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Photo © Bruce Damonte

Washington Canal Park

OLIN

Washington, DC

Block Party: An urban park adds a bustling social center to a newly redeveloped Washington, D.C., neighborhood.

By Amanda Kolson Hurley

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On a hot June day in Washington Canal Park, swimsuited kids kicked a ball as they splashed around a shallow fountain. Close by, a mother hung a piñata from one of the park's looping metal sculptures by artist David Hess. If you looked north, you could see a solitary woman doing yoga on the grass. To the south, people in Washington Nationals caps drank iced tea and Bloody Marys at an outdoor café.

That might seem like a lot of activity for a 3-acre park, especially in a newly redeveloped neighborhood. But it's exactly what the designers had in mind. “It's jam-packed,” says Steve Benz, the partner in charge of the project at the landscape architecture firm Olin. “The intention was to provide a diversity of activities and places that would appeal to a wide range of people.”

Washington Canal Park opened late last year, one small piece of a new multibillion-dollar district that is emerging on the north bank of the Anacostia River in a once-neglected section of Washington, D.C. Just a couple of blocks to the south, closer to the water, sits the 5-year-old Nationals baseball stadium, the main catalyst for the emerging Capitol Riverfront area. Rising next to it is The Yards, a 5.5 million-square-foot mixed-use development with a waterfront park by M. Paul Friedberg and Partners.

A few blocks inland, the Canal Park site was a less obvious candidate for regeneration. It had been a canal in the 19th century, connecting the Anacostia to the Potomac River. By the 1870s it was being used as an open storm sewer, and in the first part of the 20th century—following reports of passersby falling in and drowning—it was paved over. The District of Columbia acquired the site in the 1940s and most recently used it as a parking lot for school buses.

In the early 2000s, plans coalesced for a new federal Department of Transportation headquarters near the site and the redevelopment of a large public housing complex into a mixed-income residential project. The city eyed the former canal as a centerpiece of the reborn neighborhood. It set up a public-private partnership with developer WC Smith to fund and oversee the project. “We were brought in to create a park for a neighborhood that did not yet exist, using public open space as an economic driver,” says David Rubin, the project's original lead designer, who has since left Olin and is now a partner at Land Collective.

The design team responded by knitting a host of spaces and functions into a varied but cohesive landscape. The park stretches across three narrow blocks. The northern block is the most passive and “serene,” says Benz, with a bosquet of trees leading to an expanse of grass. The middle block mixes pastoral spaces with active ones, like the fountain. Floating above the water is a small pavilion for performances.

The southernmost block is the busiest, with a 250-foot-long ice-skating loop that defaults to a gathering space in warmer seasons, and a 4,000-square-foot pavilion that houses the Park Tavern restaurant, restrooms, and a skate-rental booth. Working closely with Olin, architects from Studios Architecture designed the structure to suggest that the landscape is peeling up. At the base, a concrete plate forms a bench where people can lace their skates, and then it folds sharply to become a set of stairs up to the sedum-planted roof. Above the skate rental booth a white acrylic cube hovers, both a beacon and a projection screen for movies and art.

The building's small footprint and 360-degree visibility were tough constraints, says Brian Pilot of Studios, who led the pavilion design with David Burns. “There's no back side, no alley side. The roof is an equally important elevation, with neighboring buildings looking down on it.”

Not visible are the below-grade systems that make Canal Park a working landscape. Large cisterns hold storm water that supplies the fountain, the irrigation system, the ice rink, and the toilets. Ample rain gardens on the eastern edge of the site filter runoff, and geothermal wells heat and cool the Tavern. A pilot project for the Sustainable Sites Initiative, a voluntary set of guidelines and benchmarks for landscape design, the park treats 100 percent of the storm water that hits it—and the neighboring three developments.

Between the Canal Park's November opening and the end of February, almost 20,000 people used the skating rink, well beyond expectations. In the warmer weather, the park hosts a farmers' market, movie nights, and lunchtime concerts. Since it's not located on a major thoroughfare, it “has to try a little bit harder to get noticed,” Pilot says—and, so far, it seems to be working just fine.

Amanda Kolson Hurley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Architect:
OLIN
150 South Independence Mall West, Suite 1123
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Size: 137,500 square feet

Cost: $16.5 million

Completion date: November 2012

August 2013
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