go back to at least 1916 (many years before the word “landfill” was coined) when the old Rainier Dump in Seattle was turned into the Rainier Playfield. In 1935 in that same city a more momentous conversion transformed the 62-acre Miller Street Dump into a portion of the now-famous Washington Park Arboretum. The following year, New York City closed the putrid Corona Dumps–famously called the “Valley of Ashes” by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby–and began preparing the land for construction of the 1939 World’s Fair. Following World War II, as the volume of trash in America mushroomed, so did the number of landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as many as 3,500 landfills have closed since 1991; the number from earlier years is anyone’s guess.

In an ideal world all trash would be recycled and there would be no landfills. But in a time of severe urban space and resource constraints, closed landfills represent excellent locales for three big reasons: size, location, and cost. A former dump is usually one of the few large, open locations within a dense metro area. There is also the opportunity to correct what may have been a longstanding environmental injustice to the surrounding residents. Finally, there’s a good chance that the landfill–which may be as small as dozens of acres or as large as 1,000 or more–is free or inexpensive to buy or possibly that it even comes with its own supporting funds.

While a capped landfill is not necessarily a park director’s first choice for a parcel of land, it’s impressive and instructive that so many perfectly adequate–or even better than adequate–city parks started out as dumps. Communities from coast to coast have been jumping at the chance to use them. Based on a survey, the Center for City Park Excellence estimates that there may already be as many as 4,500 acres of landfill parks in major U.S. cities.

Mount Trashmore, Virginia Beach. The city's highest point and its largest non-wetland park was constructed in 1974 over an 800-foot-high mound of municipal refuse, and became the best known of the nation's early landfill parks. Credit: Backus Aerial.

In Portland, Oregon, the park department is getting a free 25-acre park. All closure and conversion costs for Cully Park were paid by the solid waste department, which built up a reserve for exactly that purpose by charging a per-ton fee on garbage disposed there. (The park department coordinates closely in habitat development and vegetation management.) In Virginia Beach, where Mount Trashmore required multiple fixes over the decades, the original 1974 capping and the 1986 recapping were paid for by the public works department; the 2003 recapping–hopefully the last–was financed by the park department through its capital improvement budget. In Fresno, California, the landfill isn’t even being officially transferred over; the public utilities department will own it in perpetuity but will sign a management agreement with the parks and recreation department.

Frankly, a cheap purchase price is important because preparation costs can be significant. Depending on the age and contents of the landfill, the amount of groundwater or soil contamination, and the planned recreational use, construction costs have ranged from $500,000 for a 2-acre site to $30 million for a regional park of more than 100 acres. Expenses depend on such factors as topography, availability of materials, cover design, and much more. A calculation by the Center for City Park Excellence puts the average at around $300,000 per acre. Financial responsibility for these and other costs may lie solely with the park developer or be shared by the landfill owner/operator.

The construction of municipal solid waste landfills has been regulated since 1991 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Today an owner/operator must install a 24-inch earthen cover within six months of closure to minimize water infiltration and erosion. The cover usually also has a gas venting layer and a stone or synthetic biotic layer to keep out burrowing animals. The EPA requires groundwater monitoring and leachate collection for thirty years after the landfill is closed.

Technically, the two big challenges to using a former landfill are gas production and ground settlement. Landfill gases, including methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, are created when buried waste decomposes. Methane may be released for thirty or more years after closure, and EPA requires gas collection systems. (In parks built on pre-1991 landfills there were occasional stories of picnickers being stunned to see a column of flame surrounding a barbeque grill.) Happily, methane collected from landfills can be sold by park departments to generate revenue. In Portland, Oregon, St. Johns Landfill, a former disposal site within the 2,000-acre Smith-Bybee Wetlands Natural Area, earns more than $100,000 a year from methane that is piped 2 miles to heat the lime kiln of a cement company. The revenue helps pay for closure operations as the site transitions from landfill to park.

Settlement is a bit tougher. Like cereal in a box, municipal landfills gradually slump as much as 20 percent over a two- or three-decade period. That much settlement would cause foundations to break and sink, utility and irrigation pipes to burst, roads and paths to crack and heave, light poles to tilt, and sports fields to crumple. Obviously, if the ultimate reuse of a landfill is as a natural wild land, none of this matters. But most recreational reuses require the construction of at least trails if not fields and buildings of various types. Fortunately, waste sits only in “cells” in certain areas of a landfill, and park facilities can be safely constructed over undisturbed areas, leaving the settling sections to support grass and shrubbery. Therefore, structural foundations can be protected through detailed research and careful planning; the key is to know exactly where the waste is. At New York’s Fresh Kills only about 45 percent of the land area was actually used for waste disposal.

Despite the many successful individual examples, there is not yet a seamless landfills-to-parks movement in the United States. Numerous challenges remain–technological, political, and legal–all of which drive up costs. Back when land was more easily available, the impediments were generally not worth taking on. Now in many cases they are. With a three-pronged effort to design safer waste dumps, to work more closely with community activists, and to ensure protection from legal liabilities, cities will be able to gain much new parkland from abandoned landfills.

For more information about landfill parks, read an article published in Places journal here.

Prospect Park and City Park Selected as “Frontline Parks”

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes two “Frontline Parks” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Parks are some of the most valuable assets a city can hold. Parks connect people to people. As such, they play a vital role in community building. Neighborhood-scale parks often serve as “third-places,” familiar locations where residents seek community with neighbors at the playground or dog park. Large parks often serve as the centers of their cities, reflecting community identity or brand through design and programming.

It is the enormity of this influence that demands investment to be sure that parks look good and function well, because a bad park can drag down a neighborhood, just as a good one can revitalize it.

The two parks featured last month have a long history of creating and sustaining community. By viewing their roles broadly as centers of community, they have stepped beyond “parks and recreation” and become vital civic places.

Prospect Park, New York.

Prospect Park

Prospect Park is a 585-acre urban oasis and boasts a stunning array of natural features, including Brooklyn’s only forest, shaded hillsides, beautiful waterfalls, and rolling meadows. The Park is home to a hand-carved carousel, the nation’s first urban Audubon Center, and a watercourse that can be explored by pedal boat or a turn-of-the-century style electric boat, the Independence. This historic urban space hosts activities year round, from ice skating and sledding in winter to team sports like football and soccer in the summer. The Park also has designated trails for horseback riding, seven playgrounds and a zoo.

Planning for the Future

Everything is operated by a partnership between the Prospect Park Alliance, the City of New York’s Parks and Recreation Department, and the community. This partnership has been instrumental in restoring the forest and lakeside, as well as offering a vast array of programming, historic preservation, and development. In order to ensure that the park will be loved long-term, Prospect Park is partnering with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the New York City Department of Education to assist the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment prepare the next generation of stewards.

For more information about Prospect Park, please visit www.prospectpark.org.

City Park, New Orleans.

City Park

New Orleans’ City Park, at 1,300 acres, is one of the largest urban parks in the United States. Each year, more than ten million visitors enjoy strolling beneath its 800 year-old live oaks, wandering through the Botanical Garden, visiting the New Orleans Museum of art, riding the carousel, picnicking, or fishing on the bayou. City Park is rich in New Orleans history. The original park, since enlarged, was the site of the Allard sugar plantation. During the Great Depression, it served as a key WPA investment-job-creation site, where workers dug more than 10 miles of lagoons by hand.  Site furnishings in City Park were manufactured by DuMor, Inc.

Restoring a Park and a Community

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused billions of dollars in property damage throughout New Orleans, including City Park. 95% of the park flooded after the levees failed, resulting in thousands of felled trees and hundreds of damaged buildings. After the floodwaters retreated, it was left with $43 million in damage and had to reduce staff by 90%. These challenges have made the park’s recovery all the more remarkable; to date, $83 million in funds have been raised and a force of 35,000 volunteers have worked countless hours to restore and improve City Park.

For more information about City Park, please visit www.neworleanscitypark.com.

Frontline Parks is generously supported by DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.